Tucked away in a barn away from the primping and pampering of AKC-registerd dogs at the annual Mount Ogden Kennel Club show is a pack of canines digging in hay bales looking for rats.
With dogs and their handlers taking up residence for the 18th year at the Cache County Fairgrounds this past week, the relatively new all-breeds Barn Hunt competition featured dogs of all sizes as they searched a course for domestic rats hidden throughout the bales.
According to the Barn Hunt Association website, the sport was started because — at the time — a "min pin" was not allowed to participate in the AKC Earthdog competition. Organizers from the Barn Hunt Club of Northern Utah noted the clubs and competitions popping up all over the country and that it "is the fastest growing dog sport" in the country.
Much of the popularity and growth the sport has seen is credited to the fact it is open to all breeds without restrictions. The only "restriction" is based on a dog being able to squeeze itself through an 18-inch-wide hay bale tunnel during the search for rats.
Lisa Parker, a certified Barn Hunt judge and competitor, made a nearly 5-hour journey from Montour, Idaho, just outside of Boise to judge the four-day event.
"I've been doing this for four years now," Parker said. "I just came away from the high-intensity trials and agility atmosphere to the relaxed nature of Barn Hunt."
Parker competes with two border collies, Max and Pippa, and said she got into the sport after Pippa required shoulder surgery following years of competing in agility trials. She said the dogs almost instinctively are able to search out the rats — which are pampered as much as some of the show dogs.
"They walk in the barn and know the rats are in there," Parker said. "This is a lot of nose and even ear work because they can hear them chatter in the tubes. There is no sight-prey drive or things to chase. They are searching for the rats that are placed throughout the course."
Parker said one of the biggest components of Barn Hunt is the safety of the domestic rats they use. The rats are never out of their tubes when dogs are present in the arena, and the dogs are never allowed to chase or kill the rats.
Competition itself is actually fairly laid back for the handlers, who are keenly observing their dogs as they investigate the hay bales searching for the PVC tubes with either a rat or 24-hour-old bedding used to mislead and cause false triggers.
Competitors are given nearly five minutes to clear the course and find only the rats. They can score extra points by having the dogs navigate through a tunnel and perform a climb onto a series of stacked bales.
Hailing from White Hall, Montana, Judy Strom and her five-year-old English cocker spaniel, Zephyr, made the journey to Logan this week "because there aren't many competitions up near me."
"This is fairly new for us. We've been at it a little over a year," Strom said. "A lot of the dogs, like the terriers, this is pure instinctual and they can pick it right up. Some dogs don't want anything to do with it. You just kinda have to read the dog and see how they are."
Adding a level of excitement to the competition, organizers hold "Crazy 8 Runs" where eight rat-filled tubes are placed around the course and dogs and handlers have just two minutes to locate rats and navigate the tunnel and climb portions.
Max, Parker's collie, was able to successfully accomplish the task earlier in the week, clocking in at 1:57 for the "nearly impossible feat."
"Crazy eights is really fun," Strom said. "You get two minutes for eight rats, and it is just go, go, go. There really are only a handful of the dogs will find all eight. Those dogs are some of the best dogs in the country."