Just For Fun

d jump 2About a year ago, I attended a talk about planning for a brilliant career in agility. I always enjoy hearing people talk about the sport and seeing what sorts of things I can take home to my work with Dahlia. Going to these sorts of talks has often solidified things in my mind and even made me realize things I wasn’t aware of before. The first one I went to made me realize that by talking down my dog’s performance, I was creating a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and making the whole thing very much not fun for myself. It changed the way I related to my dog and it changed the way I looked at the game we played.

This time was no different.

The instructor got on the topic of how agility should be fun. And one woman, almost annoyed at this idea, asked the all-important question: “Ok fun is fine and all that, but who is really doing this for something other than that Q?”

I raised my hand without thinking and said “Well, me.”

And that’s when it hit me.

I wasn’t just taking a break from trials. I was done trialing.

In January 2013, Dahlia and I had a disastrous trial. She was so stressed out that she simply didn’t move off the start line. I had to hook her up and take her out on leash. It happened twice at the same trial and so I scratched her from the rest of it and went home.

It turned out to not be a one-time thing.

We went to other trials with similar results. She would be fine in class, happy even, but then we’d go to a trial and she’d shut down completely. I got the questions, of course. Why is your dog like that? What’s wrong with her? I imagined the looks, the heads shaking, the Is that dog even trained? What did she do to cause that to happen?


This is a real t-shirt I wear.

I’m sure no one was thinking anything of the sort, but the thoughts were in my mind regardless. Which made me more stressed. Which made my dog more stressed. Which led to a complete break-down in communication.

The trial stress started to invade classes. By the time July of that year rolled around, Dahlia was having the same issues at class as she had been having at trials. We struggled to get her to pay attention to me, struggled to do even the simplest of things. Two jumps in a row? She couldn’t handle it.

I almost threw in the towel, but instead my instructor suggested taking a break from trials to focus on Dahlia’s stress-related issues. So we did that, taking one jump out to a quiet place in the park and rebuilding her confidence in a low-stress environment.

By the time October rolled around, I had a completely different dog. Her speed was increasing, her focus had increased, she was excited and happy and moving. We were doing Excellent and Masters levels courses in class and while we weren’t the best dogs in class (not by far!) we were holding our own.

d jump

I vowed to take her back to a trial in April..

And then didn’t.

I vowed to take her back that following October.

And then didn’t.

The following April rolled around and still I didn’t take her to a trial.

And that’s when I finally realized it. We weren’t taking classes to prep for our next trial. We were just doing it because it was fun.

When you’re involved in dog sports, you hear from a lot of people that it’s supposed to be fun. That if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong. That it has to be fun for the dog. The reality is that going to trials was not fun for Dahlia and I. She was unreliable at trials, sometimes moving with great speed and excitement but often shutting down completely. I got stressed at trials, which contributed to the problem. I would wake the morning of a trial with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach and I dreaded walking to that line when I was there. What should have been a fun hobby was very much not fun for me or for Dahlia.

Could I have forced the issue? Taken her to trial after trial to try to get her used to the atmosphere, paid money to do a jump or two and throw a party? Certainly. But why?

We were having fun without the trials and Q’s and ribbons.

d jump 3And that’s not something a lot of people are taught when they step into agility classes. You can do agility just for fun. You can do it because it increases your dog’s confidence. You can do it because it strengthens your bond with your dog. You can do it because it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun.

That’s become my measure for a good class: Did my dog have fun? If not, assess what went wrong and try to get back to its being fun. If she did, then carry on. We go each and every week and we work our tails off and we come out smiling.

For me, that’s a greater reward than any Q or ribbon ever could be.

