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The Start of a New Dog Sport – Barn Hunt

I really didn’t intend to start a new dog sport. I don’t have the time for one thing, and for another I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing. I mean, yeah, I’ve been in dogs a long time, have trained and trialed in a lot of sports, been a club president, and I ran our club’s AKC agility trials for seven years. But start an entire sport organization? I think maybe I’ve gone a little nuts.

Robin Nuttall has put many titles on her Doberman Pinschers and Miniature Pinschers.

But let me go back to the beginning. That was when, after many years of Doberman ownership, I somehow ended up with a Min Pin. A very nice Min Pin, who is now formally known as UAgII, URO1, Ch. Regatta It’s About Time, RA, AX, MJB, RL2, RS-E, RJ-E, RG-N, CGC, and who at my house is variously called Zipper, Zip or The Zip Head. Being a history buff, I immediately wanted to know what this breed was originally supposed to do. I found out that they were bred to be vermin hunters. When they first came to the United States, they were put into the Terrier Group before being moved to Toy.

We have an active earthdog group locally, so I took Zipper out one day. We showed him the rats, and he immediately demonstrated that he had a strong working instinct. In no time, he was ready to qualify for a Junior Earthdog title (he’s now working at Master level). One big problem. Min Pins are not an accepted earthdog breed. So here I was with this dog that was showing anybody and everybody that he was quite willing and able to do the job he was bred to do, but I had nowhere to take him to compete.

Min Pins are far from the only breed in this fix. Quite a few non-go-to-ground breeds have a working history of ridding the farm and home of vermin, including German Pinschers, Standard Schnauzers, Rat Terriers and more. Breeders have no way of testing whether their dogs can still fulfill their historic function.

The competitors at a fun test gather for a morning briefing and overview of the sport. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

Somewhere along the line, I found out about barn hunts. These informal events are held for fun in conjunction with some clubs’ earthdog events and are typically open to small terriers. They all work on the same basic premise: the dogs hunt for rats above ground in a barn-like setting. Several clubs around the country do them.

I was able to participate in one in Kentucky, held by the Bluegrass Working Terrier Association. Not only did Zipper get to play, but they also let my Doberman, Cala, try it. She even got a placement ribbon. And an idea was born. Maybe a sport could be created to help those of us with vermin-hunting breeds test our dogs, but that would also allow any dog to play who might like the game.

Zipper digs in the straw for a rat. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

The idea stayed just that for a long time, until earlier this year when I found myself blurting out on an earthdog list that I wanted to start a national, sanctioned sport called “barn hunt” that would award titles, placements and ribbons to any dog and handler team that wanted to play.

The idea took off. I formed Barn Hunt Association, LLC, put together a website and Facebook page, opened up a yahoogroup, and started organizing the roots of the sport. Right now we are in a testing phase, actively doing fun tests and gathering information on what works and what doesn’t as we prepare the sport for sanctioning in 2013.

Demonstrating a clear mark of a find, Magic cocks her head and stares intently down at a rat tube. Handlers must learn their dogs’ individual signals that a rat has been found. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

Here’s how it will work, in brief. Barn hunt is open to any dog, of any size, breed or mix. The game is to find the rats in a course area made up of straw or hay bales. The course will be judge-designed, vary from trial to trial, and may be set up indoors or in a secured outdoor location. Only the instinct level test has a predetermined layout. At this level, dogs move through a tunnel to an open area where three tubes are placed, only one of which contains the rat.

A tunneling effort and a climbing element are part of the tests. The tunnel will be 18 inches wide and as high as a bale of hay, so almost any size dog can fit. Straw bales are used to create the tunnel’s top, and concrete blocks are positioned to allow smaller dogs to climb onto the bales to find tubes placed on top. Dogs may be entered in both instinct and novice level tests on the same day.

Alvin the Brittany on his way to winning the Large dog class with a time of 32.02. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

At the Novice level, three aerated rat tubes are hidden between the bales. (No rats are harmed in barn hunt.) One is empty, one has rat bedding but no rat, and the third has the rat. The dog has two minutes to find and indicate the correct tube. The handler, not the judge, calls the find. Being able to read your dog will be very important. The tubes are moved around so that handlers do not know where the rats are hidden. Dogs are brought to and from the test area on lead, however both collars and leads are removed for safety throughout the test. Titles may be earned at Instinct, Novice, Open, Senior, Master and Champion levels.

Cala the Doberman digs for a rat. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

Thus far, National Barn Hunt Association fun tests have been held in California, Missouri and Washington. The Missouri test was on June 16, run by my friend, Jennifer Riess, an earthdog trainer and enthusiast for years, and me. She acted as rat wrangler and introduced the dogs to the rats before they worked the hidden tube puzzle. Our judge was AKC earthdog judge David Brown.

Galen the Schipperke disappears into the straw. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

When I publicized the Missouri BHA fun test, I expected maybe 20 people and a few more when we added our local dogs. Instead, we got a total of 53 dogs, with people traveling from as far as central Tennessee and the Chicago area (seven to nine hours one way) for a four-hour fun test. It was both exciting and terrifying! We wanted to find out what works and what doesn’t. We needed exhibitor and judge feedback, and, of course, we hoped all the dogs would have a great time. Our breeds ranged from Min Pins to German Pinschers, Miniature Schnauzers and German Shepherds, a Brittany, Irish Setter and Border Collie and, of course, Jack and Parson Russell Terriers, plus other terrier mixes. Not every dog found its rat, and some dogs weren’t quite sure what the game was. Other dogs tuned in immediately, and everybody had fun.

The fun test and the judge’s input gave me a lot of information about how to tweak the rules and the system.

