Fantasy Diggers
The creep of fantasy, and the slow but steady erosion
of real diggers in the hedgerow, is killing working terriers.


The internet is the kind a place where 50-year old men impersonate 17-year old girls and where anyone with an email account can be sure they will receive a bit of spam promising them millions if they just send a $2,000 "transaction payment" to Nigeria.

The world of working terriers is not immune to flim-flam and fantasy. Some "fantasy diggers" are owners of AKC dogs that imagine their dogs were "bred to work" when in fact their terrier's ancestors have probably not seen the inside of a den pipe in more than 40 generations.

Some folks are simply confused and think they have working dogs because their pooch catches an occasional rat or mouse while out in the countryside.

Others are convinced they are experts by dint of being able to drop a name or two -- as if knowledge and experience were transferred to them in a phone conversation or a chance meeting over cocktails.

If you pay attention, you can generally figure out what is real and what is fantasy -- the trick is to be able to read the "tells."

A "tell" is how an experienced poker player can figure out if the other guy is bluffing. Generally it's something small -- a player that leans forward when he gets a certain set of cards, a player that puts his chips down with a little more force when he has a winning hand, a person that fidgets in the chair when the cards are not right.

"Tells" come in all forms, and they can be found in books and on the internet as well.

Close readers of the books of one British terrierman, for instance, might have noted the absence of pictures of the author on digs, or the absence of pictures showing the huge numbers of rats he professed to have taken in a single evening. There is no doubt this gentleman knew a lot about dogs and worked them too, but the absence of pictures was a "tell" that some of his humorous accounts might have been just a shade exaggerated.

Another tell occurs when there is either lack of specificity or excessive specificity. I once noted, on a border terrier list-serv with over 1000 people on it, that there were no pictures of working border terriers in any of the breed books, and that it appeared there were very few working border terriers left anywhere in the world.

What a controversy that unleashed!

One gentlemen claimed he bred working border terriers, and then fessed up that he did not work his dogs at all. He then offered that the litter-mate of one of his dogs had killed "100 fox" in Ireland. When I pointed out that this number was suspiciously round, and asked whether he had any pictures of any dogs anywhere with any fox at all, he feigned insult. Surely I would take his word!

Another woman in Sweden emailed me that she routinely worked her border terriers to fox. This sounded promising, but she gave herself away when I asked about the type of transmitters and bars used. She told me they taped radio transponders to the dog's tails, and that huge boulders were shifted with the help of aluminum bars. And no, she had no pictures of any of this -- she never thought to bring a camera. She did not even have a picture of her dog sitting next to a spade!

And then there is the young fellow here in the U.S. who for six years has run a "working terrier" bulletin board and who claims to be an authority on pit bulls and fighting dogs. The first "tell" was when he published his street address -- a decidedly strange thing for a man engaged in illegal dog fighting to do. Then there's the odd fact that little or no quarry actually dens in his part of the U.S. Another tell was when he claimed his terrier had "worked" six skunk -- something physically impossible for a dog to do.

No pictures of dogs or digs were ever offered, and he never actually mentioned going out in the field. After 5 years of listening to this incredible bluster, he was finally asked point-blank what he had actually done in terms of real earth work. The amazing answer was "not much." It turns out that this fellow did not own a working terrier at all! It seems he had a pup for a while, but when the dog got old enough to work he "let a buddy of mine that was starting out use her for 6 months and I went out for a weekend of hunting and I went and got her killed."

Woops! There's real expertise -- a dog dead in just 6 months, and killed when "the expert" himself finally took it out! In a later post this same fellow bragged that he had an "eye for dogs" and then went on to say he had bought his new replacement pup mail-order and sight unseen from a man he did not know that lived in a country he had never visited!

Other frauds and misrepresentations continue to pop up on the boards. There are the folks who claim to have worked 35-pound fox (no, no pictures), or to have dug to a 40-pound raccoon (no pictures again).

There are the instant experts who do not yet know that raccoons can be found in holes in the ground, and there are the folks that post pictures of possums their dogs have "worked," always failing to mention that the work was done in the driveway next to the garbage can.

Does fantasy do any real harm?

Generally, no, but at times yes.

The fantasy digger who thinks a go-to-ground tunnel is the size of a real den pipe is spreading a lie forged in ignorance that allows the "big wink" of over-large dogs to continue unabated.

The preening pretender who prattles on about the glories of brain-dead "hard dogs" in order to compensate for his own male shortcomings glorifies a canine characteristic which, in excess, is too often a serious liability in the field.

The show ring breeder whose fantasy fox is as large as a coyote is what led to the Kennel Club fox terrier -- a dog whose chest is as deep as the keel of a war ship.

The young enthusiast who thinks a mute dog is a fine thing glorifies a serious nuisance and a potentially fatal liability in a working dog, while the "blue-blazer rosette chaser" who cares more about the color of a dog's nose than it's ability to scent does no better.

When push comes to shove, the thing that has killed working terriers over the course of the last 50 years is the creep of fantasy, and the slow but steady erosion of real diggers in the hedgerow.

The simple truth is that you cannot protect working dogs without working them.

And working a dog is not easy -- it is suspiciously like work for the human as well as the dog. There is equipment to be gotten -- spades, bars, posthole diggers, tie-outs, locator collars, machete, yo-ho, veterinary first aid equipment, and a decent pack in which to carry it all.

There are farm permissions to get, and there are the dogs which have to be raised up and given the experience -- experience which can only be gotten by driving out to the country and walking hedgerows and fields for many, many weekends.

This is to say nothing of the reality of digging in freezing cold, howling winds, sucking mud, pounding sun, and swarming bugs.

It is to say nothing of the pulled muscles of the digger and the ripped muzzle of the dog, or the stern look of the vet that has to sew up a dog that has gotten torn a bit too deep for mere antibiotics and time.

But of course fantasy is cheap.

Ask the Nigerian grifters who send out all those email come-ons, or the perverted old men trolling internet chat rooms for teenagers.

Or better yet, ask anyone in a plaid skirt bouncing around a show ring, or anyone who claims to have worked dogs for years but never taken a $12 camera out into the field. They will tell you all about working terriers. Just don't ask to see a picture of their dog wearing a deben collar.