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Original Issue

They really smell a rat

As a test of their mettle, terriers are scored on how fast they get at a pair of caged rats, and on the rumpus they raise going down the drain

An unusual event occurred at a place with an unlikely name in upstate New York last Saturday. The event was a trial of the American Working Terrier Association; the place, Toad Farm in Germantown, the country residence of Hal Davis, commercial photographer, classic car collector and terrier enthusiast.

The trial was open to all terrier breeds and dachshunds small enough to enter a nine-inch drain constructed of plywood and pine planks and buried in a field. Having entered the drain, or "gone to earth" in terrier terminology, a dog was then expected to show his (or her) mettle by barking, growling, digging, whining or biting at the cage protecting the live quarry, a pair of hooded rats, a black-and-white laboratory strain selected because of its superior squeaking, hyperactive scuttling and compelling aroma—at least to terriers.

Given the chilling winds that swept down from the Catskills across the Hudson after two days of soaking rain, the crowd was understandably small, perhaps a couple of dozen handlers and spectators at best, but all were keen to applaud the muffled barks, yelps, howls and other atavistic sounds that emanated from beneath the turf. They looked like a scrambled computer listing of subscribers to Vogue, The Journal of Wildlife Management and Partisan Review, and their dialogue might have come from a script written by Lyndon Johnson and Evelyn Waugh.

One owner was Garth Gillan, a longhaired, bearded associate professor of philosophy from Southern Illinois University and breeder of hunting Norwich terriers, and there was at least one other professor on hand, John Jeanneney, a historian at Long Island's Hofstra University, who ran, with some success, wire-haired dachshunds of German stock that are used to hunt wild boar in the old country.

Presiding over the trial was Patricia Adams Lent of Penn Yan, N.Y., a private-school English teacher, breeder of milking shorthorn cattle and lakeland and cairn terriers and prime mover in the American Working Terrier Association, which she helped found in 1971. She is also the author of Sport with Terriers, not simply the standard reference but the only book on the subject. A sensible-boots sort, Mrs. Lent wore jeans, a blue windbreaker and a brooch with the AWTA crest (crossed pick and shovel surmounted by a quartered shield with three rats passant, a fox and woodchuck couchant and a muskrat, tête à bas), and she addressed one and all in suitably down-to-earth fashion. Ecologically, poisons for vermin were "no good short range or long range," Mrs. Lent said, but for a farmer, terriers were ideal for killing rats, opossum, skunks and other marauders of henhouse and barn.

The first class to be run at Toad Farm was the novice, group A for puppies, group B for dogs older than a year. The drain or artificial earth for this test was only 10 feet long, and the handler was to carry the entry to a blue flag set eight paces from the opening. Upon a signal from the judge, the handler was to set the dog down. "Start using a command," Mrs. Lent advised newcomers. "It can be, 'Go get 'em.' We had a woman who came to a trial, and she said, 'Kill!' " There was laughter. Mrs. Lent continued. "A man who came to the trial at Woodstock, Vt. last year said, 'Get the Germans!' " More laughter. At another trial a man with a cairn terrier that wasn't doing well said to Mrs. Lent, "Gee, he does so much better when he is out hunting." Mrs. Lent asked, "What do you do then?" With that, the man flopped on the ground, stuck his head in the drain and started barking.

To lure the dogs into the earth, the den master at the trial, Mrs. Teddy Moritz, a New Jersey game biologist, dipped a long stick in a bucket containing mink scent and swabbed the earth as if it were some giant sore throat. "We were unable to get muskrat scent today," Mrs. Lent announced. "If the dog smells mink, goes in and says, 'Hmm, rat,' it really doesn't make any difference." Each novice dog was given a minute by stopwatch to reach the caged quarry, for a maximum of 50 points; then another 50 points for working the caged rats for a minimum of 30 seconds. Points were deducted for verbal encouragement, but some handlers urged their dogs on anyway so they would get the idea of going to ground. The first novice puppy, Drossel von Mossbach, an 11-month-old dachshund bitch handled by Professor Jeanneney, immediately went to ground upon release, popped out, went back in, popped out again and then returned to reach the cage within the required minute. She then barked for 30 seconds, winning a first-place trophy with 100 points.

Outstanding in the Novice B was a 6-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Hamilton Kipper, owned and handled by Mrs. H. L. Crawford III of Gladstone, N.J. Kipper was typical of this very aggressive breed which has extraordinary In status in both the U.S., where it is relatively unknown, and the British Isles, where it is very popular.

Looking somewhat like a stumpy-legged fox terrier, the Jack Russell is named after a 19th-century sporting parson who originated the breed, and it has become a dog of legend, supposedly able to leap a six-foot fence at a single bound and fearlessly pursue fox or badger in the depths of a lair. Mrs. Crawford cautioned onlookers not to touch Kipper should he stray their way, but the temptation (or threat) never arose as he speedily went to ground.

Whatever breed worked, Jack Russell, cairn, Bedlington or Border, Mrs. Lent was ready at the wooden lift-up lid at the end of the earth to offer either cooing words to a pup—"What's in there? Oh, rats! Look at those rats! Nice girl!"—or up-to-the-second commentary to onlookers on the status of the rats—"They're moving around. They're swell!" Howard Cosell should do so well.

During the luncheon break there was a discussion of the possible use of terriers to control rats in city slums where they have been known to gnaw infants to death in their cribs. A good working terrier would not only kill rats quickly—the alltime record belongs to Jenny Lind, an English bull terrier bitch which in 1853 dispatched 800 rats in an hour and a half in The Beehive, a Liverpool pub—but give hope to ghetto dwellers that they could change their environment for the better.

After lunch dogs in the Open class went to work. The handler was allowed only one command once the dog was set down, and the dog had to run a 30-foot earth against the stopwatch. Drossel, the 11-month-old dachshund bitch, and Car-la, a 10-year-old wire-hair dachshund also owned by Jeanneney, both earned the Certificate of Gameness, as did Hamilton Kipper and Leo, a 9-year-old Jack Russell handled by the host, Hal Davis. Davis had bought Leo as a pup in Wales for $25 while on a photographic assignment. Leo shot in the drain at once, and he was so reluctant to leave the caged rats that Davis, flat on his stomach, had to try several times to extract him from the earth. Finally Leo deigned to emerge.

The top class of all, the Certificate, was next. Awards in this class are given only to dogs that score 100%, and should several dogs in one breed do so, only the dog with the quickest time to quarry wins. As ever, Mrs. Lent was to the point. Of an Australian terrier that came to the blue flag, she said: "Good luck. The last couple of trials she's really blown it." The Aussie blew it again, not even going to ground. Four dogs won the Highest Scoring in Breed Award: Mrs. Lent's cairn, Taffy; Sally Robson's lakeland, MacDougall; Jeanneney's Drossel; and Davis' Leo, who beat out Hamilton Kipper. Indeed, Leo made it to the rats in only seven seconds, the second-fastest time in AWTA history.

The meeting at Toad Farm was the second of the year, and other trials are scheduled across the country from Maine to California. Although the AWTA now has members coast to coast (and in Australia, Argentina, England and Canada as well), it is not affiliated with the American Kennel Club. As an association statement puts it, "It is still much too soon to consider such a move." What is important, Mrs. Lent emphasized, is that "people now want to get out and do something with their dogs, and we think this is a healthy kind of thing."

Down, boy. Down, boy.