a working terrier without allowing it to work is
like owning a vintage bottle of wine so you can
read the label.
Despite the fact
that there are millions of terriers in the U.S.,
it is rare to find a owner that actually hunts
his or her dog above or below ground.
While rats are
plentiful in both urban and rural areas, hunting
vermin-infested alleys, wharves and barns at
night is not everyone's cup of tea. As for the
preferred quarry of the American working terrier
enthusiast -- the groundhog or woodchuck -- they
are not common in the West and their small size
generally requires a dog with a chest span of 14
inches or less. Since most show terriers have
chests several or even many inches larger than
this, hunting groundhogs with all but the
smallest dog requires a great deal of digging.
good news is that, in typical American fashion, a
synthetic hunting experience with wooden tunnels
and caged rats has been fashioned.
the "go to ground" AKC, AWTA or JRTCA
earthdog trial is not a close approximation of a
real hunting situation, it does afford the
terrier owner a chance to "explode the
code" within his or her own dog. To release
a Border, Jack Russell, Norfolk or other terrier
down a go-to-ground tunnel is to unleash more
than a dog: it is to unlock the genetic code
within and explore the dog's true reason for
follows are five tips for tunnel training
terriers. My goal is to be brief and to cover the
basics for the novice. For those interested in a
more detailed (and certainly more authoritative!)
set of instructions, tips, and general
information, I strongly recommend "Earthdog
Ins & Outs: Guiding Natural Instincts for
Success in Earthdog Tests and Den Trials" by
Jo Ann Frier-Murza. The book is available
directly from the author >> click here.
1) Starting your terrier.
mature at different ages. A Border Terrier's
earthdog sense does not seem to fully ripen until
the dog is well past one year old, for example,
while a Jack Russell may be ready to dive down a
go-to-ground tunnel at 9 months of age or
this mean you have nothing to do during that
first six months or a year of your terrier's
life? Absolutely not.
your dog begins formal go-to-ground training, it
should know basic commands such as sit, heel,
down, come, and stay. While these commands are
not directly relevant to qualifying in an
earthdog trial, they begin the two-way
communication that is vital to having control of
your dog in any trial situation.
basic obedience commands are mastered, you can
start your dog on the purely instructional level
of earthdog training steps 2 and 3 below.
2) Short tunnel construction
what some would have you believe, earthdogs are
made, not born. With practice, any dog of
suitable size can be trained to go through a
go-to-ground tunnel regardless of whether there
is a rat at the other end or not.
place to start is with a short wooden tunnel,
6-feet in length. I like the 6-foot length
because it can be stood on end inside a garage or
basement an important consideration if you
do not have a large yard or house. In addition, a
six-foot tunnel means the remaining 2 feet of
your plywood sheet can be used to fabricate
"L" corners for use in the next stage
of the training process. More on that latter.
guidance on building your tunnel, see the
excellent Dirt-Dog site maintained by Kirk
Dickinson. >> For more information
many people recommend building tunnels out of
solid lumber, I made my own (unburied) tunnels
out of several sheets of 5/8-inch plywood. These
tunnels have been kept outside for three years,
painted and stacked but otherwise uncovered,
without any serious ill effects. I strongly
recommend using drywall screws for tunnel
assembly, along with wooden bracing strips along
the bottom to keep the tunnels square.
inside dimensions of your completed tunnels
should be no larger than 9 inches by 9 inches.
This is a HUGE tunnel by real earthwork
standards, and your terrier will have no problem
negotiating it. If you are a little lazy and want
to ease construction, you can rip all your
plywood into 9-inch widths and assemble a
completed tunnel that is 9 inches tall but just 8
inches wide. My 15-inch dog has no problems
negotiating this tunnel, and neither will your
is no reason to bury your training tunnels now or
in the future. A buried tunnel is nearly
impossible to rearrange later on when you want to
train your dog to problem-solve. And, as I will
point out later, theres an easy way to
temporarily bury your tunnel as part of your
normal gardening regime.
you've built your first 6-foot tunnel section.
