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