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Rock Cairn with Rodent

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A Very Brief History of Earthdogs

I say very brief because this is a most interesting topic and would qualify as a newsletter article unto itself.

Over two hundred years ago, terriers and dachshunds were bred to hunt vermin in their native lands. They were commonly used to bolt fox, otter, weasel, and badger from their dens in the earth, the rocks, and the rock cairns. The dachshund was widely used in Germany on badger; the name means "badger hound." Although their histories are long, varied, and quite colorful, I will not address the "evolution" of the dachshund and various terrier breeds.

In the mid-1800s, most terrier breed standards were originally established at the first British dog show in Newcastle, England, These descriptions or standards were developed by dedicated hunters/terriermen. They were somewhat specific by defining the working roles and characteristics of each particular breed. When these "recognized" terriers and the dachshund breeds were brought to to the United States, it was primarily for the sport of showing, with little attention given to the dogs’ working abilities. Thus, for many years, working terriers and dachshunds were not used or tested as they had been in their country of origin. Instead they became common sights in the show ring.

Working Terrier/Dachshund Clubs

Terrier clubs in the United States began appearing in the early 1900s with the American Sealyham Terrier Club sponsoring its first group hunts in 1913. A working certificate was awarded to any Sealyham that completed the requirements of the hunt. These hunts did not involve use of artificial earths or dens.

In 1935, the United States Dachshund Field Trial Club made an effort to provide controlled training for their breed. The system they used was patterned after the artificial den trials once held in Germany. It was a complicated set of tunnels, about fifty yards in length. A fox ran freely within the tunnels and a dog would be released to locate and interact with the fox. This system (preparing the dens, locating a “friendly” fox, training of the dogs and the fox, and conducting the trials) was so labor intensive that it was discontinued shortly after it began.

In 1971, Patricia Lent, with a little help from several New Yorkers, organized the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA). The first artificial trial was held in Geneses, New York on June 5, 1971. A Certificate of Gameness (CG) was awarded for any qualified working terrier or dachshund that successfully completed the Open Class (traversed a thirty-foot tunnel with three ninety-degree angles and worked the quarry, which were rats). Rules specified a time limit for both approaching and working the quarry. The AWTA also offered a Working Certificate (WC) for qualifying work below ground in natural earth and a Hunting Certificate (HC) for qualifying work above ground.

In 1976, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America den trials began. They adopted the AWTA’s rules for den preparation and testing. Later their dens and rules were customized to fit the specialized instincts and abilities of the Jack Russell Terrier.

In 1994, the American Kennel Club (AKC) established the Earthdog performance event for specified terrier breeds and dachshunds. This was a big breakthrough for AKC terrier and dachshund owners who had long lobbied for some form of testing and titled recognition of their dogs’ natural instincts.
It is important to note that the performance clubs mentioned above do not include every club formed prior to 1994. Those mentioned were significant in that they pioneered some trends that led to the tests or trials as we know them today, the AWTA being the greatest influence on the current AKC testing system.

When to Start:

Some people believe a dog must begin as a puppy to become a good earthdog. This is not so. Even an older dog, whose instincts have never been challenged but lie beneath the surface waiting for that special moment to arrive, may prove to be the finest working terrier or dachshund in the kennel. Therefore, the time to start is as soon as you get the first opportunity to introduce your dog or puppy to the activity. The success of the dog depends almost entirely upon his instincts; it is up to you to offer your dog the challenges and opportunities to awaken his natural instincts and start him (and you) on a road to many hours of fun and enjoyment.

Earthdogs are very intelligent and become bored with any rote process. When it becomes dull, the risk arises that the dog may completely lose interest. Spending too much time working a dog with the caged rat or through an artificial earth or den can be the kiss of death to what might otherwise be a promising earthdog “career.”

Training Techniques

Rat Cage Training:

The word “dog” is used to refer to both dogs and puppies. When there are exceptions, they are qualified..

Start the dog by getting him used to a rat in a cage. Place a laboratory rat (available at many pet stores) into a wire cage, whose size should be approximately 8” X 8” X 6”. Place the cage containing the rat on the ground. The dog should be on a long leash. He may show interest without any encouragement, but if he’s never seen a rat or mouse, he may ignore it or pay little attention. If necessary, tap on the cage or jiggle it to arouse his interest. Do not talk to him constantly; simply use your chosen command, “Get the rats” (or whatever you might prefer), and let him investigate. If your dog appears timid or very cautious, allow him time to check out the cage without any interference. He may, after surveying the situation on his own for a time, slowly begin to work as his instincts surface. Don’t overwhelm him with your excitement at any time during his training. If and when he begins to work, try to curtail your praise, but continue to repeat the chosen command.

Once the dog shows interest in the quarry, attempt to increase his attention span. Increased movement by shifting of the cage may do this, moving the cage behind you and, finally, when he’s showing some aggression towards the rat, bring the cage towards him. Be careful not to use too much force in directing the cage at him, since this could frighten him. Take it slowly and carefully watch his reaction. This maneuver, when performed properly, will likely encourage a more aggressive interest in the prey that will eventually result in his barking, biting, or attacking the cage.

