There are upwards of 400 dog breeds worldword. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes about 150. All these different breeds were, for the most part, created (bred) for specific purposes. AKC divided the 150 breeds it recognizes into seven groups, based on function; Working, Sporting, Herding, Hound, Terrier, Toy, and Non-sporting. Time and space do not allow me to explore the other groups, but as Westie lovers, we are, of course, most

“I smell a rat!”

interested in the Terrier group. The Terrier group is so named because it was bred to work and hunt in the earth……………

Scotland, especially the Highland country, was a marvelous breeding ground for a number of different terriers breeds. Some of the most popular ones had their origins there—and a common origin at that. If one observes the topography of the western Scottish coastline, it is apparent that the ice and sea have worked together to plough long furrows out of the rock and crags that became the natural home for the badger, the fox, the otter and now extinct wildcat.

In man’s quest for this quarry he made use of the small dog, which will go under and between the rocks: the terrier. Terriers derived their group name from the Latin, Terra meaning earth. They are earth dogs, dogs that go to the ground for their prey. They are bred to possess a special temperament and have high intelligence and unquestionable courage. The Scottish, the Cairn, and the West Highland White terrier are said to have evolved from a common ancestor.  For a long time it was difficult to set them apart. That may seem strange today when they have such definitely different appearances, but in the beginning there was little more than coat colors that established the varieties. Gradually, as each type was bred within it’s own type, and bred for distinct characteristics, there became stronger lines of demarcation.

The early development of the white terrier that is close in its appearance to the West Highland of today is credited to the Malcolms of Poltalloch Scotland. Although the history of these early times seems to be somewhat shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that an unfortunate hunting accident led one of the Malcolm’s dogs to be mistaken for game. Heartbroken he vowed to only breed the light colored dogs that could be easily distinguished from the game hunted. It is believed that the first of several generations of Malcolms, who fostered the breed, commenced their selective breeding operations with a small courageous terrier with a rough pale colored coat. While the Malcolms were breeding for a lighter coat color, not necessarily white, more emphasis was placed on the breed’s working attributes. Col. E. D. Malcolm in writing a chapter on the West Highland White Terrier for The New Book of the Dog by Robert Leighton, said

In those days two things—and two things only – were imperatively necessary: plunk and capacity to go to the quarry. This entailed that the body in which the pluck was enshrined must be small and most active, to get to the innermost recesses of the lair, and that body must be protected by the best possible teeth and jaws for fighting, on a strong and rather long neck and directed by a most capable brain. In addition it was useful to have that dog of a color easily seen in motion, although I expect that no great weight was layed upon that point.

There’s a common architectural expression that applies to many things, dogs included; “Form Follows Function”. The function of the Terrier is to route or kill small quarry above or below ground. Unfortunately the “form” part as in “Conformation” has overshadowed the function part for too many generations. Breeders breed for appearance and owners seldom have the opportunity (or the inclination) to “work” their Westie. In the sport of Earthdog, both AKC, the American Kennel Club and AWTA, American Working Terrier Association offer an opportunity to participate in a controlled hunt.

Since most of our Westies are so long ago removed from hunting, they probably will need to be trained, even though they may still have the instincts.  The instinct is to pursue…. cats, birds, squirrels, lizards, bugs; the training is to enter a tiny dark tunnel after a rat. To get the most benefit out of the introductory trial, it would help to do a little “homework” to get your Westie prepared for the job ahead. There are basically two areas to work on; entering a small tunnel and instilling in them the desire to terminate rats with extreme prejudice. The tunnel part of the training could be done with cardboard boxes cut and taped in the shape of a tunnel, or three 1” x 10” boards nailed together into a “U”.  Use praise, treats, toys, or whatever you Westie responds to get him or her to enter and traverse the tunnel. Start with a short section (couple feet) and add to it as he improves. One thing I discovered is that some dogs that absolutely refuse to enter a tunnel headfirst can be coaxed (or pushed) rear end first. Let him lie in the tunnel with his head just about even with the entrance until he is comfortable. Then push him a little further (still rear end first) so that his head is all the way in the tunnel but he still has a pretty good view of the outside world. Continue the process till you can’t reach any further, and, voila! He’s in the tunnel!

The rat training is a different story and requires a little more dedication and grit. You may be absolutely sure your Westie doesn’t need to be trained to hate rats. “He chases everything that moves”. There in lies the crux of the matter. A loose rat is a challenge and a wonderful game to your dog. A rat in a cage, on the other hand, is a little boring and may not even warrant a second look. I won’t even suggest the easiest, quickest, and most effective training technique lest I get called before the SPCA. Many times one Westie can be trained by watching another one who already has the “fire in his belly”.  It’s amazing to watch how an uninterested dog will sense the excitement in another, and in a matter of a few minutes, get just as fired up. That’s what we want.

You will need a collar free from tags or other attachments, a regular leash and a slip lead. The slip lead is a lightweight cord or rope about 8 to 12 feet in length (mountain climbing rope is very popular and easy to obtain--it also does not tangle and knot). The slip lead will be threaded through the ring on your dog's collar and used in place of a regular leash. A slip lead can usually be borrowed from another handler if you are attending your first trial. You and your dog may also need water while in the field, so a bota bag or water bottle should be part of your equipment. Many people will wear a fanny pack that contains a small bottle of water. It is surprising how thirsty the dogs get in even the coolest weather, so be sure to bring water with you.

Two organizations sponsor Earthdog events. The oldest is the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA). AWTA has been in existence since 1974, but is smaller and less known than the more popular American Kennel Club (AKC). I will only cover the AKC trials. If you want information about the AWTA trial please check out their website.