Now what? Simple: Don't feed your dog for one
day. He'll be fine (trust me!), but he will also
be VERY motivated when tunnel work begins. A
motivated dog learns very quickly.
your newly constructed tunnel outside on a hard
surface (a driveway or patio is perfect) with a
few scraps of wood under the tunnel to allow
light to filter in along the bottom. Measure out
half the kibble you will feed your dog that day,
and put it in your pocket. Take out a single
piece of kibble and, while the dog is watching,
throw it a foot or so down the tunnel and wait.
The dog should tentatively stick his head in the
tunnel and grab the food. Keep repeating this
process, until the dog goes deeper and deeper
into the tunnel. If the dog goes all the way
through the tunnel, give it a "jackpot"
of five or six pieces of food and offer a lot of
praise and belly scratching. Repeat until all the
food for this session is gone.
your dog begins to "hunt the tunnel"
for the small pieces of kibble you are tossing
down it, begin to use a "getem"
command and a sweeping gesture of your arm as a
"go down" signal. Eventually remove the
wood scraps lifting up the tunnel so that now the
only light in the tunnel is coming from the two
open ends. In no time at all, your dog will be
entering the tunnel and going all the way through
based on nothing more than a hand or voice
going any further, make sure your dog has got
this part of the game down cold. The way to do
this is to make your dog WORK for all his food
during this training period. If you practice with
your dog five or ten minutes in the morning and
five or ten minutes at night (no more), for a
week or two, you will have a little tunnel demon
in no time at all.
3) Long tunnel construction and
tunnel construction is the same as short-tunnel
construction, only now there are more sections,
and there are corner pieces to create. Another
visit to the Dirt-Dog web site is useful here. The good
news is that its all pretty simple.
with that 2-foot by 4-foot section of plywood
left over from building your first 6-foot tunnel
section. On this piece of plywood sketch out four
right angle "L" shapes that are nine
inches wide with extensions that are about 24
inches long on the outside edges. These four
"Ls" will serve as the tops and
bottoms of your two right-angle corners. Side
pieces for these corner tops and bottoms should
be cut and fastened with drywall screws so the
corner segments have exactly the same interior
and exterior dimensions as your straight-running
are corner pieces created separately from the
straight den liners? Simple: by flipping a corner
around, the next section of your tunnel setup can
be made to go either left or right. With four or
five straight tunnel sections, three corners, and
a T-section (to be used later to create a false
den), you can set up your den liners in a dozen
your dog is already a pro on the short tunnel, it
will have no problem negotiating a longer tunnel.
Start by adding a corner piece to the exit end of
your short tunnel. Once your dog is zipping
through that, add a corner at the entrance end.
Now extend the entrance by adding another 6-foot
straight section of den liner piece to one of the
corners, and continue to build in this fashion.
Tunnel sections can be left to abut each other
or, if you prefer, they can be fastened together
at the top by a wooden cleat held in place with
two short drywall screws. Make sure the screws do
not penetrate into the tunnel interior.
you work your dog when it is very hungry and
reward it with small pieces of food and lots of
praise, you will have a "den demon" in
that up to now you have used no quarry at all.
Your dog is entering the tunnel and negotiating
this dark maze because is has been trained to do
so with simple operant conditioning (food and
4) Using quarry.
your terrier is very young and already running
the tunnels like a pro, then you're well on your
way. Put away the tunnels now and bring them out
only once a month or so -- you don't want the dog
to get bored with the game. If you try to
progress to the next stage introduction to
quarry with a very young dog, very little
will come of it. Your dogs instinctive
"code" is not yet "on line."
is an important point: while getting a dog to run
a tunnel is largely learned behavior, a
dogs reaction to quarry is largely
instinctive and age-dependent. If your terrier is
under two years old, do not be discouraged if it
seems timid, tentative or indifferent to quarry.
