Puppies are incredible little sponges ready to soak up all the experiences of life we have to offer them. I am often asked at what age I start training puppies for Barn Hunt. My answer is always, “It depends.” More specifically, there is no magical age to introduce a puppy to the sport. Each puppy is an individual. I choose not to focus on age and instead on the importance of calm, gentle exposure at a level appropriate to the individual puppy.

In this initial introduction, there are no rules and no expectations. There is no wrong or preferred interaction with the rat. The puppy is always given the choice to interact as little or as much as he chooses. My goal is to end a session before a puppy loses interest, however, if a puppy needs to end the interaction, we will leave and have a party and I will end the session sooner on the next round. If the cage is moved, it will always be away from the puppy to encourage movement toward the cage. If the puppy is moved it will be from side to side, never pushing or pulling toward the cage. I will always end with play. Remember, introducing a youngster to a live animal in a cage is a lot of pressure. Keep it light. Keep it short. Keep it fun.

Now, back to age…I have introduced puppies to the rats as young as four weeks as puppies become mobile and begin to explore their environment. At this age, it’s not uncommon for puppies to have little or no direct interest. In fact, the rats are often far more curious about toddling puppies than toddling puppies are about them. Here is a short video of Romeo at four weeks old. At this age, we want the puppies (and of course the rats at any age!) to have a positive experience. As you can see the, rats really enjoy engaging the dogs. I picked Arya (silver capped) and Jekyll (black) because they have always enjoyed intros with new dogs and aren’t too feisty for youngsters.

Romeo and the Mysterious Tubes

(Click the link to view)

Even at four weeks old, Romeo was very interested in rats. Although he is from working lines, this was very unusual focus and intensity. His littermate, Dice, wasn’t terribly interested and headed off to explore other things. Now a year old, both dogs have very keen interest in finding rats. They simply discovered their love of the game at their own pace.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to record the first introduction of two youngsters to a rat.

Meet Rummy, a 5-month old French Bulldog. Rummy and I haven’t worked together before, but he is quick to engage. I’d like to think it’s my winning personality, but I also have delicious treats and it is puppy lunch time. Timing is everything, especially with young puppies! Rummy’s body language is very typical of dogs of any breed meeting the rats for the first time. He is unsure what this is all about, but is curious and willing to engage. He is off to a great start!

Let’s break it down:

At 0:04, Rummy offers a sit and I simply move past the rat to another spot. I like the sit and he gets a good boy from me, but we’re exploring something new.

At 0:06, he discovers Lorraine the Rat. Yay, Rummy! Cookie for you! Note that I am feeding as close to the cage as he is comfortable. His body language indicates that he is unsure of this new development, but he’s willing to hang around and check it out.

At 0:14, 0:20 and 0:25, watch his ears. He is curious and also shifting his weight towards the rat. During this initial introduction, this is what I am marking.

At 0:32 seconds, Rummy needs a break. I mark late, just as he begins to back up. He’s not eager to move forward to get his cookie and is communicating his need to move away. I end the session. We played the cookie toss game off to the left of the camera, which was a lot of fun. Rummy’s initial response to the rat is by far the most common I encounter with dogs of all ages and across all breeds. It looks a bit like, “What is THAT? Are you crazy, woman? WHAT IS THAT? Oh, cookies! Let me look again.” It was a great start!

Here is another puppy, Ice, at 6.5 weeks. This is an unedited video of a typical introduction of a young puppy.

What did we see? First, a very curious and outgoing puppy who is eager to check out the environment and quite interested in meeting the rat. Ice takes breaks, gets lots of praise and continues to re-engage. The session ends on a high note, just before she wanders off. Off camera there is lots of praise and play. Ice worked far longer than I would expect from a puppy this young. She is also off to a great start.

Let’s break it down:

At 12 seconds, watch the head snap as Ice catches odor and meets Lorraine the Rat for the first time.

At 20 seconds, she begins to lick and wag her tail as Lorraine investigates.

At 26 seconds, I wiggle my fingers near the tube while encouraging Ice.

At 39 seconds, there is a play bow followed by a stretch and break. This is quite a lot for a youngster. After some scratches and a little personal play (unfortunately starting off camera), Ice is ready to reengage at 54 seconds.

At 1:06 I engage in a little play with Ice and by 1:08, Ice is back to the quarry. This is a much shorter break and it is the puppy’s choice to return.

At 1:19, we have another stretch. She is a little unsure about this new game. I am scratch her while praising and she starts to investigate again on her own.

At 1:25, she bites the cage. I took a moment to pet her a couple times while praising her brilliance (reminded me of the time I took telemedicine in veterinary practice). This puts me in the picture later for not only barn hunt but earthdog/go to ground.

At 1:30, I move the cage away from Ice which encourages her to move toward it. She gets pretty excited about the possibility of movement.

At 1:54, we end with play, pets and praise.

Both Rummy and Ice did very well in their first introduction to a rat. They were both curious and willing to engage. There was a lot of reinforcement as well as play. Although there is naturally pressure in meeting a rat for the first time, it was a positive experience. (It was also a positive experience for Lorraine the Rat, who is new to puppy detail and thoroughly enjoyed partaking in their treats too!) Neither puppy is ready to head off to formal training just yet, but a positive association has been made.

Written by Liz Carter
Copyright 2016. All Rights Reserved. This article may be shared in its entirety with credit given to the author and Revolution Dog Sports