One phrase I hear repeated the most among multiple dog trainers is “Trust your dog.” This all-important mantra can take on many meanings, from trusting your dog’s opinion of your current date to trusting them to find the correct scent in nosework. For me and a certain black-and-white beastie I brought into my life, it took on an even different meaning: Trust your dog to find what’s right for them no matter your original plans. Trust your dog to find their niche in the world.
As a child, I spent hours watching pretty much anything dog-related to be found on TV, from that old “That’s My Dog!” show, to various conformation dog shows, to the elite-level agility trials. I dreamed about running Katie the Miniature Schnauzer around the agility course, navigating through the obstacles to a spectacular time and finish. It was thrilling. As I grew up and Katie grew old, the dreams faded for a while as college loomed nearer. Just days before my high school graduation, Katie passed away and I was without constant canine companionship for several years until I was out of university and on my own.
As soon as we had a house with a yard, my spouse and I adopted our first dog: A Shiba Inu/Husky mix named Kaya. With her, I started taking classes at a local dog training place, absolutely dazzled by their agility field and the rekindling of my old dreams. Before I knew it, I was working there as a trainer myself, hoping to eventually break into agility competition. I drove down to Texas to adopt the quintessential breed for the sport: A Border Collie I decided to name Willow.
A couple of years passed with very little progress. Doubts about the facility’s leash-jerking training methods grew from an annoying little voice in the back of my head to a loud roar. My dog was frustrated. I was frustrated.
I resigned and I haven’t looked back.
Over the next couple of years, I went back to the basics using a completely different method of training, guided by one of the most amazing teachers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. It took months, but Willow slowly moved beyond her fear of learning. Her prong collar was traded in for a simple harness, and in place of receiving a leash-jerk correction for the wrong response, she received a click and a treat for the correct one. She started to blossom again.
My dream seemed back on track!
But then far too soon, cancer took the life of my teacher who had given us so much. Willow and I were forced to find somewhere else to learn.
I decided to attend a local agility-specific school and start looking toward competition even though my dog was nearing middle-age. Unfortunately, Willow had always struggled with deep-seated anxieties, and it seemed as if we would never be able to move forward with agility. Even though she was soon capable of doing full courses well, the presence of my instructor or someone acting as judge was too much for her. Dogs barking at her would shut her down. Loud buzzers brought her stress levels above threshold. And I was at yet another loss. I blamed myself and my early aversive training methods for ruining her -- and to be honest, my own -- chances at competition.
For the sake of keeping Willow busy, I stayed in classes just for fun. One day, I noticed a new flyer posted on the wall that read “New Barn Hunt Classes!” It pictured a group of happy dogs and handlers holding ribbons, all surrounded by cute illustrations of rats. Having kept pet rats before, I was intrigued by a sport that joined rats and dogs. I decided to sign up for the workshop partially to see what it was all about, but also to see how the rats used in the sport were treated.
When we arrived at the seminar, Willow was a ball of anxiety. There was a small group of new people and new dogs that she and I hadn’t met before along with the woman who was putting on the classes: a local Barn Hunt judge. My concerns about the rats dissipated when I realized they were extremely well socialized, very much unafraid of dogs, and armored by thick aerated PVC tubes to protect them from any potential harm while on the course.
The general gist of the sport is this: The dogs have a certain amount of time to go through a tunnel made of hay bales, completely climb onto at least one bale, and find all the live rat tubes on their course while ignoring the tubes that are either empty or have only litter in them. The amount of time, number of live rat and other tubes, and how complicated the tunnel is changes based on the level the dog is in: Novice, Open, Senior, or Master. The job of the handler is to call “Rat!” when they think their dog has alerted on the correct tube(s) and to help direct the dog around the course.
Once the basic rules were explained, the dogs were brought outside for a quick introduction to the rats and to let the instructor view their behavior. The rats themselves were placed in thick-barred metal cages so the dogs could see and smell them simultaneously and have a better idea of what they would be looking for.
Willow was absolutely transfixed. In fact, she did so well at the beginner seminar we were allowed to stay on for the advanced.
A few months later, we started trialing. She now has her Instinct and Novice titles and is working on her Open. I was finally participating in a sanctioned sport with my dog! We were finally working as a team! And most importantly of all, she was enjoying every moment of it.
Barn Hunt is far from agility. There’s no running on the human’s part. There’s no complicated footwork, crosses, contact training, or obstacle work. It’s not flashy and, in fact, with all that hay it can be downright dusty and dirty. It’s definitely not what I had in mind when I adopted that crazy little Border Collie years earlier, but it’s her passion. And in dog sports, that should be what matters.
by Carol Gravley