Callie, my brown mixed breed girl, ran through a tunnel made of hay bales and looked around at other bales stacked everywhere.
“Find it!” I encouraged her, pointing at a bale. As this is a command we use at home to indicate she should search for a toy or ball, she began to sniff around. With my encouragement, she jumped onto a few of the stacked bales and sniffed at a small mound of hay.  Her tail began to wag very quickly, and she scratched enthusiastically at something she’d found.
“Rat!” I said to the judge, and I praised Callie as the Rat Wrangler came over and removed the tube. Callie and I had experienced our first Barn Hunt.
Barn Hunt was designed to demonstrate a dog’s vermin hunting ability in finding and marking rats in a “barn-like” setting, using straw or hay bales to place climbing and tunneling obstacles in the dog’s path.  Its basis is the skills historically used by farmers’ dogs or by itinerant “ratcatchers” who would travel the countryside, ridding farms of vermin to preserve food grains and cut down on disease spread by rodents.
While terriers and terrier mixes were the most commonly used dogs, today’s Barn Hunt competitors can by any purebred or mixed breed dog at least six months old who is able to fit through an 18-inch wide by 22-inch tall tunnel.
The rules for Barn Hunt have been crafted to open the event to all dogs. Unlike events sponsored by most other organizations, partially blind dogs may participate, as may deaf dogs. Dogs missing a limb who can negotiate the course safely without showing signs of pain can compete as well.
Live rats are used in the competition, but there are strict guidelines for their care. Rats used on the course must be housed in safe, comfortable tubes with sufficient ventilation, and dogs are not allowed to grab or shake the tubes. Rats have to be switched out and kept in a safe location when they aren’t in a tube and in all other ways must receive compassionate care.
The premise of Barn Hunt is for a dog to search the course and find the tube or tubes containing live rats.  In addition to the rat tubes, there are decoy tubes. Some of these are empty, while others contain rat bedding.  The dog must identify not a tube that smells of rat, but the tube containing a live one. The sport has five levels of competition.
At the Instinct level, the dog must identify which of three tubes contains a rat.  This level is intended to indicate whether a dog has interest in the activity. At the Novice level, three tubes are used, only one of which contains a rat. The dog has two minutes to find the rat and must also pass through a hay bale tunnel and climb on to at least one bale.
The three other levels, Open, Senior and Master, give the dog more time in which to find the rats, but the tunnels are longer and have turns and twists. As the levels go higher, more tubes are used, and dogs must find increasing numbers of rats on the course. At each level, a dog that qualifies at a specified number of trials will earn the corresponding title. Upon earning a Master title, the dog may continue to compete for a Champion title. While not an AKC or UKC event, both organizations will list Barn Hunt titles on the dog’s pedigree.
In all levels of Barn Hunt, the owner plays an important role. The owner can encourage the dog while hunting and must inform the judge when the dog has found a rat. As there is no specific indicator required for the dog, the owner must be able to read the dog to decide when he’s found a rat versus a litter-filled tube.
There are no Barn Hunt clubs near the Opelika area; the closest clubs are in Huntsville and Acworth, Ga. The lack of clubs doesn’t mean you can’t participate in this sport, however. Training on your own is always an option. Additionally, there are a few people in our area interested in the possibility of training together or even forming an official club. If you’re interested in learning more about this activity, please let me know by sending an email to Label the subject  as “Barn Hunt.” If there is interest, we will have a casual meeting to answer questions and discuss doing more.
Barn Hunt is a fun activity for dogs and owners.  You can read more about the sport by going to Happy ratting!
Karlene Turkington is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years.