Rats! Getting Started in Barn Hunt by Dorice Stancher (c)2014

Want to get started in Barn Hunt? First you will need a “Nosey” dog that likes to track scent.

In Barn Hunt dogs must tunnel, climb and locate the rat, telling its handler where it is hiding. This takes teamwork and resolve as all dogs indicate quite differently. Some are silent and change their body posture, while others are more vocal and active.

The Barn Hunt Association, LLC (BHA) has created a sanctioned sport honoring the traditional role of dogs driving rats from their homes and properties. All dogs that can fit through an 18″ wide by 22″ high tunnel are eligible to participate and there are multiple levels of competition, from the simple Instinct Test to see if the dog has interest, to the challenging Master and Championship levels.  And as of April 1, 2013, the American Kennel Club (AKC) began recognizing the Barn Hunt Association titles.

Dogs that are “in season” may compete under special guidelines and aggressive dogs are not permitted. There are classifications based on height and difficulty.

The Instinct Test is usually the first place where owners start and we had our first experience participating at the Garden State All Terrier Club event. The area of the test is typically fenced and measures  about 300 to 400 square feet. Hay bales are arranged in a tunnel and stacked high and three PVC containers are laid in plain sight on the ground. One tube is empty while the others contain rat bedding and the actual live rat. Entering the ring, the leash is handed off to an assistant outside the ring. Dogs run “naked” without a collar or harness and the test begins with the owner and dog starting in a 4 ‘ by 4’ square and then indicating to the judge that they are ready, as the clock starts giving them only a minute to find and identify the location of the rat. The dogs are encouraged to tunnel and climb the bales but the handler cannot climb or step on or touch the bales. As the dog approaches the three canisters it is essential to keep a keen eye on the dog to see when the dog finds the live rat, and all this must happen within one minute as the handler calls “rat!” and stops the clock. Great care is taken to treat the rats humanely and once the owner has indicated to the judge where the rat is they are expected to call their dog off, re-attach the leash and leave the ring.

At first glance the Novice Class may appear to be easy, but it takes time and patience to develop skills necessary to progress and title in the sport. Dogs should know how to tunnel and climb and the basics-sit, wait and come-as these commands are also used in this sport. I would also suggest getting the dog acquainted with the smell and texture of the hay. Handlers are allowed to communicate and encourage their dogs as they hunt and it takes keen observations skills to identify the dog’s signal that indeed a real rat is present.

From a very young age I taught my Krista to find and identify odor taking her to tracking workshops with our local club and playing scenting games with her. One of our favorites is taking plastic containers and putting holes in the top to allow scent to come through. Then one is chosen and marked with an “S” for scent and used exclusively as a scent article to avoid cross-contamination. I then set up a series of arrangements having her look high and low for the hidden containers. We start indoors and then move outdoors and it is both fun and mentally stimulating for she and I. But hunting rats can offer greater challenges. Not every dog likes the smell of the hay which can also poke and scratch their faces and contain a host of other strange odors. Agility experience helps with the tunneling and climbing aspect but again transferring this skill to hay bales takes time and practice.

Often even on the same day dogs and handlers will opt to enter the Novice Barn Hunt which allows two minutes to find and identify the rat, but comes with additional challenges. The start box now faces a straight tunnel that is no shorter than the width of two bales and no longer than the width of three bales. In places the bales are stacked at least two high. And the dog is required to not only tunnel on this course but climb as well, and in two minutes or less, identify the location of the rat which is hidden under straw or within a bale making the challenge more difficult than the instinct test. For this test there are again three canisters; one is empty, another contains bedding and the third has the rat.

As owners move up in class the challenges increase with more tubes being hidden, more rats to identify, higher hay bales and more difficult tunnels with twists and turns. It is a real thing of beauty to watch these dogs do what they were naturally bred to do. And the classes of Senior, Master and Champion continue to challenge and test the dogs and handlers, with more challenge for them both physically and mentally, taxing their endurance and revealing the bond of communication forged from years of training.

Barn Hunting has been a hit among dog fanciers and are a great spectator sport too. For more information on how to get started and for events in your local area visit http://www.barnhunt.com