Get the rat! Get the rat! Get the rat!”
“Yap, yap, yap, yap!”
These are the sounds of a successful earthdog team. As the human team member encourages her dog to sniff out and pursue the scent of an underground rat, her canine partner indicates his find by barking, barking, barking. The adrenalin level is high in both human and canine as they revel in this unique canine sport called earthdog. One of several dog sports that tap into our dogs’ hard-wired instincts, earthdog is a great outlet for dogs with tenacity, a high predatory drive, and the flexible physical structure to squeeze into – and out of – tight, narrow spaces.
As long as there have been farmers and hunters, there have been “earth dogs.” Hardy, scrappy little dogs helped hunters tree squirrels, run rabbits to ground, corner foxes in their dens, and clear vermin from dwellings. As often happens, humans found a way to create competitive games from dogs’ natural abilities. For terriers and Dachshunds, a sport is born. Earthdog! Get that rat!
As early as 211 B.C., mention was made of tiny rough-coated dogs used to follow animals into their burrows. Later, in the 1576 book De Canibus Anglicis, by Johannes Caius, the use of terriers was described in detail.
In 1935, after many years of friends gathering together to test their dogs’ capabilities against those of their friends’ dogs, the Dachshund Club started offering trials modeled after German training for fox and badger hunting. This included building underground tunnels up to 50 feet long, with twists and turns along the way that required dogs to make decisions about which way to go to find their quarry. And it’s dark down there!
In 1941 the Sealyham Terrier Club issued the first “working certificate,” which outlined requirements for dogs to search out woodchucks. In 1971 the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA) started artificial den trials in the U.S. By 1994, the American Kennel Club had launched its Earthdog program.
Diane Amendola of Huntington Beach, California, has been participating in the sport for 27 years, primarily with Welsh Terriers. Also a competitor in conformation, obedience, tracking, and agility, Amendola has judged earthdog tests for AWTA since 1986 and for AKC since the start of that program. Each organization plays a vital role in promoting the sport.
“The AWTA, from which the AKC drew its sport, focuses on hunting and getting people into the field. Their members provide actual hunts for other members,” she says. “The AKC does not encourage people and their dogs into actual hunting. Each one has its place in our world. Not everyone has the time or inclination for hunting, but AKC is a place where they can get an idea of what kind of instincts or not that their dog has.”
As with all of its approved sports, the AKC’s Earthdog competitions are for AKC-registered terrier breeds only. The AWTA also recognizes certain breeds (listed on its website, dirt-dog.com), but also permits mixed-breeds “of the correct size and character to enter a nine-inch artificial earth (burrow)” in its competitions.
Farmers and hunters bred dogs for both structure and temperament, using individuals best suited for the job they would do. Too broad a chest could interfere with a dog’s ability to squeeze in and out of small spaces. The best “go to ground” dogs were compact and strong, and had rough coats that would protect them from injury when they followed their quarry underground.
Courage and tenacity were just as important as the aforementioned physical traits, ensuring these dogs would pursue their quarry despite obstructions to passage and solve the problems they face in underground tunnels with false tunnels (no rat down that one!). These attributes, combined with a keen sense of smell, made for the perfect earthdog since the earliest days.
Amendola, who has attained a variety of titles from both AWTA and AKC, has developed preferences for a working earthdog. Real-life hunts can be dangerous. Gophers, rats, woodchucks, and raccoons, can all inflict serious wounds. Amendola says, “I like a calm, sensible dog that takes care of itself and usually doesn’t get too chewed up in the hunt field. I think the trait of caution is inherent and comes with a smart dog, and a small amount does come with experience. However, there are those dogs that never quite learn to take care of themselves and in my opinion should not be taken into the field.”
Self-preservation is only part of it. The intense predatory behavior of a successful earthdog results in a very high arousal level in the working earthdog.
