It’s Wednesday word day and today we’ll be getting more acquainted with the word “ratter.” What do dogs have to do with rats? Last time we checked, cats were the role models par excellence when it came to chasing and hunting down rats. Interestingly, it turns out that there are several dogs breeds with a history of taking over the unglamorous task of killing rats and excelling at it too! It may be surprising for you to find certain types of breeds among the list of dogs with a history of being ratters.
The History of Ratters
In its most simple definition, a ratter is dog who was selectively bred for catching rats and other types of vermin. Generally, ratters were dogs who were small to medium in size.
In ancient times, keeping the rat population under control was of primary importance due to the spread of fatal diseases such as the black plague in Europe. Rats were also often damaging food supplies, leading to great losses.
Several types of dogs were found suitable for the task, and some were known to routinely accompany the “rat catcher” a person who made a business out of catching rats. Jack Black was a popular rat catcher from Victorian England who was often accompanied by his furry helper.
Did you know? The earliest record of dogs used to kill rats comes from the retrieval of the body of “Hatch,” a mongrel dog whose body was found on the Mary Rose, an ancient ship that sunk in 1545. Hatch was purposely kept on board to control the rat population.
A Bloody Sport
What did rat catchers do with all the rats they caught? Jack Black was known for supplying thousands of live rats for the purpose of rat-baiting, a bloody sport that became popular towards the end of the 19th century. The sport consisted of placing several rats in a pit, and then dogs, usually terriers, would be sent out to kill them. People would bet on how long it would take for the dogs to exterminate them all.
Not all dogs were up for the task, rat baiting required agile dogs with fast reflexes. A good ratter was expected to take five seconds to kill a rat, and dogs who killed fifteen rats within a minute were considered excellent ratters.
It wasn’t unusual for some rats to bite when they were cornered which led to injuries to the dog and some dogs even lost their eyes. Fortunately, the bloody sport of rat baiting has become illegal in most countries. The last rat-baiting event was held in 1912 in Leicester.
Did you know? The world record in rat baiting was held by Jacko, a black and tan bull terrier who managed to kill 100 rats in 5 minutes and 28 seconds on 1 May 1862.
Many dogs bred to control the population of rats were working terriers developed in England, Ireland and Scotland. Following is a list of several dog breeds that were commonly used as ratters:
Don’t be fooled by this breed’s lamb-like appearance. Under their innocent looks hides a feisty terrier with a history of catching a wide variety of vermin ranging from mice, rats, badgers, hares and foxes. Bedlington terriers originated in England and were named after the mining town of Bedlington, in Northumberland, North East England.
In the mines, this dog was able of clearing many tunnels of rats with a tenacious determination. Their looks aren’t casual, it’s said that the fur on the bottom parts of their legs was crafted in such a way as to protect them from the bites of vermin.
Don’t let the lap dog with pink bows looks fool you, the Yorkie is a ratter by heart. Originating in Yorkshire, a region in Northern England, the Yorkie was employed for killing the many rats populating the mines and cotton mills in the mid 1800’s when England was at it’s peak production during the Industrial Revolution.
But that’s not all! Soon, the Yorkie was also used to hunt down animals living in dens and burrows such as foxes, badgers and other small wild animals. These dogs were admired for their bravery and determination, a trait that’s often seen in many working terriers.
In England, the 19th century was a time when rats were consider a health risk and killing the rats was a popular sport. John Hulme, a fan of the rat baiting sport decided to cross a whippet with a cross-bred black and tan terrier in hopes of developing a tenacious dog that was suitable for the sport.
The ancestors of the Manchester terrier succeeded so well, that the breed was established. The ears were cropped to prevent them from getting torn. Despite the fact that the sport of rat-baiting was banned, the small terriers managed to continue their work in the many public inns that were infested with rats. At night, they were turned loose to snatch as many rats as they could.
And what about rat terriers? As the name implies, the name rat terrier stems from this dog’s main occupation. The rat terrier’s ancestors were introduced in the US by English miners and other working class immigrants. This dog was particularly cherished for his ability to kill vermin on American farms in particular from the 1920s to the 1940s. Their numbers though declined sharply from the 1950s with the advent of chemical pesticides.
The list of ratters goes on. Other dog breeds who were used to kill rats included: Jack Russell terrier, dachshunds, cairn terriers, Norfolk terriers, Sealyham terriers, border terriers, papillons, schipperke, Affenpinschers, Patterdale terriers, Lakeland terriers, and Prague ratters.
Most breeds with a history of ratting are kept as house pets today. Because of their past, these dogs tend to not do too well with small critters. According to the Rat Terrier Club of America, any small, quick moving animal is considered “fair” game from a rat terrier’s perspective and therefore the chase is on.
Many ratters are attracted by toys that make sharp, squeaky noises, and given the opportunity, they’ll just break them apart. Nowadays, may previous ratting dogs are “put to work” by engaging their bodies and minds in earth-dog trials, but in some places they are still being used as ratters. According to Wikipedia, some dogs are still being used as a form of pest control in many major cities around the world as a more humane alternative to rat poisons.
- Wikipedia, Rat Baiting, retrieved from the web on March 2nd, 2016.
- Jack Black, rat catcher, 1851, Mayhew, H. (1851). ‘London Labour and the London poor’, Volumne 3, pg. 11 at The Perseus Digital Library, public domain
- Billy, the rat killing dog, public domain.