It’s a valid question and one that I was wondering myself when I was thinking about starting training. With my new rats, I give them a couple weeks to acclimate to me and their new surroundings. When they are comfortable in their new space, they learn to go into the tubes, get sniffed by my dogs and hear my dogs barking from a distance. I bring my dogs down at feeding time so they associate the dogs with food. When they don’t show any fear of that, then I move to more advanced training. They get barked at while in the tube, get used to the tube moving and get pawed at while in the tube. I have a small, sturdy cage for dogs that are unsure about the rat and need to SEE the rat to get more interest and it’s obvious that the rats are not stressed by being in the cage (they take treats, groom themselves, and investigate the dogs). They are very smart animals and they have never been hurt by a dog so they have no reason to fear them. Just the opposite. Each time they are around dogs, they get food or treats! So they see the dogs as a way to get good things. They also know the dogs can’t get them.
Since we can’t know what they are thinking, we have to observe body language and behavior to assess their state of mind (just like we do with dogs). They willingly go into the tubes, something I don’t think they would do if they were bothered by what they surely know is about to happen. And they usually just saunter out of the tube at the end of training, but sometimes they don’t WANT to come out! While in the clear tube I have seen them trying to sniff the dogs, rearranging their bedding, grooming themselves, eating straw that they pull in through the holes, and even taking a nap! More than once I have had to wake them up so a dog that needed to see movement could get more interested. When rats are afraid, they try to make themselves small (cower), hide and freeze. The ends of the clear tube are solid so if the rat wanted to hide, it would go into the end cap, but I don’t see that happening. Instead, they either seem oblivious to or interested in what the dog is doing! The dog below had so little interest in the rats that I felt safe opening the tube to let him see her. Riddle was just as curious about the dog!
The tubes do occasionally get knocked around. Myself and handlers do our best to prevent that by secure placement of the tube within the bales and getting in quickly to grab the tube or by stabilizing it with our foot. The rules of Barn Hunt require that there be bedding in the tube with the rat. This provides some cushion and if the tube gets rolled, that bedding slides around the inside of the tube, allowing the rat to remain stable in the center as the tube rolls around them. And they do brace themselves if the tube moves suddenly, but then they go back about their business like nothing happened. It’s really quite remarkable and has pleasantly surprised me!
The Barn Hunt rules are written to protect the rats. There are specifications on the construction of the tubes to ensure there is enough air holes, that the holes aren’t too large/small and that the tubes are sturdy and secure. There are rules regarding how a tube may be hidden so that it’s not too deeply buried and so it’s not set at too much of an angle (which might force the rat into only one end). The rules penalize handlers for not calling the rat quickly enough if the dog is scratching or biting at the tube in a way that endangers the rat. “Rat Wranglers” are required inside the ring at trials and fun tests and their sole focus is the safety of the rats. If a dog is moving the tube too much, they remove or stabilize the tube until the dog can be removed. The rules also specify that the rats must be changed often so that the rats don’t get too hot and so they have an opportunity to get food and water. I only work my rats for about an hour before switching to fresh rats.
Riddle, the rat below, had not previously met this dog or any Wheaten Terriers before, but you can see she is willingly checking out the dog. This dog was actually fearful of the rat. This was the closest she got and she was ready to bolt the whole time! So I think this encounter was more stressful for the dog than the rat 🙂
VIDEOS of my rats showing how comfortable they are with being used for the sport of Barn Hunt.
Going in the tubes willingly: https://vimeo.com/139431738
Another video of training. Rats that are stressed have similar body language as dogs that are stressed (they cower, try to make themselves look small, won’t eat, etc.) so it is clear from this rats relaxed body language and eating that she is not stressed. https://vimeo.com/226392163
My rats are my pets and I care about them the same way I do my other pets. I built them their own room and large cages, they get special treats, I spend time playing with them and training them, and they get vet care if needed. They even have their own Facebook page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-ratty-kids/282991625203467?fref=photo
So if worry about rat stress is preventing you from allowing your dog to play a fun game that he or she will LOVE, please don’t worry! And bring your dog out to meet the girls.
Vet visit with all the girls when Sly got sick:
Their “condo” (before I got the rats). The bedding now covers the entire lowest floor. The cage gets spot cleaned daily, full bedding change about once a week, and a full scrub down/hose off once a month or so when it’s warm (sprayed with a safe enzyme solution when it’s too cold to wash them outside). It’s 3′ wide, 3′ tall and 18″ deep, so lots of room to play!
Update: The rat room and number of rats has grown since I first started.