Salina Goes to Barn Hunt
By David Golden
When I first heard someone mention “Barn Hunt,” I thought how hard can that be? After all, a barn door is commonly used to refer to a target that cannot be missed. But then I was told no, barn hunt isn’t locating barns, it actually involves your dog finding a real live rat hidden in a hay bale maze. OK, I concluded, that is a bit peculiar, and I forgot about it.
Several months later Cynthia and I invited friends to our house for dinner. We were all sitting in the living room watching Salina (CH Eastland Salina So Special) sniff and claw at the door to the coat closet. We figured that She Who Will Eat Anything (except kale—we tried) wanted food crumbs in someone’s coat pocket. We discourage that kind of thing, particularly after Salina had gnawed through a down jacket to get a leftover treat. But eventually her persistence wore me down, so I went over and opened the closet door. Salina dove into the closet and emerged with a live mouse between her teeth. After dealing with the immediate situation, I had two revelations: First, we could never again have friends over to our house, and second, Salina might like Barn Hunt.
Barn Hunt is an independent sport, although its titles are recognized by the AKC and the UKC. I learned that when I went looking for the rules. There are 62 pages of Official Rules, Judges Guidelines, and, most interestingly, instructions for someone called the Rat Wrangler. The Rat Wrangler is responsible for rounding up the rats and must therefore be adept at using a tiny lasso. (The lasso part is not true.) The basic concept of Barn Hunt is that one or more rats are placed in 4” diameter tubes made out of PVC plumbing pipe. The tubes have air holes and, once the rat is inside, are sealed at both ends. Other tubes are filled with rat litter and others are left empty. The tubes are then hidden in a course made of hay bales, designed to simulate the inside of a real-life barn. The dog must navigate the course, through a tunnel and on top of the bales, and within a time limit find the tube(s) with the rat(s). It must not get distracted by the other tubes. The more advanced the level, the more complicated the course, and the more rats the dog must find. The handler is only permitted very limited control over the dog—the handler’s primary role is to know when the dog has found a real rat hidden in the hay and signal the judge to that effect. A false signal results in disqualification. If the dog eats the rat, the judge must assess a “Lack of Control Error” 10-second time penalty. There is no penalty if the handler eats the rat, unless you consider that “Unsportsmanlike behavior or conduct.” (The
Barn Hunt Association says that no rats are ever hurt or killed, and “many enjoy the sport and interacting with the dogs.”)
I found the Rules and Guidelines and requirements for the various levels (RATI, RATN, RATO, RATS etc.) confusing, so I did what any professional used to spending hours deciphering intricately worded text would do—I searched for Barn Hunt on You Tube. After watching a couple of videos it all became clear. I would sign Salina up for an Instinct test (RATI), which involved going through one tunnel, onto and over one hay bale, and then selecting the correct tube from a bank of three: one rat, one litter and one empty. After I entered the trial, we . . . waited. Unlike other performance events, there’s really no practical way to practice Barn Hunt in advance, unless you (1) invest in an entire stable of rats, PVC tubes and hay, (2) own a real farm with a real barn, or (3) have a rodent-friendly coat closet.
Finally the big day arrived. Even though I believe and trust everything I see on You Tube, I went to the building where the Barn Hunt was being held early so I could witness some runs first hand. There were all kinds of dogs entered, from Golden Retrievers to Poodles to French Bulldogs. No breed or group seemed to do better or worse than any other. Then it was our turn. Salina and I had to first sit in a blinded staging area with four other Instinct Test teams. This area is shielded from the course so that neither the dog nor the handler can see where the rat(s) are being hidden. After the other teams ran, we were called to the start box in the ring. Dogs must run naked, so once in the box I removed Salina’s collar and lead. Although not required, I told her to sit, just like we always did at the start of a rally course. Or, more accurately, like she occasionally did at the start of a rally course. Salina looked at me, while still standing, as if to say don’t you remember my rally performance at last year’s Specialty? Don’t you remember my performance on the last day of rally in Orlando? Don’t you remember all the other times I wouldn’t sit during a rally course?
After the rally disaster flashbacks subsided, I was no longer nervous. No matter what Salina did (or didn’t do), it couldn’t be nearly as bad as some of our rally experiences. So I calmly told her “tunnel,” and much to my surprise, she took off like a rocket. She hurtled through the tunnel, leapt onto and off of the hay bale, and by the time I caught up was sniffing one of the three tubes at the end of the course. So I asked her, “Are you sure? Don’t you want to check out the other tubes?” She looked up at me with visible impatience and walked off. So I pointed to the tube she’d been sniffing and yelled “Rat!” The judge said “Correct.” Salina had found the rat in 19.2 seconds (about 15 of which involved me questioning her) and came in first in the Instinct Test.
We will definitely try Barn Hunt again. And when we do, I’ll remember the judge’s advice as we walked out of the ring: “Always trust your dog.”