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Going underground: Varmint hunting with Jack Russell Terriers

Varmints are perennial pests in most barnyards that require a variety of measures to eliminate and safeguard against. A unique tool that can be added to the array of nuisance animal assault tactics is the use of working terriers to eliminate unwanted critters.

Today, Jack Russell terriers are largely seen as lap dogs and family pets. However, they were originally bred to hunt vermin such as rats, badgers, and foxes, and there are still terrier enthusiasts who promote these dogs’ working heritage and hunt with terriers today.

Glen Churchfield has hunted with Jack Russell and border terriers since the early 1990s and was Chairman of the Board for the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA) for a decade. In part, his involvement in this niche sport promotes the original historical purpose and physical appearance of this dog breed.

“The JRTCA is a national breed club that represents the Jack Russell but we’re against kennel clubs,” Churchfield said. “All-breed registries strive for uniformity of look and the history of the dog is not taken into consideration. Our breed club is interested in maintaining the working Jack Russell terrier as it was historically intended to be used.”

Since he is from Fairfield County (though he now lives out of state), most of Churchfield’s hunting over the years has been done in south-central Ohio and he says that his choice of quarry was often dictated by the needs of the farms that he hunted.

“Over time, you develop a relationship with a farm and realize what the biggest nuisances are there. Eighty to 90% of terrier work I did was for groundhogs because they were such a problem for farmers. I’d get occasional coons and a few fox,” Churchfield said. “There is an economic argument for hunting with terriers. One ‘hog can eat up to something like three and a half to five bushels of beans in the summer. They take a huge toll on crops. Or coons in the haymow? Ugh. What a mess.”

Beyond the desire to preserve the working breed of terrier and the nuisance control he provides for farmers, Churchfield says that he hunts with terriers because it is quite a rush.

“Once you get out into the field and watch them work, it’s just a thrill. There have been seasons when I took 30 ‘hogs off one farm in one summer. That’s a lot of work, a lot of hours. But a lot of fun,” he said.

A good hunting terrier must be no wider than the animal they are hunting so that they can fit into burrows.

“You need a small dog that can get into small holes, but that is smart enough not to get itself in trouble. A little dog with a big attitude can do so much more than a big dog with little drive,” Churchfield said. “The breed standard ranges from 10 to 15 inches at the shoulder. For hunting purposes, it’s the smaller the better to a point, until they are so small that they cannot hold their own against their prey.”

Hunting with terriers largely takes place underground, with the enlivened dog pursuing its quarry deep into the recesses of its own home. It is a hunt that is dangerous for the terrier and a lot of hard work for the hunters, as Churchfield explains in his descriptions of typical Ohio groundhog hunts with terriers.

“I go out early in the morning and put two or three dogs out. One needs to be a good locater dog — with good eyes and ears — that is able to find the quarry,” he said. “Eventually, along a fencerow, the terrier will go to ground when it gets scent of a groundhog. Once you get to the point where you realize your dog is on quarry, you pull the other dogs from ground and get them tied out — you don’t typically want two dogs in the same hole, because the dogs will fight each other, too. A groundhog has a lot of defenses. It can dig, put up earth walls in its tunnels, and fight like a banshee. It is the dog’s job to get it cornered where there is no easy way out.”

This is dangerous for the dog because it has an intense and unrelenting prey drive. Once on the scent of their game, they are tenacious and unrelenting predators.

“Jack Russells are a strange breed,” Churchfield said. “They can be sweet and docile one moment, and then turn into these monstrous, evil, wicked things underground. The work drive is inbred.  Dogs will stay underground for days when they’re in the zone because they are so driven. That’s the biggest risk is that terriers won’t ever stop. As long as they have energy and air, they’ll keep fighting. They’re down there in that other animal’s lair and it’s a ‘I’m going to kill you, or you’re going to kill me’ kind of thing.”

For this reason, it is important that the hunters above ground dig down to the underground action as quickly as possible.

“We use locator collars on the dogs, so once the dog’s in the ground, banging away, barking at the prey, we locate where it’s cornered and start digging. The goal is to catch it in a place where it can’t get away, dig down to it, unearth it, and dispatch the varmint with a .22 or a spud bar. We do a lot of digging. I have a whole arsenal of digging equipment — shovels, spades, scoops, post hole diggers, t-bars, you name it. The deepest hole I ever dug for a groundhog was outside of Rushville. It was 10 feet deep. The hole was the size of a refrigerator.”

A pursuit can last 10 minutes if the chase is into a shallow hole with soft soil, but Churchfield said that on average, a chase and dig lasts approximately two hours. And there is a sort of vigorous frenzy that accompanies the digging, as the dog’s welfare is always at the forefront of the human handler’s mind: “If you hear a lot of screams and not a lot of barking, your dog could be in trouble and then there’s even more of an adrenaline rush to get down there. You can lose a dog underground. The biggest problem we run into is skunks. If a dog gets sprayed underground, you’ve got maybe 15 minutes to get it out alive. It’s virtually a death knoll, especially if the dog’s more than three feet down.”

The physically taxing exertions of hole-digging and the primal intensity of a working terrier pursuing its victim headlong into the depths of the earth are the defining aspects of this sport. When asked about what he finds most satisfying and appealing about his pastime, Churchfield said, “I’ve always loved to dig, so finding a set-up where you can dig for three or four hours and not end up with a dead dog is fun. Digging can be pretty fun, and after a long day of digging in the hot summer sun of Ohio, a cold beverage to conclude the hunt feels pretty good, too.”

Even if you have neither the time nor inclination to unearth varmints from deep inside their subterranean dens, a working terrier might nonetheless prove itself a loyal companion and useful asset to your farm as a rat-catching barn dog that is efficient and more humane than poison. “Ratting is a perfectly respectable occupation for a working terrier. If you haven’t been ratting with terriers, you haven’t had as much fun as you can. It’s an important aspect of their job. Ratting is like meat and potatoes to a terrier,” Churchfield said.

Clearly, the Jack Russell terrier (and other breeds of its ilk) can be far more than a suburban lap dog whose sole function in life is to bite the ankles of the mailman. For centuries, the working terrier played an energetic, active role in farmland varmint control efforts, and terrier hunters like Glen Churchfield show that they can continue to do so. Allowed to follow their natural instincts and historical breed purposes, working terriers possess a primitive prowess, athleticism, and versatility captured by writer Jose Ortega y Gasset when he writes of hunting dogs that “are hard to restrain; their desire to hunt consumes them, pouring from eyes, muzzle, and hide.”


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  3. Catherine Brooks

    I have a three year old Jack Russell Terrier who has never brought in an animal but this evening she brounght in a dead mouse and proceded to check it out on my living room floor. I believe it was dead before she got it and she was just trying to figure out what to do with it. I got my husband to pick it up out of the dining room and dispose of it. She didn’t seem to sure what to do with it so we picked it up and disposed of it. ‘should I have allowed her to eat the mouse to encourage her to kill more? I know notning about Jack russells and what they huntl

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