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 (August 2004).

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 an outbuilding).

Jack Russell 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 or "teckels".

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 thankless task.

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 earthwork.

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 piles.

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 difficult.

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 pipe.

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 U.S.

A special hats off to them! n