There is no better qualified person to write about this than Teddy Moritz, a huntress extraordinaire. She has been digging ground game since the mid-1970's. She digs groundhogs on farms during the summer and hawks for rabbits during the winter, all with miniature dachshunds. She also use these fine little hounds for treeing game for the gun. She is an AKC Field Trial judge, an AKC Earthdog judge, an AWTA judge and an earthworking judge for the NATC. Hawking and earthwork are her passions, and the dachshunds are ideal dogs to aid her and her hawk in the field.
Digging woodchucks with dachshunds
by Teddy Moritz
The woodchuck, or groundhog is a seven to ten pound rodent which lives in dens it digs in soil. A large groundhog can be up to 15 pounds, usually in September when it has eaten all summer and is getting ready to hibernate. This solid little species of marmot eats mainly vegetation and thrives on farm crops of all kinds, including orchard fruit. It will eat the bark of young trees and is not above some meat in its diet occasionally. It breeds early in the year and there are four to six pups, cared for solely by the mother animal.
Because it is considered an agricultural pest almost everywhere it is found, the groundhog has few supporters and is controlled by many methods. Most game departments consider the groundhog a varmint, therefore permitting them to be dispatched at any time, while other state game agencies set generous seasons. It is wise to check game laws if you are considering digging groundhogs with your dachshunds. Also, be aware that some states, particularly those which list the groundhog as a game animal, have laws forbidding digging animals out of their dens. These laws were originally aimed at people who dug fox out of dens, but those who wanted to dig groundhogs also ran afoul of these laws. Try to find a farmer who will let you do 'pest control' on his farm and you'll be set. Or talk to horse breeders, they always want the groundhogs out of their pastures.
If you live in a central to northern state east of the Mississippi River you should be able to get your dachshund into groundhogs. Western groundhogs are called marmots and they live in rocky areas in the mountains and are not easily taken with an earth dog. However, where groundhogs are found in the east, they are generally abundant. Ask any type of farmer for permission to dig groundhogs and he'll welcome you.
The groundhog is a squirrel which evolved to live in holes. Picture an overweight squirrel averaging seven to ten pounds, with teeth to match. A groundhog's head, like a squirrel's, is blunt and is very hard boned. There is essentially no 'throat' to grab so a dachshund who wants to be a 'throttler' as the Germans call them, will soon find his face rearranged by a groundhog. When threatened by a dog the groundhog in a den will either bolt or, much more likely, will turn around and backfill a wall of dirt between itself and the dog, even if the dog chews on the groundhog's rear end. They have tough hides and are expert diggers. If they are facing a dog in a den, they will fight by biting down hard, easily jabbing their big rodent teeth into the dog's lips, tongue, ears, nose, foot, whatever is closest. They generally don't hang on but bite and release. There are some 'hogs who do bite and hang on and they can do some damage. Dogs can have their teeth knocked out, their noses totally ripped open, etc. If you don't want your dog hurt, don't try to dig groundhogs.
Standard dachshunds can grab and draw, or pull, a groundhog out of a tunnel if it isn't too tightly buried. If the soil is dense and the groundhog decides to bury itself, even a grown man has trouble pulling it free. A big dachshund can yank on a buried groundhog for a good while before it can be dislodged. Above ground, a good standard dachshund ought to be able to subdue a groundhog if they get the right bite. Groundhogs in dens will also harbor behind roots and rocks, leaving only their big teeth visible. They will take bites and give bites to any dog who wants to confront them.
Now the crux of the matter. An average groundhog has the chest circumference of 14 inches or less. As in most animals, their head circumference is the largest part of their body. If an animal can get its head through an opening, it can get its body through. Not so with dogs. The biggest part of a dog is its chest circumference. (We're talking earth dogs here, dachshunds mainly). Thus a groundhog, fox, raccoon, skunk, or possum, all of which can and do live underground either most of the time or some of the time, have small chests. These animals are also very flexible and can move through their tunnels with speed. Since we are talking about groundhogs, their rib cages are very short and flexible, allowing them to flow between roots, over and around rocks and to jam themselves easily around ninety degree turns in their tunnels. Thus a standard dachshund is usually too big to consistently get to ground and make its way up to a groundhog. Sure, sometimes a standard will find a groundhog who has run into a short feeding hole and can yank it out. Standards certainly have the jaw power and the will to take on a groundhog but for the most part groundhogs go tightly into their dens, backfilling dirt as they go, hiding in dirt-filled side tunnels or going through their nests, which are solid barriers of grass.
So, your standard dachshund wants to have a groundhog. It smells one in a den and tries to jam itself into the tunnel. It may bark and dig and bite the sides of the tunnel and it may get into the den even up to its shoulders or tail. All this fierce activity simply alerts the groundhog that trouble is at the door. The rodent just goes to a tight place in its den and buries itself, waiting until the threat departs. You can participate in this hunt with your big dog in several ways. You can run a long stick or a flexible bit of hose into the den, first holding back your big dachshund because it will likely grab the stick in its frenzy to get into the den. Next you feel the direction in which the den is going, then you take your shovel and dig to the end of that stick. Your dog will gladly jam itself into the opening you've made, if you manage to hit the tunnel. Here's where you'll find the second drawback to a big dachshund. The first disadvantage was not being able to get very far into the tunnel, the second is not being able to fit into a dug hole. If your dog is to get back into the hole you've dug, you now have to dig a much longer hole for your standard to fit into. Once this is done, the dog may indicate which way the groundhog went. I say 'may' because while you are digging the groundhog is still burying itself in the tunnel, blocking off its scent. Your dog will eventually come to a solid wall of dirt with little groundhog scent.
