I Smell a Rat!: Barn Hunt 101

When I first heard about Barn Hunt during its creation, I thought to myself: “Man… that is ridiculous! Why the heck would I ever want my dogs to become BETTER at searching for critters? It would RUIN our competitive nose work! And jeez, it is so cruel for the rats too!” I was positive that it was one sport I would never take part in with my dogs. Then I quit agility and was searching for an additional sport for River to do, because my girl loves her work and a couple jobs is simply not enough. A few months ago, several friends took a local workshop and encouraged me to try Barn Hunt. Ok, fine… just this once…

 

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Flash forward to now. River has her RATN title, Owen has one leg towards his, we go to practice every single week, I am looking into becoming an official judge, and one of the few requirements I have for our new property is that it must be large enough to have a bunch of hay bales in the backyard. I am hooked on this crazy sport and I would love to spread the word about it, as well as clear up the same kind of misconceptions I had before starting my dogs.

Barn Hunt is a sport created by the Barn Hunt Association as a titling event to most closely mimic what farm dogs were originally bred to do: hunt vermin around their homes, farms, and barns. While terriers are naturally the most popular choice for Barn Hunt, ANY breed of dog can play this game as long as they can fit through an 18″ wide tunnel that is as high as a regular hay bale (yes, it’s ok if they crouch). Barn Hunt is a stand alone sport, but the AKC and UKC recognize their titles as well.

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River’s first trial. Qualified in Novice with a 3rd place.

The titling system is as follows in order of least to most difficult: Barn Hunt Instinct (RATI), Novice Barn Hunt (RATN), Open Barn Hunt (RATO), Senior Barn Hunt (RATS), Master Barn Hunt (RATM), Barn Hunt Champion (RATCH), and Barn Hunt Champion X (RATCHX). The first level, instinct, is an optional class.

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Second and third trials. Owen earned his first Novice Q with a 2nd place, River finished her Novice title with a 2nd and 4th place.

 

 

 

 

 

At each level, the dog must find the correct number of rats that are hidden in tubes amongst the hay bales, ignore the empty and bedding filled tubes, execute a climb (put all four feet on a hay bale), and go through a tunnel that is straight in the novice level and has turns in the higher levels. If your dog completes all of this within the time limit and you don’t earn an NQ for something like touching your dog while they are hunting (plus many others!), you will receive a qualifying leg. Trust me, it is harder than it sounds and way more fun.

How do you train the dogs to find the rats?

River sniffing the correct tube. She will look at me directly after this.

River sniffing the correct tube, hidden between the bales. She will look at me directly after this.

Well, some people don’t have to do any training at all! Their dogs have so much instinct that they catch on right away and want to find as many rats as possible. For most other dogs, though, it does take practice. During the very first exposure to the rats in tubes, my dogs treated them exactly like a new odor (similar to our Nose Work sport) and I rewarded them with food for interest in the correct tube. Interest included nose touches, pawing and biting the tube, whatever! Once they understood that finding the correct tube was a good thing, our instructor started hiding them in the actual hay bales. Along with “tunnel!” and “up!” cues for the other requirements, that is all that’s needed!

“RAT!”

Since you cannot bring food or toys into the ring during a trial, River is rewarded after each successful hunt with food outside the ring. She does not inherently care about hunting for rats at all (Wait! I know it’s weird! I’ll get to that later) and treats it exactly like any other scent work. Owen’s reward is to simply find his friends, the rats. He bites the tube, scratches it, and starts barking when he finds the rat – it’s basically a super intense party every time for him.

I don’t want the poor rats to get hurt! Are they safe?

Miss Rat saying hello to River, without a care in the world.

Miss Rat saying hello to River, without a care in the world.

Yes! This is a HUGE concern I had, and rightfully so. I think rats are totally cool little guys, and I certainly didn’t want my dogs to hurt or scare them. But rest assured, they are safe in their tubes. The rats used are pets specifically trained to enjoy being in their tubes, and are extremely used to dogs being close to them. At our instructor’s place, she even asks the rats if they want to work that day or not! They get plenty of breaks during trials and are generally well taken care of. There are serious consequences from the Barn Hunt Association if the rats are mishandled, and at every trial and practice I have been to, the rules for proper handling have all been followed.

In a trial, after you call “rat!” and the judge confirms that you are correct, you’re allowed to pet and praise your dog while holding or gently moving the tube – no rough handling either from you or your dog! Once you are done praising for the correct find and if you still have other objective to complete, you must either restrain your dog while a volunteer (designated as the Rat Wrangler) takes the tube away or hand the tube to them yourself while your dog is still restrained. Safety always comes first! This helps to ensure that an overexcited dog doesn’t knock the tube out of the Rat Wrangler’s hands while they carry it to safety outside the ring (and of course, protects anyone’s hands that get between the dog and tube).

My dog already chases squirrels on walks and sniffs for critters during XYZ Dog Sport… Won’t participating in Barn Hunt create a complete monster?

That is exactly what I thought too! But the answer, for most dogs, is no. Training in Barn Hunt won’t make your dog go insane with rat blood lust. You probably won’t ruin your recalls, or your agility contact behaviors due to hunting for critters. Dogs are masters at recognizing context and adjusting to it accordingly. In Barn Hunt, there are always hay bales and tubes present. I use a separate cue word and stance when they are hunting that is different from any other training we do, and they run naked in an enclosed ring during trials. Having a dog with a high prey drive isn’t even necessarily a plus with Barn Hunt; as I said above, River doesn’t care about the actual rats AT ALL. She will not bite or scratch the tube more than is needed for me to call the alert, “rat!” This is a working-bred dog with extremely high prey drive otherwise, but because she does not actually get to kill or chase down the rats, the context remains that of just another sport.

"My food is just outside the gate... Now let me hurry up and find this darn rat!"

“My food is just outside the gate… Now let me hurry up and find this darn rat!”

Now that said, my boy Owen is in prey drive during Barn Hunt and sure does act like it. But again, context is your friend. Once we leave the ring and the hay bales behind, he goes back to regular goofy Owen who routinely recalls off of deer and will happily walk next to ducks instead of chasing them. If your dog thinks they are out to find rats during every day of their life after trying the game, you have a typical training problem, not a Barn Hunt problem. Keep your cues and contexts clear; you won’t have any issues.

Can my dog reactive dog compete in Barn Hunt?

Ahh, yes. My girl River is dog reactive, but we still compete! The only potential problem we have at a trial is in the blind, which is where you and your dog plus 4 other teams wait for your turn in the ring. This is typically a 10×10 area that is enclosed on 2-3 sides so you are unable to see the ring and find out the correct tube locations. If you are imagining a 10×10 area plus my bitchy Cattle Dog and 4 other dogs… well, yes. It can get interesting!

Luckily you are allowed to bring treats into the blind while waiting as distraction (and rewarding calm behavior), and I make sure to tell people to give us as much space as possible. River can be snarky, but she is not dangerous and she only uses her lovely voice to tell dogs to back off. I am not able to say if your personal dog reactive dog can compete or not. Some can handle that level of closeness, others cannot. If you think your dog will harm another dog if they get too close on leash, use common sense and don’t trial them!

Where do I find out about trials, workshops, and fun tests?

Go to www.barnhunt.com and look at the event calendar listed on the site. I highly suggest starting out with a workshop if one is available so you can do some training before entering an official ring. Barn Hunt clubs are popping up all over the place, so go look for one and have a blast!

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