Product Review: The Hurtta Jacket

Before moving to Germany in the middle of winter from sunny, always balmy South Florida, Deirdre was outfitted in a whole new wardrobe of cold weather gear. Being from Southeastern Guide Dogs, who breeds and trains guide dogs specifically for the warm southern climate (their puppy kennel is even un-air conditioned, to start the puppies acclimatization to the heat early) Deirdre has very short hair for a labrador, and no undercoat to speak of. Her hair is short and tight, like you would expect of a traditionally short coated breed, not like the thick double coated Labradors who routinely swim in the cold north Atlantic. She’d never been out of the state of Florida before moving to Germany, so ‘cold’ wasn’t in her puppy vocabulary, as winters in South Florida pretty much stay above the 70 degree mark.

One of our first purchases for Deirdre’s “winter collection” was made after the recommendation from fellow TU writer, Sarah. The Hurtta winter jacket. Hurtta is a company from Finland, and they definitely know how to make a warm winter doggy coat. This isn’t even their warmest one- they make some puffy down-alternative coats and body suits for dogs). I had seriously considered (and almost purchased) the Hurtta life jacket for Deirdre before ultimately buying the Ruffwear one she has in her collection for our beach and kayaking adventures, so I was familiar with the brand.

(stock photo from hurtta-collection.de)

The red color I wanted (stock photo from hurtta-collection.de)

I found they can be a bit difficult to find in the US if you’re on a short time schedule- I had 4 weeks notice to move and I was never able to find the jacket in the color I wanted (red)in the size I needed, so we settled for the grey/black (which was sold out in a good many places. I finally found it from the Sierra Trading Post). I carefully took Deirdre’s measurements, but she was on the cusp, so I ordered up. They are a bit on the pricey side, but well worth the ‘investment’ as this is by far the warmest dog coat I’ve seen. I hadn’t seen many dog jackets in this style (ruffwear being the only other jacket that comes close- with their belly flaps) but I discovered if you go to a petstore here in Gemrany- all the dog jackets are a variation on this style, instead of the ‘horse blanket’ style of dog jacket I see mostly in the U.S.

Hurtta is definitely the quality jacket brand compared to the pet store brands sold at Fressnapf (the German pet store chain). I found mine on sale, but prices seem to hover anywhere between $50 and $75 depending on where you find them at. In the US you can find them in red, black and blue; In Europe I’ve noticed they also come in Cranberry and an Olive Drab green/brown color.

The color I ended up ordering for Deirdre

The color I ended up ordering for Deirdre (stock photo from hurtta-collection.de)

A waterproof exterior and a thick fleece interior make up the body of the jacket. The belly flap buckles up over the back, making sure it stays put. The collar is high, and lined with a bit of faux fur, with a cord pull to keep it cinched tight. The sides of the jacket come down low, especially over the haunches, to keep body heat in. There are also two thin elastic straps on the back that are supposed to go underneath each back leg to keep the back of the jacket secure, but these seemed to annoy Deirdre more than anything, and tended to slide up into her nether regions, causing even more discomfort, so we ended up forgoing their use. The jacket stays put pretty well except when an errant German Shepherd grabs the tail end in her mouth and tries to yank it off Deirdre (Tiki doesn’t exactly play fair!).

Deirdre is wearing a ruffwear coat under the hurtta jacket, which is why more of her front legs are covered

Deirdre is wearing a ruffwear coat under the hurtta jacket, which is why more of her front legs are covered.

When I first received it, the neck cord was not cinched up, and at first I was afraid I’d ordered the jacket too large. I had to cinch up the neck cord as tightly as it would go, which made for a nice secure fit around Dierdre’s neck, and prevented cold air from getting down into the jacket. Once I had the neck good and tight, it fit her perfectly, although I do occasionally have to tighten the neck cord as it loosens after a vigorous running in the field. In addition to keeping her warm, the wide belly flap also keeps some of the dirt and mud off as the snow began to melt.

You can see the two elastic straps that go underneath in this picture. Deirdre wasn't a fan of those, and they were too loose to stop the jacket from really shifting anyway. When I tried making a small knot in them to tighten them up, they just creeped into Deirdre's nether regions, so we stopped using them.