In time (and with a little training) this will
almost certainly change.
kind of quarry to use? Any rodent will do, but in
practice most people use the lab rats that are
sold at pet stores as "feeders" for
snakes. I myself use squirrels that I catch in
the yard with a Havahart trap and which I later
do I use squirrels instead of rats? First and
foremost is the fact that divorce is expensive.
Or, to put it another way, my wife wont let
me keep rats in the house.
second issue is that I have children. Kids will
quickly turn a "quarry" rat into a
charming little pet named "Scamper."
Once that happens, your rat will never see the
inside of a go-to-ground tunnel again.
there is the fact that most lab rats are
inanimate. While wild rats run, bite and jump as
if their lives depend on it, lab rats that
exhibit these traits are quickly culled because
they are "too difficult" to work with.
The result is todays lab rat: a creature so
turgid and lifeless it has all the prey qualities
of a dirty sock.
on the other hand, actually smell like a wild
animal, make real prey movements, and are
generally larger than most lab rats. In short,
they are a nearly perfect quarry animal.
quarry animal you use, I recommend NOT using the
typical quarry cage used to transport rats at
most go-to-ground trials. These cages are made
out of welded fox wire and are not secure. Not
only can rats escape from them if the doors are
loose, but dogs can easily and quickly rip into
them or crush them if given the slightest
went through numerous "critter boxes"
(without loss of life, I am happy to say) before
I settled on my current design, which has
survived everything my very aggressive Border
Terrier has thrown at it.
box itself looks like an extension of the den
liner, but is solid pine on five ends, and about
two and a half feet long. The front of the box is
made out of an expanded metal grate bought at
Home Depot. The edges of this grate are trimmed
in wood to prevent injury to the dog. The top of
the box has a metal handle, which is used to
carry the box.
quarry enters the box from the back through a
solid pine door that is affixed with just two dry
wall screws. With one screw removed, the door
rotates around to allow the squirrel or rat to
enter. Once the door is rotated back into
position, a second screw secures the door shut.
those of you that decide to catch squirrels for
quarry, I recommend putting out birdseed on a
regular basis with a closed Havahart trap nearby.
Once squirrels get used to coming to your patio
or deck, it is a simple thing to bait the trap
with more birdseed held in place with a dollop of
peanut butter an irresistible combination!
lab rats are quite docile and can be grabbed by
the base of the tail and dropped directly into
the quarry box, a squirrel is a wild creature and
can bite to the bone. The good news is that
because the end of a squirrel-sized Havahart trap
is 8 inches by 8 inches, the traps hinged
door can be placed flush against the critter box
and the door opened to allow the squirrel to
enter the box directly. Once the squirrel enters
the critter box it will run down the length of
the box to the expanded metal grate at the other
end. The wood panel at the back of the critter
box can then be swung down, and a screw inserted,
to secure the squirrel inside.
you have built your "critter box" you
will have to modify one of your tunnel sections
by adding bars and a trap door through which the
dog can be removed. This is easy to do: simply
make two parallel cuts, about 19 or 20 inches
apart, across the top of one tunnel section, with
the first cut about five inches back from the
section of tunnel top you have just cut out will
be your trap door. Put a few drywall screws into
the now loose ends of the tunnel top. Once the
top is firmly reattached to the sides, affix the
door with a sturdy hinge on one end, and a bolt
hasp at the other. Check to make sure no sharp
screw points protrude into the box.
add bars to your current set up, purchase thin
aluminum bars (about the thickness of a ballpoint
pen) or wooden dowels (about the diameter of a
quarter) from Home Depot. The wooden dowels will
have to be replaced periodically, but they will
do far less damage to your dogs teeth in
the long run, and they are strongly
of what type of bars you choose, the method of
attachment is the same. Drill a line of evenly
spaced holes of the proper bar diameter through
the middle of the five-inch section of tunnel top
that remains in front of the trap door. The bars
should be able to slide through these holes.
