What could possibly be more fun?
If you are asking Rhonda, the prompt and enthusiastic answer would be, “Nothing! Nothing at all!!
The sport of Barn Hunt, as many of you already know, is one of Rhonda’s passions. Let me tell you why. 🐁
First, a reminder for those of you who might be aghast at the idea of dogs hunting rats as a sport (although it’s entirely in their genetic make-up to do so!) … no rats are harmed in the pursuit of this sport. Let’s just say, for the dogs, it’s the next best thing – and lots of fun!
The Barn Hunt rats, which are kept and cared for year-round in roomy, clean cages in their own “rat room”, are placed in the sturdy PVC pipe containers you can see in these photos right before the competition starts. Note the many air-holes in the tubes.
The rats are traded out for fresh rats every couple of hours throughout a trial day, and are returned to their big cages to eat, drink and rest up.
The competitive game of Barn Hunt is pretty simple from the dog’s point of view; search the straw bales, catch the scent of rats, find where a rat is hiding, tell Mom (or Dad) and then go find more!
Again, no rats are harmed; as soon as a dog indicates she’s on a rat, the handler yells “RAT!” and helps the dog uncover the tube. The dog is praised and the tube is carefully handed off to a volunteer “rat rangler”.
I’m including a short video here to give you an idea of what goes on in the ring. This is what’s called a “Crazy 8’s” hunt, where all levels from Novice to Masters have the same set-up, and while points are accumulated, there is no penalty if you only find one rat (or even no rats). It’s tons of fun to watch and as you can see, most of the dogs have a blast!
There are 8 rat tubes with live rats hidden in the enclosure for this game – and the dog has only two minutes to find as many as possible before time is up. That’s a lot of rats!
To make CZ8s even more challenging, there are also 4 tubes hidden with only “rat bedding” (smells like rat, but no live rat in the tube), as well as a couple of completely empty tubes. The dog must only alert on tubes with live rats and ignore all the other tubes!
The team gets 10 points for each rat found, plus 20 points for going through a tunnel (once) and climbing on a straw bale (once). No extra credit for extra tunnels, darn it. Rhonda loooves tunnels.
Ronni just earned her CZ8G (Gold) ribbon at this trial with a total accumulation (lifetime score, so far …) of 1,570 points! And that’s nothing – we know lots of teams with many times more points. Ronni has only been doing Barn Hunt for three years.
Now, just imagine this same hunt with the dog being a German Shepherd or other large breed dog. All breeds and mixed breeds are capable of excelling in Barn Hunt (as long as they can fit through the tunnels!) – and watching the bigger dogs dive into tunnels and clamor nimbly over straw bales is nothing short of amazing.
Getting started in Barn Hunt proved to be pretty easy. The supervisor at the local Barn Hunt practice brought a white rat in a small wire cage out and set it on a tarp. The idea was to introduce the dog or puppy (on leash) to the idea and scent of a live rat.
If they show interest (prey drive or just curiosity) they are rewarded and praised. Not all dogs care about little furry rodents ; Baxter, for example, all but shrugged his shoulders and said “So? What’s the big deal?” He’d rather do Nose Work, tracking down the elusive birch, anise or close scents. Go figure.
On the other hand; even at 4 1/2 months old, with the rat nearly as big as she was, Ronni understood instantly that this was prey – and she wanted it. Oh my, the barking!
Being small in size is definitely not a detriment in this sport. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In fact, Dachshunds and pretty much all the Terrier breeds, have rat-hunting built into their DNA. They absolutely thrive in this environment.
In Barn Hunt competition, as with most dog sports, you work your way up through levels of experience/competence. The abbreviations they use for the levels made little sense to me at first, but I figured them out as Ronni and I moved (way more quickly than I was prepared for) from level to level.
First is RATI. This stands for Rat Instinct [test]. Very simply, they place three tubes about a foot apart, clearly visible on the straw covered floor. One tube has a rat. One has rat bedding, while the third is empty.
The beginner dog is asked to indicate which tube has the live rat. It basically just shows that the dog understands the difference and is most interested in the real rat. Of course, each level, from novice to masters, has a time limit.
RATN: Rat Novice title. In Novice, the dog must go through a short, straight tunnel, climb up on at least one straw bale, and find one rat. It’s a smaller arena, with fewer straw bales so these novice teams have a fair chance. The team needs three Qs (qualifying runs) to earn their RATN title and move on to RATO.
This is a quick video of one of Ronni’s Novice runs. Pretty straightforward, but still fun!
RATO: Rat Open title. Slightly bigger arena, an “L” shaped tunnel and two rats (oh, and remember, those fake tubes are still out there too). Again, the team must earn three Qs to move to the next level.
RATS: Rat Senior title. Bigger arena, lots more straw bales, and four rats! Yikes! I honestly think Senior level was Rhonda’s favorite. You were guaranteed four rats! Once you earn 3 Qs in Senior, you move up to Master, or RATM.
RATM: Rat Master title. This is where it gets trickier for the handler rather than the dog. In Masters, there can be anywhere from one to five rats hidden in the arena, plus the sneaky bedding tubes and empties.
The Judge doesn’t tell you how many rats (1-5) have been hidden in a Masters search. It’s up to you and your dog as a team to find all the rats there are, and then the handler has to know (or hope she knows) when her dog is telling her there are no more to be found. Calling “Clear!” when you’ve only found one or two rats can really get your heart racing.
If you are correct, you get a Q (qualifying run). Yay!! It takes five Qualifying runs in Masters to earn your RATM title. If you call “Clear“ too soon, and there’s another rat, you NQ (do not qualify), the game is over, and your dog will probably give you the stink eye. If you dither about too long, you’ll time out (4 minutes) and DQ, even if the dog did find all the rats.
All of this is why I was so excited and so proud of Ronni just this month when she earned not her RATM (she earned that last fall), but the coveted RATCH title.
To earn a RATCH, you must have 15 Qs at Masters level! And this is really just the beginning … Ronni really loves this game!
Note: Photos not taken by me are courtesy of Marcia Dietrich Kardatzke, Mike Lewis, and Brian Moon. And thank you, Valerie, Laurie and Kathy, for permission to include photos of your wonderful rat hunters!