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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18 thoughts on “I Smell a Rat!: Barn Hunt 101

  1. This is a column that could have been written by me. When I first heard about Barn Hunt, I too laughed and laughed. I didn’t want to mess up my goldens with their tracking and field work, and although I’m not afraid of rats, they are not my choice of pets.

    Fast forward about a year. I have a 12 1/2 year old golden who is in good health and wants to keep doing things, while the other two goldens are training all of the time. I looked into Barn Hunt, asked some folks with goldens what they thought and signed up for our first trial. Since I didn’t have a rat to practice with, I tried to do my best to at least practice on hay bales in a friend’s barn. She loved going through the tunnel I made for her, and climbed the single bales fairly easily.

    Our first trial we messed up the Instinct test because I didn’t know her “signs” and she didn’t know what we were looking for!!

    But we did earn a leg in Nov. that day and came back the next day and passed Instinct and earned another leg. A month later she earned her third leg and her RATN. I learned the hard way that I needed to take her out to relieve herself more often than we did when she was younger, because she peed in the ring which NQ’d us. Because she was older now, I should have known. I learned from other handlers not to hover, not to talk to her so much and let her work, and what are her more subtle signs that she may be smelling a rat.

    I’m sure she can move on to open now, and am looking for places to practice.

    It’s a great sport, and I am looking forward to becoming more involved with my other goldens! Oh, and I also became a Rat Wrangler, which my son-in-love mentioned he wasn’t too sure he wanted to share that with the rest of the family…..!!

    Beth McCormack

  2. I just witnessed the sport at the Novi showcase and watched as the tubes were knocked over, fell and rolled from the top level to the floor, and again when the next. Tubes were found. Really?? Safe for the rats.. You are fooling yourselves. As a spectator, I was mortified.

    • Hi Mel!
      There are rules in place to protect the tubes from excessive abuse – dogs can be dismissed from the ring due to not following them as well. As I said in this post, I too was worried at first about the safety of the rats. However, even after being rolled and barked at by dogs in their very thick PVC tubes with bedding to cushion them, all of the rats I have met during training and now during about 6-8 different trial venues have been not only happy and healthy but more than willing to do their job. They will happily come to the front of their cage to be loaded into the tubes. Rats are not unintelligent animals – if being in the tubes scared them, they would resist being loaded. I have never seen an injury result from this sport personally and only attend official Barn Hunt Association events due to the safety guidelines put forth from the organization. If what you witnessed during that event seemed excessive and dangerous, I suggest contacting BHA to report it. Those situations are taken very, very seriously.

      • I have family that do the barn hunt trials and because it is still a fairly new sport, there are many new rules being made to provide protection for the rats. If you have doubts, you can always find the barn hunt regulations and see what is or is not allowed. I will tell you that it is a lot of reading.

  3. you are only kidding yourself if you think the rats are “happy and healthy and willing to do their job”. this is animal abuse–no question about it. why not put yourself in a tube and allow a predator to hunt for you-I am sure you will be happy and willing to do your job.

    • Hi Abba,

      I have addressed this directly above and in my post. Rats are NOT imbecile animals, I promise. If they were afraid of their treatment or working time in the tubes, they would run and hide when loading time came up. Do you know what I see when I go to train my dogs or trial with them through BHA? Happy, well cared for animals that willingly and brightly come up their cage doors to be loaded into their tubes. The rats are NEVER afraid of the dogs, if they were they would not be worked. Remember that the vast majority of the people who spend their lives playing dog sports do so because they love fun AND they love animals; that includes the working rats, who are beloved pets when they aren’t working maybe once or twice a week.

      It’s ok if you don’t believe me, but I really would urge you to attend a sanctioned Barn Hunt Association trial and workshop. Or, heck, even shoot Robin the founder an email voicing your concerns instead of carrying on about small animal abuse on our blog. It’s not something I would stand for, and it is not something I would ever allow myself to be involved with or recommend others to try. Barn Hunt is a pretty darn safe sport for both canines and prey animals. Thanks for stopping by!

      • I totally agree with you Sarah. I’m doing my first Trial next week. The rats are adorable family pets. If the owners of the rats felt that their beloved pet was in trouble or “abused” they wouldn’t allow it. Before you go looking to dis this sport , you should probably go to a Trial or practice before mouthing off. The Barnhunt Association and the other dog groups like UKC or AKC wouldn’t allow it either. Thanks for this great article Sarah.

        Janet Funk and Maxx
        Neebies to the sport

  4. I have a cattle dog also who is not interested in the tubes . I want to train with treats but the lady I train with doesn’t like to use treats. She says if he doesn’t have instinct there is no point.
    I love the sport and want to play. My aussie was a barn hunting fool, but he died in January at the age of 9.

    • Hi Pam,

      I’ve had that experience with some Barn Hunt people too; not wanting to use food and thinking it’s pointless. But to the dogs, scent work is scent work and you can train ANY dog to find ANY scent if it’s rewarding enough for them. If they don’t find the rats inherently interesting (my cattle dog definitely doesn’t) and would much rather work for food/toys, I would use that! Soon enough, being rewarded with food will be paired with the rat scent and your dog will have even more fun in the sport. Since you can’t have food in the ring for trials, I work the dogs up to the point where I eventually fade out the food directly at the tube location to one big party at the very end when we exit the ring.

      You can tell the person you train with that you know someone with a cattle dog like yours who has worked up to the point of only needing a couple more q’s for her masters title, just by food reinforcement :) She has never ever cared about the rat tubes and ALWAYS looks forward to her food rewards when she’s done. My girl also frequently takes high in trial when she runs. It’s a completely trained activity, just like most other sports. It’s still a lot of fun for both of us!

