by Karla Deithorn, Executive Field Representative
When a terrier or a Dachshund does not progress through the levels of Earthdog tests to the owner's expectations, a common question asked is whether or not you need to train the dog for the tests. There are a wide variety of opinions on this subject and that is as it should be, since the test encompasses a wide variety of breeds owned by people who live in a variety of environments.
The Earthdog tests are as realistic as we can make them within the confines of societal restraints. They are tests to awaken instincts that a dog may not have the opportunity to use under any other circumstances. Some breeds instinctively hunt rats silently, so they may have to be trained to bark at the rats or at least react to them in some way under test conditions. Another dog may learn that the rats are by the judge and go over ground to get to them and may have to be trained to only go through the tunnel to get them.
Even dogs who hunt, learn how to work different quarry under a variety of conditions, so training for the Earthdog tests is no more than helping to shape the instincts the quarry and the scent awaken. The Earthdog tests are geared to allow the variety of terriers and Dachshunds to show off their hunting styles. Sometimes a little shaping of behavior is needed for success.
On the whole, my pups get introduced to a "tunnel" at 5 or 6 weeks old. They are up and playing and I put a short length of pipe in their pen for them to play in. Then at 7 weeks we begin forays into the field with their mother along. They learn to go through tall grass and brush; over small logs and across ditches. And in these walks, I often change direction and excitedly call them to come with me. I also play retrieving games with them indoors where they have to squeeze under the furniture to get the toy.
But their most important lesson starts as soon as they are eating solid food. It is the lesson that is crucial to passing Senior and important in Master as well - the recall! As soon as I start feeding the puppies, every time the food dish appears, they hear me calling, "Puppies, come! Puppies, come!" By the time they leave for their new homes they have done hundreds of food reward recalls. The conditioning is set.
By doing all this, the puppies have been introduced to all the elements they will meet in Earthdog tests, except the quarry. And in reality, in their walks in the field they are exposed to the scents and holes of the quarry, often digging at the holes with their mother.
Now all is well and good if you live where you have fields to walk them in, even if they are only fields at schools or industrial parks, but even in the city you can still work with your dog. PVC pipe or homemade wooden or cardboard tunnels can be set in the backyard or even along the baseboard of a room. A toy scented with rodent bedding can be used to lay a trail in the house or yard and buried for the dog to dig up. Just get some used rat or mouse bedding from a pet store; set the toy in a closed container with it for a few days and VOILA! Surrogate rodent!
Most cities have parks with squirrels, which are only rodents with furry tails. Pointing out the scent trail of a squirrel to your dog on leash and using the 'earthdog' command you use at the tests is excellent training for all levels.
Yes, I have seen dogs pass the Earthdog tests without any training and at a young age too. But that does not mean ALL dogs will. Even when hunting with my dogs, some started earlier than others and some of them preferred rabbit as a quarry over woodchuck or coon. But by allowing the dog's instincts to lead him and then encouraging the behaviors that would prove successful in the type of hunting I wanted, all the dogs learned to work a variety of quarry.
Remember that the Earthdog tests lead to the Master title that is geared to show the bond between you and your dog in the field. So training your dog as you progress through the titles is expected. Working together and teaching, help build that bond of trust. So if your dog displays a behavior that causes failure, help him out as his hunting partner should and show him the way to success!