By Joseph Robertia
Among the big, blond bundles of hay stacked around the room lurked an intruder. It was a small, uninvited guest with a long, leathery tail and beady eyes. The type of creature that places high on the unwanted list, with snakes and spiders, for giving people the willies. It was a rat.
The rodent didn’t sneak around undetected, though. Juno, a cane-corso — a muscular, raven black, Mastiff-looking dog — was aware of it lurking somewhere in the hay. He moved swiftly and silently between bales, his head craning to isolate the smell.
“Did you see his head snap around when he scented it?” said Jan Johnson, who was overseeing the Barn Hunt Fun Match held Saturday at Peninsula Dog Obedience Group’s Soldotna facility, on Kalifonsky Beach Road across from Save-U-More.
Once Juno’s sniffer was locked onto its target, the dog went straight to the rat’s location and held there.
His owner, Sarah O’Brien, of Nikiski, shouted “Rat!” bringing the individual event to a close. The timer stopped. Juno had found the rodent in under a minute. Not a bad time, considering the dog was still a novice of the fast-growing sport of barn hunting, and had several obstacles besides the maze of hay bales to throw him off.
“The sport sounds simple enough — set your dog loose on a secured course stacked with straw bales, in which three PVC tubes (at the novice level) are hidden. One contains a live rat, one has rat bedding, and one is empty, a blank,” explained Amanda Burg. She and her dog, Zoe, were one of the competing teams at Saturday’s event. She also is a member of the Barn Hunt Committee.
“The idea is to replicate a dog hunting invasive pests on a farm,” Burg said.
To the uninformed, this might sound a bit inhumane, to subject a captive rat to becoming bait without hope of escape. Burg said that she was initially concerned about the well-being of the rodents being used, until she learned the rats are not harmed during the events.
“The first rule of barn hunt is rat safety and comfort. I always feel the need to open with that whenever someone asks me what the sport is all about. It’s easy to mistake our intent, given the name of the game contains the word ‘hunt.’ Really, it’s all about the dogs finding the rat. They don’t attack it, and certainly don’t kill it. If harm was to come to a rat during a barn hunt trial, fun match or training session, we could lose our privilege to hold these events per the organization overseeing the sport,” she said.
Mike Barclay bares the title of “chief rat wrangler.” While the dog club technically owns the rats — six of them — he keeps them at his house and takes care of them. He’s also a dog owner and said he understands the need to socialize the rats to keep them friendly and to have them interact with his dogs to reduce any fear of canines.
“I’ll spend two hours a day playing with them so they’re all friendly and comfortable with dogs. A lot of times after a trial, I’ll open the tube and they’re just sleeping in there. Not stressed at all,” he said.
Once the rat issue was answered, Burg said she still was hesitant to take part in a barn hunt because her dog is “reactive” around other dogs, she said. This has kept her from taking part in some of the more typical dog-related events in the area.
“She has a very difficult time being in close proximity to other dogs. Most people have no idea what life with a reactive dog is like. So much time and energy is spent working around or through the issue,” she said.
Barn hunt happens in an enclosed ring, though, with just the owner and dog working together, and while Zoe is off leash for the event, Burg said that the barn hunt organizers were willing to work around her dog’s issues.
“It means I can take part in the world of dog sports, even though I can’t compete in things like agility or rally-obedience until (I have anther dog). It’s something even ‘those dogs’ can do,” she said.
Faith Hays, who was participating Saturday with her dog, Ruby, and is a longtime instructor of dog-related classes with Peninsula Dog Obedience Group, said the acceptance of every dog is one of the things she likes about Barn Hunt.
“It’s one of those natural, instinctual things for dogs to do, that they can come in right off the street and go right to it. Old dogs, older people, cripple dogs, aggressive dogs — they can all do this,” she said.
Over time, the dogs are introduced to progressively more difficult tasks, so owners and canines stay challenged. At the novice level, the dogs are presented with all three tubes in the open and must just discern which one has the rat. The events get progressively more complex as dogs get more skilled.
The tubes will then get split up around the ring, then hidden in the bales. Then more bales are added to make tunnels, mazes and tiers and the rats are hidden at different heights, then more rats are introduced until the dogs are finding up to five at a time in a maze three bales high.
O’Brien said that she was drawn to the barn hunt as another avenue for working with her dog on scent, in which Juno has trained for months.
“I want to get Juno trained for search and rescue, to find lost people, children and avalanche victims,” she said.
Laura Pabst, of Kenai, brought her Rottweiler, Skye, and two hairless Chinese crested dogs named Passion and Paris. She was happy with her dogs’ performances, especially considering it was their first times.
“I do conformation, agility and rally, but they haven’t done anything like this before. I think they all did well, especially the little ones did great considering they’re not hunting breeds. The dog has to think for itself a lot more, which is nice to see because in everyday life we’re always telling them to do this and do that,” she said.
The first barn hunt held locally was in April 2014, and it has grown in popularity since, but new members are always welcome, said the organizers.
“We’re always eager to welcome new people into the sport,” Burg said. “I encourage anyone with any dog to try it out. No obedience required, so if you’ve done no training ever, don’t worry about it. Dogs know how to hunt naturally, and even if they are timid or unsure what to do, chances are they will learn to love this game. It’s even great as a spectator sport for those who just want to watch, or aren’t sure if it’s for them yet.”