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  • Writer's pictureReyna Bradford

The Rats Give Back (written 10/31/21)

The adventure continues.

Of course, the reason I got rats in the first place was to train my dogs for the canine sport of barn hunt.

As COVID shut down dog trials and practice events last year, and then, this year, as restrictions have still remained so tight that I have not been able to continue obedience competitions, barn hunt became a sport I turned to as something fun that would keep my dogs and me busy and training.

There were the original six rats, who joined the family last fall. Then there was the more lately-arrived foursome, purchased from a pet store this past spring. And then there was the veritable rat explosion this summer.

Two unplanned, surprise litters, and a grand total of seventeen babies.

And of course I did keep them. Of course I did. I just made sure to separate the boys from the girls, and then made sure everybody had enough cage space, and then more cage space, and then a little more ...

By the time the Topeka dog shows, including rat trials, were held in late August, I was really getting excited about this barn hunt thing.

Maybe I could let other clubs and training groups use my rats? Maybe they could even be used in trials?

So when someone suggested that I might even consider opening my own training space for barn hunt practice every once in a while, I ran with the idea. My resident rat pack, currently totaling at twenty-one, definitely needed a job to do.

That was how I found myself baking pan after pan of doggy Halloween goodies for the last several days.

Barn hunt practice has been happening for five weeks now. We get together every Sunday afternoon. All dogs at any level are welcome, whether they've never seen a rat before, or whether they're acing competitions at the masters level. And, because practice fell on Halloween this year, I could hardly resist the opportunity to give these eager dogs some treats in exchange for their tricks.

But if I'm honest, I realize that I'm the one who has gotten the best treat. The opportunity to open up my new training facility to working dogs and their dedicated people has been a bit of a dream come true for me. Mostly we train in the outdoor arena -- the large, fenced patch of ground that the goats helped to clear last fall. This summer my dad finished the job by burning the area, and then we hauled in eighty or ninety hay bales, set them up in stacks and tunnels, secured all the fencing, and brought in the rats.

It has truly been fun. Always before in the dog show world, and perhaps even in life generally, I have so often been the one to take and to ask and to take some more. This time, I get to give back.

I love bundling the rats into their individual tubes each Sunday. (Yes, every single tube is graced by a braille label with the appropriate rat's name on it.) I love seeing which dogs will show up to train this week. I love watching the rapport between each dog and handler. I relish the chance to watch the dogs learn and become more proficient. Every dog has a unique style and method of searching for the rats and indicating a find.

And every Sunday afternoon has made me happy. I find myself more eager to work with my own dogs between times. Not just on barn hunt, but starting back to serious obedience again, and planning which tricks to teach my younger dogs, and getting back out there and doing tracking at the park.

As is so often the case, giving something to others has resulted in me receiving even more in return.

So I handed out salmon brownies and tuna fudge this afternoon, and told everybody to have a good week, and then gathered up the rats in their tubes to go back home. And I felt whole. I felt hope, for my own dogs, and for our future that has so long been put on hold.

We'll get there again. Even better than before. Seriously, who would have thought that a pack of rats could do so much for a pack of dogs, and for the human who loves them?

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