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Can You Dig It?

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

By: Patricia Komar

Last Updated:

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Photographs by Dina Goldstein

Tabe 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 little Angus and Heidi can still do what their doggie ancestors were bred to do as early as 55 B.C.: go to ground and get rid of fox, badger, river otters, 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. British Columbia held the first Canadian Earthdog Tests in 2002 and the Sea to Sky Earthdog Club now sponsors two sets of testing events each year. 

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 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 9- 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, 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 famous designs feature Plexiglas siding. Demonstrations at malls and expos using his design allow spectators to view the dogs making decisions as they maneuver through the tunnel.

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 8 year-old Cairn, to practice at the Master level.

"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, 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 9-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.


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By: Patricia Komar
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