Can You Dig It?

Earth­dog en­thu­si­asts and their driven dogs put an­cient in­stinct to the test.


Earth­dog en­thu­si­asts and their driven dogs put an­cient in­stinct to the test.

Tabu spots the open­ing in the ground. She whines and barks. Her lit­tle body is like a tight muscle, writhing, twist­ing. In the dark re­cesses of her mind, she must hear the howls of an­ces­tors urg­ing her on. I put her on the ground. She sniffs the earth. Picks up the scent. She’s off. With her nose plas­tered to the ground, she runs, look­ing like a mini-rhi­noc­eros, chas­ing the in­vis­i­ble scent line right to the hole, dis­ap­pear­ing into the tun­nel. She’s gone. Tabu, my Cairn Ter­rier, is one of many ter­ri­ers and Dachshunds tested in sim­u­lated hunt­ing sit­u­a­tions at this earth­dog prac­tice held in Alder­grove, Bri­tish Columbia. Own­ers bring their dogs here to test the dogs’ in­stinc­tual be­hav­iour on scent trails and in un­der­ground tun­nels lead­ing to quarry. They want to see if their pups can still do what their ca­nine an­ces­tors were bred to do as early as 55 B.C.: go to ground and get rid of ro­dents and other ver­min that were wreak­ing havoc on their own­ers’ land. Dogs that do well here can go on to par­tic­i­pate in Earth­dog Tests, Cana­dian Ken­nel Club (CKC)-sanctioned, non-com­pet­i­tive events lead­ing to the ti­tles Ju­nior Earth­dog, Se­nior Earth­dog, and Mas­ter Earth­dog. Early Sun­day morn­ing, the day of a sched­uled prac­tice, Tabu senses some­thing’s up when I be­gin pack­ing the SUV with her spe­cial blan­ket, favourite bed, stuffies, snacks, and my gum­boots. A dead give­away, the green gum­boots. Tabu knows. She races to her seat in the car. We’re off for an ex­treme ad­ven­ture head­ing down the high­way in the di­rec­tion of rolling hills and fresh coun­try air, leav­ing be­hind city noise and traf­fic jams. As I turn off the high­way, Tabu re­mem­bers. She’s been here twice be­fore. Her body be­gins to shud­der. She whines and barks. Weird ut­ter­ances es­cape her lit­tle mouth as she talks in a lan­guage known only to other Cairns. She jumps from win­dow to win­dow, her in­stinct awake. She knows. We’re here to play the game and she’s ready. I turn onto the rut­ted dirt road that leads up to the site. At the far end of the field, ve­hi­cles are lined up, tail­gates down, peo­ple set­ting up ken­nels and walk­ing their dogs. I chat with other “earth­dog­gers” who have ven­tured out to the coun­try. Janna Kumi, who works in the heart of Van­cou­ver as a ne­go­tia­tor for the fed­eral

The event is as much a hu­man so­cial event as a dog-fun event.

gov­ern­ment, leaves the city be­hind to bring Bina, her Wire­haired Dachs­hund, to the prac­tice. Kumi found Bina in Bavaria via the Internet. “She was des­tined to chase foxes in their dens—a most grue­some job. She’s shy, al­ways was, as I was told. We bonded im­me­di­ately, and I promised her she would have a good life in a new land—far away from foxes.” I can’t see the tun­nels, as they are buried. Three-sided tun­nels con­sist­ing of two nine-inch side walls and a roof are in­serted in trenches dug in the ground, so that the floor is ex­posed earth. The tun­nels are then cov­ered with dirt and veg­e­ta­tion. At the end is a sim­u­lated den sprayed with quarry scent. A pet rat, kept com­pletely safe in a se­cure con­tainer, separated from the dogs, and never harmed, serves as the faux quarry. Ray Walden, from Rich­mond, B.C., is the “Dun­geon Mas­ter.” “I de­signed and built the tun­nels used here,” he says. “I’ve built sev­eral hun­dred feet of tun­nels.” His de­signs are unique—fa­mously so—as some fea­ture Plex­i­glas sid­ing. At demon­stra­tions at malls and expos spec­ta­tors to view the dogs mak­ing de­ci­sions as they ma­neu­ver through the tun­nels. In or­der to have a suc­cess­ful run at the be­gin­ner level, “In­tro­duc­tion to Quarry,” dogs must tra­verse a 10-foot-long tun­nel with one 90-de­gree turn within two min­utes, then “work” the quarry (bark­ing, growl­ing, dig­ging) for 30 sec­onds. At each level, tests in­crease in difficulty us­ing longer tun­nels and built-in ob­sta­cles, such as a tree root. At the Mas­ter level, dogs are worked two at a time, one un­der­ground while the other “hon­ours,” stay­ing above and tak­ing over when needed. Chris Roberts brings Andy, an eight-year-old Cairn, to prac­tice at the Mas­ter level.

Piper needed very lit­tle coach­ing to find his in­ner earth­dog.

“Andy lost one eye to can­cer. She’s a pi­rate dog. You’ll hear AARRRRRRR when she gets down there,” Roberts jokes. Andy still has all the char­ac­ter­is­tics needed for be­ing an earth­dog. “The dogs that ‘go to ground’ are the short-legged ter­ri­ers [Latin—terra, mean­ing earth] and Dachshunds [Ger­man for badger hound].” They have good noses, ex­cel­lent re­flexes, are top-notch sprint­ers, and are coura­geous, per­sis­tent, strong, flex­i­ble, often able to turn around in a tun­nel, and can think on their own. To some, earth­dog­ging is more than a timed run. Kumi, ready­ing Bina at the Se­nior run, tells me, “Earth­dog­ging is a sport pri­mar­ily for the dog, over­com­ing their fear go­ing into a dark hole and con­fronting their fears. When I saw her head pop up at the end of the 30-foot tun­nel on the Ju­nior test, I can’t de­scribe how I felt: very proud of her, happy for her. Brought tears to my eyes!” Lia Bi­jster­veld, pres­i­dent of the Sea to Sky Earth­dog Club, says, “The event is as much a hu­man so­cial event as a dog- fun event.” Her nine-year-old Bor­der Ter­rier, who was the first CKC Mas­ter Earth­dog, sticks his head out of the hole to ori­ent him­self, barks once, twists his body around and launches him­self al­most back­wards right back into the hole. “Piper needed very lit­tle coach­ing to find his in­ner earth­dog. He was des­tined to take part in earth­dog and it would be cruel not to let him par­tic­i­pate.” I’m watch­ing for Tabu as she ne­go­ti­ates her way deep in the tun­nel, fly­ing on in­stinct, search­ing for the hideout. A muf­fled lit­tle growl. Dig­ging. Bark­ing. Clearly, my lit­tle earth­dog hasn’t moved all that far from the gen­er­a­tions of work­ing ter­ri­ers that make up her an­ces­try; their drive, their joy in work­ing a scent be­low the ground lives on in her. I couldn’t be more proud.

Pa­tri­cia Komar is a free­lance writer liv­ing in the Lower Main­land. With her two dogs, Bruno and Tabu, she searches for muses in the wilds of B.C.

( above) An earth­dog is put to the test. (right) “Dun­geon Mas­ter” Ray Walden.

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