A happy Barn Hunting dog. Photo by Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions.

Barn hunt is a collaborative effort, something we can build together. If you or your club would like to host a BHA fun test or if you’d like to comment on the rule-making process or help shape the future of the sport, you can visit the barn hunt yahoogroup discussion. To learn more, visit the Barn Hunt Association Facebook page or website at www.barnhunt.com for background information, current rules and fun test applications. Input from owners of vermin-hunting breeds who want to test breed-specific traits is particularly needed.

Robin Nuttall bought her first Doberman in 1981 and put her first obedience title on that dog in 1984. Since that time she has trained in multiple organizations in conformation, obedience, rally, agility, dock diving, lure coursing, schutzhund, tracking, nosework and, now, barn hunt. She currently owns one Doberman, ‘Cala’ (URO2, USJ ARCH BJF O’er The Hills N’ Far Away, RE, OA, NAJ, TT, WAC, CGC) and two Miniature Pinschers, ‘Zipper’ (UAgII, URO1, Ch. Regatta It’s About Time, RA, AX, MJB, RL2, RS-E, RJ-E, RG-N, CGC) and ‘Prada’ (Ch. Regatta Devil Wears Blk-N-Tan, RJ-N). You can contact her at info@barnhunt.com

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  • Jackie Phillips July 18, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    This is a dynamite group. I recently participated in a barn hunt practice event here in Northern California with my two terrier mixes, and they did great. Here is a link to the blog post with photos and results from that day: http://woodacressoidogmali.blogspot.com/2012/07/june-plays-in-barnhunt-and-racing.html

    I love that they allow all dogs of all breeds, including mixes, to participate. For so long, dogs not belonging to the standard terrier breeds have been banned from this wonderful sport, but thankfully the wait is over!

    Thank you, Robin, for having the courage and fore thought to bring this sport to all breeds!

  • Judy Higgins Kasper July 18, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    This sounds like a great new ‘old’ sport. Applause for all the brains behind the development. I hope to attend one in So Cal one day with a Whippet!

  • Angela McCalla July 18, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    This sounds like great fun! I am always looking for a way to keep my Belgian Malinois busy.

  • Robin Nuttall
    Robin July 19, 2012 at 5:54 AM

    Thanks everyone! It’s so cool to see how much excitement there is about the sport. I agree about the comment about a new “old” sport. Barn Hunts still exist as a real task for working dogs (you can do a youtube search) and are also used as a great fun activity by earthdog groups. Barn Hunt Association LLC is just widening the scope and setting standardized rules so that people can attain actual titles and placements.

  • gadabout
    Olga July 19, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    Is there a link to a website or facebook page where I can find more information?

    • gadabout
      Olga July 19, 2012 at 9:25 AM

      Oops nevermind I see it!

  • Jeff McMahon July 22, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    Cool idea! I’ll have to share this with all of my farmer relatives in Minnesota as a fun activity to do with their dogs that is not pheasant hunting!

    My cattle dog mix is really into the sport of K9 Nose Work. It’s inspired by working detection dogs, but it’s very much about the “hunt” and having fun!

    There’s a new, official blog up for K9 Nose Work. It’s a great activity that virtually any dog can do – one of my friends does K9 Nose Work with her cairn terriers, both of whom are earth dogs, and they love it!

    You can check out the blog at k9noseworkblog.blogspot.com

    Again, great job on creating and organizing such a fun sport. What a great time to be a dog and dog lover, so many fun things to do together!

    Happy Sniffing!

    Jeff McMahon

  • Anne Davis September 11, 2012 at 2:05 AM

    It’s amazing to see how far reaching barn hunt has become since it’s inception 10-12 years ago with our club in Kentucky, the Bluegrass Working Terrier Association. Actual participation and word of mouth has barn hunt being offered at nearly every trial I attend now. It’s always wonderful to see dogs doing what they love, no matter the breed or sport. The BWTA is proud to have given Zipper a chance to do what he was originally bred to do! Thanks for the mention of our club in your article.

  • BD Malone August 5, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    I’m so jazzed to have this option for my dogs. They had the best time this weekend and already registered for another event next month. Being able to offer my dogs a viable option for their prey drive and a constructive way to use their noses is an answer to a prayer. Thanks for making it happen. Please let me know how I can help!

  • Paulette August 26, 2013 at 6:28 PM

    Would love to hear more esp. if there is anything going on in BC Canada. I know 2 Whippets who rat on the farm and who do a great job

  • Ann Chamberlain November 4, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    My Rhodesian Ridgeback just went out after breakfast and came back with a rat. Good dog.

    We are seriously thinking about going to the barn hunt in OR in December with RRs and a sloughi. He is a good ratter too.

  • Mary Janek November 4, 2013 at 5:19 PM

    Would love to attend with my Min Schnauzer and Welsh Terrier! I am located in Indiana and would be happy to help out and learn!! Thanks for the opportunity!

  • Robin Nuttall November 5, 2013 at 7:59 AM

    Thank you all for the followup comments. Barn Hunt has come a very long way in a very short time. Since April 2013 we have had over 100 trials, over 600 dogs with Instinct titles, and now dogs with titles through Senior and working on Master. We have welcomed all breeds of all sizes and everyone seems to be having a blast!

    Go to http://www.barnhunt.com and find events on the event calendar. The yahoogroup and facebook page are still really active. Hope to see you soon!

  • Kay Springer December 5, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    I am looking for Barn Hunt classes in the East Bay. Can you provide me with any information?

  • betina foreman October 15, 2014 at 6:14 PM

    I have schnauzers in Texas that I think would enjoy and be exceptional at a barn hunt. Where and when is your next event? Thanks!

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