While terrier size is easily measurable in the show ring, it is often given short shrift by judges who do not hunt and whose knowledge of terrier work is derived entirely from books and discussion with fellow show breeders
In many cases, these books were written by authors who also do not hunt, and who are simply repeating misinformation found in some earlier tome.
The problem of misinformation is not a new one. In 1560 Jacques du Fouilloux published a book entitled La Vernarie (The Art of Hunting), in which he depicted fox and badger dogs as big as bloodhounds going to ground in holes the size of manhole covers.
Fouilloux’s book, originally published in France, was translated into English by George Turberville who put it out as his own. Turberville, however, called Fouilloux's "bassets" (probably early dachshunds) "terriers" to reflect the name of the small hunting dogs used to pursue den-dwelling quarry in Great Britain.
In truth, a working terrier is a very small dog. Its size is determined by one of two things: 1) the size of the animal being hunted, and; 2) the size of the den hole or cavity in which the hunted animal typically seeks refuge.
Note that these two measurements are not necessarily the same. In Britain, for example, many fox seek refuge in badger earths which can have large entrances worn smooth by decades or even centuries of use and erosion. In addition, a fox may seek refuge in a sinkhole, a rock fissure, or some other natural or manmade cavity.
That said, a large dog is almost always a liability. While a small dog can enter and work a large den, a large dog cannot enter a small earth. If a large dog is able to squeeze itself into the den pipe at all, it will find it has little room to maneuver away from the slashing jaws of the fox, raccoon or groundhog, and that it is nearly impossible to get behind the quarry in order to bolt it out of the den.
Despite this liability, some large terriers in Britain continue to find success bolting fox due to the prevalence of artificial dens or "drains" created by the mounted hunts as a way to keep fox populations stable on hunt lands. These artificial fox dens are typically 9 inches square, brick-lined, and slate-topped with two or three possible entrances.
While the construction of artificial dens or “drains” was sufficiently common at the turn of the century that Sir Jocelyn Lucas provided tips on their construction in his 1931 book, Hunt and Working Terriers, they became even more prevalent after the introduction of the myxoma virus in Great Britain in the early 1950s.
Myxomatosis was purposefully imported from South America as a way of "controlling" the U.K.’s rabbit population, which was considered a major agricultural pest. The myxoma virus was a frightfully efficient killer, wiping out 98 percent of all rabbits in Great Britain within a decade of its introduction. One result of this unhappy turn of events was that the ancient rabbit warrens that had once served as natal dens – and sources of food -- for breeding fox simply vanished.
In order to help out Mother Nature, and improve the chance that a fox would take up residence on hunt land, many hunts constructed new artificial dens out of bricks or 9-inch drainage pipes.
At about the time that the very first artificial fox dens were being constructed in the 1920s, Kennel Club dog shows began to grow in popularity. New terrier breeds were admitted to Kennel Club rosters with some frequency, and old breeds were regularly "improved" for coat color, the set of the ear, the length of the leg, the shape and size of the head, the set of the tail, and a dozen other characteristics that barely matter in the hunt field.
Aurora Rubel, who works her Wild Remains pack of terriers in Kentucky, notes that the vagaries and prejudices of the show ring have little to do with what is really important in a working terrier:
“Pricked ears, long backs, crooked legs, bad coats, splayed feet, to name a few, have never stopped a terrier with the passion for work from doing the job."
As time progressed, however, characteristics of relatively minor importance in the hunt field were allowed to garner more and more points within various breed standards. Very quickly the cosmetic attributes of terrier breeds began to trump the most essential attribute of a working terrier – small size.
The increasing prevalence of artificial earths on British hunt lands enabled owners of larger Kennel Club terriers to still claim their dogs were “working terriers.” A few large dogs even got working certificates for bolting fox out of artificial drains.
An artificial drain, however, is not a natural earth. Fox dens dug out of the sides of British rabbit warrens were – and are – the same size as those we have here in North America.
This should come as no surprise. The den hole of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus curriculus) is only a little smaller than that of the American groundhog (Marmota monax), while the red fox we have here in the U.S. is itself a British import.
While a 14- or 15-inch terrier can negotiate an 81 square inch go-to- ground tunnel with ease, this same dog will find it difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate a natural earth which may have an interior space of less than 35 square inches – just enough room to allow a fox to slip through with ease.
I recently reviewed the records of more than 90 working terriers that had worked red fox in natural earth. Their average height at the shoulder was barely over 12 inches, and their average chest measurement was well under 15 inches – far smaller than most Border Terrier, Welsh Terrier, Fox Terrier, and Lakeland Terriers found in the show ring today.
While artificial fox dens have never been part of the American fox hunting scene, the British “fox drains” served as a model when the first go-to-ground courses were designed by the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA) back in 1971.
These AWTA tunnels, in turn, served as inspiration for both the go-to-ground tunnels used by the Jack Russell Terrier Association of America (JRTCA) and the American Kennel Club (AKC).
In all cases three-sided wooden tunnels – nine inches on a side and up to 35 feet long -- are laid out with a series of turns, false dens and exits, with the “quarry” at the end of the tunnel being a pair of lab rats safely protected behind protective bars and wire mesh.
The increasing popularity of go-to-ground terrier trials is a welcome thing, for it has brought more and more people into the hunting fold.
Owners of dogs that do well in go-to-ground trials should take pride in their dog’s achievements. Like all sports that emulate real work (lumber jack contests, bird dog trials, and sheep dog trials), a go-to-ground trial is both harder and easier than its real-world cousin.
A dog that will exit a 30-foot tunnel backwards in just 90 seconds and on a single command (a requirement for earning an AKC Senior Earthdog certificate) is a dog that has been trained to a fairly high degree of proficiency.
Having said that, it should be stressed that a go-to-ground trial has little relationship to true hunting. In the field dogs are not rewarded for speed. In fact, if a hunt terrier were to charge down a real earth like it were a go-to-ground tunnel it would quickly run into quarry capable of inflicting real damage.
In addition, in a real hunting situation a dog must do a great deal more than “work” the quarry for 90 seconds. A good working dog will stick to the task for as long as it can hear people moving about overhead – whether that is 15 minutes or three hours.
The real division street between go-to-ground and earthwork, however, is size. And the real problem with a go-to-ground trial is not that it teaches a dog to go too fast down a tunnel, but that it suggests to terrier owners that any dog that can go down a cavernous go-to-ground tunnel is a dog “suitable for work.”
The American Working Terrier Association recognizes the difference between a go-to-ground tunnel and real earth work, and implicitly underscores this difference in its rules for earning a Working Certificate.
AWTA rules note that a terrier or dachshund can earn a working certificate on woodchuck, fox, raccoon, badger, or an “aggressive possum” found in a natural earth, but that “this does not include work in a drain or otherwise man-made earth.”
In short, a drain is not a close proxy for a natural earth, and terriers that are too large to work a natural earth do not meet the requirements of a working terrier.
That said, whether you own a large terrier or a small terrier, I urge you to at least attend a go-to-ground trial of some type in order to let your dog “explode the code” lying within it.
Most terrier owners have no desire to hunt their dogs, and that is perfectly fine – they can get much of the essence of the experience at a well-run go-to-ground trial. Every terrier and every terrier owner should attend one at least once in their lives. After all, owning a working terrier without allowing it to work is like owning a vintage bottle of fine wine just so you can read the label. To have admired the label without ever tasting the wine is to have missed the essence of the thing. So it is with terriers.