The Big Barn Hunt (written 3/10/21)
Today was one of the first, dazzling days of spring. Cascades of sunshine, the wind roaring in from the south, and temperatures flirting shamelessly with eighty degrees. A day I absolutely had to be outdoors. The kind of day you just have to share with someone. And who better to share it with than three eager dogs and five curious rats?
This was the day of our first big barn hunt.
I had looked forward to it ever since last fall, when Gem and Tassie and the baby goats had helped to prep the arena, and forty bales of hay had been delivered. I had even wrestled a lot of those bales into rat-friendly piles and configurations, and had invested my talents and energies even further by creating a really cool tunnel for the dogs to explore.
And then winter settled in, and conditions were just too windy and cold and wet for rats to be out.
Today, though, there were no more excuses. It was time to rodeo. It was time to scoop the five rats into their special tubes, screw the tops on tight, and bundle them off to the waiting hay bales.
I hid them pretty conspicuously for this time. Everyone is still so new at this game that I wanted to be sure to set us all up for success. This was the first time we would be working in the large, outdoor arena. And, as much stomping and chomping as the goats might have done last fall, they had still left some thick and prickly undergrowth in parts of the enclosure. The dogs would be working in a totally new environment, and for that matter, so would I. It really didn't fit into my plans for the day to get lost or disoriented. And on top of that, I really didn't fancy losing any rats, either.
Cinder and Scotch were the two searchers I wasn't sure about. Cinder especially had shown a marked interest in finding rats back at the house. But whether or not either one of the dogs could be relied upon to locate each of the five rats out in the arena remained to be seen. And just in case they didn't, it would be up to me to track down the missing rats in their tubes and bring everyone safely home.
Well, it would be up to me and Tassie. She would almost certainly find all of them. I was counting on her.
So I began with the two boys, knowing that if the worst happened and we misplaced a rat or two, Tassie would do the last run and save the day.
First up was Cinder. He came in excited but unsure. What exactly, he all but demanded, did mom want him to do this time? He was reluctant to leave my feet and go search on his own. So I decided to hunt down a rat tube myself, and let him remember just what we were looking for.
Things went on a little better after that. He showed more interest, but he still needed to commit, not only to searching, but also to indicating when he's actually found a rat.
Okay, next up: Butterscotch.
He worked surprisingly well. He actually did take some initiative, peeling himself away from his typical position at my left knee to go hunt. He even bounded onto and over the tunnel. (He really likes that tunnel.)
The only problem was, that with four rats in the wagon, rat number five was still missing in action. Scotch just wasn't finding it. Or if he was, he wasn't indicating the find to me.
After about twenty minutes, I was ready to bring in reinforcements. Time was getting away from me, and more important, Scotch was beginning to waffle and lose interest. I guessed that he had probably found rat five several times by then, but just hadn't known how to tell me so. And I didn't want him to establish a habit of not trying to indicate his find to me.
So I shrugged and decided that four out of five wasn't bad for the first day out. I hid the four other rats one more time, took Scotch home, and came back with Tassie.
And yes, she was amazing. She has always been fascinated by anything small and furry, but has made peace with the fact that, in the house, critters like ferrets, rabbits, and the occasional pet rat are off limits and should be ignored. Now that I was actually telling her to "go find rats!" she was all over it.
No offense to my two boys, but there was a stark contrast between their uncertain efforts and Tassie's quick and decisive work. It took her less than five minutes to find all five rats. She got out there and hustled. She knew what she was doing. She was looking for rats, and she was fast, focused, and deliberate. And the wonderful thing for me was that once she discovered a tube, she stayed with it, pawing and scratching at it until I arrived. Super helpful for me, and no doubt, very exciting for the rat.
There were two good things that came out of this adventure. One is that the missing rat is no longer missing. All five of them did come home.
The other is that Tassie is ready to show. I don't think there's much doubt about that. There is a barn hunt trial tentatively scheduled in the area this fall, and you can count us in. Perhaps this long season of emptiness for the dogs and me is finally coming to an end.