Although there are many intricacies and challenges in the sport, handler focus in Barn Hunt is largely on the dog’s final response to a live tube. After all, the goal is to find all live tubes hidden in the course. And since the handler must signal to the judge when and where a hide has been found, they are dependent on the canine half of the team to clearly communicate the location of said hide to them. How does the dog communicate? Through the final response.
The challenge for many handlers it that a dog typically has two final responses:
1. The final response the handler expects to see.
2. The second is the final response the dog actually offers.
The first is typically very easy to read, a neon sign of sorts that pops up flashing with arrows over the dog that say, “It’s here!” Exactly what the final response is depends largely on the team. It may be digging, barking, freezing, looking back at the handler, laying down, sitting, etc. These behaviors are naturally offered or specifically taught during training. They are heavily rewarded and very much praised. They are, in fact, exactly what the handler expects to see each time they walk into the barn hunt ring.
The second response ranges from a more subdued version of the first to seemingly non-existent to the handler. It may be a brief glance, a head snap and light sniffing or it could even be standing 10’ away staring in a specific direction. It may change from hide to hide or continue to decrease over the course of a trial weekend. This type of final response can be confusing or frustrating to the handler, which in turn becomes confusing, stressful or frustrating to the dog. Although this weaker final response may occur rarely, for many teams it increases in frequency, eventually becoming the “new normal.” The cycle then begins again, progressively moving to progressively less reliable alerts.
This presents a very real and very difficult challenge for teams.
It is also the most common reason I see teams leave the sport.
What causes the alert to change?
How can we recover from it?
How can we prevent it?
I hope to answer each of these questions in this series, but first, a story.
In May of 2014, I traveled 2,500 miles with my buddy Comet in pursuit of a second judge and a fifth leg to finish our Master Barn Hunt title. At the age of ten years old, Comet because the first Parson Russell Terrier and only the twenty fourth dog in the country to earn the title. Comet was a very easy dog to handle. He loved the game, had no fear and never thought twice. He was a rat seeking machine. We had our ups and downs, but usually ups. Lots and lots of ups. And a lot of very loud cross communication. Handling him through his RATCHX was an incredible experience. There was honestly very little training involved with Comet. We worked out some kinks here and there, but he was in the driver’s seat and I was just there to make the calls.
It is Comet’s much younger sister Isabella, however, who made me a better trainer, better handler and better teammate. I couldn’t break Comet through poor handling. I did break Isabella. She wasn’t a fragile dog. She has the heart of a lion, resilient and always up for any adventure. It didn’t happen in one run or even two or three. It took a long time and many, many runs – some qualifying, some not. It wasn’t overt or even obvious until the moment it happened. Less than six months after the exhilaration of earning that first Master title and several shortly thereafter, I knew I had failed Isabella.
I still remember that exact moment. It was after 10:00 PM, in covered outdoor livestock pavilion under yellow fluorescent lights. I hate yellow. It was cold. I was hungry. It was that last leg needed for her RATCH. She had waited all day to finally play. She enjoyed cheese in the blind, but when we crossed the threshold in the ring, she tensed up, looked away and my last thought as I let her go was, “For the love of dog, please just let this be it.” She vaulted to the top of the tunnel and we spent 4 minutes and 30 seconds staring at each other, Issie on top of the tunnel, ears back, tail slowly wagging, a pile of straw behind her. Me, hands on my hips somewhere between begging and demanding. I finally called “Rat!” right before time. She had been right. She had spent 4:30 waiting for me to call it and reward her. I had spent 4:30 wait for her to show me what I wanted to see. I had failed her. We were broken.
Why am I sharing this? To prove that we are human. We all make mistakes but we are capable of learning from them. Most importantly, I shared this because there is hope. Isabella and I did finish that RATCH. And now, we are pursuing on our RATCHX…as a team.