Rusty the 7-month-old dalmatian is having the time of his life. He is face-to-face with a little white rat, who — don’t worry — is safely inside a cage.
Rusty, along with six other dogs and their handlers, are at a makeshift barn in north Omaha, the site of a Barn Hunt class for beginners. Barn Hunt is a dog sport designed to take advantage of dogs’ natural hunting instincts. Certain breeds such as Jack Russell terriers and miniature pinschers were bred to hunt rats and other vermin, which can spread disease and destroy crops. These breeds are appropriately known as “ratters.”
Barn Hunt is a relatively new sport. It was founded in 2013 by Robin Nuttall, a dog trainer from Columbia, Missouri. Nuttall modeled it after a similar sport called Earthdog. She says the sport has grown to include 45,000 dogs across the United States and as far away as the United Kingdom and Norway.
“We've got several hotbeds,” Nuttall says. “There's a hotbed in Wisconsin. There's a hotbed out in the Pacific Northwest and the Mid-Atlantic states — Tennessee, those areas — and then again in the Northeast.”
In Omaha, closer to Barn Hunt’s roots, dog trainer Jenny Vincent says the sport is more popular now than ever.
"I always say we introduced about 125 dogs in the sport, but now I'm guessing it’s probably close to 150,” Vincent says. “It's crazy how many people want to try it and get involved with their dog.”
Vincent is one of two trainers teaching tonight’s class. Classes fill up quickly and consistently. Competitions draw participants from Kansas City and Des Moines. And newbies like tonight’s class are showing up to see what all the fuss is about.
Ellen Wilson is Rusty the dalmatian’s owner. Like the other handlers at tonight’s class, this is her first experience with Barn Hunt.
“I want to give him something fun to do, and also give him, like, some hunting that he can possibly do,” Wilson says. “And also too it's just fun. The dogs just like, really legitimately love this game.”
The rules of Barn Hunt are simple: a dog is released inside a ring decked out with hay bales, tunnels and at least one rat and one tube of rat litter, depending on the level of difficulty. The dog must correctly find and identify the rat, not the litter, within the allotted time.
“Barn Hunt is designed to simulate what some people have to do when they have a barn and they've got vermin,” says Jen Howell, tonight’s other instructor.
Unlike when dogs hunt vermin on farms, the rats in Barn Hunt are very well taken care of. Barn Hunt rats are far from the wild animals found in sewers and grain bins. These rats are pets, not pests, and Vincent and Howell wouldn’t dream of letting them get hurt. Remember, these people are animal lovers. “Barn Hunt is an extremely rat-friendly game,” Howell says. “Jenny always says they're unionized, because there are so many rules in the rulebook as far as how rats have to be handled.” The Barn Hunt rulebook requires that rats are kept in dog-proof plastic tubes and are given regular access to food and water. Failure to abide by the rules could get you banned from the sport.
As the class goes on, the dogs take turns doing practice runs inside the ring. Taylor Gehringer’s pug mix Newman is the last to go. Despite being the only mutt in the group, Newman excels at his task.
“Lots of people have these beautiful purebred dogs that have been trained, or, you know, they have these lineages that make them pretty incredible sport dogs,” Gehringer says. “And then there's Newman.”
The people in tonight’s class don’t seem fazed by the rats. Howell says that’s not always the case.
“A lot of them are squeamish,” Vincent says. “I guess they're comforted by the fact that they're in a tube. You know, they don't have to see them. They don't have to touch them. So it's amazing. But my first experience with rats was in Earthdog with my little terrier. And my mom — she likes dogs but she's not like a crazy dog person like we are — and she went with me and she's like, ‘Our little darling's gonna do what?’ Like that was gross to her. And by the end, she was like, ‘This is fascinating. It's so much fun!’”
Squeamish or not, humans will stop at nothing to give their dogs a good time.
For more information on local Barn Hunt activities, visit the Omaha Barn Hunt Fun-addicts Facebook page.