take two identical strips of wood, at least one
inch thick and just wide enough to fit inside the
tunnel, and drill a line of evenly spaced holes
through them that exactly match the spacing of
the holes in the tunnel top. Anchor the bars into
one of these piece of wood with glue to form a
"guillotine of bars that can be
slipped through the end of the tunnel top. Now
take the second strip of wood with holes drilled
in it, and affix it across the bottom end of the
tunnel liner. When the guillotine bars are
slipped through the tunnel top, the bars should
slide into these holes, thereby securing the bars
at the tunnel end.
n Putting It All
suggest not feeding your dog for 24 hours just
prior to "putting it all together." By
doing this, your dog will dramatically increase
its motivation to do the one thing it KNOWS will
generate a food response: run through the tunnel.
you have a hungry dog, your tunnel layout is set
up, and a rat or squirrel has been loaded into
the critter box, you need to tie up your dog for
a few minutes. The reason for this is that you
need to take the fully loaded critter box and
figure out where you are going to place it so
that it is well out of reach of the dog but very
near the blocked end of the go-to-ground tunnel.
Possible critter box stash locations that have
worked for me include the fork of a small tree,
inside a large trashcan stationed nearby, and
inside the trunk of a parked car. Look around and
your loaded critter box is securely stashed where
the dog can absolutely NOT get to it, take your
dog down to the open end of your go-to-ground
tunnel end and release it.
be surprised if your dog dashes over to where the
critter box is located. If that happens, ignore
the dog. So long as the dog cannot get at the box
(it must be a physical impossibility), it will
the dog grows winded or bored, snap on a leash
and bring the dog back to the open end of the
tunnel and release the dog again. Eventually your
very hungry dog will go down the tunnel
the behavior you have been conditioning it to do.
soon as the dog starts down the tunnel, RACE to
retrieve the critter box and place it hard
against the bars at the other end of the tunnel.
all this madness? Why not just put the rat or
squirrel into the tunnel before releasing
If you follow this technique, your dog will NEVER
be rewarded for racing over the top of the tunnel
to "get the rat" because there will
NEVER be a critter at that other end of the
tunnel under those conditions.
OVER THE TOP OF A TUNNEL is the single most
common go-to-ground problem encountered. If you
follow the "critter box" technique
outlined here, you will start to "train
out" this problem before it ever starts. In
addition, as you will soon see, a tough critter
box is key to solving the SECOND most common
go-to-ground problem: a solid recall out of the
Dogs Inner Beast
your dog races down the tunnel and encounters the
rat or squirrel in the critter box, it will bark,
scratch, bite and otherwise try to attack the
"vermin" just beyond its reach.
maybe it wont.
very young or inexperienced dog may not make much
of ruckus, preferring instead to stare, whine or
work in a very haphazard way. If that happens,
dont worry. The vermin-killing code inside
your dog will eventually explode if you give it
time, opportunity, experience and encouragement.
now, though, your dog may be a little confused,
unsure, or even intimidated. Open the trap door
and stroke the dog on its back and offer
encouraging words. Rattle the critter box a
little bit. And be patient. Your dog is learning
what is permitted (barking and destructive
behavior) and where (inside the den liner, but
not in the living room).
your terrier is over 18 months old, and he or she
has been acclimated to the den liner as
previously instructed, you will eventually get a
dog that works well by digging, biting, yapping,
and barking. But it will probably not be a
one-day affair. While some part of earthdog
activity is instinctive, most novices
dramatically overstate this aspect and fail to
formally train and work with their dogs prior to
earthdog trials. The result, too often, is a long
and disappointing drive back home with some
lingering doubt as to the dogs true
abilities. In fact, the dog is probably fine,
just undertrained and out of practice. Remember,
contrary to popular mythology, great earthdogs
are made, not born.
5) The pull and the recall.
so your dog has flown down the tunnel and created
a storm of commotion at the other end. Now what?
get your dog out of the tunnel you have two
options. The first option is a simple
"pull" the exit required to pass
the Junior Earthdog test. This task sounds easy
enough: lift up the trap door and pull the dog
out. In practice, however, it can be a little
more difficult. Remember, your dog may be in a
VERY excited state, and the trap door may be a
little shorter than your dogs back.