This lack of hot scent will often stymie a dachshund until it learns to keep digging at the blockage. Or the groundhog may have woven itself through thick roots. Your standard is not as lean and flexible as the groundhog and can't maneuver like the rodent can. Or the groundhog may have simply slithered behind a big rock, dropping dirt or more rocks into the tunnel, thus again blocking off your dog. Now it's up to you to keep digging to find the tunnel again. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Well, it is. You wanted to do earthwork on groundhogs so get tuned in to your shovel.
Digging at the NATC natural den work test
Think about this: you are trying to hunt a ten pound animal with a twenty pound dog. That sort of imbalance is ok above ground. Most coon hounds are much larger than a coon. Fox hounds outweigh a fox by four or more times. A twenty pound dachshund trying to get through a tunnel made by a ten pound groundhog just isn't going to happen consistently. Ask anyone who has tried to dig groundhogs successfully and consistently with a standard dachshund and they'll tell you how much digging it requires. Measure your standard's chest circumference. Any number above 14 inches is too big, and even a dog with that chest size is often too big. In my experience, a dog with a chest of 12 inches or less is ideal.
So, your standard dachshund can handle hard quarry, quarry that bites back, if it can get its mouth on the game. How can you then work groundhogs and consistently give your standard a job? The answer is a miniature dachshund. If they are bred from hunting lines they should be shallow chested, narrowly built and up on the leg, meaning tall in comparison to show dachshunds. And I'm not knocking show dachshunds. Some of them have made excellent woodchuck dogs, despite their short legs and big chests. But for consistently good work underground, find one that has the least chest circumference, some leg under it, and as narrow shoulders as possible. Then when you check out woodchuck dens, if your standard indicates an occupant, you tie off your standard so it doesn't hog the hole, and let the miniature work through the tunnel.
Longhaired miniature dachshund 'Bane' entering dug open woodchuck tunnel.
Your earthdog should be wearing a transmitter collar, available in the US but made by the English company Deben. Once your miniature has located and bayed the quarry, you dig to the little barking dog. Then you block the dog off from the quarry, take it out of the den and either hand it to someone or tie it off. Quickly open the den the length of your standard, then drop the big dog into the tunnel. If all is done in an efficient manner, your standard can face the quarry and draw it, meaning pull it out. This is where flexibility and body strength are important. A groundhog is a fierce fighter and will use its rodent teeth to defend itself. Or it may have begun to bury itself and your standard will have to pull it out by the seat of its pants, then have to fight it out when the groundhog turns to defend itself.
Bane and a big groundhog he located and bayed.
I have seen standards in these situations and I am of the opinion that they are not good draw dogs. The reason is because they generally are too big to drop into the den to get the chuck, and even if they do, they are in an awkward position of hanging halfway into the den, trying to lift an unwilling and biting quarry. Most of their weight is then forward and they have a tough time pulling up and out. Their short legs don't allow them to stand up and pull up at the same time. Also, if you have to dig the den opening big enough to get the whole standard body in, by the time you've done that much more digging, the groundhog has either bolted or buried itself. Efficiency is lost because the standard has to chew on the groundhog awhile before it can draw it. In my experience a long legged dog of any breed is a much better draw dog than a standard dachshund, but if you only have a standard to use as a draw dog, then give it every chance to properly face its quarry. Don't ask it to drop straight down into a den where the groundhog can punish your dog. Quickly, and I do mean quickly, dig the den open away from the groundhog and drop your standard in. This gives the big dog some space to fence with the groundhog. If your dog is brave it will get a hold on the quarry. If your dog will allow you, lift the dog and the quarry its attached to out of the hole so your dog can properly dispatch the animal. The idea of earthwork is to locate and bay the quarry, then dispatch it as soon as possible. The varmint has given you the sport you came looking for, the least you can do is give it a timely death.
This woodchuck is being dispatched by Celtic, a lurcher.Lurchers are mixed breed sighthounds, usually with a working breed as the minor contributor and greyhound as the majority of blood. The crosses were first made in the UK between Border and Bearded Collies and coursing greyhounds. The half-cross was bred back to a greyhound. The idea was to make a fast collie or a smart greyhound. The collie added coat and brains and biddability, the greyhound gave prey drive and speed. These dogs were designed and used to hunt up, catch, kill and retrieve game.
I use them because they are good-tempered and quiet around the kennel, tolerant of the dachshunds, and very useful in catching bolted quarry, and in dispatching game the dachshunds have bayed. They are big enough to handle hard quarry such as fox, raccoon, and groundhogs and can easily draw their quarry from dens.
