One of the smartest things I ever did was to get into dog sports. I’m naturally a competitive person, so that was a draw, but mostly it was about developing a strong bond with my dog through lots of training and practice, and being around people who were just as crazy about dogs as I was. When I started decades ago (I won’t reveal how many!), dog sports were open only to registered pure-bred dogs; now most are open to mixed breeds as well.
One of the newer sports to the world of dogs is Barn Hunt. It has three progressively more challenging divisions, and also a championship title that can be earned. A course is constructed of straw bales within a fenced area. The goal is to have your dog search for and locate one or more rats within a set amount of time. You are not allowed to touch the dog or search for the rats yourself, which are hidden under the straw, but instead you must learn how your dog signals or indicates that he has found a rat, and then alert the judge. A wrong guess and you don’t qualify. You can verbally encourage your dog along the way, and the dog is required to go through a tunnel and also jump up on a bale during the search.
The rats are safely housed in well aerated plastic tubes, and are treated gently. Most are family pets, and the Barn Hunt organization has lots of rules they enforce for the well-being of the rats, including regular rest periods during a trial. Because they are concealed in heavy duty plastic tubes, which are hidden amongst the bales of straw, dogs must use their noses to sniff out the rat’s location. In addition to tubes containing rats, there are also tubes that just contain bedding that smells like a rat, and empty tubes, which adds to the challenge. The dog must learn to alert only on the tubes that actually contain a rat, and the handler must learn how the dog signals his discovery of a rat.
A number of dog breeds, mostly terriers, were originally developed to hunt vermin, and were expected to rid the farm and home of the often disease carrying pests. Some were bred to go underground to pull out or kill vermin in their dens, while others were bred to hunt above ground. And although most of us no longer need to have a dog that also acts as an exterminator, many still have those hunting instincts. Like watching a border collie round up a herd of sheep, or a whippet chase after a rabbit, it’s a beautiful thing to watch a dog do naturally what it was bred to do.
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The best thing about Barn Hunt is that any dog, regardless of breed, can participate, including mixed breeds. I took my two Dachshunds to my first Barn Hunt event, and quickly learned that although as a breed they are known to be ratters, not every Dachshund behaves the same way. My female just casually climbed the bales of straw and generally followed me around the ring, seemingly uninterested in sniffing around at anything. But my male quickly figured out the game, and the hunt was on – we earned our Novice title in one weekend.
If you think your dog might be interested in the sport, check out the website www.barnhunt.com for rules, information on registering your dog, and information on upcoming events, both for practice and trialing, in your area.
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.