This training is not something you should expect to accomplish in a short period of time. NEVER push or force any of the training on your dog! Remember to let him go at his own pace; this will give him confidence as he progresses. I suggest you not try all of the above in one day with a puppy. These exercises should be attempted over a period of time with any dog; otherwise, he may be overwhelmed and it may set him back rather than move him forward. An adult dog, depending on the strength of his instincts, may easily accomplish the cage training in one or two sessions. However, if he needs more time, do not push him.

It is good to have a partner working with you from here on. At this point in training, you will be taking steps to get your dog to show more aggressiveness towards the rats by performing those acts of “work” (barking, scratching, digging, biting, etc.) that he must demonstrate in order to pass an actual test. Keep the dog on a leash and have your working partner maintain the dog’s interest in the caged rat.

Once he is showing intense interest towards the rat, introduce a “chase” as part of the training. To do this, take the rat from the original cage (out of sight of the dog); place him in a second cage, and use the original cage with a furry scented toy inside. Tie a light line to the cage and have your partner drag it along the ground. Encourage the dog to chase and catch it. Once he does this and begins to bite and pounce on it, restrict his contact with the cage by holding the base of his tail (on a terrier) or his chest (in the case of a dachshund). Praise him gently, but never let him quite get to it. This frustration should cause him to start barking, which is what you’re striving for. When he does bark, praise him again. Then practice with him once more to make sure he has the idea. When he has reached this level, you will have prepared your dog for “working the quarry” once he arrives through the tunnel at the rats’ cage.

In cage training, use the word “rat” (or another chosen word) repeatedly, so that the dog connects this word to the function.

An eight-week-old StoneMark puppy, "Little John," exiting the backyard tunnel (1999)

Basic Tunnel Training:

You may observe throughout the training different responses from pups as opposed to mature dogs. Pups tend to be more tentative and less aggressive, while, most of the time, mature dogs will display interest as long as the quarry is present.

For basic training equipment, start with a straight piece of PVC pipe, cardboard rolls (obtained, usually free of charge, from carpet stores, hardware stores or any type of business that carries large products delivered to them in rolls). Any kind of tube that allows the dog to move through without constriction will serve the purpose. Place this on level ground and try different things to entice the dog through the tunnel or den. Use the rat cage at one end while you or your partner enters the dog from the opposite end. Tap the tunnel and use the same phrase you have been using when working with the caged rat, e.g., “. . . get the rats.” If he does not come through on his own, tie some twine to the cage and take it through the tunnel so that it rests at his end (just inside the entrance). Have your partner pull the cage through and the pup should follow. Do not become discouraged, and don’t EVER force your dog into the tunnel. This is a sure-fire way to cause him to lose interest and balk at any effort to get him to enter. When the dog does go through and gets to the rats, praise him softly. Continue to slowly pull the cage out from the tunnel while he is working. Repeat this exercise several times but not to the point of tedium for the dog.

Once he is confidently moving through the single piece of tunnel (not necessarily on the same day), place an elbow (available at any store that sells plumbing supplies) on the straight pipe or roll, and add a second length of pipe. This will introduce him to a ninety-degree angle. Repeat the same process you used in the straight den (without dragging the rat cage through). If he balks or refuses to make the turn, place the rat cage at the juncture (so he can see it) and drag it through from there.

After he has mastered this, introduce him to the below ground tunnel. Your dog should always be started in a ten-foot tunnel with one ninety-degree turn. The tunnel should be identical to the regulation tunnel used in the Introduction to Quarry class at AKC Earthdog Tests. Wooden bars should be installed at the end of the tunnel. Scent the ground (with a "tea" distilled from rat cage shavings) all the way through the ten feet of tunnel. Carefully attempt to enter him, with your partner acting as “judge” and holding the rat cage at the end of the tunnel. Be very patient, without forcing; because going down into an underground tunnel is a very different experience from entering an above-ground one, and it can be intimidating to some dogs. If none of your coaxing persuades him to enter, try the same tactics you used in the above ground training. When he goes through and works actively for twenty to thirty seconds, remove him and immediately take him back to the entrance. Repeat the process two or three more times to reinforce it. By this time, he should be ready for his first official AKC Earthdog Test.

What Now?

There are several things you may do to keep him interested. Get together with friends (at the home of someone with buried tunnels) and have a fun day. This is a great way to get in some informal practice and give your dog training in a simulated test environment.

Then look for the next AKC Earthdog test in your area. At his first official test, and perhaps at subsequent ones, enter your dog in the Introduction to Quarry class. When he can complete this class with confidence, he may move up to the Junior Earthdog (JE) class and begin to compete for his first official AKC Earthdog title. It is important that you do not advance him to the JE class until he has shown enough confidence and aggression toward the quarry to move to that higher level of testing.

An excellent book on anything and everything to do with earthdogs is Earthdog Ins and Outs, and it is included below in my bibliography. This is by far the best book on this subject on the market today. More information is available about the book at www.earthdog.info. I believe it has enough good information to answer most questions or address any interest you may have concerning this sport.


Frier-Murza, JoAnn, Earthdog Ins and Outs, OTR Publications, 1998.
Lent, Patricia Adams, Sport with Terriers, Arner Publications, 1973.
Plummer, Brian D., The Complete Jack Russell Terrier, Howell Book House, The Boydell Press, 1980.

Copyright Joyce y. Moore 2003



Wally (left) and her son, Banger (right): CH. StoneMark's Duchess of Windsor and StoneMark's Bangers'n Mash


*Photo by Cleet Carlton. copyright 2002,

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