Yesterday I took Willow out to Twister Agility for a beginning barn hunt seminar. Barn hunt is an instinct-based dog sport that really is a ton of fun and requires minimal training on the part of the dog and a lot of observation and behavior-watching on the part of the handler. Yes, this sport does require the use of live rats, but the rats are not harmed and are encased in very thick PVC tubes with tons of tiny airholes drilled into them. Now, some people may get all up and arms and say this traumatizes the rats, but the lady rats used at this particular facility are extremely friendly, handle-able, well-adjusted, and show no sign of negative issues created by being the bait in the tubes.
You can plainly see two of the lady rats in their holding cage here. Their main cage is at least three times the size of this thing and decked out with hammocks, a huge wheel, and all sorts of toys for them!
They are very outgoing and friendly and enjoy a good game of poke-your-belly.
At the beginning of the seminar, they used small metal cages containing a single rat to test leashed dogs for instinct. There were several dogs at this beginning seminar including 2 beagles, a welsh terrier, a flatcoat retriever mix, a jack russell, a mini aussie, and then Willow my border collie. Everyone but the flat coat showed at least mild interest, but the welsh terrier went absolutely crazy-mad at the sight of the rats (that’s a terrier for you!) and Willow just staaaaaaared BC style. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the cages!
Of course, the dogs were closely watched to make sure they didn’t bite at the cages. The welsh terrier was pulled back very quickly as his ratting instinct was VERY evident. The flatcoat flat out didn’t care.
I was impressed with Willow. I wasn’t sure exactly how she was going to take to rats as she ignores the 2 old pet rat boys I have at home and instead herds the cats and other dogs all day.
After that, we took the dogs into the barn to do a RATI – or instinct run. This is the strangest of the setups as it basically has the same course layout as a RATN (novice) course, but with one big difference: The three tubes aren’t hidden. They’re set out in a row, one with a rat plus bedding, one with bedding, and one empty. They can be arranged in any order. The object of the course is for the dog to differentiate between them. Odor-scenting dogs may alert on both the rat and the bedding tube. This was an issue with a few that had been trained in Nosework. Dogs who actually want to get at the rat may check out the bedding tube, lose interest, and move on.
Willow found the correct tube easily. When she alerts, it’s really funny. She’ll sniff at the thing a moment, then back off and perk up her ears before pawing and biting at the tube.
This is her initial alert-face:
After the RATI, we ran our first RATN course, not timed or anything, so we could try and complete all the requirements: A tunnel (made of secured hay bales, often with a board for stability), a “climb” (getting all four paws onto a hay bale), and, of course, the find. There were three tubes on the course, one empty, one with bedding, one with the rat. Willow’s first run was a little goofy, but she did the tunnel and learned that the hay bales weren’t going to kill her or topple when she climbed on them. Since she was the last dog run, I took some extra time to build drive for the rat-tube by restraining her by her harness, talking the thing up, waiting until she was pulling for it, letting her go, praising like crazy, then repeating. At one point she started digging madly at the barn floor by the tube, sending dirt and hay flying.
For the second RATN run, I had a friend record it. Here’s the video! RATN-style run (Novice)
Willow is an absolute goofball. I love her botched jump onto the bales, but hey, it counted as a climb! I didn’t know where the rat was on this course and she, this being her first day doing barn hunt, was a bit slow to signal, hence my hesitation. If you watch closely, you’ll notice my hands are in my pockets most of the time. This is partially due to the 30 degree weather (Fahrenheit, of course, below freezing) and partially due to me avoiding NQs (non-qualifies). Basically, if I touch my dog, touch a hay bale, or point or even gesture within 12 inches of a tube, I could NQ for the round and not be able to move on. I tried to use mostly my voice and body language, then just stand back and let her do her work. Another NQ is the dog nipping at the rat wrangler while they take the tube off the course. This can be avoided by physically restraining your dog. In the RATO video I’ll link down the way, you can see me doing just that using a typical vet-tech style hold. Worked like a charm for a squirmy dog.
Anyway, in spite of the hesitation on my part, she still completed the course in time! 2 minutes is what you get for RATN. She and the welsh terrier were invited to stay for the advanced course (because two and a half hours in the could with ice cube toes weren’t enough for me, I just HAD to stay for 3 more!) The welsh’s handler’s declined due to an illness.
During the space between the courses, I sat in my car for about 20 minutes with the heat on, trying to thaw myself out a bit. After that, I was extra crazy and took Willow out to the agility field to work some basic jumping exercises, do a few A-frames, teeters, and channel weaves. She may be 8 years old, but she has boundless energy. However, due to her age, I don’t jump her more than 16″ even though she’s capable of more. I’m not out to break my dog.
Here’s the field from the week before when there was more snow. Some of it still stuck around, but everything was mostly grass and there wasn’t any ice left on the equipment.
We took another break 10 minutes before the advanced class started and other people had started to arrive. The advanced class included two jack russells, a jack russell/whippet mix, a doberman mix, a golden retriever, a dalmatian, a pit/plott/something mix, a cattle dog mix, Willow, and a few others that I can’t seem to recall. This class was bigger than the first by about 3 dogs. In the two hours, we were able to do two runs instead of the three the instructor was hoping for. The first one wasn’t timed, but it was great for building working knowledge of the ring and spending quality time with your dog. During that run, Willow kept squeezing herself into spaces about the size of a square foot underneath bales. She’s incredibly silly.
The differences between RATN and RATO are basically this: RATO has two rats, usually one hidden up high and one hidden down low, plus 2 bedding tubes, plus 1 empty tube. The main stack of bales is 1 bale higher and the tunnel has a right angle in it instead of being straight. The time limit is 2:30, up from 2 minutes.
Here is Willow’s timed RATO-style run (Open)
That was her 2nd RATO run.
She did it all within time! Now, afterwards she was shown up by Ping the dobie mix who completed everything in less than a minute. To be fair, though, that dog has had months of practice, a supremely awesome handler, and Willow only had hours and . . .well . . . me. 😄
Needless to say, we have a new sport!
There will be a sanctioned fun run at Twister on the 22nd and 23rd of this month. We are going to participate!
Oh, another fun thing was professional photographer Linda Earley was at the advanced class and snapped tons of pictures. I can’t wait to see them! If she posts any digitally, I’ll be sure to share them.