The Geography of
American Working Terriers
The map pictures above, is fairly illuminating,
as it graphically represents where working judges
sanctioned by the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA) live.
The states in
white are those that have any
JRTCA working judges at all. The states that are
muddy-gray colored have no JRTCA working judges. A pin
(see a larger version of the map by clicking on it)
represents the zip code of every JRTCA working judge in
the U.S. in the current edition of True Grit magazine
To get a
"bronze medallion" for special merit in the
field from the JRTCA, a dog has to work at least three
types of quarry underground (fox, raccoon,
groundhog, badger or an aggressive possum) operating as
if it were out alone, and with the owner doing the
digging, and a JRTCA judge has to be in attendance as
witness to the work. To get a certificate, a dog cannot
work quarry in a barn, brush pile, artificial earth or
man-made location (such as a drain or the crawlspace of
Terriers are, far and away, the most commonly worked
terrier in America. There are very few Fell
Terriers in this country, and only a handful of working
Border Terriers. Patterdale terriers in the U.S. are
still relatively rare, and though some very good dogs are
being bred by a handful of reputable breeders, too many
over-large dogs are being produced -- many of them
cross-bred in the not-too-distant past with small pit
bulls in order to get a larger dog that can work
above-ground game -- barn raccoons and feral hogs in
particular. There are some excellent Patterdales and a
few good Fells in the US, but most of these seem to be
owned by people that have had Jack Russell terriers at
one time or another -- the dogs they started with before
there were any Patterdales or Fells on this side of the
Atlantic. In addition to terriers, there are a small
number of people that work miniature dachshunds
Why does this
JRTCA map look this way?
Some of it has to
do with a population bias -- there are more
people per square mile in the East and Midwest, and as a
consequence associations are easier to maintain.
Another factor is
that there are only about 50 pins on the map at all.
This paucity of pins is partly a reflection of how few
people actually work terriers in the U.S. beyond
two-or-three time a year digs, and in part a reflection
of the fact that being a working judge is truly a
Of course there are more than
50 serious diggers in the U.S. Some of these
diggers are ex-JRTCA working judges, some are people that
dig a lot but have no desire to sign up for the thankless
job of being a working judge, a few diggers have Kennel
Club registered dogs, and of course there are quite a few
folks that dig their dogs but have no formal club
affiliation of any kind at all. And of course there are
the patterdale owners, some of whom have joined the new UKC
working terrier program or are
members of the Patterdale Terrier Club of America.
That said, while this map is clearly
not inclusive of everyone that digs their terriers, it is
more-or-less geographically representative of the broad
TREND of those that that do -- they tend to be
in the East and in the Midwest, rather than in the
Western United States. For example, of the 15 UKC working
judges, as of August 2004, six are not in America, two
are in California and come East to hunt, and the rest are
in New Jersey, Kentucky, Virginia or Georgia -- states
well-represented on the map above.
One of the main reasons the map
is skewed has to do with quarry availability. In
the U.S., the bread-and-butter quarry of the working
terrier is the groundhog. Raccoons cannot dig
their own dens, and neither can possums. If dirt dens
are not available, they will seek other alternatives --
hay lofts, brush piles, hollow trees, farm outbuildings,
hay stacks, rock crevices, or old squirrel nests.
With the exception of rock dens,
these are not locations where a small dog follows quarry
to ground and is then dug to. In short, it is not
Red fox will dig dens on their
own, of course, but in the American west they face real
on-the-ground competition in the form of the coyote.
A coyote will generally kill a red fox if given half a
chance, as they directly compete with red fox for food.
In addition, the red fox is not
native to the U.S., and its dispersal in the West is
uneven as a consequence. While red fox are common in
some areas (such as the prairie pothole region) they are
quite rare in other areas (such as western Oklahoma).
Weather and time are another
important reason fewer people hunt in the West.
Fox will not den in warm weather unless they have kits,
and in the U.S. we do leave fox pups alone.
Without hounds to drive fox to
ground, the U.S. fox-digging season is very short
-- generally only 10 weeks long, and for most people with
jobs this presents a very short period of time to get out
into the field.
When people do get out into the
field, of course, they have to find their fox!