Some people are reluctant to encourage behavior that looks for all intents and purposes like a dog gone mad. Yet, like many sports, the best earthdogs are always under the control of their owner/handler. Amendola has clear prefences on this subject as well. “Having prey drive, to me, means a dog that has the determination to go after and stay with the job at hand, is not sound-sensitive, and responds to cues (not as in an obedience ring, but as at home). He hunts when there is quarry and is alert and ready to work and will respond to his owner. Prey is what turns the dog on and not everyday situations like seeing another dog. An intelligent, calm, self-confident dog makes the best field dog.”
Breeds commonly seen in today’s earthdog trials include Dachshunds and a variety of terriers: Australian, Bedlington, Border, Cairn, Dandie Dinmont, Fox, Jack Russell or Parsons, Lakeland, Manchester, Norfolk, Norwich, Scottish, Sealyham, Silky, Skye, Welsh, West Highland, Miniature Schnauzers, and even Miniature Bull Terriers. Some of the less common earthdog terriers include the Cesky, Patterdale, Glen of Imall, and Rat.
Equipment & supplies
Many people are encouraged to try the sport due to the very inexpensive, small amount of gear needed to get started.
•Rat cage. This is a small wooden or wire box that closes securely, and has a wire front panel. A real or fake rat is placed in the box.
•Rat. Many of the rats used in earthdog training have been bred and raised to tolerate barking dogs. Alternatively, a fake rat that has been scented with real rat odor can be used in training. (Go to your local pet store and ask for used rat bedding from their cages.) In competition, live rats are used.
•Tunnels. Short tunnels (10 feet long) are used during initial training. Later, longer tunnels (up to 50 feet) are used.
•Harness, leash, and longline. A standard, back-clip harness helps take the pressure off the neck and trachea of dogs pulling toward the box. A leather, cloth, or nylon six-foot leash is used in between training sessions, while a light-weight longline is used while working the dogs in practice sessions.
Training your first earthdog will be easiest if you hook up with an experienced earthdog trainer and handler through a variety of clubs that focus on this sport. An experienced handler can quickly get you started and point out things to avoid during initial training, especially if you think you will want to compete with your dog.
Amendola recommends starting with basic obedience, socialization, and confidence-building. “Besides taking the dog everywhere to acquaint it with different situations, I often suggest that a dog owner bring home a paper shopping bag, put a treat inside, and encourage the dog to get it. Sticking his head into, and then venturing inside, a dark bag that is moving, flapping, and making noise is a great confidence-builder for a dog.”
Here is a brief overview of the major components in training.
•Introduction to the quarry (the rat). Put your rat in the cage. Your initial goal is to spark interest in the cage and to encourage your dog to bark at the rat in the cage.
With your dog on-leash, encourage your dog to investigate the cage by tapping on the cage and saying, “Get the rat!” Praise any interest in the cage, letting your excitement level build as your dog’s interest increases. As he becomes more interested, you can “tease” him a bit by moving the cage slightly out of his reach and then repeating “Get the rat” and letting him run to it.
Once you are sure he is very excited about the cage, don’t praise unless he paws or barks at the cage. If your dog seems uninterested, don’t push it. Start over at another time. Training sessions should be kept very short (2-3 minutes).
When your dog consistently barks at the cage with the rat in it, you will switch to a fake rat (you are going to be moving the cage around and don’t want to jostle the rat). Put your fake rat, scented with rat scent, in the cage. Restrain your dog on-leash and drag the rat cage along the ground while encouraging your dog to “Get the rat!”
When he barks at it, let go and let him race to the rat cage. Do not allow him to bite at the cage. Again, train in short sessions and quit before he wants to quit. Train your dog to settle down between training sessions so that he learns to maintain control when not actively working.
•Introduction to the tunnel. Once your dog is very interested in the rat cage, place the cage at one end of a 10-foot tunnel. Take your dog off the harness (you don’t want the harness to get caught in the tunnel) and hold your dog near the other end of the tunnel and encourage him to “Get the rat.”
Don’t try to force him into the tunnel. Just let his desire to get to the rat motivate him to enter the tunnel. This is why it is important to build a strong desire, as described above, to get to the rat cage. (Alternatively, you could train your dog separately to crawl through the tunnel so he already has this skill before this stage.)
