Billie is one of those crazy dogs who will chase a squirrel up a tree, and — whether or not it is still up there — sit under the tree for hours hoping it will come back down and fall into her lap. She turned nine this year, not that old for an Australian Cattle Dog, but a recent diagnosis of a heart condition has meant that she had to give up lure coursing. Chasing a plastic bag on a pulley through a field was one of her favorite activities, and while we have tried obedience (to her endless anxiety and sweaty paws) and agility (resulting in terrified glances towards the colorful equipment), nothing seemed to be as much fun for her as lure coursing had once been.
Until we started Barn Hunt.
Barn Hunt is a relatively new sport, but it is rapidly gaining in popularity throughout the country. In a Barn Hunt, there is a simple maze of straw bales, with plastic tubes hidden in the maze containing live rats. The dog must climb on a bale with all four feet, go through a tunnel, and alert the owner to the rat — all in a specified amount of time. It is mostly a game of instinct, but the best dogs bring an element of basic training, smarts, and self-control to succeed. The dogs with the fastest time win ribbons and dog toys; canine stage mothers — like me — get bragging rights. The slower dogs, or those who aren’t interested in finding the rat, still get to be shown the rodent at the end, and can try again next time.
So, with all this doggy fun, what about the rats?
I am a vegetarian. I once stopped for a pigeon who was sitting on the side of the road after being hit by a car. And yes, I am one of those people who was very worried about the rats. Were they scared? Hurt? Terrorized and then fed to snakes? After my first Barn Hunt, I saw the answers were no, no, and no. In fact, the rats in barn hunt are treated as well as the dogs. They are completely socialized, fearless of their canine counterparts, and well protected in their tubes. The judges will tell you it’s unacceptable for a dog to excessively harass the rat, and dogs who are able to be called away from the rat quickly are more successful in the game. After every few competitors, the rats are taken out of the ring, and given a break and at the end of the day (they go to a home where they are well-loved pets). They may not get the squeaky toy prizes the dogs win, but they seemed no worse for the wear after a morning event, and were happy to accept snacks from me.
Overall, my experience with Barn Hunt dogs and their owners has been similar to that in other dog sports. Everyone wants their pooch to “win,” which means different things to different people, but even when they don’t pass the test or earn a ribbon, they still have fun. Sometimes the dogs get the zoomies around the ring. Sometimes they lift their legs to pee on a bale and ignore their owner. But just about everyone leaves with a smile.
And that includes the rats.