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These dogs hunt underground

GRAND LAKE TOWNSHIP -- Ann Bergeron leans into a crouch, gently restraining Banzai, her very focused border terrier. Banzai is pointed in the direction of a wooden tunnel 30 feet long. At the far end of the tunnel waits a white rat. "Get that rat...

Earthdogs
Earthdogs -- a generic tag for several breeds -- must negotiate the 30-foot tunnel with a 9-inch-by-9-inch opening. (Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)
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GRAND LAKE TOWNSHIP -- Ann Bergeron leans into a crouch, gently restraining Banzai, her very focused border terrier.

Banzai is pointed in the direction of a wooden tunnel 30 feet long. At the far end of the tunnel waits a white rat.

"Get that rat!" Duluth's Bergeron shouts.

Banzai bolts for the tunnel and dives in.

Welcome to "Earthdog" training on a September evening at the Sjoberg farm in Grand Lake Township north of Duluth. A dozen or so assorted terriers, along with a couple of Dachshunds, have gathered to carry on the illustrious heritage of their ancestors in the British Isles.

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Namely, entering dark passageways and rooting out whatever vermin is at the other end.

"It takes a very tenacious dog, one with no fear, to go into a situation like that," says terrier owner and breeder Carol Cheney of Angora.

This practice session is to prepare these dogs for American Kennel Club field trials. These dogs are tested in trials much the way retrieving breeds compete in AKC hunt tests and field trials.

These Earthdogs -- a generic tag for several breeds -- must negotiate the 30-foot tunnel with a 9-inch-by-9-inch opening. The tunnel is recessed into the ground, and it includes three 90-degree turns. The rat at the other end resides safely in a wood and wire cage.

Assuming the dog reaches the end of the tunnel, it must then bark, growl, snarl and otherwise worry the caged rat for 60 seconds. At higher levels of testing, the dog is recalled by its owner, and it must reverse its path through the tunnel.

No rats are harmed in the training of an Earthdog.

Several breeds are on hand on this sunny evening: Border terriers, a Manchester terrier, cairn terriers, a wire fox terrier and a Parson Russell terrier, as well as two Dachshunds.

In the old country, these breeds all had specific purposes. They caught rats on shipping docks. They rousted foxes from dens in fox hunts. They cornered badgers in their holes and went in for the kill.

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Banzai, Bergeron's border terrier, knows the Earthdog game. He negotiates the tunnel in no time and hassles the nonchalant rat with zeal.

Bergeron calls Banzai back, and several other dog owners stare at the tunnel opening to see if he'll come. Sure enough, out pops Banzai to receive Bergeron's praise.

Others take their turns. Chris Foss-Tietz of Carlton runs her Manchester terrier, Cynder. Bergeron runs her other border terrier, Ninja. Kris Papas of Cloquet runs her cairn terrier, Pepper, who has his "junior" AKC title and is working on his "senior."

The only down side of Earthdog training and trials is that most of the action takes place in the tunnel.

"It's the funnest sport you'll never see," Cheney says. "Most of it's underground."

To perform in an official AKC Earthdog trial, these owners and dogs will have to travel to Des Moines, Iowa, or Roscoe, Ill. That's a long way to go for a rat, but it's worth it to the people who train Earthdogs.

"I think it's the teamwork," Bergeron says. "And it's fun to let them experience their natural instincts, to do what they were bred for."

Watching these breeds compete at a high level is instructive, too, says Cheney.

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"A lot of people don't understand why terriers behave the way they do," she says. "This gives [those people] a better understanding of what they do."

Related Topics: HUNTINGPETS
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