Digging fox with dachshunds is another matter. Fox are valuable fur bearers and most states do not allow fox to be dug out of their earths. If you can get permission to dig fox in a pest control situation, you will quickly find out how tough your dachshund needs to be. A fox can get tight into a den and your dachshund will have to jam itself along the tunnel to get up to the fox. Again, a dachshund with a shallow chest, narrow shoulders and a bit of leg, as well as a very flexible body, is the ticket for consistent success. If your dachshund does get up to the fox, it will find out how hard a fox can bite. Many fox will bolt if pushed by a dog but the ones who chose to fight will use their long, sharp canine teeth to punish the dog's face. It takes a strong-willed dachshund to fight a fox successfully. Sometimes the dogs will get mouth to mouth and the fox will hang on and not let go. Or the fox will charge up the tunnel and bite the dog, then quickly retreat. This is where the big strong head on a dachshund is necessary, not only to give good bites but to take the punishment without having its jaw broken or teeth knocked out. American red foxes tend to be smaller than their European counterparts. Our red fox has become smaller so it may use groundhog dens for its home. Fox have even smaller chests than a large groundhog, averaging thirteen inches. They may weigh ten or more pounds, but their bodies are remarkably small and narrow and very flexible. They are a challenging quarry below ground.
Raccoons are often found in dens in the ground. Depending on their size, they can give your dachshund a real fight. Coons can turn in their skins, which means if your dog grabs the coon by the back, the coon just shifts itself around and grabs your dog. A coon will bite and chew on a dog, it will use its claws, front and back to scratch your dog and to hold onto your dog. If your dachshund wants to take the fight to a big coon, the coon is more than capable of defending itself. A coon will even take hold of your dogs collar so it can anchor itself better to bite more of your dog. A coon's hide is thick and in a healthy coon there is a layer of fat under the skin. Thus your dachshund can't punish the coon except by getting a throat or chest hold. In the meantime the coon will defend itself mightily. It's not easy to step in and help your dog when it's tangling with a coon. The coon is just as willing to take you on as the dog, so try to pin it down and help the dog finish it off. Raccoons are a worthy adversary for a hole dog.
Nanus and Tar with coon they located and bayed in a den.
Most possums are easy quarry for a standard dachshund if the dog can get up to the possum in the den. A strong headed dog will bite the possum hard, making it 'sull' or act dead. The dog will pull the possum out of the den, shake it a bit, then let it go. Later on the possum will wake up and walk off. Unless you are doing pest control on a horse farm there's no reason to kill possum. Horse people don't want them around because they carry a disease horses can contract. Possums are scavengers and not a challenge to a standard dachshund.
Picture above was taken by Stacey Samela and shows Teddy with a mini wire of her breeding, Tess. (FC Tess von Moritz mw WC). The lurcher is Keeper, from David Hancock in England. Teddy writes: "Stacey and I were looking for a fox in a den one cold winter's day. I knew of a den in a big swampy area, on the only high ground around. Tess entered the den and began tugging on something, which was odd. She pulled and pulled and eventually came out with the big groundhog, which was alive but very much asleep in his hibernating state. We have no idea why he was so close to the entrance of the den, only about five feet in. I speculated the fox had begun to dig the den open for use as a whelping chamber and had dislodged the groundhog. The fox was not in the den. Tess searched diligently but came up empty. This den has about a dozen entrances/exits and there are big trees growing over it so Tess had to check many tunnels and get through the tree roots. The soil is very sandy and easily dug by the fox.
The coon was in another den and gave Tess a bad time. She located and bayed it while we dug. The merle lurcher in the photo, Keeper, and Stacey's lurcher, Tory, drew and dispatched the coon, a big boar.
Later as we worked along a drainage ditch the female mallard slipped out ahead of us but wouldn't fly. We saw she was injured and sent the lurchers after her. Tory swam the ditch up and down and eventually caught her and brought her to Stacey, who took the duck home and tried to rehab her but she died.
Teddy's note about chest circumference:
I measured my dogs this morning. All are two years old or more. I believe a dachshund is not 'finished' as far as size and chest circumference until it is at least two years old.
Bane: 2 year old male: 12 1/2" (32 cm)
Tar: 2 year old female: 11 1/2" (29 1/2 cm)
Nanus: 3 year old female: 13" (32 1/2 cm)
Navarre: 6 year old male: 13 3/4" (33 cm)
Gavia: 14 year old female: 13" (32 1/2 cm)
Fitz: 6 year old female: 10" (27 cm)
Note that Fitz is very small and therefore a good little rabbit hole dog. She weighs about 5 1/2 lbs hunting weight and is invaluable during rabbit season. She likes to work hard quarry as well but I use her only sparingly lest she get hurt. Last summer a groundhog bit her over both eyes, deeply. If it had bitten any lower she would have been blinded.
Jolanta's note: Our smallest standard-sized dachshunds imported from Germany have chest cicumferences of 18.5 inches (47 cm) - 2 year old Joeri and 11 year-old Asko. Tommy at two years has a chest measured at 20 inches (50.8 cm). Everybody else is above 21 inches.