  5. Excellent article. My miniature wirehaired dachshund and I have been doing BH since the beginning….he loves it and will soon earn his RATCX. He is a retired show dog who I knew had great hunting instincts…hunting vermin is in his DNA! We took some nose work classes and he was great, but it just wasn’t our thing and not fun. I didn’t want to invest the time and money into obiendence or rally classes either. This is a perfect outlet for hm and I feel it also helped hm move up super quick to Master level Earthdog.

    For those who think the rats are being abused, I can assure you they are not. They are well cared for by their owners, rotated out of the tubes frequently, and may only be used at a Barn Hunt once or twice a month.

  6. I’ve got a 6 pound chihuahua who has made her way up to Senior level! We’ve sort of hit a road block in finding that 4th rat… we just run out of time. What can I do to get more speed out of her? I know it’s so much harder for a tiny dog to cover the course, but she’s so close. Help!

    • Hi Donna! Senior can be a difficult road block sometimes. Do you have somewhere to practice? My boy Owen started out fairly slow – he wanted to detail every inch of the course really well and often would time out while still hard at work. We practiced lots of super short and fun runs – run into a practice ring, find a rat three feet into the course, and throw a big party then end the run! Then I’d extend how far into the course the first rat was, then add multiple rats, and he slowly started to get more sure of himself and continued to improve on time. He’s still a details kind of guy (most of our masters runs are 4+ minutes) but more exposure to faster and faster runs with big pay offs where I knew how many AND were the rats were (so we could do an instant party) was very helpful in increasing his speed. At his last trial we did a round of Crazy 8s and he found 6 rats plus his tunnel and climb in the 2 minute time – so I know training extra has been helpful!

      Your little dog has more ground to cover on shorter legs, but with more training exercises and lots of excitement, I bet she’ll be speedier and more confident about moving through the area in no time.

      • Thanks. Sarah. We do have a place to practice once a week, but we only get 2 runs. Your idea sounds like a good one and maybe I can convince our trainer to help me give it a shot. Thanks!

  7. I have a beagle,we are doing BH practice…She has been super excited ever time, not being able to contain herself, before going in the ring…Tonight, this was our 5th class, she lacked excitement, felt like sniffing everything other then the rats.
    Anyone who has done practice for a while, is this normal, do dogs have bad days, even when hunting for vermin? She has never missed the rats, right from the get go!,,Today she just wanted to go sniff outside of the ring.

    The practice is in an actual barn,,, could the smells from other rodents interfere …

    • Hi Helen!

      Dogs can definitely have off days, just like we can. Sometimes when I see a lack of interest in a dog who was previously enjoying the game I look at the handler’s reward process. Are they taking the rat finding for granted? Do they take the tube away as soon as the dog finds it, or do they interact with their dog and the tube for a few seconds or more of play? Is every single successful rat find a big, joyous party? Smart dogs will sometimes figure out that if their person isn’t equally as excited as they are and aren’t really rewarding them for the hunting, they can certainly go find better things to do.

      Remember that we are not allowing the dogs to end this prey hunting sequence (by killing!) so you often times have to really up the level of excitement for them and find their favorite reward during the game. My boy Owen likes to bite the tube while I “smack” his butt and cheer for him, while River is starting to like barking at and biting the tube but still prefers an eventual food reward for her work. Every dog is different!

      Some dogs also like an extra reward when they leave the ring (maybe a favorite tug toy, or running to their crate for food) so the act of stopping their hunt isn’t so impactful and they can continue to celebrate for a couple minutes after.

  8. Thankyou for your comment! I totally agree with what you are saying..The instructor I have is just as new to this as I am..Still learning…I thought from the beginning my girl was ticked off when she didn’t!t get to actually kill the rat. Last week I made it really exciting for her, she howled bayed,everything a beagle will do..She was so exited, did not even want a treat. This just did not work this week..
    The practice is in a barn, the hay is in there all the time.IT IS A GOAT AND SHEEP FARM,,Only one night of practice a week in there….I truly am feeling there are a lot of other smells in there. The instructor even mentioned she has seen other rats in the barn..The way my girl was behaving, had I let her out of the ring, she would have been happier hunting there
    We went out of town to a barn hunt seminar..last week as well. The ring was set up outside…Got to the rat within seconds no problem..She is a beagle, it is what they do..and she was happy ..I am confused!

  9. My first thought was, “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of!” and then I found out that my fearful reactive Cattle Dog Mix, Gilda, was a natural barn hunter! Barn Hunt actually makes her more ‘normal’ than anything else in her world. Her whole demeanor is different at a Barn Hunt event. Pictures show her with soft eyes, wagging tail and an overall happy look. Usually she has scared eyes and stiff body :( The funniest thing about Gilda is that she truly just wants to meet the rats. In the nearly 8 years since we adopted her, the only thing she has ever shown aggression toward is people entering our home! Each step in our progress has been slow… our senior title took something like 17 legs. She is struggling in Master Level now and that’s just how it goes with her… I’ll stand by her as I know Barn Hunt has been the best thing for her yet!
    Thanks for putting my thoughts into words. Your dogs are beautiful and it looks like Barn Hunt makes them super happy too :)

  10. Ohhhhh River is SO CUTE!!!! I did my first workshop for Barn Hunt and my ACD absolutely NAILED IT. I’m hoping we can do more training so we can get some titles and have fun. :)
    Thanks for sharing!

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