West Highland White Terriers enjoy a long history as working hunting dogs. In fact, they, along with other short legged terriers that originate in Scotland, were bred specifically to help farmers in keeping small burrowing animals such as foxes and badgers from destroying the crops. This digging instinct is still strong in Westies today, making them excellent competitors in modern day Earthdog Trials. If you're looking for a way to get involved in sporting events with your Westie, Earthdog Trials are an excellent option.
Earthdog Trials, notably hosted by the American Kennel Club as well as other organizations throughout North America and Europe, are a non-competitive and safe way of gauging a dog's aptitude in "going to ground," or hunting for quarry in a series of underground tunnels. Unlike hunting field tests, both the prey and the dog are completely safe. The dog must negotiate a series of manmade underground tunnels in search of its "prey," usually rats safely kept in a cage, and indicate that he has found them by barking, digging or scratching. These tests are open to Dachshunds, most terrier breeds, and Miniature Schnauzers; in other words, dogs that have a history of hunting small animals.
In the AKC's Earthdog program, there are four classes of testing available. The first class, Introduction to Quarry, serves to introduce dogs to the Earthdog experience. The dog must navigate a short, ten foot tunnel to discover the animal at the end. The dog is usually helped a great deal by the judges and this class does not earn a title, but this class helps to awaken the natural instinct to "go to ground."
The next class, Junior Earthdog, involves negotiating a series of tunnels with three turns measuring about 30 feet. This is the first step of earning a title. The following classes are built around the same concept but with a longer tunnel length, more turns to negotiate and even false tunnels that the dog must either ignore or determine quickly that it's leading in the wrong direction. These classes are called Senior Earthdog and Master Earthdog.
Training for Earthdog trials can be as laid back or involved as a handler wishes. While some do most of their training by attending Earthdog trials and working with the Introduction to Quarry test, others go full out and build their own tunnels at home to practice and increase the dog's capability to find the prey.
No matter how you decide to train, this event is a pleasure for both Westies and their families. It seems that Westies are naturals in this event; the event was introduced by the AKC in 1995, and by December of 1996 Westies had already earned 19 Junior Earthdog and six Senior Earthdog titles. To learn more about how to get involved in this exciting sport, contact the West Highland White Terrier association or the AKC to find a club involved in Earthdog trials near you.