If necessary, you can place the cage inside the tunnel and encourage your dog to poke his head in to find the rat. Praise him for any effort at entering the tunnel.
•Increasing the difficulty. As your dog succeeds with a short tunnel above ground, you can increase the distance between your dog and the entrance of the tunnel, bury the tunnel, and later introduce longer tunnels and tunnels with right and left turns.
Levels of competition
There are four levels of competition under AKC standards of competition. More specific details are available from a variety of books and from the AKC and AWTA websites, but here is a brief description of the AKC standards.
•Introduction to quarry. This is AKC’s initial “test” or trial level and a great place to start your dog. The judge is allowed to give tips to the handler, and the handler is allowed to cue and encourage her dog. The tunnel is 10 feet long with only one turn, with the rat behind bars at the end of a scented trail.
•Junior Earthdog. The handler must stand quietly where she releases her dog; no verbal or physical cues are allowed. The release point is 10 feet from the entry of a clearly visible den entrance. The dog has 30 seconds to enter the tunnel and follow the scent of the rat through at least three right-angle turns along a 30-foot length of tunnel and “work” (i.e., bark at) the rat for 60 seconds. The dog must then allow the handler to remove him without injury to the dog or handler. To earn the Junior Earthdog title, your dog must perform these requirements in two separate trials, each with a different judge.
•Senior Earthdog. The handler releases the dog 15 to 20 feet from the den entrance, which is steeper and less visible to the dog than it was in the Junior level.
Again, the dog must navigate a 30-foot length of tunnel with three right-angle turns, but now he must also overcome a false, unscented exit and an unscented bedding area and choose, instead, the route with the scented rat bedding.
This time, due to the increased distractions, the dog has 90 seconds to get to the scented bedding, and 15 seconds to start barking. He must “work” the rat for 90 seconds at the Senior level. At the end of the 90 seconds, the rat is removed and the dog must come back to the handler when called. The dog has 90 seconds to come when called. The dog must perform these requirements in three trials with at least two different judges.
•Master Earthdog. This gets really interesting. At the Master level, two dogs (a “brace”) are randomly selected to work together, each with his own handler. The den entrance is 100 to 300 yards away, with the entrance obscured. Along the way, the dog must investigate a visible, empty, unscented entrance when the handler asks him to. Barking at the false entrance disqualifies the dog.
The dog that gets to the real den entrance gets to work it first, while the second dog must “honor” the first dog and wait. A tethering spot is provided, and the dog and handler must wait their turn. Once the first dog is called out of the den, the second dog is released to work it.
Each dog must navigate through 30 feet of tunnel with three right turns, which is the same as the Senior level; however, there are two additional obstacles at the Master Level. One is a 6-inch-diameter PVC pipe placed crossways in the den (simulating a root), and the second is a narrowing of the width of the tunnel to 6 inches for a distance of 18 inches. The dog has 90 seconds to get to the rat, must start barking at the rat within 15 seconds of finding it, and must work it for 90 seconds. The dog must allow his handler to remove him from the den within 15 seconds.
To earn his Master Earthdog title, your dog must fulfill these requirements four different times under three different judges.
Is this sport for you?
Clearly, earthdog is a blast for the dog whose predatory nature and tenacity make this sport a great outlet for these innate characteristics. People who choose to live with these terrier-like personalities love these smart little problemsolvers, and channeling their dog’s abilities into a sport so well suited to them brings them great joy. Yet, the sport is dirty, it can be noisy, and it’s definitely not for you if you don’t want to see rats barked at by dogs. And, depending on where you live, you may have to travel quite a distance to find people of like mind.
Yet, as with many of the sports we will profile in the coming months, there’s a spark – a bond, a connection – that happens when people and dogs play together that make these minor challenges. Perhaps Amendola says it best. “I love all the dog sports and the wonderful people I have met through the years and learned so much from and continue to learn from. I cherish the many memories my friends have made possible for me to have by participating in these sports.”
Terry Long, CPDT, is a writer, agility instructor, and behavior counselor in Long Beach, CA. She lives with four dogs and a cat and is addicted to agility and animal behavior.