Practice makes perfect, but a technique that has
worked well for me is to grab the dog by the
scruff of the neck at one end, and the base of
the tail at the other. Whatever end is loose is
the one I raise first. Twisting the dog as you
lift seems to make it a little easier to clear
the really short trap doors you sometimes
encounter. With practice, you will find
"pulling" your dog is not a terribly
a Junior Earthdog exit is fairly straightforward,
most people find the Senior Earthdog exit a
little more vexing. In fact, it is very easy to
train provided you are consistent, practice with
your dog, and have built a REALLY solid critter
timing your dog for a full 90-seconds of work,
remove the critter box and walk back to the other
end of the tunnel. Your dog should now see
nothing but air through the bars. No one should
be standing at this end of the tunnel, and there
should be nothing to suggest that anything more
will be happening at that end of the tunnel. Wait
a few seconds to allow the dog to clear its head
and realize what has happened, and then make ONE
loud and long whistle down the tunnel shaft to
call the dog back.
do NOTHING but wait.
call the dog again.
no movement down at the other end of the tunnel,
and no other way out, your dog will HAVE to
eventually come out of the tunnel backwards. It
may take your dog 15 or 20 minutes this first
time, but your dog will eventually come out and
when it does, your dog will get the MAXIMUM
earthdog reward -- a chance to "work the
is "working the box"? It is nothing
less than allowing your dog to throttle the
critter box unimpeded by the bars at the end of
see a Border Terrier hell-bent for destruction is
to understand why a solid-pine critter box is the
only way to go. No wire cage can survive a
full-throttle terrier attack. In fact, as your
dog becomes more aggressive, you will need to be
careful to ensure your dog does not break his
teeth on the expanded metal grill at the front of
way to discourage dental destruction is to attach
a couple of "bite rails" on the outside
of the critter box and a rope loop or two, which
can be bitten and pulled. As your dog comes
charging out of the tunnel to attack the box,
make sure the box is turned so that the bite
rails and rope pulls are at the "business
end" he will reach first.
your dog grabs the box, it will bite hard and
either pull or shake the box. A fully pumped-up
earthdog is intimidating. Caution should be taken
that you are not accidentally bitten.
not let your dog work the critter box for too
long it will increase the chance a tooth
is broken and lessen the "prey
excitement" of the game.
your dog has bitten and pulled at the box for
about 10 seconds, grab the critter box handle and
lift. If youre lucky the dog will shift for
a better grip, at which point you can quickly
lift the box high and away from your body. Having
a helper to grab the dog and put it on a leash at
this point is extremely helpful. Otherwise, put
the box high into the crotch of a nearby tree, on
top of a car, or hanging from a tall stepladder
where the dog can absolutely NOT get at it.
some dogs to unlock off the critter box can be a
problem. One method that has worked fairly well
for me is to "choke off" the dog by
pouring water down its nose while the head is
"locked on" in a nearly vertical
position. The dog has to let go to lower its head
and clear the water from its nose at which
point the box is quickly swept high and away.
all has gone well, your dog has just done
something terrific: He has bolted down a long,
narrow, very dark, and winding tunnel, worked a
caged critter for 90 seconds, recalled on command
(probably coming out backward), and then
"killed" the critter box which is your
proxy for bolted quarry.
dog has just done great work! Be sure to offer
enthusiastic verbal praise and feed your dog a
nice "jackpot" reward of about 20
pieces of kibble.
after a minute of rest, repeat the whole thing.
Your goal this session is get your dog to
complete the entire go-to-ground experience at
least three or four times in quick succession.
with your dog every day for 10 days in order to
really train in the behavior. Make sure that all
your dogs food for that day is associated
with work. Keep your dog hungry and motivated and
it will make fewer mistakes because it will be
last point is critical. If you make a mistake and
reward the dog for bad behavior, you will have to
"untrain" your dog later on. n
top banner pic byJudi Lovell