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.”