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What is Barn Hunt? A Growing Scent Work Dog Sport

I recently took my dog Burt to his first Barn Hunt. We had such a fun time and got so many questions about it that I want to tell you more about this growing scent work dog sport!

Barn Hunt is a scent work dog sport that’s great for dogs of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. In a Barn Hunt trial your dog searches around a straw bale course to find hidden tubes that contain live rats!

It’s a relatively new scent work dog sport that was started by Robin Nuttall who was inspired by her Min Pin, Zipper, to create the Barn Hunt Association.

In this post, I’ll explain what I’ve learned about Barn Hunt including:

  • What is Barn Hunt?
  • Prey Drive vs. Hunt Drive
  • The different Barn Hunt levels and what they entail
  • How to train your dog for Barn Hunt
  • Scent work resources
  • My experience at our first Barn Hunt Trial with my rescue Labrador, Burt

I believe it’s a great time to get involved in this dog sport because the events are relatively small and easy to participate in as a newbie.

Burt Barn Hunt RATI Ribbon

What is Barn Hunt?

Barn Hunt is a relatively new dog sport where straw bales are set up in a course. Hidden in the straw bales are canisters similar to what you’d use at a drive-through bank. One or more of the canisters contain a live rat! It’s your dog’s job to sniff out that rat and tell you where it is.

When I explain this to people I love to see the expression on their face change from polite interest to absolute disgust when I mention the rats!

Although barn hunt is all about your dog finding the hidden rats, you never see or touch the rats themselves. They’re safely tucked away in the tubes for the whole event. Their safety and wellbeing are important to everyone at the event. Basically, no rats are harmed during this sport!

As you progress in Barn Hunt, the levels get increasingly difficult with complex tunnels and decoy tubes.

I adopted my chocolate lab, Burt, 2 and half years ago when he was about 7 years old. In that time, I’ve witnessed his amazing scavenging abilities and hunt drive.

*Sidenote: Do you know the difference between Prey Drive and Hunt Drive? Prey drive is when your dog goes after something that’s moving. Hunt Drive is when your dog goes after something they may never see, like a scent. I found this so fascinating because Burt definitely has a strong Hunt Drive which is what you want for Barn Hunt.

What are the Different Barn Hunt levels?

If you think your dog has a good nose and hunt drive and want to get into Barn Hunt, there are a lot of levels to work up through in the sport. If you’re just starting out you’ll want to do Instinct. From there you can work up from Novice to Open, Senior and Master. There is also something called Crazy 8s that you can participate in regardless of your title or position.

Here’s a brief summary of each level. You can read more about these in the official Barn Hunt rule book. When I read the rule book, I wish someone had simplified it! So here you go:

Instinct: 1 minute round. In Instinct, there is a straight tunnel that is optional for your dog to complete. The important part is finding the rat tube. In the ring, a wooden cradle is set up in the open with 3 tubes. 1 is empty, 1 has rat litter in it, and 1 contains the live rat. Your dog needs to sniff out the rat tube and you need to identify it correctly.

Novice: 2 minute round. In Novice, there is a required straight, short tunnel and your dog must also climb on top of a straw bale with all 4 feet. Hidden in the straw bales are 3 tubes. 1 is empty, 1 has rat litter in it, and 1 contains the live rat. Your dog needs to do the tunnel, climb and sniff out the hidden rat tube… and you need to identify it correctly.

Open: Eligible after obtaining a Novice title. 2 minutes 30 second round. In Open, there is a required 8′-10′ long tunnel with a 90-degree turn. There are 5 tubes hidden in the straw. 1 empty, 2 with litter, and 2 with live rats. Your dog needs to do the tunnel, climb and identify both of the rats.

What is barn hunt

Senior: Eligible after obtaining an Open title. 3 minutes 30 second round. In Senior, there is an even longer tunnel (12′ to 20′) with up to three 90-degree turns. There are 8 tubes hidden in the straw. 1 is empty, 3 have litter, and 4 contain live rats. Your dog needs to do the tunnel, climb and find all 4 rats.

Master: Eligible after obtaining a Senior title. 4 minutes 30 second round. In Master, there is a really long tunnel that must appear dark. In this level, the straw bales are arranged in a more challenging layout. There are 8 tubes, which could contain 1 to 5 live rats. You won’t know the total and have to really trust your dog to tell you when you found them all!

*Crazy 8s: This round has no pre-requisites and is open to all levels. 2 minute round. There is a Senior level tunnel, 8 live rat tubes, and 4 litter tubes. Your goal is to find as many as you can in the time. For each correct rat you earn 10 points. For tunnel and climb, you earn 10 points each. When you accumulate 500 points you will earn your Crazy 8s Bronze title. There are many levels up from there!

How do you Prepare for a Barn Hunt with Your Dog?

First off, prepare for a barn hunt by checking out the Barn Hunt Association website. You can register your dog and learn a lot about how the sport was created back to the origins of dogs bred specifically to hunt vermin. The website has a forum specifically for Barn Hunt newbies that’s full of great advice!

