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Spotlight on EarthdogWith Reggie & Heather

Performance Interview:  Spotlight on Earthdog    

Featuring Heather Rife and Reggie, GRCHB Merrigang Wild n Crazy Guy, EE6, ME, CD, RN, RATS, MX, MJ

  • How did you get started in Aussies? Did you have a mentor?

(HR) After owning four Dobermans and dealing with large dogs and aging issues, (both mine and the dogs) I needed to downsize. Unfortunately, at the time I really did not like little dogs. As a veterinarian, I had seen my share of poorly bred chihuahuas, bichons, pekes, and other little dogs and I was less than impressed. I did, however, have one Australian Terrier in my practice named Thunder who I loved and loved everything about him… his looks, his attitude, and his personality. With the aid of the relatively new “internet” back in (2001), I began to research Aussie breeders and distributed many emails and inquiries eventually connecting with Sue Holsinger (now Sue Duncan) who was the only breeder to return my email. We began a long discussion thread about the breed, her breeding philosophy, and ultimately, the availability of puppies.  She convinced me that this breed would “fit me to a T” and she sent me my foundation bitch, Ch Redwing Its All About Me, MX MJ TD, aka Martha. In 2007, I bred Martha with the intent of adding a female to my household. Martha, being Martha, delivered 5 boys – one of which was delivered and not breathing – so I performed artificial resuscitation on him. His first breath was literally from me. He was mine from that day on.

As far as mentors are concerned, I have had many wonderful, experienced people who willingly gave of their time and expertise.  This journey was not accomplished by just Reggie and me, but with instructors, judges and competitors who gave their time and energy to us.

2) How did you come to pick this activity for him?

Reggie had finished his championship from the puppy classes, so we began doing agility at an early age. He was very successful in agility, earning his Master agility titles quickly, and I was always looking for something new and decided to attend an earthdog practice in Gardner Massachusetts. One by one, the new dogs were introduced to a rat in a cage to determine their prey drive. Martha walked up to the caged rat, sniffed, and turned her back. Totally disinterested, although I knew she was a good hunter in the open woods. Reggie approached the rat wagging his tail, the rat handler moved the cage and Reggie exploded, growling, lunging, and biting the cage.  That same day they moved Reggie to a short tunnel with a rat at the end and after several unsuccessful attempts to get to the rat above ground, he realized the only way was through the tunnel (go to ground).

3) When did you know he was really going to excel in Earthdog?

Pretty much from the beginning. It took him two tries to earn his first Junior Earthdog leg and, after that, I believe he only failed at three other classes throughout his entire earthdog career. (95% success rate)  

4) How did you motivate him? Was he always ready to go?

Yes he was always ready to run, but he also was an easy dog to turn off and calmly wait his turn. He would wait patiently for his Master run by laying down and looking toward the field but if you placed your hand on him he was trembling from head to toe with anticipation. No matter what the weather – hot, cold, rainy or otherwise, he was always ready to run.

5) Have you run into a difficult problem in training?

No. Reggie seemed to understand the game and he tolerated the silly things I asked him to do. The Senior Earthdog class, for example, can be very difficult for a lot of earthdogs. In this class, they are released to the tunnel to find the rat and are expected to “work” the rat by barking, digging, or whining for 90 seconds. After 90 seconds, the rat is removed from the tunnel through a back door and the dog has another 90 seconds to recognize that the rat is gone during which he must turn around in the 9” tunnel and return to the owner. Many dogs either don’t want to leave the tunnel where the rat was, or conversely they don’t want to return to the owner. The owner cannot move from the tunnel entrance, and it can be a contest of wills between dog and handler. It can be quite funny to watch the owners cajole and beg the dog as the seconds tick away.

6) What was one of the funniest things that has happened to you and Reggie?

On his first senior leg, Reggie realized the rat had been removed from the tunnel, so he turned around and exited the false exit. I hadn’t noticed as I was on my hands and knees yelling into the tunnel entrance. He had come up behind me and stood there. Fortunately, I looked behind me with 2 seconds left to qualify and immediately leashed him. First Senior Pass!

7) How are you received by competitors and judges who have not seen an Aussie before?

 Well, most earthdog people recognize the breed (although a few mistake them for Norwich), but there are very few Aussies that compete in earthdog. Many had never seen an Aussie hunt before. The judges were always very impressed with Reggie’s performance. He earned the nickname “really reliable Reggie”. In the Master class, dogs are paired randomly in a “brace” to hunt together. The steward calls out the two numbers to be braced and many times I heard others say “Thank Goodness” when their dog was paired with Reggie. He was a dog that loved to hunt, but he was quite a gentleman in the field. The two dogs would hunt in a field, off lead. They are required to hunt without aggression. The judge scents several areas of the field with rat urine, and they watch to see if the dogs investigate those areas. The dogs need to be under voice control and are directed to investigate a false den (a den with rat bedding but no live rat). They then continue onto the “mark” where a live rat is safely caged behind dowels. Each dog is expected to let the hunter know he has found a live den. The dogs are recovered by the owners and held while the rat is moved to the end of the tunnel. One dog is released to travel the tunnel and work the rat for 90 seconds. The other dog is tied out and must remain quiet while the other dog works. The owner pulls the working dog out of the tunnel and switches places with his bracemate. It’s quite exciting to see the dogs do what they were bred to do.

8) Describe the most exciting win for you.

Oh, there were so many. But I do remember the earthdog tests the day after the Montgomery terrier shows. There were 14 braces to run in Master and these beautifully groomed, immaculate terriers were running in a wet muddy field. It was heaven. Reggie was paired with a male Westie and both dogs had taken Select Dog at their nationals the day before. I had tears in my eyes as these two beautiful dogs, one red, one white, hunted together in the field. When the ribbons were given out, the judge called it a “flawless” performance.

Another particularly memorable day was the day Reggie earned his first endurance earthdog title. To earn an endurance earthdog title, the dog must pass both the master and senior class in the same test. That earns them one leg, and they need a total of 5 legs for the title. Reggie was the first Aussie to earn an EE, and he went on to earn an additional 5 Endurance earthdog titles. His daughter, Kiko is the first Aussie bitch to earn an EE. I believe they are the only Aussies to have EE titles.

9) Any words of wisdom for someone just starting out in Earthdog?

Yes! For some reason, owners expect their inexperienced dogs to instinctively go to ground. The dogs may demonstrate a desire to work the rats but entering a 9” tunnel that is literally pitch black can be very concerning for some. With the expectation of immediate success, owners may leave the practice day without ever trying earthdog again. Additionally, Earthdog tests are very rare. It can be difficult to find a place to compete, much less to practice. The good news is that even at actual earthdog tests, there is always a class called Intro to Quarry. This class is for dogs who are complete novices and may have never even been exposed to a rat. I encourage everyone to attend an earthdog test, enter Intro to Quarry and try your Aussie. You may be very surprised at what your dog can do.  

To locate a test in your general area, go to AKC events and click on Earthdog. From there, contact the club to see if they have training days, or a test scheduled. The earthdog people are so friendly and encouraging and they will make your experience an incredibly positive one.

10) Are you willing to mentor others interested in Earthdog?

Absolutely! I am available by phone or email or 203-415-9611

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