You can see the two elastic straps that go underneath in this picture. Deirdre wasn’t a fan of those, and they were too loose to stop the jacket from really shifting anyway. When I tried making a small knot in them to tighten them up, they just creeped into Deirdre’s nether regions, so we stopped using them.

The neck cord had the added bonus of having a nice way to hang the jacket on a radiator to dry after coming back inside. All in all, it is a great jacket, well worth the price, and Deirdre was always warm while wearing it.

It even stays put when Deirdre accidentally face plants into the snow

It even stays put when Deirdre accidentally face plants into the snow

Shelter Medicine: Low Cost Clinics (the medical side)

In the last post on shelter medicine, I delved into what it’s  like to work for a low cost clinic, and what that means in terms of client relations. Customer service may or may not rank high on a pet owner’s list of qualifications when choosing where to have an animal spayed or neutered, but I think we can all agree that the level of medical care at a facility is top priority, no matter what financial restrictions exist.

So what does choosing a low cost clinic for your pet mean in terms of the care the animal will receive? As with pretty much everything else in the veterinary world, the answer depends on the clinic. It is a good idea to do a lot of research when selecting a low cost alternative, because some clinics provide better care than others, and all facilities make sacrifices in different ways. Generally speaking, many low cost clinics have a lot of information on their websites and/or on their intake paperwork. A good place to start researching is online. This will help prevent an owner from asking questions that are readily available, thereby wearing out their welcome before even setting foot in the door.

And what about shelter animals? We’ve already established that homeless pets don’t have a concerned owner looking out for them. Does this mean they go any old place, regardless of what risks that means for the animal? The short answer is no. Shelters, and especially rescues, do a lot of research when it comes to selecting what low cost clinic to use. In our area, for example, there are five low cost alternatives within twenty minutes of each other. While the price point in these clinics only varies by a few dollars, many other variables come into play. Our clinic, for example, takes on a lot of the high risk shelter animals because we have anesthesia monitoring, and have a vet who is extremely experienced in shelter care.

Let’s explore the factors that may affect how a low cost clinic functions in terms of the quality of medical care.

The Veterinarian
Regardless of what clinic you choose, surgery can only be performed by a licensed veterinarian. It’s the law. I often get concerned pet owners who look at me in wide eyed horror as I sign them in and ask, “Are you the one performing surgery?” The answer is a resounding no. Similarly, many people assume that low cost means ‘teaching hospital’ and that their pet’s surgery will be performed by students.

A veterinarian at a low cost clinic must have the same credentials as any other practicing veterinarian. He must be currently licensed in the state he is practicing in, must participate in a set number of continuing education hours, and must not have any kind of suspension on his license. In general, the average level of qualification is the same in low cost clinics as it is in general practice.

Of course, there is quite a variety of veterinarians working in shelter-affiliated clinics. Some have retired from full service practice and focus on helping homeless animals as a way to give back. Some run low cost alternatives out of their full service practices, and make up the difference on non-rescue clients. Some are new veterinarians trying to get a foot in the door. As with general practice, their skill levels and specialties vary greatly.

The vet I work for has an advantage over some of the other local low cost alternatives in that she has years of experience dealing specifically with shelter medicine. The rescue groups and shelters like her because she can think outside the box to find effective solutions to medical dilemmas that are specific to the homeless animal population. She often applies the simplest (cheapest) solution with the best results.

When looking into a low cost alternative, it is important to learn about the veterinarian’s credentials. How long has the vet been licensed? How much of that time has been spent in the full service field? Does he have any specialties? What are his reasons for choosing to offer low cost services to the public? In many cases, this information is readily available through a low cost clinic’s website, and I advise looking for the information there rather than calling to ask in person. As I discussed previously, being able to do surgery at low cost means doing more surgery per day, which leaves less time for answering questions, even if they’re good questions to ask.

Frequently, large scale low cost clinics, such as the Humane Alliance, employ many veterinarians at an hourly rate. The veterinarians on staff vary from day to day and bring different skills to the operating table. The benefit of a large scale operation such as HA is that they are able to reduce costs drastically, make a big difference in the animal population, and have more state of the art facilities than their smaller scale equivalents. The down side is that you might not know what surgeons are working on any given day, and you may not have a say in which veterinarian performs your pet’s procedure.