On the website, you can also find a schedule of Barn Hunt events and register for a trial. Make sure that you check the official website for barn hunt rules before your trial. I noticed that the rules were recently updated in April 2021.

To prepare for your first trial, you can look for barn hunt training classes near you. Start your search with the venue near you that host the trials and other Barn Hunt events, or the Barn Hunt Club closest to you. We did our first trial at Gold Star Kennel in Cadiz, OH. They occasionally offer classes and clinics to teach Barn Hunt and introduce the dogs to the rats.

My dog Burt and I were not able to attend any classes before our trial. I was a little worried by this, but honestly, I think the best way to learn is to just dive in! Thanks to the Instinct level, I felt comfortable participating as a complete newbie!

I signed Burt up for Barn Hunt because I believed he has a natural ability for it. During his runs, he found the rats very quickly! The hard parts were the other elements like the tunnel and climbing up on the bales. Burt was so excited to find the rats he couldn’t focus on the other tasks. We need to work on training for hose elements!

Training Your Dog to Tunnel Through Straw Bales

For us, the hardest part of Barn Hunt is the tunnel. I know that will be a challenge for Burt because it’s made of straw bales and it’s pretty tight at 18″ wide. For a big labrador like Burt to get through he needs to hunch down. All sizes of dogs participate in Barn Hunt, but the standard tunnel size is always the same.

I knew the tunnel would present a challenge for Burt so we spent a lot of time training at home with a pop-up agility tunnel (this is the one I have). And he’s pretty good at that! The problem is that the tunnel in Barn Hunt is nothing like an agility tunnel!

I can imagine Burt heard me say “tunnel” in the ring, looked around, and thought, “crazy lady, there’s no tunnel here!”

Before our next Barn Hunt trial, I will get some straw bales and build a tunnel in our backyard to practice with. Now that I’ve seen how it’s set up, I think we need to replicate the Barn Hunt tunnel as close as we can for Burt to master it.

barn hunt scent work dog sport

How to Train Your Dog for Scent Work

For you and your dog, the tunnel might come easily and you’ll need to spend more time training the scent work side of the sport. You can start by playing simple games of “Search” at home to encourage your dog to sniff around for hidden treats.

Although Barn Hunt classes can be hard to find, many dog training facilities offer scent work or nose work classes. Those would be really great preparation for Barn Hunt because your dog will learn to search and indicate to you that they found the scent.

If those classes are hard to find near you, you can also buy a scent work kit (like this one or this one) and grab a book to learn. Dogwise is a publisher of very niche dog-related books and they have a wonderful selection of nose work and scent work books!

As with a lot of dog training and dog sports, I think the training is 90% people training and 10% dog training! If we can learn to listen to our dogs, pick up on their signals and tap into their natural abilities, it will be much easier! 

What Our First Barn Hunt Trial Was Like

Of course, I was nervous going to our first Barn Hunt Trial! As I mentioned, we weren’t able to attend any classes, so I was really diving into the deep end! Plus, Burt is a 9 year old special needs rescue dog who has never done anything like this before!

Packing up the car to go to the event, I felt like I was forgetting something. But I wasn’t! The cool thing about Barn Hunt is that you really don’t need anything other than you and your dog! The whole course is set up for you. You’re not allowed to take treats or watches in the ring, so leave all that in the car.

Burt was signed up for 1 round of Instinct and 1 round of Novice. When we arrived, there was an open slot in Novice, so we took that and Burt was able to do a second run.

If you’re going to your first trial, I recommend signing up for 3 rounds in a combo of Instinct and Novice. It’s a good number of tries for you and your dog to get the hang of it and see if Barn Hunt is a good fit for you.

When you arrive at the event, you’ll check-in and look for the posted order of events to see where you and your dog are on the list. Each level is broken down into “blinds” with 4 or 5 dog and handler teams. While the course is being set, you’ll sit behind a partition with the other competitors in your blind. A chime will ring when it’s your turn to go up to the ring.

Everyone at our first Barn Hunt Trial was so nice and welcoming! Handlers, organizers and the judge took time to explain all the rules to us and 1 other newbie who was there that day. There were about 30 dogs participating throughout the day. Many were signed up for several rounds and hung out all day from 9am-6pm.

As soon as your run begins there is someone to keep time and document how long it takes you to find the rat and/or successfully complete the course. On Burt’s first Instinct run, he found the rat in 18 seconds! He was the fastest of all the other dogs in Instinct that day! I was a very proud momager!

In both of our Novice runs, Burt found the hidden rat canister in about 30-40 seconds. He would have found it even sooner if I haven’t been trying desperately to get him to do the tunnel! When we finished our second round the judge even told me that Burt did an AMAZING job! I was so proud of him!

It’s safe to say that Barn Hunt is Burt’s new hobby! I’m already signing us up for a second trial in August and a third in October! Now, I just have to find some straw bales for my backyard to build our training tunnel.

What questions do you have about Barn Hunt? Comment on this post and I’ll do my best to answer them. You can also check out the Barn Hunt Association website and forums where handlers, organizers and experts with much more experience than I can help you out.

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