They smell a rat

Barn hunt competition brings out all breeds

Louie the golden retriever, with handler Nancy Murillo, gets the rat’s scent during a barn hunt trial.

Louie the golden retriever, with handler Nancy Murillo, gets the rat’s scent during a barn hunt trial.

Photo by John Domogma

Join the hunt:
Redwood Ratters has several more barn hunt trials around Northern California over the summer. The next event at Fidolites, which is moving to Corning, will be Aug. 27-28. Visit for more info.

Standing less than 10 inches tall, Truffles would not strike a casual observer as a serious athlete. But on a recent hot Saturday morning in north Chico, the timid-looking Dachshund was a master—or at least in the master class—at the Barn Hunt Trials.

Barn hunting is an organized sport that features a course/maze made of hay bales in which a live rat—inside a plastic tube—is hidden. Then the canine “ratters” navigate the maze to locate their prey and are judged on time.

Laurie Cowhig looked right at home surrounded by a sea of wagging tails and more than two dozen human onlookers. Cowhig runs Redwood Ratters, part of the Northern California Barn Hunt Association, and organized the recent weekend event late-June at Fidolites, a training facility in north Chico that soon will be relocating to Corning.

Cowhig described barn hunting as a “gateway sport,” and looking around it was apparent that it appealed to owners of a wide variety of dogs, with breeds ranging from German shepherds to English bulldogs. The day before the two-day competition, she held training sessions for the beginners.

Cowhig, who lives in Petaluma, started organizing competitions throughout Northern California full-time earlier this year, and holds at least two each month. Though the fastest dog/handler team in each category gets a ribbon, Cowhig said the competition is generally fairly casual.

“It’s a really fun way for people to come out and interact with their dogs and interact with like-minded people,” she said.

The rules are fairly simple: A dog of any breed that can fit through an 18-inch-wide tunnel enters the arena, owner at its side, with goal of finding the rat in the hay-bale stacks. There’s a time limit—between two and six minutes, depending on the division—and sometimes decoy tubes are set out along with ones holding rats. At higher levels, there can be multiple rats as well as requirements for dogs to jump up on high stacks of bales and even tunnel through them. Trials are between dogs of the same class (novice, master, senior, etc.) and further separated by dog size.

Cowhig explained that the competition is all about the handler’s relationship with the dog and being able to recognize that the dog has found something. If a dog chooses a decoy, it’s considered a fail.

Dixie Luebcke, Truffles’ handler, said she knows right away when Truffles has honed in on the rodent. “When he finds the rat, he knows it’s a rat. Some of the dogs give less of an indication, but he goes bananas,” she said. “You’ll hear him screaming.”

Luebcke, who’s from Sunnyvale, has been barn hunting with Truffles since the beginning of the year, and follows Redwood Ratters around Northern California to compete. She thought it would be a fun activity for Truffles because he loves chasing squirrels, and she’s since fallen in love with the community of barn hunters.

Truffles competed in four trials over the weekend, and though he failed to pass either of the Saturday heats, he did win one of the Sunday trials, earning a High in Class distinction as a small dog in the master class.

“It’s great because it gives you something to do with your dog, and all the people are really great,” Luebcke said.