Are you a dog owner looking to participate in an activity with your canine companion but would prefer lessons that teach more than “fetch” and “stay?” If so, you may want to check out the Pacific Northwest Barn Hunt, located in Winlock and founded by Jane and George Reed.
The sport of the Barn Hunt is modeled after earthdog trials, where small dogs navigate through tunnels, using their senses and instincts to locate a (protected) rat. While earthdog trials are limited to terrier or dachshund breeds, the Barn Hunt was specifically created where dogs of all breeds and age groups could participate. Noticing its popularity around the Pacific Northwest, Jane and George decided to set up a Barn Hunt facility on their property. “We felt that there were enough people in this area who were interested, and we felt they should have something local without traveling two hours,” says Jane.
Jane tends to roughly 35 domestic rats that are used for Barn Hunt lessons and trials. The rats are treated with the same amount of care as any pet and are in no way considered disposable accessories. “The rats are never hurt at Barn Hunt. The tubes that we use – even a Great Dane couldn’t crush. A small amount of litter is put in the tube with them for cushioning,” Jane explains.
Additionally, Jane creates a specific rotational schedule for the rats on trial days. “Our trials will run all day long. The rats that are used in the morning are exchanged for rats that are used in the afternoon, or the next day, so we don’t work the same rats for six trials on the weekend,” Jane adds. When the rats start to slow down, they are taken out of rotation and spend the rest of their lives in retirement.
The Barn Hunt classes are broken up into several levels. Instinct and novice are for dogs that are just starting out and can be taken simultaneously. With the instinct class, three tubes (one empty, one containing litter, and one with a rat inside) are set out in plain sight, and the dog has one minute to figure out which tube contains the rat.
The novice class introduces a straight see-through tunnel, and the three tubes are hidden in the hay course. Within two minutes, the dog must go through a tunnel, climb up on a bank with all four feet ending up on top and find the tube with the rat buried in the course.
The open class involves a 90-degree blind tunnel, along with five tubes hidden in the course, only two of them containing rats. Within 150 seconds, the dogs must go through the tunnel, execute a climb and recover the two rats. “One could be up in the bales, one could be up, one could be down,” Jane explains.
As the dogs ascend through the Barn Hunt levels, the courses become more complex. The senior level trial has a minimum of a two-turn 90-degree tunnel that the dog is required to enter, and eight tubes are placed among the hay, only four containing rats. For the master level, the participants have 4.5 minutes to find five rats out of eight hidden tubes, and it takes place in a larger, more convoluted course with two judges and many tunnels and stacked hay bales. “It becomes a guessing game,” Jane offers.
In addition to the agility and comprehension training the dog receives, a Barn Hunt can enhance communication and bonding skills for the dog owners.
“One of the biggest attractions here is that people are coming so they can do stuff with their dogs, and it works out beautifully. We encourage people to give a lot of positive feedback to their dogs when they’ve done something right, like get up on a bale or find the rat. Dogs are kind of like children. They learn differently, and they respond differently, and they really respond well to positive feedback,” Jane explains.
A comprehensive Barn Hunt Trial was held over Labor Day weekend at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds, where participants and their dogs socialized in their makeshift waiting areas prior to participating in various trial levels. The presence of people volunteering at the trials, as well as attendees bringing food to share during the all-day event, represents the level of enthusiasm for the Pacific Northwest Barn Hunt.
“We cannot run a barn hunt without volunteers. The setup literally takes hours, to build the rings, to get the bales of hay in, to get all the things we need to run a trial. It takes volunteers to be dedicated to stay and help clean up,” Jane continues.
“We’re really fortunate to have the 4-H barn (at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds) – they’ve done some work in there that is just ideal for dog performance venues. It’s just the right size we need to put in a couple of rings and run our trials,” Jane suggests
Despite the rigorous, nearly year-round trial schedules, Jane gets constant satisfaction seeing new and returning owners succeed with their dog companions and can attest that the Barn Hunt is gaining a large following in the area. “The more people hear of it, the more it’s going to grow,” Jane explains.
“It’s the greatest thing about being a teacher – seeing people that all of a sudden have that moment, and they come running up to you with a beautiful ribbon and say they’ve been working at this for six months, and they just got their title,” Jane finishes.