For animals in a shelter setting, however, none of this matters. So long as the animal is healthy and the surgeon is qualified, rescues and shelters typically pick whichever low cost alternative is closest and/or open on any given day.


Preoperative screening
One of the things that drives costs up in full service practice is the price of pre-surgical screening. This screening often includes running blood work and urinalysis, and giving the animal a preoperative physical exam. While these sorts of tests are required for a pet to be scheduled for surgery at a full service veterinarian, this is not always the case in the low cost world. Some low cost clinics still do preoperative screening, and it’s included in the price. Others require the screening, and it comes in the form of a hidden fee. Some low cost clinics don’t require any kind of preoperative screening, but offer it as an option for an additional cost. Still others don’t even offer screening as a possibility.

So what is the importance of preoperative screening? As most people know, anesthesia comes with risks. While spaying and neutering is fairly common, it still involves your pet going under general anesthesia, and spaying is a major abdominal surgery. Preoperative screening typically consists of a Chem/CBC. The CBC is a Complete Blood Count, which primarily gives the veterinarian information about your pet’s red and white blood cells. Since white blood cells fight infection, and red blood cells help with clotting, this information is very important when it comes to surgical incisions! The Chemistry Profile reads the levels of various chemicals associated with the body’s organs. The chem panel can alert veterinarians to conditions affecting the liver, kidneys, and pancreas, for example. Conditions such as renal compromise or diabetes can increase an animal’s anesthesia risk.

All of that can sound pretty scary. It’s important to know whether your animal falls in the at-risk category. In general, dogs over five years old or those with preexisting medical conditions are the most at-risk, and benefit greatly from preoperative screening. While nobody can determine how much risk you are willing to take with your own pet, young dogs in good health generally do well under anesthesia for routine procedures such as spay/neuter.

According to a study done by Sheilah A Robertson of the University of Florida, the mortality risk in healthy dogs undergoing anesthesia was only .05%. Being a senior, underweight, or otherwise ill significantly increased these risks. Knowing your pet’s specific risks should play a role in deciding whether to pay extra for preoperative testing, or to pass on a clinic that doesn’t offer it. (Is your dog a Brachycephalic breed? Is he overweight? Does he have a preexisting heart condition?)

When selecting a low cost alternative for your dog’s medical care, it is important to ask whether the clinic offers preoperative screening options. If so, are they included in the price? Do you have the option of paying extra for screening that is not routinely done?

Along those same lines, full service practices often require certain vaccine histories before a pet can be scheduled for surgery. Often times, this entails a series of boosters and wellness visits, which can make your bill sky rocket before your pet is even on the table. These policies also make it impossible for ferals to be done at these practices.

Low cost clinics often have no prerequisites for surgery and will take animals with no vaccine history or offer vaccines at the time of surgery. Some clinics will even include the cost of certain vaccines in their surgery price for stray, feral, or shelter animals.

Be aware that a clinic’s vaccine practices do not always align with local laws. In NJ, for example, all cats and dogs must be vaccinated against rabies by the time they are six months old. While a low cost clinic may accept a six month old puppy without a rabies vaccine for neutering, under the assumption that the owner is planning to attend a free rabies clinic or schedule a visit with their regular vet, these policies do not exempt an owner from obeying the law.

Anesthesia Practices
Once your dog is past the pre-op process, what kind of care will he receive at a low cost clinic, as opposed to a full service practice? Once again, the answer varies greatly from clinic to clinic and vet to vet. It is important to make an informed decision. Here are some ways in which anesthesia practices at a low cost clinic may vary from those at your regular vet.

For starters, there are a wide variety of drugs that can be used for sedation. This article by Dr. Lyon Lee of Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences explains the pros and cons of many commonly used anesthetics.

