ERIE, Colo. -- Usually, when a person yells "rat!" they're cursing vermin, not praising a dog.
But when you take part in a Barn Hunt, the objective is for your dog to sniff out a heavy, perforated tube containing a live rat hidden among straw bales, and not to be fooled by decoys that contain only used rat bedding. When the handler thinks the dog has found one, she calls "rat!" and is told by a judge whether the dog was correct.
The American Kennel Club, which recognizes the sport, says the rats are protected and unharmed.
Laura Lane of Fort Collins, Colorado, has tried many activities with her three dogs — nose work, agility and different types of obedience work — but tried rat finding because "I wanted something I could do with all three of my dogs, since they all have very different interests."
I accompanied Lane to Country Road Ratting in Erie, about 25 miles north of Denver. In a covered barn, we stood around a 24-foot square ring with straw bales arranged to form pathways, platforms and tunnels. A table outside the ring held a bin with four 10-inch-long PVC tubes punched with small holes and capped at both ends. Each housed one of the trainer's pet rats and some nesting material to keep it comfortable. Another bin held tubes that appeared identical but contained only used bedding.
We arrived with a motley crew: Lane's 3-year-old schnauzer mix, her 9-year-old Spanish water dog with neck and knee issues, her 13-year-old German wire hair pointer who is now mostly deaf, and my 5-year-old German shepherd mutt with terrible hips.
Barn Hunts are designed to test dogs' speed, agility, footing, hunt drive, scenting ability and responsiveness to instructions. Robin Nuttall created the first Barn Hunt in 2013 as an activity for working dogs of various breeds and abilities. She wondered whether her miniature pinscher had originally been bred to control rats and mice.
"I wanted to prove these dogs could still work," Nuttall said in a phone interview from her home in Columbia, Missouri.
Today, there are 284 Barn Hunt Association clubs with more than 38,000 registered dogs throughout the United States, Canada and Norway. Titles are recognized by the AKC and others.
AKC spokeswoman Brandi T. Hunter said those participating in rat-finding games should do it only with a reputable organization to ensure that the rats, and the dogs, are protected. "The rats are not harmed or stressed in any way due to the fact that there is no actual hunting of the rats. They are safely secured in aerated plastic tubes that keep them protected and are often beloved pets who go home to loving families," she said.
The Humane Society of the United States said through spokeswoman Kirsten Peek that it was unfamiliar with rat-finding games. She added that the society believes that "rats, like all animals, deserve to live free from torment and cruelty."
Nuttall said she keeps a close watch on the clubs and has expelled two that didn't meet her guidelines for rat care and cleanliness. "I personally really love rats. They are smart, tough, sweet animals," she said.
Lane, who had pet rats as a youngster, said she felt comfortable participating in the sport at Country Road Ratting, which isn't affiliated with Barn Hunt.
"If I thought the rat was in any danger or unhappy, I wouldn't do it," she said.
For most events, dogs must pass through an 18-inch-wide tunnel, climb onto the bales and find some number of rats. When a dog finds a tube, the tube is removed by a "rat wrangler," who oversees the humane treatment of the rodents. The tube is always supposed to be carried horizontally so the rat isn't upended.
While my dog's bad hips will never allow him to compete, his tail wags and kisses indicated he had fun demonstrating an innate ability to track a scent.
It was interesting to see how different dogs performed. The schnauzer would have been happy just to jump up and down on the bales rather than look for the rats. When she located one, she sat silently and looked up at Lane, a cue they've been working on.
Her pointer, on the other hand, was much more the hunter. When he found a tube hidden under loose straw, he would dig for it, and then lick and bite at the sturdy tube until the wrangler quickly removed it.
At the end of our lesson, our instructor, Courtney Taylor, offered to show us what it looks like when a dog goes through a course approximating a master challenge. At that level, eight tubes are hidden; one to five of them contain rats, but the handler doesn't know how many. The tunnel has between two and five 90-degree turns, and the bales are stacked three high in some areas.
Taylor let her own mixed-breed terrier off his leash and he was off, tail wagging while he searched nooks and sniffed behind bales, barking confidently each time he found one of four hidden rat tubes.
"Rat," ''good boy" and a quick back scratch were Taylor's responses.
For most of the event, she stood quietly near the gate with her arms behind her back. At one point, she walked to the far end and pointed toward the more difficult of the course's two tunnels, prompting the terrier to sprint through. Once he emerged, the dog quickly searched the ring one last time. Satisfied there were no more rat tubes, he ran back to the gate and sat down. Taylor called "clear," and the clock was stopped with half of the 4 minutes and 30 seconds allowed still remaining.
While my dog had fun, it was obvious her terrier truly was a master rat finder.