Remember: Dogs think of Earthdog events like a day at “Disneyland.”

For a glossary of terms

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Going to ground.

Don and quarry before a workout

Raleigh earns his first Junior Earthdog leg at Tejas Earthdog Club of Southeastern Texas.

Earthdog tests are one of the fastest growing AKC events for terrier and Dachshund owners and we should all celebrate in the diversity that our breed displays. The AKC has certainly recognized this diversity and has made it possible for West Highland White Terrier owners to explore the talents of their dogs


Dogs must be six months of age or older and be registered with the American Kennel Club. Spayed and neutered dogs, dogs with Limited Registration, and dogs of an eligible breed that have been granted ILP (Indefinite Listing Privileges) are eligible to participate. The only dogs not eligible are dogs that are blind or deaf, along with bitches in season. The following breeds are classified as eligible to participate in earthdog tests:

  • Dachshunds
  • Austrailian Terriers
  • Bedlington Terriers
  • Border Terriers
  • Cairn Terriers
  • Dandie Dinmont
  • Terriers
  • Fox Terriers
  • Jack Russel Terriers
  • Lakeland Terriers
  • Manchester Terriers
  • Mini Bull Terriers
  • Mini Schnauzers
  • Norfolk Terriers
  • Norwich Terriers
  • Scottish Terriers
  • Sealyham Terriers
  • Silky Terriers
  • Skye Terriers
  • Welsh Terriers
  • W. Highland White Terriers

Earthdog familiarization at Peach Blossom
Cluster, Perry Georgia.

Dachshunds and small terriers were traditionally used to hunt and track a variety of game - rabbits, badgers, foxes, etc. Prey animals of this sort typically live in tunnels (or dens) that they dig in the ground. The "earthdog", regardless of breed, was developed to follow their game (quarry) down into it's den and either flush it to the surface or hold it until the hunter dug down to them. The purpose of an AKC Earthdog Event is to test a dog's willingness to perform this type of work - trailing game and following it to ground. In order to make these tests as natural as possible, live quarry is placed in the den. Typically domestic rats are used for this purpose because they are easy to obtain and can be safely handled. These tests offer a standardized format to measure a dog's natural hunting and working abilities. By moving through progressive levels of the earthdog program, a dog is able to demonstrate it's aptitude for the work for which it was bred.

Introduction to Quarry

Offers no credit toward titles and is not a prerequisite for other classes. The tunnel is 10 feet long with one 90-degree turn. The handler brings the dog to a point 10 feet directly in front of the entrance, releases the dog, gives one short command and may stand quietly beside the entrance. The dog has 2 minutes to reach the quarry and must work it continuously for 30 seconds. (Working quarry includes barking, lunging, pawing, digging and generally harassing the caged rats.)

Junior Earthdog Class (JE)

The tunnel is 9 inch x 9 inch x 30 feet long with three 90- degree turns. The handler must stand quietly at the release point and may not give any command or signal after the release. The dog must reach the quarry within 30 seconds and work it continuously for 60 seconds. A dog must be registered in the AKC Stud Book and qualify at two licensed or member club tests under two different judges to earn a J. E.

Senior Earthdog Class (SE)

The Senior Earthdog test is open only to dogs with a J.E. The release point is 20 feet from the den entrance, which is steeper and less visible than the J.E. test. An unscented false entrance is supposed to be a short tunnel located about 50 feet away from the test den and an exit are added to the tunnel structure. The rules do not offer a complete description of this, but this is what is expected. The dog must reach the quarry within 90 seconds and work it for 90 seconds. Then the judge removes the quarry and instructs the handler to recall the dog. By command or whistle only, the handler must retrieve the dog within 90 seconds. A dog must qualify at three tests under two different judges to earn the S.E. title Open only to dogs that have earned the Junior Earth dog title. Three qualifying scores under at least two different judges are required for the Senior Earthdog title. The Senior earthdog course layout is more complex, more closely resembling an actual den in the wild. The tunnel in this class is again 9x9 inches, and approximately thirty feet from entry to exit. However, in addition to three 90 turns on the main tunnel, there is a false exit and a false den, neither of which are visible from the main den entry. Dogs are graded on approach to quarry, working the quarry, and leaving the den on command. The dog has 90 seconds to find the quarry. Then it must work the quarry for 90 seconds. Finally, the handler must be able to call the dog back to the original entry.

Master Earthdog Class (ME)

Open only to dogs that have earned the Senior Earthdog title. To earn the Master Earthdog title, dogs must qualify four different times under at least two different judges. Dogs with the Master Earthdog title may no longer enter Junior or Senior Earthdog classes. The Master Earthdog course layout is a modified form of the Junior/Senior course modified as follows: The entry is not readily visible, and is marked with a scent line. A false entry, with no scent, is visible. The tunnel contains a constriction point where it is 6 inches wide rather than 9 inches. An obstruction consisting of a 6-inch diameter pipe that can move 2.5 inches either way is included. In addition, dogs are worked in pairs, selected at random. Qualifying performance: Dogs are released on the scent line approximately 100 feet from the real entrance. The dogs must reach the entry in about 60 seconds. Once the entrance is found, one of the dogs must honor the other (and then switch places when the first dog has worked the den). The working dog has 90 seconds to find the quarry and must work it for 90 seconds. The Judge will tap on the roof of the tunnel when it is working as a distraction. The honoring dog must remain quiet, collared and staked during the honor.

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