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The Real Dirt,
This review is from: American Working Terriers (Paperback)
If you travel much along the back roads of the Mid-Atlantic States, along hedgerows and small farms or woodlots, you might spot a digger and his dogs. He'd be a quiet figure in workman's clothes, walking beneath a load of tools. His little patch-colored dogs would scuttle ahead in the same direction, obviously on to something good.
Investigate: If you're lucky, and anywhere near Arlington, Virginia, it might be Patrick Burns.
The rest of us will have to settle for American Working Terriers, Burns's rich and entertaining treatise on the topic of digging to dogs.
"When I refer to terrier work, I am not talking about ratting or bushing rabbits or working raccoons or possums in brush piles or barns, but honest earth work in which a dog disappears underground and out of sight, and then is dug to by someone with a shovel."
There is that and so much more: Burns manages in a few dozen wide-margined pages to tell the history of the terrier, first in England and then at home. Not satisfied with the sanctioned accounts, Burns ropes in the roles of social movements and class warfare, Darwin's theories, battlefield etiquette, the American Revolution, rat pits, Teddy Roosevelt, animal rightists and multi-flora rose to tell the story of the terrier complete. And that's just the opening.
The practicum starts with the size and shape of the subterranean dog. Burns blasts the modern standard that favors large dogs (fox terriers now literally too big to bolt fox) and show breeds so far removed from working stock they have to rename them. Typically utilitarian, Burns sets his own standard for a tunneling dog on the size of the tunnel.
This fact makes necessary a brief natural history of each den-dwelling species hunted by American terriers (principally the groundhog, but also fox, possum and raccoon). Again Burns pulls in interesting facts: comparative anatomy; the effects of species introductions and land management practices; the fecundity of female possums.
He covers early training and entering of dogs, and the construction of an artificial den pipe for this purpose that even I could build. Burns's breakdown of the digger's tools (from spade to snare to shovel to bar) has to be the best in print. His description of their proper use gets its own chapter, which opens with an admission I suspect drove the writing of this book:
"I started hunting alone, with a dog that was too big, and a laughable set of tools. I didn't own a pole snare, barely knew how to work a Deben collar, and had only the vaguest sense of what my options were once I dug down to the quarry.
"Most of the terrier books were a wonder - not one mentioned a bar, none described how to dig a hole deeper than two feet, dispatch was never described, and locating a fox sette was a topic missed entirely...
"In the end I did what I had to do: I free-styled and made mistakes. I was pretty sure if I didn't get it right, those mistakes would cost me the life of a dog..."
With a thorough recounting of right technique and a closing chapter on emergency aid, Burns aims not to let anyone pay his dues with the health of his dog.
American Working Terriers stands out among useful books on sport for all these reasons plus one: The writing is swift and clean, a pleasure to read. You can almost hear Burns sink the spade into the end of his sentences. He keeps you digging along side him all the way.