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They smell a rat! Ready Pet GO! takes in a Happy Ratters class

For centuries, dogs were trained to sniff out pests. Now the practice is modern-day sport, bringing together dogs and their owners while keeping the rats safe.

BEDFORD HEIGHTS, Ohio — Fall is the perfect time to head back to class. We're talking about opportunities for your dog, not the kind of school with textbooks and lunch rooms. 

Everyone knows about obedience and agility offerings. But we decided to check out something new that really has its roots in "dogdom" dating back centuries: Ratting.

In the 21st century, a dog's life is often pretty sweet with plush bedding, toys and high-grade food. But that wasn't always the case. 

Throughout much of history, dogs had jobs to perform. They guarded livestock, helped with hunting, and protected their owners. Many dogs also were tasked with keeping farms, shops and kitchens free of vermin. "Ratting" is the term used to describe hunting rats. 

Today, the practice has come back, but in a different form.

In a Happy Ratters class, the goal is for the dog and owner to have a fun, positive experiencing that strengthens the bond between the two -- while also placing safety as the highest priority for all involved -- including the rats. 

Simply put, the class tests a dog's natural ability to sniff out vermin. 

"Happy Ratters is kind of a spinoff of barn hunt, where the dogs still are looking for well-secured rats, but in a urban-style setting. We set it up here, so it's nice and safe for the rats and for the dogs." 

Valarie Ross-Smith is co-owner of Sits 'n Wiggles Dog Training. She started offering "sampler" classes recently at her Bedford Heights facility. The positive-reinforcement trainer became a fan the sport after trying a class with her dog, Phoenix, who suffers from some anxiety. 

"She's very scared of other dogs. Going to big events or places that she has to be off leash and run around and get hyped up usually isn't really good for her," Ross-Smith said. "So we did a couple of sampler days with her, where we could just take her in. She had time on her own to hunt for rats in a barn-style hunt. She loved it. She was happy, she enjoyed looking for the rats."

So how does it work? 

Rats are safely enclosed in sturdy, aerated tubes and hidden among bags or boxes on the course. Dogs not only must find the tubes, but complete a few tasks as well. 

"So that's a platform they need to walk over. When you are doing trialing, there are time limits depending on the game, between one to three minutes. And you earn points by hitting all those elements that are there for that game," she explained. 

On Ready Pet GO! we talk a lot about the power of your dog's nose. Working it provides both mental and physical exercise. It can calm anxious dogs, help those with lots of energy and provides positive stimulation. 

Another benefit is that your dog doesn't have to be fast or agile. Any dog can try ratting. 

"Any age, any breed, dogs with a disability, blind, deaf...we have a dog who comes and does it who is in a wheelchair," Ross-Smith shared. 

There are also very strict rules about the care and protection of the rats used in Happy Ratters classes. 

Ross-Smith says the rats they use, are also their pets.

"We use heavy-duty PVC piping with plenty of ventilation. They get bedding and snacks in there. If a dog gets a little over-excited, we remove the rat for the rest of the day, or give them a break if they seem afraid or are unwilling to go into the tube, or retire them. They get vet care. They live in a posh little condo that we made for them. So, about once a week they have to do a little work," she shared. 

As for Phoenix, she's clearly in her element as she moves around the course, alerting Valarie when she's found a tube. It not only makes her nose happy, it makes her tail happy, too. 

Sits 'n Wiggles is offering Happy Ratter samplers classes on Wednesday Sept. 13 from 3 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.  Each session lasts 20 minutes. You can sign up HERE. Space is limited. 

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