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Wisconsin dogs frantically search for hidden rats in sport called Barn Hunt

National group says more than 2,400 Wisconsin dogs are registered to play Barn Hunt

At the 2024 Regional Team Competition in Wisconsin, a pair of dogs participate in Barn Hunt. Photo courtesy Timmersion Media

The dog’s ears perk. 

“Squeak, squeak, squeak.” 

The dog, its nose to the ground, frantically searches through straw bales. 

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The rat’s faint sound is now close. The dog darts through hay bales, a hunter sniffing for its squeaking prey. 

It’s called Barn Hunt. Dogs and their owners enter a ring filled with piles of straw bales. Under timed conditions, dogs must navigate the obstacle course to find pet rats inside breathable tubes. 

Sue Kendall, co-owner of Oh, Rats Dog Training in Wisconsin, told WPR’s “Wisconsin Today” that her business uses 500 bales of straw per year to play Barn Hunt.

Kendall said the Sheboygan Falls facility houses a colony of about 75 rats and is one of five clubs in Wisconsin hosting classes and trial events year round. She said the facility has had nearly 3,800 trial runs since January. 

Across Wisconsin, more than 2,400 dogs are registered to play Barn Hunt, said Robin Nuttall, founder and owner of the national Barn Hunt Association.

Nuttall said the fast-growing dog sport stimulates a “hard drive” in dogs. 

Dog plays Barn Hunt
Dr. Whately, wire fox terrier particpates in Barn Hunt. Photo courtesy Lynne Busse

“The dogs really, really enjoy it,” she said. “Different breeds approach it differently. Some dogs will freeze and cock their heads and perk their ears because they are listening for the rat as well as scenting the rat.” 

Both Kendall and Nuttall agree the rats are working partners in the sport. 

“They’re happy to hop into their tubes,” Kendall said. “When we have young rats, we place tubes in their cages so they can go and nest in those tubes. When they come out, there’s always a tasty treat on the other side.”

This summer, the Oh, Rats Dog Training facility is hosting its 50th trial event. Other clubs across the state, including Happy Feet K-9 Agility in Milwaukee County and the Janesville Beloit Kennel Club in Rock County are also holding trials.

Kendall said she was hooked after trying Barn Hunt in 2013. That’s when Robin Nuttall launched the dog sport for her first miniature Pinscher, Zipper.

Zipper smells hay
Zipper, the dog who inspired the sport of Barn Hunt, owned by Robin Nuttall. Photo courtesy Debbie Christoff, Pawsitive Impressions

“I wanted to prove that he could do what the breed was bred to do,” Nuttall said. “And they were bred to hunt vermin.” 

Prior to 2013, the American Kennel Club’s Earthdog event, which is similar to Barn Hunt, was limited to certain terrier breeds. That meant miniature Pinschers like Zipper were barred from participating.

Nuttall said within the same year, the American Kennel Club recognized Barn Hunt titles earned in Earthdog. This means that dogs registered with the AKC can have Barn Hunt titles recorded on their pedigrees. Over the past decade, more than 4,600 Wisconsin dogs have won titles in Barn Hunt. 

“We have introduced a lot of people and dogs,” she said. “Our introductory class, called the instinct class, is there precisely for people who haven’t done this before. Their dog may not have ever scented or seen a rat before.”

Nuttall called Barn Hunt a “gateway sport” to other dog agility opportunities. 

“This is not necessarily a sport that you have to put in a couple of years of training to even compete in, it’s just something that you can do on the weekend,” Nuttall said. 

Kendall said dog owners whose pets don’t qualify are still able to enjoy time spent doing something fun. 

 “We are like one big happy family,” she said. “We love to have new people join us.” 

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