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Boomer’s Barn Hunt

By Debra Lampert-Rudman

The email message read:

“Heard about the new activity to play with your dog, but not sure what it is about. Well here is an opportunity to come on out and learn about Barn Hunt. “

What could be more pleasant than spending time in a rustic barn with my dog on a fall day? So, I accepted, paid our entry fee, and received detailed email instructions the week prior.

It was a perfect autumn afternoon when 7 year old parti-color Cocker Spaniel, “Boomer” (Ch Topaz Rider on the Storm, CGC), and I arrived, via very well placed “Barn Hunt” highway signage, at a 3-acre former dried flower farm in Robbinsville, NJ.

Email instructions advised leaving Boomer in the car upon arrival, and that the entire barn hunt experience would take about 90 minutes and be held in a green house. At no time would more than 1 or 2 dogs be together. Sounded very well planned and safe – and it was.

Most in my introductory group of 7 handlers had never seen a barn hunt. According to the Barn Hunt Association website, dogs locate rats (safely enclosed in aerated tubes) hidden in a straw/hay bale maze. It’s a timed event with 3 different height sizes. Teams can get titles (RATI, RATN, RATO), placements, and championships.

The day’s coordinator, Denise Visco of Bayshore Companion Dog Training Club, an experienced agility, obedience, and Earthdog competitor with her Smooth Fox Terriers, and Barn Hunt, and Earth dog judge Sharon Yon from Virginia (who also owns Smooth Fox Terriers) gave us basic details before the instinct test our dogs were about to explore.

First, the dogs would be introduced individually to a small white rat (with very sweet pink eyes and paws) in a small wire cage secured onto a strap. One of the day’s “rat wranglers” would gently move the cage along the ground if needed to entice the dog to become interested in the rat’s scent. Ms. Yon read us some rules (“no cussing and no pointing” were two key disqualifying faults) and advised going to for complete rules.

Then, the “rat tube” appeared.

A large, round plastic container with solid screw-on top, reminiscent of a very large drive-thru banking cylinder except for the holes along its belly, was passed around the standing circle of dog-less participants for inspection.

During a barn hunt, a rat (not the rat from the outside wire cage) is inserted into a rat tube with bedding. There are also two dummy rat tubes – one completely empty and one with bedding alone. These three rat tubes are placed in a row at the end of a hay bale entry way, and once inside the “barn” area, the dog must indicate which tube holds the rat. Within one minute.

We’re told that dogs may indicate the rat in a variety of ways – some will just nose the tube, some will tap it with their paw, some will just stand near it for an extended bit of time, and others will outright grab it and shake it with their mouths. The importance of knowing your dog, and listening to your dog was stressed several times.

Since the barn hunt drew a wide assortment of breeds – Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, A variety of mixed breed dogs, Jack Russell Terrier, Smooth Fox Terrier, Cavalier King Charles, Dachshund, Field Spaniel, Finnish Spitz, and one Cocker Spaniel, among others – there was great diversity in level of interest and method of rat indicating.

Luckily, Sharon Yon had seen them all and helped make the handler aware of what their dog was trying to say.

Boomer loves chasing anything – he will chase a squirrel with the best of them, flush a bird from beneath a bush, and follows a scent with great delight. I was certain he’d be a natural and fly through the tunnel, grabbing the tube on the other side.

When it was time to meet the rat in a cage, Boomer – shall we say, was less than interested.

Normally quite confident and ready to play, he pooped, smiled up at me, looked sweetly at the rat, then looked back up at me, again. He never even nosed the cage.

“Don’t worry,” the rat wrangler advised. “Just because they don’t get excited about the rat out here, doesn’t mean they won’t be excited once they get in the barn hunt.”

Apparently, she was right.

When our turn came, I placed Boomer at the entrance to the hay bale tunnel, removed his collar and leash (barn hunt is run without any collars or leashes in a secured area) and he immediately trotted around the hay bale tunnel, along the side, and out to the open area revealing the 3 tubes.

While I’m doing everything allowed to encourage him – waving my open palm near the tubes and shouting “get it, where’s the rat, go get it Boomer, find it” – Boomer casually taps the middle tube with his paw.

I completely missed his tap and continue encouraging him.

A spectator shouts “he tapped it, he found it, he’s right there.”

I then point to a tube saying “this is it” – but it wasn’t. Wrong rat tube.

And, when I pointed (violating the most basic rule we were told at least 3 times before entering the barn hunt) I instantly NQ’ed Boomer and myself from the instinct test.

Boomer knew what to do, did it in about 10 seconds, while my rat tube indicating talents were seriously flawed.

While fastening Boomer’s collar and about to leave, Judge Yon remarked, “He indicated the right tube right away – you just didn’t listen to him. And, you pointed.” Rule Number 1 – pay attention to what your dog is saying; Rule Number 2 – don’t point.

Other dogs, overjoyed upon meeting and finding the rat, quite visibly and vocally let their handlers and everyone else know it.

Most notably Scarlet, a 6 year old black Lab who loves Tracking. She not only sweetly gazed at the rat in its wire cage outside the barn hunt, she hurtled through the hay bale tunnel and found the right rat tube instantly.

Apparently a rat seeking savant, Scarlet so impressed the judge that Ms. Yon advanced Scarlet’s instinct test to “novice” level demo. The Judge covered her eyes, turned her head, while a rat wrangler inserted the rat tube into a hay bale about 3 feet off the ground.

Within no time, Scarlet was indicating the rat tube and trying her best – with mouth and paws – to get it. Cheers and lots of praise all around from her owner and the admiring crowd.

Barn hunt is definitely a spectator sport for owner/handlers. The dogs do it all.

Some participants were concerned their dogs weren’t agile enough to leap hay bales – we were told that even a dachshund could vault over the hay bale for its height.

When asked if people should go out and buy rats to practice at home, Denise Visco strongly advised that there was no need for training. “It’s all about the dog’s DNA. If they get a scent and love to hunt, they will do great,” she encouraged.

Anyone in any physical condition with an interested dog of any breed can spend the day testing their dog’s rat hunting instinct and vie for titles. Judge Yon said Barn Hunt trials will have instinct tests set up as well. Barn Hunt titles are recognized by the American Kennel Club through completing AKC’s paperwork and I’m certain will be popping up alongside Earthdog and Nose Work trials quite frequently.

Personally, I would bring a pair of gardening or leather gloves the next time Boomer or I do any rat tube handling. No participant, dog or human, came in contact with a rat; however, the tube does get dusty and dirty from those dogs that actually grab and spin the tube – and rat scent definitely wafts throughout the barn hunt area.

Complete Barn Hunt FAQs and Rat Care guidelines are prominently displayed on BHA’s website and we’re advised that rats don’t mind this experience.

These are pet rats – “feeder rats” I was told – that generally live a 2-year lifespan. When asked how the rat in the barn hunt tube feels about all this, Judge Yon replied “I’d guess kind of dizzy”.

Boomer and I stopped at a nearby pumpkin patch on the way home – I think he may have indicated a rat there, too.

About the Author: Debra Lampert-Rudman is a Freelance Writer, a Ceramic Artist represented by The William Secord Gallery, and breeds and shows Parti-Color Cocker Spaniels under the Topaz Cockers prefix. She lives in Pennington, New Jersey with her 5 lively Cocker Spaniels and an outstanding pumpkin. She may be reached at

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Posted by on Oct 22 2013. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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