There’s more to barn hunting than just smelling a rat


BEALETON, Washington. – Some of the dogs would leap like deer and run inside the shed with a rattling roof every time the wind blew – which it often did on cold Sunday afternoons.

Others, on the other hand, seemed to spend the entire day sniffing each piece of straw and analyzing the various aromas inside.

But to one degree or another, nearly every dog ​​that entered the training barn at Liberty Hill Pet Resort in Bealeton smelled a rat, and that’s what the sport known as barn hunting is all about.

Some dogs just know better what to do about it.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Sophie wagged her tail excitedly as she walked in with her owner Sonya Baker of Manassas. Sophie looked too groomed to root on the straw, and it wasn’t long before thin dried twigs hung from her silky brown and white coat.

But when he found a canister with a rat in it, he used his little claws to clear the surrounding straw. The rat was safe and secure the whole time, protected in a gas tube about the size of those used in bank windows.

Sophie squealed and barked with excitement, especially after her owner took the canister. Baker held it at Sophie’s nose level and said, “Go it, go it, go it,” and Sophie danced with delight.

That’s what the exercise is all about, Mary Ann Robertson said. He is the former owner and current trainer of Liberty Hill, who started barn hunting years ago in southern Fauquier County.

Monroe hunts rats in the Barn Hunt National competition

“It’s fun,” he said. “The dog is in charge, it’s not like obedience or agility or gathering where you tell them what to do. They have to tell you and my dog ​​loves it. I guess he likes to tell me what to do.’

He’s referring to Stoja, a Belgian Malinois who likes to squeeze his shepherd’s frame into tunnels lined up under bales of hay. He doesn’t refer to his other dog, Juliet, a poodle whose relationship he thinks he can’t trouble by stall hunting him – or, to be honest, any other cues.

Robertson says that all dogs have an estimated 1,000 to 10,000 times stronger sense of smell than humans, but not all have the same strong instinct to use it.

Reservoir hunting gives dogs of all breeds and sizes a chance to sniff around and determine if they can use one distinct scent and run away from dozens of others. This includes smells from other dogs, dropped food, and even a barn mouse that ran through the building a few days ago.

Dale Graham of Culpeper County named his cattle dog-Shepadoodle mix Sherlock because he liked to explore things as a small dog. He displayed his inquisitive nature as he hopped from pole to pole, peered out the barn windows and licked anyone who came near him.

“No, not those rats,” Graham yelled, trying to shoo Sherlock away as Sherlock stood on top of a hay bale, peering over the edge of the caged ring at the containers full of rat boxes.

“We’re not focused here,” he said.

Drake, an impeccably groomed black poodle, wasted no time. He walked around the stacked foals, sniffing the crevices for individual scents and quickly found one. “Mouse,” called her owner, Katy Stewart of Fredericksburg.

Robertson or Danielle Cross, the designated “rat fighter,” let him know if Drake’s instincts are correct. Further complicating the game is that some boxes contained rat bedding, not rat bedding, and the ammonia-stained litter can be as pungent as the rodents themselves.

While dictionaries consider rats and mice vermin, at Liberty Hill they are treated as pets and treated accordingly. No rats are harmed during the exercise.

Before dogs learn to hunt in a barn, they are introduced to black or dark gray animals to pick up their scent. Rats are as smart as dogs, Robertson says, and quickly realize that what comes after them can’t catch up to them.

“We had some rats that jumped into the tube because they were so eager to play,” Cross said.

Some dogs’ ancestors, such as Toby the border terrier, were trained to find and exterminate rats in fields or barns. Owner Lynne Leeper of Warrenton said Toby loves the game — it’s what he’s going to do. But he never showed aggression towards rats; he just lets someone know when he finds out.

Kathleen Reilly-Olson of Vienna says barn hunting is a great chance for urban dogs to practice the art of hunting “without the owner needing a shotgun.”

“We love coming here,” he said. “My dogs love it here.”

One of his dogs is PJ, a Hungarian sporting breed named Vizsla who can be used to hunt rabbits or retrieve waterfowl. When PJ entered the building, he ran across the straw-covered mats so fast that he nearly tripped over his long, lean legs.

PJ took part in the tougher master’s category, where one to five rats were hidden among straw mazes and the owner had to call out “Clear” when he believed his dog had found them all.

The event was just a practice, and Robertson used the missed opportunities as a lesson. He showed some owners how to become more attuned to the subtle messages a dog sends when it smells prey, whether it’s tilting its head or ear a certain way or almost stopping in its tracks. And he told others how to encourage the dogs to indicate the rats’ presence and just carry on as if they were on a shopping spree.

None of these will be allowed when Liberty Hill Pet Resort conducts official barn trials on February 18-19. The facility also plans to run more training runs before owners pay $12 to $17 for each run their dogs take through the building.

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