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Barn hunting trials

By Staff | Apr 1, 2016

Sue Fleming, of Fort Dodge, guides her German shepherd, Carol, through the bales of straw in hopes of identifying a rat at the Barn Hunt Association trials on Sunday.

FORT DODGE — A sporting event for dogs that is gaining in popularity took place over Easter weekend at the Iowa Central East Campus.

Several handlers brought a variety of dogs to the Barn Hunt Association trials hosted by the Fort Dodge Kennel Club.

The trials began on Friday and wrapped up on Sunday.

For the competition, dogs are placed in a 20 by 20 ring with mazes made of straw bales. The goal is for the dogs to find live rats placed in PVC tubes.

Liz Hawkins, one of the judges at the event, said the rats are well cared for and actually enjoy the experience.

Kelli Nowak, of Chicago, Illinois, looks over her dog, Oliver, as he sticks his snout down in the straw, in search of one of the rats. Nowak said she was very proud of Oliver as he competed in the senior class at the Barn Hunt Association trials on Sunday.

“A lot of times we actually have trouble getting them out of the tube,” she said. “They seem to enjoy it.”

Candy Henely, also a judge, said the rats actually get a few shots in on the dogs.

“They can actually reach through the grate and bop the dogs on the nose,” she said.

The tubes containing the rats are hidden in the straw throughout the course and the dogs only have a certain amount of time to find them.

For each trial the dog must also go through a tunnel and climb on a bale of straw to properly complete the course.

Candy Henely, one of the event judges, leads one of the rats into a PVC tube at Iowa Central East Campus on Sunday. Henely said they take care of the rats and try to make sure they are safe and comfortable.

The dog will either pass or fail the trial.

The trials include five classes: instinct, novice, open, senior and master.

Each class has three legs that the dog must pass before moving on the next class.

At each new level or class, the trials become increasingly difficult for the dogs.

As the dogs progress through each class, the number of rats they must identify increase and the amount of time the dogs have to identify them is decreased.

Sue Fleming, of Fort Dodge, embraces her dog, a German shepherd named Carol, after competing in the novice class at the Barn Hunt Association trials on Sunday.

The bales of straw also get stacked higher and the tunnels become more complex at each level. For example, the tunnel may have more than one turn or entrance.

Participants came from all over to take part in the event.

Kelli Nowak said she traveled from Chicago, Illinois to have her dog, Oliver, compete in the trials.

“There was a trial here in Fort Dodge in November, and I decided to come for that and had such a good time,” Nowak said. “Everybody here was so nice, so when I found out there was going to be another trial this weekend I said absolutely, we are going to go back.”

Oliver is a mix between a treeing walker coonhound and a terrier.

Nowak said she has been involved in the trials for about eight months.

She recalled the first time she let Oliver loose in one of the rings.

“When I let him in the ring for the first time, he went nuts,” she said. “He had a blast. We started training after that and after a few months we decided to give it a shot and go to a trial.”

Nowak said it’s a fun sport because the dogs call the shots.

“This is a sport where the dogs are in charge,” she said. “They are the captain of the ship. They are in charge once they are in the ring and we are just there to observe and call the rat when they tell us.”

Communication with the dogs is important for the competition, as some of the lesser experienced participants learned.

In one case a dog actually identified where a rat was, but the owner did not pick up on it.

Lincoln Lloyd, of Marshalltown, read about the event and signed his dog up at the last minute on Sunday. Before the event, he didn’t know what to expect, but afterwards came out with a smile.

He said during the trial his dog, a miniature bull terrier, started licking the tube that contained the rat. At that time, he said he yelled out, “rat,” making a correct identification.

The event hosted more than 40 different dogs with handlers of all ages.

“The sport is very inclusive,” said Liz Hawkins, one of the event judges. “The only thing that keeps a dog out is total blindness.”

Handlers from ages 10 to 80 have run dogs through the ring, according to Hawkins.

Kay Johnson, of Webster City, was one of the more experienced handlers at the trials. Her miniature schnauzer was competing in the senior class where there are four rats the dog must identify.

Johnson said she has traveled to Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin for barn hunts.

“It’s fun,” she said. “It’s up to the dog to find it, and that’s their instinct and they absolutely love it.

You’re there to guide them, but they have to do the work.

It’s a lot of fun for them.”

Sue Fleming, of Fort Dodge, brought two of her dogs to the trials – a German shepherd named Carol and a golden retriever named Teddy.

Fleming ran Carol, the German shepherd, through the novice trial. After the trial was over, Carol wasn’t quite ready to quit searching for the rats. Fleming had to step in to corral her.

Fleming had an explanation for Carol’s excitement.

“Last night we played a game called crazy eights,” she said, “where they hid eight rats in the ring and she had two minutes. She found five of the eight so she thought this time there were more in there.”

Fleming said the trials are a great experience.

“I like to see my dog having so much fun,” she said. “She loves it.”

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