Hesed at an “Introduction to Barn Hunt” Seminar
Thanks to Crystal Allison for the photos.
Our regional training group, Rocky Mountain Dog Stars, sponsored an “Introduction to Barn Hunt” seminar here in Sheridan on September 14, 2019. I took Hesed since she’s my most intense dog at hunting the garter snakes on my place and I thought she might enjoy hunting rats. I had no idea what was involved, other than that it’s an increasingly popular competition sport. The seminar filled immediately and we were lucky to get one of the twelve working spots.
The presenter, Pat Bruski from Billings, brought rats with her, borrowed from a woman there who breeds rats specifically for barn hunts. They are only about 8″ long, are raised with dogs and trained from babyhood to go into the containers used in competition. They were calm and quiet as the dogs were first introduced to them as they sat in a small wire cage held by Pat. The dogs’ reactions ranged from “Oh, yuck.” to “Woo hoo, let me at them!” and everything in between. Hesed was in the middle range of response and showed nice interest with moderate intensity which increased as the day progressed. By the end of the day she was singing as she waited to go into the ring.
After all the dogs had had three encounters with the caged rat, it was put into the regulation pvc pipe holder. Pat had a wooden rack that would hold three of the tubes. In competition there is always one clean tube, one with used rat bedding and one or more tubes containing rats, depending on the level of competition (beginners only hunt for one but advanced dogs hunt for several).
Pat told us that, in competition, the dog must also go through a tunnel and get on top of a straw bale with all four feet, and she had us do those two actions each time the dogs did a hunt. The tunnel at first is straight, but in higher competitions has at least one 90 degree turn so that the way out can’t be seen by the dog, and by the ned of the day all the dogs were negotiating a tunnel with a turn.
On the dog’s first search, we sent it through a short straight tunnel and it encountered the rack with the three tubes as it exited the tunnel.
The dogs picked that up quickly, so then she began hiding the three holders in various places, first on the ground, then on top of a bale, last on top of two stacked bales. The tubes were always hidden under loose straw or in between bales. Pat varied the start box so that the tunnel entrance wasn’t always straight ahead, and we got lots of practice getting the dog to go through the tunnel and jump on a bale in addition to searching for the rat. We had lots of laughs throughout the day as the dogs showed various reactions to going through the tunnel and getting on the bales – and indicating the ocation of the rat. Some would have picked up the tube if they could have fitted their mouth around it, while others’ indications were miore on the order of “There it is, that stinky thing. Ugh.” Hesed had a nice indication; at first it wasn’t too definite, just a look at the hidden tube and back at me, but by the end of the day she was doing a stare and even touching the tube with a front foot. I was pleased with her.
That night, as I was musing over the day and wondering if we’d get a chance to do more barn hunting, my only other experience with rats came to mind. YEARS ago, so long ago I’m not sure exactly which of my therapy dogs was involved, we were doing our usual therapy dog visit to Westview and were in their enclosed Alzheimer’s Unit. A woman came up and began telling me how she brought her rats to visit and how the residents loved to hold them. She talked on and on and suddenly I felt my dog, who was in heel position, stiffen and go on alert. The woman had a big tote bag and, as I looked around to see what my dog was reacting to, a huge albino rat began coming out of the bag. I swear just the rat’s tail was 1’ long and he climbed up on her arm. The woman talked on, oblivious to the rat, and my dog – and to me whispering “Stay. You STAY!” to my dog, who was stretched up in her sit position as tall as she could with all four feet still on the ground. Ugh!!!! I’ve never seen a dog shake that hard, her teeth were chattering with prey instinct. She held her stay, though, and I was VERY proud of her. The woman had no clue that her rat was in danger. She finally quit talking, noticed the rat, stuffed it back in the bag, and left the unit. As I collapsed and leaned against the wall and began breathing again, several staff members, who had watched the whole thing, rushed up to me to say how impressed they were with my dog. I was SO glad that the dog with me that day was my older, highly trained dog rather than one of my young ones. For a long time after that I looked for the woman each time I visited Westview, especially when I took one of my young dogs, but never saw her again.
The seminar was a much more fun encounter with rats and I hope we can do more barn hunt. We just need someone willing to care for a few rats. I’d do it but I have no place to keep them – no basement or insulated/heated outbuildings (other than the puppy houses which of course are needed for my litters). I think competing in barn hunt would be a lot of fun so hopefully someone local will step forward to be our rat handler.