There are many factors that determine which sedatives are used, and what protocols are employed. The surgery protocol can vary drastically from practice to practice.

For example, the clinic I work at has a maximum of one animal in surgery and one animal in pre-op at a time. We aim for a low stress environment for both the staff and the animals. Our goal is to have animals fall asleep with minimal drama, be safely monitored during surgery, and wake up quickly afterwards, due to our limited staff and our same-day discharge. This means we give pre-op sedation (acepromazine and xylazine, intramuscularly) to take the edge off of dogs. By the time dogs are ready to go into prep, they are relaxed and slightly sleepy. Then we administer Telazol intravenously. The dog is completely unconscious within seconds. For the actual surgery, we intubate and use isoflourane to maintain. Cats are sedated with a low dose of Telazol and then are masked for isoflourane administration, due to the delicate nature of their tracheas. We only intubate cats if there are risk factors. All animals in surgery, regardless of species, are monitored with a pusle oximeter, a machine that reads oxygen level and heart activity. We keep careful charts of each animal’s progress in case of post-op complications.

When selecting a low cost alternative for your dog, keep these concepts in mind: Will your dog be given a pre-op sedative such as acepromazine? Pre op drugs are generally given IM to take the edge off an animal. Animals that are not give a pre-op sedative tend to struggle more and experience more stress. Will anesthesia be induced via intramuscular or intravenous injection? IV drugs work faster and are more accurate, but they also require a more skilled technician. Will your dog have a catheter placed during surgery to allow for fluids and pain medications to be administered?

While many low cost clinics, including the one I work at, use inhalant anesthesia to maintain sedation, I have heard of clinics that don’t even have a gas machine on site! In those practices, injectable sedatives are used alone. Obviously, this means a higher dose of injectable drugs. In general, inhalant anesthesia wears off faster than IM or IV sedation, and leaves less lingering effects, and a lower dose can be used to maintain an unconscious state.

As I’ve discussed, low cost can often mean high volume. Larger clinics with more staff often have as many as ten animals prepped at once. Some even have multiple surgeries with multiple veterinarians at once. This sometimes means that animals are asleep much longer than they are in the setting I described above.


Photo from Animal Rescue Foundation in California. A common scene at many low cost clinics.

Operation Catnip is an example of an extremely high volume clinic.

A good question to ask before scheduling an appointment is whether gas anesthesia is used during surgery. If so, ask whether your pet will be intubated during surgery. Intubation in dogs can reduce the risk of respiratory complications during surgery, and allows for a faster response time in the event that something should go wrong.

Don’t be afraid to ask what is done in terms of anesthesia monitoring during your pet’s surgery. Because of the equipment expenses, staff limitations, and relatively routine nature of spay/neuter, some clinics do not have monitoring technology. While there is generally a staff member assigned to assisting the veterinarian with surgery, pulse oximeters greatly reduce the risks of anesthesia related complications. It is a good idea to seek out a clinic that employs this technology as part of their anesthesia protocol.

Once your dog is out of surgery, how will he be treated at a low cost clinic? Studies have shown that most anesthesia-related deaths occur post-op.

One of the most important aspects of recovery is keeping body temperatures at normal levels. At most clinics, this is done through the use of electric heating pads. Some clinics, however, skip this crucial step. It is a good idea to ask about recovery practices before scheduling your dog for surgery.

Another crucial part of recovery is having staff monitor the semi-conscious animals. While one tech can easily monitor many animals at the same time, there are some clinics that don’t have staff specifically assigned to this task. At the clinic I work at, the recovery occurs in the surgery room. Animals are watched by both the doctor and myself, and are within a few feet of the oxygen tank and intubation station, in case things go poorly.

What sorts of things can go wrong during recovery? Animals can go into respiratory or cardiac arrest. They may also regurgitate food or stomach fluid. This is especially dangerous if they’re not fully awake, because they can choke on or inhale the vomit and end up asphyxiating or developing aspiration pneumonia. Additionally, many animals coming out of anesthesia undergo behavioral changes, which may include aggression. It is vital to have staff members who are qualified to handle these potential risks.

