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Can Your Dog Smell a Rat? Utah Rat Catching Competition Open to all Dogs

Barn Hunt is a competition in which dogs of any breed (as long as they can fit through an 18-inch-wide by straw bale-height tunnel) can earn titles by finding a rat. 


Intense concentration is involved when deciding which tube holds the rat. Photo by Patricia Smith

Does your dog have what it takes to be a world-class rat catcher?

Journey is a scrappy, alert miniature schnauzer. She approaches the training enclosure with the air of a veteran hunter, and once inside, quickly gets to work. It takes seconds for her to sniff out the first rat. Her handler, Jalynn Davis, knows she’s found her prey, buried in straw and encased in a PVC tube, because Journey stands stock still with just a slight lift of her tail. When Davis goes to her and yells out, ”rat,” Journey barks ferociously for a beat and then moves on to find the next one. 

Barn Hunt is a competition in which dogs of any breed (as long as they can fit through an 18-inch-wide by straw bale-height tunnel) can earn titles. It was started, in part, to give dogs other than terriers a chance to compete in Earth Dog type events. In Earth Dog, the terriers go underground to find the prey, while in Barn Hunt above ground bales of straw are used. 

The competition was originally started by Robin Nuttall, whose miniature pinscher did not qualify for Earth Dog events. She came up with a sport that all dogs could participate in and enjoy. It has its basis in dogs that were used to hunt and eliminate vermin on farms. Nuttall created the sport as an independent competition, not tied to the AKC or any other organization. 

Davis, a long-time Earth Dog judge, along with Cynthia Heyman, a local trial secretary for various dog events, started the local club to bring Barn Hunt to Utah. Desert Rats Barn Hunt Club holds local trials as well as clinics for instruction. 

Patricia Smith is vice president of the club as well as the main trainer for those interested in trying the sport. “The first thing we test is instinct,” Smith says. “We check to see if the dog is interested in rats and what their natural inclination is.” 

Bob looking through the hay bales for the hidden rat. Photo by Jade Cromar/Salty Photography.

Training the dogs includes training the handler as well. “A good trainer needs to read their dog and how they indicate if they are on track or not,” Smith says. There is a lot of trust involved and every dog is different. The handlers have to learn the dog’s “tell” or how to know when they’ve located the well-protected rat. The most important thing is that the dog is interested and wants to do it.

Shannon Price is the President of Desert Rats Barn Hunt, and she competes with her mixed-breed dog, Kennedy. “She loves it and will Kool-Aid Man through the bales to get the rat.” 

Smith, besides training, competes with her Kerry Blue Terriers, Donovan and Mable. She has one dog, Onnie, who not only smells the rats, but stands still and listens to help find them. 

In order to get a feel for how it works, my husband, Terry, tried a course with our German Shepherd, Lari. The straw bales are arranged at different heights and configurations. Some towers have tunnels that the dog must go through to successfully complete a trial. They also climb the bales. Smith hid five rats in the course and then let Lari in. 

It took Lari a few moments to figure out what he wanted. But once she figured out the play she was all for it. Running through the course, sniffing and pawing, she successfully found all five rats. She was very proud. 

Like all competitions, Barn Hunt has rules to make the competition interesting and to keep the dogs and rats safe. The rules also make it hard for the handler to give signals to the dog to help them find the rats. 

And rewards play a big part, whether food or toy, outside the ring once the course is completed. Or praise inside the ring, although there are rules about overly exuberant petting. 

Dogs can earn several titles starting at novice where dogs are required to navigate a course that is only two bales high. Only three tubes are hidden: one dry, one litter, and one live rat. The competitor needs to tunnel, climb, and find the live rat within two minutes without going to the decoy tubes. A dog who successfully completes this course three times earns the Barn Hunt Novice (RATN). 

There are many levels to complete after Novice all the way up to Crazy 8s Platinum which involves finding 8 rats and navigating tunnels with turns. No previous titles are required to participate in Crazy 8s.

Happy dogs after a successful hunt. Photo by Patricia Smith.

Many dogs love a challenge and a job. Barn Hunts lets them use innate skills and burn up a lot of energy. 

Does your dog have what it takes to be a world-class rat catcher? Go to the Desert Rats Barn Hunt Club Facebook page for information about training and events to find out.

Check for details on the upcoming November 4-6 trial held at the Veresa building, N Fairfield Road, Layton
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