This is easier said than done, and is very hard job for a
novice hunter with a novice dog. Red fox densities are
variable, but settlement is generally much thinner in the
West where there is less food than in the East, and where
the fox face direct competition with coyotes for both
food and den sites.
Raccoons are not native to the West, though
they have spread with humans during the last 50 years, helped immeasurably by the
creation of denning shelters in the form of barns, out
buildings, road culverts, abandoned cars, and brush
For some reason, raccoons are
never found above 4,500 feet, however, which
means that they are absent from a large portion of the
Rockie Mountains. A raccoon can expand a ground den a
little bit, but it is not really made for digging. A
skunk can and will dig its own hole, which is suitable
for possum, but too small for anything but the smallest
of adolescent raccoons. An armadillo will dig a hole, and
in areas where they are common there is some hope of
finding a raccoon to ground in an old armadillo hole.
Marmots and prairie dogs are
found in some locations in the West, but the
prairie dog is far too small for a dog to work, while the
various species of rock marmots tend to gravitate towards
areas with large boulders and talus slopes -- areas very
hard to dig. Marmots are also absent from larger parts of
the West outside of the Rockie Mountains. That said, if
found in the right location, marmots are excellent quarry
for working terriers in the Mountain States.
Some states -- notably California --
have very diverse geography and wildlife but also have
very restrictive game laws which make working terriers
The American badger is common in some parts of
the West, but the population densities are generally very
low. Badger are also hard
to locate, as they will move every few days or so as they
eat out, or chase out, a local rodent population (rats,
mice, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs). Once the food
is gone, so too is the badger.
Unlike in Europe, the presence
of a badger hole in the U.S. does not
mean you have actually found a badger. More
likely you have found a blank hole or, in some areas,
worse -- a skunk, porcupine or snake.
Porcupines, rattlesnakes and
skunks are fairly common in many parts of the
West, and all three animals are a very serious threat to
a dog. A dog sprayed underground by a skunk can be
overpowered and die from anemia if not gotten out of the
ground in pretty short order. A porcupine's defense
system consists of barbed quills which can leave a dog
wrecked in short order (and the owner's wallet drained
after a visit to the vet). A dog bitten by a rattlesnake rarely
lives, as the venom from even a small rattler is more
than enough to kill a terrier. The dog commonly dies of
asphyxiation as the throat swells and chokes off the wind
In the South there are tens of
millions of nutria, but they do not seem
to be worked very often. In part this is due to
the fact that in those parts of the Deep South where
where nutria are most numerous alligators also tend
to be present.
Another factor is that neither
the American Working Terrier Association nor the JRTCA
will give a working certificate to nutria as the
holes are too big and shallow to qualify as real earth
work. In addition the nutria, like the possum, is an
animal whose primary defensive mechanism is bluffing.
While AWTA will not give a certificate to possum, and the
JRTCA will (provided it is an "aggressive"
possum), both seem to think the nutria is less than
formidable quarry for a working terrier.
A final obstacle to terrier
work in the West is experienced people to show newcomers
where to start. While the basics of terrier work
are not overly complex, there are things to learn about
locating quarry, digging, dispatch, and healthcare. To
work any terrier in a safe manner requires several
hundred dollars worth of equipment, as well as
permissions from land owners. And then, of course, you
have to have the desire to hunt, be in relatively sound
physical shape, and be willing to devote the time to get
out in the field in all kinds of weather. It turns out
all of this is a relatively rare combination.
All of the factors above
combine to create a "tipping effect" in much of
the West where the chance of finding quarry is
lower than in the East, and the chance of getting a dog
injured is higher. When combined with a paucity of other
working terrier owners, a very short working season, and
the abundance of other kind of hunting opportunities, it
is not surprising to find fewer working terriers in the
Western United States than in the East and Midwest.
Many of the western diggers
that do exist actually come East to work their dogs,
going to the trouble of loading themselves and their dogs
into airplanes, trucks and cars for a week or two of
hunting where quarry can be found on the ground.
This clearly takes a great deal
of work and commitment, making these folks among
the most dedicated working terrier enthusiasts in the
A special hats off to them! n