The mahogany huntress leapt from one bale to the next in pursuit of her prey. Straw and dust swirled in the air as Beatrice, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, canvassed the barn with handler Ikuko Jones following briskly behind.
Jones sidestepped the hay bales as she watched intently for her dog’s “tell”: a swift, heavy swat of her white-tipped toes. But seconds were slipping by and Beatrice was no closer to narrowing in on her target.
The sinewy hound was historically bred to fend off lions; today, she was eluded by a common rat.
“Time!” the judge called. Jones collected her dog and was directed to a corner of the ring where, tucked beneath a loose layer of straw, a rat was cozy in a thick PVC tube, safe from the jaws and paws of the dogs who hunted him.
“She was just having too much fun. She didn’t try and find anything,” Jones said as they exited the barn at Silver Rose Ranch, in Chino Hills, California. She was pleased with her dog’s efforts nonetheless, and Jones wasn’t done for the day—she’d be back with Livie, the sleeper, for another round of Barn Hunt.
It’s one of dogdom’s newest sports, but Barn Hunt tests something timeless: a canine’s innate ability to sniff out vermin. Dogs climb and crawl through a course of bales in search of one or more rats (safely enclosed in sturdy, aerated tubes) hidden among the straw. A judge keeps time, and the handler must decipher whether the dog has discovered an actual rat or one of the litter-filled decoy tubes.
Robin Nuttall, owner and founder of the Barn Hunt Association (BHA), designed the sport to test the working instinct of breeds developed to hunt rodents. But unlike other breed-specific performance sports, Barn Hunt is open to all dogs over 6 months old, purebred and mixed-breed, and dogs with physical disabilities.
“Some are brand new, some of our handlers are older, some of our dogs are older, and I want us to appeal to a variety of breeds,” Nuttall says. “Even though this is a working test for breeds that were bred to do barn hunt, we welcome everyone.”
A Min Pin in a Haystack
Barn Hunt’s “come one, come all” appeal is thanks to one little dog who wasn’t allowed to play: Zipper, a fiery Miniature Pinscher.
Nuttall had been involved in Doberman Pinschers for years when Zipper joined her pack, and she knew the importance of preserving a breed’s original purpose.
“In Dobermans, the culture is very much that you finish the Championship, and then you do other things. You work your dogs as well,” Nuttall says. In researching their history, she learned that Min Pins were used to hunt small rodents, mostly inside the home.
To foster that instinct, she tried Zipper in earthdog, an AKC sport that tests a dog’s ability to find a rat in a maze of underground tunnels. Zipper, Nuttall says, was “a superstar”—but as an AKC performance event, only certain breeds (mostly small terriers) could earn official titles. Min Pins were not yet approved to participate in a formal capacity.
Nuttall wanted a way to prove that Zipper could do what Min Pins—and other aboveground vermin hunters—were intended to do.
She brainstormed and bounced ideas off a few friends. Drawing inspiration from other dog sports—agility, rally, earthdog, and brush hunts—she cobbled together a comprehensive rulebook and created a progressive titling track. And, in consideration of the most precious players in this hunting game, she designed a heavy-duty, well aerated, screw-top, solid-core PVC tube to keep the rats safe and secure. Barn Hunt was born.
The Rat Packs
The sport grew fast. Over the last eight years, owners registered almost 50,000 dogs with the BHA. And they often weren’t the typical ratting breeds, nor were the owners longtime dog-sport enthusiasts.
“It’s very welcoming to beginners, but for anybody who’s been in the sport for any time, it’s not a giveaway sport,” Nuttall says, meaning rookies can have early success in the Instinct and Novice classes, but the upper levels of competition will require some training.
For Cathy Hoese, owner of Bales and Tails Barn Hunt Club in Mayer, Minnesota, that inclusive, inviting atmosphere is a hallmark of the sport.
“Barn Hunt is an extended family,” Hoese says. As a BHA judge and instructor, she often sees the same dog-and-handler teams, some traveling from out of state, attending trials and seminars as much for the community as the competition. “We’re all cheering you on, and everyone wants everyone to pass.”
Back at Silver Rose Ranch, Southern California’s Barn Hunt community was cheering on Jones, this time with Livie, her round and wrinkled Bulldog. Livie clambered up and down the hay bales with all the grace of a toddler traversing a playground.
But what Beatrice had in finesse, Livie had in focus. Her jowls jiggled as she sniffed high and low when, just one second under time, she scratched at the loose straw to reveal a sturdy beige tube. “Rat!” Jones called.
Livie, the unlikely ratter, earned her RATO title that day—at her own pace, and in her own way—embodying what Hoese says is the most rewarding part of the game.
“It’s not the fastest run, it’s not the perfect run,” Hoese says. “It’s really watching a dog figure it out and the lightbulb goes on.”