Zygi, my 10-month-old Rottie, burrows her nose deep into a pile of straw. Her nose quivers as she sniffs. Loose straw and straw bales fill the open-sided shed, which is about twenty by thirty feet. I keep my eyes glued on her. With the help of a trainer, I’m working her off-leash. Signs of her losing impulse control float just beneath her surface. She snorts, exhaled air blowing straw into her face, and shakes her body from nose to tail.
Grabbing a mouthful of straw, she tosses some into the air and munches on the rest until I tell her to drop it. She licks and sniffs a ramp used by scores of dogs. I hold my breath as she moves on.
Barn Hunting* came about within the past decade. Robin Nuttall developed it for her Min Pin, a dog bred to hunt mice and rats in homes. She used her twenty plus years of experience with dogs, dog training, and dog venues to create a new sport. It welcomes all breeds and mix-breeds of dogs that can fit through an eighteen-inch wide, bale-high tunnel. Even Saint Bernard dogs and Great Danes, as well as Rottweilers, have titled in Barn Hunt trials. The rat nestles securely in its ventilated PVC tube, safe from dogs’ mouths and paws, as required by the rules. A “rat wrangler” is always present to ensure the well-being of the treasured pet rats used in the Barn Hunting exercises.
Dogs follow their noses. They experience a world I can’t even imagine from scents wafting through the air and soaked into concrete, dirt, and grass. They sniff out food, live and dead. Some were bred to hunt, and in particular, to hunt vermin.
Small vermin-hunting dogs burrow into the ground and pull their prey from holes and dens. These include Dachshund, Jack Russel Terriers, and Border Terriers.
Other dogs were bred to hunt above ground, eradicating vermin, and especially rats, from barns, silos, and homes. Even today, trained dogs hunt rats in the alleys of New York. These dogs might be medium to small in size, but need to be quick. Rat Terriers, Standards Schnauzers, and German Pinschers are just a few developed specifically for rat-hunting.
Her stubby tail wiggles with glee when she sees the tunnel. Built of stacked straw bales, it is barely two feet high, same as Zygi at her withers, and is twenty-feet long. Without a moment’s hesitation or warning, she lunges through its dark opening. My gut tightens. I worry she may get stuck. Seconds later, however, she dashes out the far end. I take a deep breath. Relief that she’s okay, but she’s lost all sense of control. She scampers around the center island of bales that cover the tunnel and dives into the opening again.
The dog’s ability to smell is remarkable*, especially when compared to our puny efforts. For us, odors flow in when we inhale and out when we exhale. Dogs’ noses have slits in the side of them. The nose quivers to push air deeper. Air flows out through the slits during an exhale, so the currently captured smell can linger among the hundreds of millions of olfactory receptors. Poor humans have only five or six million of these sensory receptors sites.
In addition to the special mechanisms for sniffing and the huge number of receptors in their noses, dogs also have a vomeronasal organ, which is a specialized sac above the mouth covered in even more receptors. This organ detects body scents and allows for social assessment. It may explain Zygi’s propensity to crunch on any number of things I find disgusting: dried dog poop topping the list.
I grab Zygi before she starts her third lap around the shed, before she darts once again into the tunnel. With choke collar and sturdy leash securely in place, and with a few commands of sit and down to regain her attention and focus, I lead her gently on a loose leash, encouraging her to smell and “find it,” her command to find the rat.
A large breed, weighing anywhere from 75- to over 100-pounds, Rottweilers date from medieval Roman times. They probably developed from the Romans’ drover dogs, which herded cattle and pulled carts, among other things. Rats may have been beneath these early masters’ considerations, but like most dogs, they hunt. They’re predators. And in today’s world, a rat can certainly stand in for a rabbit, a raccoon, or even a deer. After all, it’s all in the nose and size matters little when you’re a dog.
Nose continues to quiver as Zygi snuffles around the piles and bales of straw. I can see the rat’s PVC tube. Because Zygi is new to the sport, the Rat Wrangler didn’t cover the tube with straw as she would for a more experienced dog. I direct Zygi around the edges of the barn, around the bales, and to the tube. Will she smell the rat? Will she let me know if she does?
An eager pawing at the straw beside the tube answers both questions. Instincts, physiology — and training — win the day.
*Barn HuntSM is an approved AKC sport. The national Barn Hunt website is at http://www.barnhunt.com/. The local Barn Hunt group, Bosque Barnstormers, has a website at http://www.bosquebarnstormers.org/. Donna Crary-Johnson’s dedication and support for Barn Hunting is particularly appreciated.
**reference: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. NY, NY, 2009.