Follow Up Visits
Due to the high volume nature of low cost clinics, many people running such operations do everything possible to avoid unnecessary follow up visits. Low cost clinics routinely use dissolving suture to avoid having to remove stitches at a later date. They often use stronger, one-time antibiotics or pain killers to avoid dispensing medication. These actions are fairly routine and may not be cause to avoid using a low cost clinic.

However, it’s good to know what happens in the event that your dog experiences complications following a spay/neuter procedure.

Some low cost clinics do not do follow up visits under any circumstances. Those clinics usually feature a disclaimer either on their website or on their admission forms. This disclaimer basically states, “If you have problems following surgery, you must see your regular veterinarian for follow up care.” This route can quickly turn scary and expensive. I have seen major vet hospitals charge $4000+ for visits resulting from minor complications following a spay/ neuter. An example of such complications is a cat removing one or two skin sutures. Needless to say, that sort of bill defeats the purpose of scheduling a low cost spay/neuter to begin with!

On the other end of the spectrum are clinics, including the one I work at, that provide free follow up care for anything related to surgery performed at that practice. Most clinics fall somewhere in between, allowing follow up visits for a relatively small fee.

These are all topics that should be explored before choosing a low cost alternative.

In conclusion, there are a few ways in which low cost clinics may vary from full service practices when it comes to medical care. In general, it’s a good idea to ask a lot of questions about what goes on before, during, and after your pet’s operation. The reality is that some low cost clinics do the absolute minimum and are best reserved for homeless animals who don’t have many other options, while other clinics provide care that is on par with a regular veterinary hospital.

One thing to remember is that all veterinary practices, regardless of price point and target clientele, are governed, specifically by OSHA and state laws. While the AVMA, another organization concerned with animal welfare, is a professional organization and doesn’t regulate individual clinics, it does provide guidelines that many clinics use as a basis for their practices.  Familiarizing yourself with these standards can help you make an educated decision on where to take your pet. Essentially, there are strict rules that prevent even the cheapest practice from cutting certain corners, which helps ensure a standard of care for even the least-wanted of animals.

Of course, inspections are not done on a daily basis and there are practices that fall through the cracks. However, even full service hospitals aren’t immune to these scenarios. It is always important to be a vigilant pet owner, do your research before choosing a clinic, and file complaints if you find a practice that you believe is unnecessarily endangering animals.

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…



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.


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.


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!


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!


Class Clown to Champion – Molly’s Agility Story

My pitbull Molly and I started our agility trialing journey in February 2013.  I was going to write a post on this blog about that.  About my very first agility trial with my very first agility dog.  That post probably would have been, “Molly ran circles around me, the judge probably needs rotator cuff repair surgery for all of the faults that he had overwork his shoulders to signal, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.  The end.”  I was supposed to write a post about our second agility trial but that post probably would have been, “Molly NQ’d all eight runs, made another judge eligible for rotator cuff repair surgery, helped me understand that “contact fly off” was more than just a term I had heard, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.”

From the very beginning, Molly and I were behind other teams at our experience level.  Woefully, painfully, embarrassingly behind.  I knew two things: it was surely all my fault and Molly was a maniac.  After all, I adopted Molly from a shelter that she landed in first as a stray at only 2 months old, and then adopted and returned back to the shelter in only one week for being “too much.”  In agility class, Molly humped me and nipped my arms for the crimes of confusing or frustrating her.  Molly was not a dog who was going to make a green, inept handler look good.  There are dogs like that, and I have watched plenty of them.  But that was not Molly.  Molly was a fast running dog, she needed a handler who could work and think even faster.  I was not that handler.  Molly was moderately reactive.  She could be around other dogs in many situations, but at agility trials she fluttered over and under threshold throughout the day and the result was usually a stressed up dog and our time in the ring suffered for it.  We had so many problems.  It felt like we had every problem.  “Too Much”, indeed.

credit – pooch smooch photography.

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