One night at my dog Mookie’s Canine Good Citizen class, as the sun dipped below the horizon, a rat ran across a nearby fence. Mookie forgot all about his lesson and fixed on the rat, frozen as he watched it disappear.
“Wow, he’s really tuned in to rats,” said our trainer. “You should try Barn Hunt with him.”
Until that moment, I had never heard of Barn Hunt. A quick Google search when I got home revealed an activity that was not only recognized by the American Kennel Club but also open to mixed breeds like Mookie. To participate, all a dog needs is a little bit of training and a strong interest in rats.
How Barn Hunts work
In Barn Hunt competitions, straw bales are arranged in different patterns, depending on the difficulty level of the class, and dogs are expected to locate one or more rats hidden amongst the straw. Being a lover of all animals, I was glad to learn that the dogs never make contact with the rats. The rodents, which are often pets, are safely tucked away in aerated, cylindrical tubes, along with bedding and their favorite treats. Seasoned Barn Hunt rats often nap in their tubes during competitions.
It wasn’t long before Mookie was signed up for his first Barn Hunt competition. The Barn Hunt Association provided Mookie with a registration number — a must before a dog can compete — and all the rules we needed to know.
I entered Mookie in an Instinct class and a Novice class in an upcoming trial. In Instinct, he would be asked to pick out the one tube out of three that contained a rat, in two minutes time. In Novice, he would be expected to perform three tasks in two minutes: jump up on a bale of straw, pass through a short tunnel made of straw bales and locate a rat, in any order. It didn’t sound too hard. Plus, as Mookie is half Pit Bull, I knew he had an edge. After doing some reading, I discovered that Pit Bulls are known for being great ratters!
Our first Barn Hunt was held at a ranch, and was staffed by volunteers, many who had also entered their dogs in the day’s event. When we arrived at the grounds, we saw dogs of every breed, along with many mixes. Terriers made up the vast majority of dogs on hand, but we also saw a Pomeranian, a Shiba Inu and even an Australian Shepherd.
Although I had read the rules beforehand, I was still a bit murky on all the details. My fellow competitors helped me out, explaining that dogs and handlers are expected to sit in a blinded staging area while their class is taking place and before it’s their turn to go into the ring. This is so neither dog nor handler can see other dogs alerting to where the rat has been hidden.
After Mookie and I were called into the ring for the Instinct test, I handed his collar and leash to a ring steward and our time began. Mookie ran to the three tubes that were lined up near a straw bale and began to sniff at them. In Barn Hunt, it is up to the handler to call “rat!” when she thinks her dog has found the correct tube. Mookie made it easy. After sniffing all three tubes, he went back to the one on the end and kept sniffing and sniffing. “Rat!” I yelled. “Right!” said the judge. We came in well under time, and Mookie had just earned his Barn Hunt Instinct title (RATI).
About an hour later, it was our turn for the Novice class. This time, Mookie had a lot more to do. As soon as our time started, I began trying to coax him to jump up on a bale — any bale — or run through the one bale tunnel. But Mookie knew there was a rat somewhere in that ring, and finding it was his priority. Within a matter of seconds, he alerted me to an innocuous pile of straw. I could tell by his eyes that he smelled a rat. “Rat!” I shouted, and the judge responded “Rat one!” in confirmation.
The rest of the course wasn’t so easy. If I had practiced at home and taught Mookie an “up” and “tunnel” command, things would have gone more smoothly. Instead, I had to do all kinds of crazy moves to get him to jump up on a bale of straw and run through a tunnel.
This is because competitors are not allowed to touch their dogs during a run, nor can they touch the straw or the ground with their hands. By some miracle, Mookie understood what I wanted and got the job done. Just as he came out the other side of the tunnel, the judge yelled “Time!” We’d made it by the skin of our teeth.
Mookie and I went home that day with his Instinct title and the first leg of his Novice title. We’d both had a great time and couldn’t wait to sign up for our next event.
For more information about Barn Hunt, visit: barnhunt.com
Top photograph: Deb Drury | Getty Image