The first time I heard about Barn Hunt, I knew my dog, Mark, would be a natural. A fellow trainer had told me how her 16-year-old gets as spry as a puppy when he’s in the ring and still brings home first-place ribbons.
Mark loves to hunt. Hundreds of strangers have pictures of him from over the years standing still as a statue patiently waiting at the mouth of a gopher hole. We yell, “SQUIRRELS!” to rev him up and send him sprinting. Marcus Furelius Chillimus Maximus has always been, as his full name suggests, chill to the max, and the revered “s” word is one of the only things that gets him moving at top speed anymore now that he’s 11. So before I even knew how to play, I had him registered for the next event.
Barn Hunt is a new and quickly growing sport where handlers lead their dogs through a small course of hay bales searching for live rats encased in tubes hidden in the hay. The rats are protected by the tubes, which have air holes allowing the dogs to hear or smell the rats while in the maze. It’s a timed event, and there are a few obstacles involved as well. All dogs are off leash and owners are not allowed to physically touch them while they work, so it’s all about communication. Events are held all over, but usually on farm properties in more rural areas just outside big cities.
For Mark’s first event, my fiancée and I spent the weekend up in Napa to be close to the ranch in Fairfield. I had my wranglers and boots packed, and Mark had his good leather collar on with his shiny cowboy belt buckle. We’d been unwittingly working at this his whole life, and now I’d been talking about this trip for weeks. You can imagine my dismay when the night before as I was looking up our start time, I found an email letting me know the events for the weekend were cancelled at the last minute. The next one in the Bay Area was more than a month away. I decided I’d play dumb, show up anyway, and try and talk them into letting me practice.
The cancellation of the event was a blessing in disguise. We were the only people there besides the event host and his dog’s trainer. They were practicing on the course that had already been built, and they were more than happy to introduce us to the sport. We received two hours’ worth of training repetitions and breaks for instruction from those kind Barn Hunt experts. Rather than jumping right into competition like I tried to do, they recommended starting with a clinic to learn the ropes and give your dog a taste for it as the best way to get into the sport. And after experiencing our very own private clinic, I highly agree.
The key to Barn Hunt, as with most dog sports, is the bond and communication you have, and Mark and I have always shared the type of friendship that makes most of the women I’ve dated jealous. The practice session that day was probably one of the best days of his life. He’s 10 years old and he looked half that in the ring, which was awesome for me to see. His natural drive to hunt was crucial, and on his very first run, Mark found a rat within 20 seconds. In his final run of our mock competition that afternoon, he found three rats in 1:09, beating a master’s level Jack Russell terrier the trainer had with her. My fiancée’s golden retriever surprised us all as she and her mom took home first place and the bragging rights. I paid for breakfast. Two sides of bacon.
Barn Hunt has titles, levels of increasing difficulty, and championships, and many people take it quite seriously, although anyone is very welcome. Some participants are such characters, and parts of the scene at my first competition reminded me of Best In Show, with many ladies knitting or crafting under tents made of seemingly sequenced reflective solar tarps instead of sitting in the shade during the often long waits between runs. A far cry from the kind of tailgating I was used to in college, but still fun if you love dogs.
In our second competition, Mark placed fourth, and with one more qualifying finish, we could have moved up from novice level. That day was one of the best memories I’ll ever have with Mark. I was a proud dad. We all love our dogs, but to be filled with pride for any big accomplishments our dogs do is something I think most of us rarely feel. I can see the excitement and happiness in his eyes, too, in the picture we took that day on the farm as he looks up at me beaming, wearing his ribbon around his neck. Now old, Mark is blind and can’t participate anymore. That picture of him looking up at me means a lot more now. And I’m so happy we were able to build those memories together. I’m so happy he got the chance to make sport of what he loves.
If you’re interested in hearing more about this sport, check out BarnHunt.com.
David Levin is the owner of Citizen Hound, voted Best Dog Walker San Francisco 2015 by Bay Woof readers and Top 5 in the Bay Area by the Bay Area A-List four years running. Levin has a passion for teaching, and instructs dog walkers through his SF Commercial Dog Walker Certification Course and clients through his training company, Dog & Owner Training. Visit CitizenHoundSF.com for more info.