My girl Stella (Jezra’s C-R Zaraha of Showboat) started out as a conformation dog. She was one 3-point major away from her championship when I realized that she wasn’t having any fun in the ring anymore. I tried obedience. No interest in that, either. When she was 7-years-old, I heard about barn hunt and wondered if she’d enjoy that.
Barn hunt is a relatively new dog sport designed for dogs’ natural desire to catch vermin or search out a scent. Some breeds, most notably the terriers, are bred for that task but all kinds of dogs participate. The basic setup involves an enclosed area with hay bales – some stacked, some forming tunnels.
There are multiple tubes, depending on the level of competition. The tubes may contain a rat, rat litter or be empty. When the dog identifies the tube with the rat in it, the handler calls the alert. There are different times allowed for the different levels.
At first, Stella was not at all interested in barn hunt. Our trainer, Cathy Leavitt, who owns a Dutch Shepherd and is a Barn Hunt Association judge, decided that awakening Stella’s prey drive might do the trick and it did. We practiced for six months and entered a trial. In the first level, Novice, one of the tubes has to be elevated. The dogs are not leashed and no food is allowed so I had nothing to encourage Stella to jump up on a bale. She cowered as if I beat her on a regular basis when nothing could be further from the truth. And, since she didn’t know what to do, she resorted to going back and forth through the bale tunnel.
I realized after that embarrassing event that Stella had never been allowed on the furniture. In fact, I don’t think she’d ever had her feet off the ground. German Shepherds are typically cautious of climbing and I’m sure we’re not the only team who’s experienced trouble with it. I worked with her at home, having her jump on the couch, the living room chairs, the bed, anything to get her past her uncertainty about climbing bales. It worked. Almost a year later, we got our three legs for Novice in five trials. Four months later, Stella qualified in her first three open trials, all with first places. On to Seniors. And Stella now sleeps on the couch.
I think the reason I like barn hunt so much is that is draws on the use of the GSDs great nose – once they learn what scent, i.e. rat, to look for, they’ll find it again consistently. Then there’s the GSDs great hearing – sometimes she will cock her head when she can actually hear the rat in the tube. Plus, Stella is so happy doing it. That counts big time for me.
As is the case with other dog sports, there are several competitive levels, each getting more challenging for the competing teams. In Novice (RATN), one tube safely contains a rat, another has rat litter and a third is empty. There is one short straight hay tunnel. In the Open (RATO) level, there’s empty tube, two litter tubes, two rat tubes. There is a tunnel with a turn such that the exit can’t be seen from the entrance and it has to be dark inside. For Senior (RATS), there’s one empty tube, three litter tubes, four rat tubes. The tunnel must have two to three turns. For Master (RATM), there are eight tubes, one to five of which may contain rats and all tubes without rats have litter. The rules contain other criteria, including the aforementioned elevation, how high bales are stacked and the configuration of the tunnels. Also, the number of qualify runs for the higher titles increase from the three required for Novice, Open and Senior. For Barn Hunt Champion (RATCH) and Champion X (RATCHX), the titles require 10 qualifying runs. You can read the complete rules here.
Kay Springer has been a member of the Diablo Valley German Shepherd Dog Club since the mid-80s, serving in many capacities, including president/vice president and newsletter editor. She belongs to the GSDCA, The German Shepherd Fanciers of Northern California and the Oakland Dog Training Club, and is secretary of Golden State German Shepherd Rescue. She has signed both the GSDCA and DVGSDC Breeder’s Code of Ethics. You can contact Kay at firstname.lastname@example.org.