With dogs coming to barn hunt from so many different sports, there is often a specific challenge for each. For example, agility dogs may already know tunnels but be accustomed to “jumping” rather than “climbing”, or might fail to recognize the stack of hay we call a tunnel in barn hunt. Obedience dogs may have trouble learning to hunt independent of their handler after so much time spent learning to perform precise behaviors when cued. And it surely is a new experience to run across prickly bales of straw rather than a comfortably matted ring. As humans, we easily generalize the individual barn hunt skills (search, climb, tunnel) as the same action in our previous sport but dogs do not always make that leap so easily.
I always thought that nose work dogs had a leg up on their competition based on their previous experience. They are accustomed to leading the search. Their handlers are accustomed to reading their body language, even a fairly vague alert behavior. Empowering a dog to hunt independently and learning to read canine body language can be difficult skills to learn therefore nose work dogs should make the transition in a flash, right? Well, not always.
I recently had an opportunity to coach a skilled nose work dog and her experienced handler. The dog was very fast, nose to ground, covering every nook and cranny of the course. I was impressed. Before the run was over though, her challenge became evident. This dog who was strong and athletic never climbed. It just never occurred to her.
As I thought back to early nose work trials with Timber, I remembered being warned by judges about safety issues as he bounded up snow-covered stairs onto playground equipment or sprung up onto a picnic table. And no one in class wanted to be responsible for scratches on the instructor’s car when we practiced vehicle searches. “Feet off the car! Just use your nose.” Sometimes it seemed Timber might just land on the hood!
Is this the potential training challenge for nose work dogs learning barn hunt? I have been amazed by Level 3 nose work dogs that alert to a hide several feet above their heads and do so with four feet on the ground. One of these days I may see a barn hunt dog do that as well but in the meantime the training issue for transitioning to barn hunt may be 3-dimensional searching. Dogs searching and following odor learn to lower their noses to check ground level and raise it to air scent. But a barn hunt dog often needs to move his whole body up or down a stack of bales to catch odor on a variety of levels. Air flow is very tricky around a mountain of straw in a small ring, up, down, around and through. If a dog never gets permission to climb the straw mountain, can they succeed in barn hunt?
Just food for thought. Sometimes our past experiences work against us. It is a constant challenge to free our dogs to take the lead in this sport, but when it happens, it is magical….