July 22 is Rat Catcher’s Day! What does that have to do with dogs? If you have a terrier, lots!
Okay, so technically Rat Catcher’s Day celebrates the day the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the children out of town in 1376. (Wait — there’s a holiday for kidnapping?) But along with that, Rat Catcher’s Day honors all who are employed as rat catchers, sort of like Secretary’s Day, only with, um, rat catchers. So, be sure to take your rat catcher to lunch today!
And if you don’t have a human rat catcher, consider doing something special with your dog — especially if they are of the terrier persuasion. Here’s why:
When, way back, people took up agrarian ways of life, they settled in one place, growing crops and storing the harvest for later use. In other words, they created rat utopia. Fortunately, dogs think ratopia is also dogtopia, and it wasn’t long before farmers were breeding their best rat-killing dogs to one another, creating strains of dogs who were good at sniffing out rats hidden in nooks and crannies around the farm and home. Without these dogs, many farmers would not have survived.
Many of those breeds survive today, most notably as the Rat Terrier (duh), Australian Terrier, Bedlington Terrier, Cesky Terrier, Glen of Imaal Terrier, Manchester Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, Russell Terrier, Norfolk Terrier, Norwich Terrier, Welsh Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier, among others. Even one of AKC’s newest breeds (official as of January, 2016), the American Hairless Terrier, is a direct descendent of the Rat Terrier. Many other terriers were used to hunt a variety of vermin, including rats, although their focus away from the farmstead may have been more on fox, badger, and otter.
Of course, people started bragging about how good their ratters were, and it wasn’t long before bets were being placed on ratting contests. Before there was Game Boy, before there was Monday Night Football, before there was MTV — there were blood sports. Bull-baiting, dog fighting, and other blood sports were outlawed in England by the early 1800s, but everybody turned a blind eye to rat catching.
And actually, the real rat catching occurred before the actual event, when rat catchers (people, that is) gathered up to 1,000 rats at a time for the pits. Then up to 100 rats were placed in a pit, and a dog was let loose among them. The clock started when his feet hit the ground and stopped when he was picked up after killing the last rat. The world record rat killer is said to be a black and tan Bull Terrier named Jacko, who killed 100 rats in 5 hours and 28 minutes.
Today, rat-catching contests are both outlawed and out of favor. Nobody goes to the corner tavern to watch the rat pits anymore. And as for practical rat killing, dogs have been largely replaced by rodenticides, but some people still prefer dogs as the “green” option. Even though more violent, death by dog is arguably more humane than death by poison.
Most terrier owners prefer to let their dogs get back to their roots without shedding any blood, however, and they can do this through either Earthdog or Barn Hunt trials.
In American Kennel Club Earthdog tests, dogs must traverse an underground tunnel, find a caged rat, and bark at it. The AKC offers different title levels that have an increasingly longer distance to the tunnel entrance, longer tunnels, more turns in the tunnel, and even a wrong tunnel entrance, false exit, false den, an obstruction and constriction point within the tunnel, and another dog present.
The dog must find the rat within a certain time, bark at it enthusiastically for either one minute or a minute and half, and at the highest level, return when called back through the tunnel once the rat is hidden from view. Admittedly, these trials are pretty low on the entertainment scale, since once the dog goes into the tunnel that’s the last you see of him. Although you do get to hear him bark. Hey, nobody claimed rat contests could compete with modern-day entertainment.
Barn Hunt trials are slightly more entertaining, and are gaining in popularity. Unlike Earthdog trials, which are open only to go-to-ground terriers and a few other breeds who work underground, Barn Hunts are open to any breed. One or more rats are hidden in well-ventilated tubes amongst piles of hay bales. The dog has to find all the rats, indicate he’s found one in a way his handler can interpret, and also make it clear to his handler when the area is rat-free.
Along the way, he must traverse a tunnel of size appropriate to the dog’s size and jump up on some hay bales (ramps are used for very small dogs). At higher levels, he has to tell the difference between a tube with a rat and a tube with used rat bedding.
But what about the rats? In both Earthdog and Barn Hunt events, the rats are protected from the dogs. The dogs can’t reach them in Earthdog trials, and they are not supposed to grab, drop, or shake the canister containing the rat in Barn Hunt trials.
In addition, a rat wrangler is assigned to see to their safety and well-being. Rats must be changed out regularly so they don’t get overheated or overstressed (or get a bad earache from all that barking!), and they must be cared for properly during their off-time. Good rat wranglers know they had better treat their rats right: After all, if it weren’t for rats, we wouldn’t have some of our best dog breeds! The trials depend on good healthy rats, which in turn depend on good rat wranglers.
So maybe instead of being Rat Catcher’s Day, we should rename today Rat Wrangler’s Day!
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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.