and so will you … I asked a genius I know to explain the differences and similarities between barn hunt and scent work … believing as I do that the person and dog in any sport have a relationship – both contribute and both are vital to success … I wanted to know if she felt the same way …
She, Sheila, was kind enough to write a guest blog post on the subject! Enjoy – I know I did …
How is a raven like a writing desk? Technically speaking this riddle has no answer – famously from Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is steeped in crazy nonsensical logic.
Alice ends up at a tea party at which one of the arguably craziest characters, the Mad Hatter, asks her this now famous question…
When Alice asks him how, he admits that he does not know – he was just asking.
This is how I felt when Andrea asked me “how is barn hunt like nosework?” Indeed, I wanted to respond with the same chiding remarks as Alice gives the Mad Hatter: “I think you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”
Knowing Andrea and her Mad-Hatter-ness, I knew she wouldn’t accept such a simple answer to her query. (Sheila should know how simple, and lazy, I am!)
I have been involved in both sports – Barn Hunt and Nosework (or Sport Detection) – since both were first introduced to Canada. I had the privilege of being involved in some of the first trials in each sport in the country, and work with some of the best trainers and judges in both sports. My herdy mix was one of the first titled nosework dogs in Canada, and my terrier mix is the top Barn Hunt mixed breed dog in Canada.
Both sports are similar beasts for sure. In Barn Hunt, the dog runs naked in a course of hay bales and must find a certain number of rats, complete a tunnel, and climb within a set time. In nosework, dogs must find a certain number of hidden essential oils and alert within a set time.
The two sports can benefit each other heavily – often I encourage my barn hunt students with specific issues (and no access to rats) to try nosework. I equally encourage my nosework students to branch out into barn hunt! They are complementary.
You certainly can’t have Barn Hunt without nosework. To be successful in barn hunt (as my scruffy partner and I have had the pleasure of doing) you really benefit from a strong bearing in scent theory and dog behaviour around scent. Barn Hunt is also a sport which relies heavily on those two factors that Andrea drilled into my head as a student – timing and reward placement.
Barn Hunt is also a sport where you need to delicately balance your drive and energy level as a team – screaming at a high prey drive dog to GETITGETITGETIT is going to send them over the top. Standing in the corner with a solemn and distracted worker is going to get you timed out. I am not sure who first introduced me to this concept of balance (it was likely Andrea – take classes from Andrea, is the lesson of this post), but it is essentially this: Rank your dogs energy level (when hunting/searching) on a scale from one to ten. Your job, as an effective partner, is to ensure that when you add your dogs number with yours the total equals 11. So my terrier works rats at about an 8-9. I walk around the course following him, watching him, but unless he has missed an area of the course or I see something I want him to check, I rarely speak to him (other than our party at the end). I have to keep myself at a 2. My puppy is a little unsure in the ring so I cheerlead her more – praising her for checking areas and doing obstacles. This is a skill that was also engrained to me in nosework training.
When I started doing Barn Hunt the sport was trained primarily as a drive / instinct based sport. Essentially, throw the rat in front of the dog. If they go nuts – terrific! You get to play. If they don’t – wave the rat in their face. Still no reaction? Maybe this sport isn’t for you. Fortunately for me in those early days of training my dog was one of the naturals. My herding mix played nosework for years, and it is truly one of his favourite games. I threw him in a Barn Hunt ring “just to see what happened” and, based on our training in nosework, when faced with containers in which only one is different (in this case, had a rat), he did his formal alert on that container/tube. I was surprised, but not shocked considering how similar I considered the two sports.
Fortunately there are a lot of trainers now teaching the sport with the same methods of nosework – target to scent, commitment to odour, methodical searching. This is great for opening the sports to dogs without natural prey drive. And in my experience many of the dogs trained with these methods are more methodical and do not face some of the struggles as the high drive dogs (especially when facing distraction tubes). You can listen to a fantastic podcast between renowned Barn Hunt judge Liz Carter and nosework instructor Stacey Barnett and their thoughts on this topic (which are similar to my own) here: https://scentsabilitiesnw.podbean.com/e/a-tale-of-two-scent-sports-barn-hunt-and-nosework/
REALLY, one major difference between the two sports are that Barn Hunt uses live rats rather than essential oil. (If you are concerned about rat safety, there are manymanymany things written on this topic – I assure you the rats are well loved, cared for, and protected as central to the sport – I wont go into it here but am happy to answer questions or concerns). The use of live quarry isn’t important in the base terms of “ find target scent, alert!” however, Barn Hunt adds the challenge of distinguishing between live rat + bedding and just bedding – so the dog must distinguish rat smell vs live rat smell. This is a challenge that is not thrown at beginner nosework competitors. It would be akin to distinguishing between week-aged scent and fresh scent. Possible, for sure, but difficult.
Indeed, distractions are all over the place for the novice barn hunt dog. In addition to dirty bedding tubes, the dogs must ignore whatever scents are present in the bales and ring. Unlike nosework, it is nearly impossible to keep a Barn Hunt ring completely sanitary of distracting odours. When I started training nosework it was drilled into us to use gloves and never contaminate anything ever. In barn hunt you are using bales – that possibly were pulled from storage where they were lived in by mice and cats and goats and whatever other animals inhabit a working farm. Perhaps the farm dog marked every single bale. Maybe mice were running tunnels through them (this has happened in trials). Who knows how many humans or animals touched them. The tubes move all over the course throughout a trial so there is residual odour everywhere. Etcetera. Your dog must ignore all of these distraction scents and only hit on live rat. Impressive skills when you think of it that way, eh?
Barn Hunt has truly changed my perception on keeping scent areas sanitary and about how many distractions dogs can deal with. And how soon. It really brings home that “beef stew” theory of how dogs smell (you smell stew, they smell beef and carrots and onions and garlic and…)
Along this it is also important to note that many people are often concerned that teaching their dog barn hunt will increase their prey drive. Or that barn hunt will ruin agility because often agility is run in barns. These are the two big hesitations I see in people considering the sport. I think to both concerns I would answer that it is quite the opposite – have a dog who sniffs in corners of barns during agility to find the mice? This gives them an outlet. No bales? No mice! Also giving high prey drive dogs an outlet for that energy creates an easier to live with housemate. I live with 6 terrier things in a house with 7 rats in the basement. They all know they are there but is it a constant struggle to keep them away? No, they are normal happy dogs because they have a time and space for that.
The only other (major) difference between the sports is the requirement of obstacles – dogs must climb with all four feet on a bale and complete a bale tunnel at some point in their run before time is up. These challenges seem more minor, but I have seen more dogs struggle with that tunnel than any other aspect of the sport. Dogs are clever creatures and learn very quickly that there is never a rat in the tunnel – so why bother going there! This is an added training challenge for sure. And is easily remedied (pro tips here) by rewarding your dog with a rat for doing the tunnel! Do the tunnel – boom a rat appears. My terrier now runs through the tunnel to clear the course (a Masters level skill) because if there are no rats on course – maybe running through the tunnel will make one of those magic ones appear!
Essentially, I think to answer Andrea’s initial question – though perhaps nosework is nothing like barn hunt, barn hunt is indistinguishable from nosework from a training and dog behaviour perspective. Andrea may not know but was just asking – and perhaps (hopefully) my answer brings up more questions and opens a dialogue between the two sports. My ultimate goal is to slowly lure nosework people into the sport so – join us
WHOA – thanks so much Sheila … I learned tons .. and will have this to reference now too! Thanks!