You know, there’s a lot of crazy ideas modern people have. We pick up these ideas in childhood, from rumors and urban legends. For instance, everyone knows that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, a “fact” which is completely untrue. Everyone knows that the Coriolis effect means that water circles the drain in the opposite direction in North America than in South America, a fact that is also untrue (the Coriolis effect does change the direction in which hurricanes and typhoons spin in the northern hemisphere vs. the southern hemisphere, but does not affect the water in your bathtub). And everyone knows that cats are the ultimate rat killer. Except that they aren’t. Dogs are.
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The Root of the Behavior
Domestic cats are predators, and they enjoy hunting and wounding or killing prey such as birds and rodents. But domestic cats kill for pleasure, like psychopaths. If a cat doesn’t feel like hunting that day, he simply won’t. Anyone who has ever tried to train a cat to do something that he just doesn’t feel like doing can attest to how stubborn the animal can be.
Not so with dogs. Certain breeds of dogs have been bred and trained for centuries to seek out pests like rats and mice to kill them. You can see the results of this selective breeding in the shape of, say, the Dachshund, which was developed to hunt and kill burrowing animals (in fact, a common nickname for Dachshunds in Germany translates to “badger dog”). Not only are Dachshunds physically shaped to charge into an animal’s burrow, the dog has the kind of tenacity and single-mindedness of her fellow hunters, terriers.
The Terrier is a classification for a number of breeds, from the spry Jack Russell to the intimidating American Staffordshire. These dogs may vary widely in size, but they are all tenacious, fearless, and energetic. These dogs were bred for hunting and the smaller ones, such as the aptly named Rat Terrier, live to seek and destroy pests. After all, they were developed to keep farms free of weasels and other pests that may pose a threat to eggs, grain, and even livestock.
Wherever you find people, you will find rats living on the edge of our society, eating our garbage, spreading disease, and generally detracting from the pleasures of life. Rats are specifically a problem in farming. Not only do they eat eggs and grain, they kill chickens and piglets and their burrowing can weaken the foundations of buildings and make holes that can injure livestock. Rats are particularly destructive owing to their size, but other vermin like mice, voles, and weasels can also cause damage. So people bred Terriers, dogs developed to protect against pests, in much the same way that Collies and other dogs were developed to protect the stock.
Encouraging the Behavior
Terriers belong to a classification of dogs known as working dogs, meaning that they were developed with a task in mind. And although a working dog can make a great companion, they often have excess energy. And let’s face it, when a dog gets bored, she gets a little weird. Who hasn’t heard the incessant bark of a yappy dog looking for an outlet?
So, on one hand, we have a bunch of dogs that were bred and developed to hunt vermin. On the other hand, we have a bunch of rats. Now, we may not be able to find a stray group of sheep for our Collies to herd, but, sadly and disgustingly, rats are all too easy to find. So some enterprising breed enthusiasts are now setting up rat hunts, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, in New York, the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society is a group that meets nearly weekly to allow their dogs to search for and kill rats throughout New York City. There are other groups throughout the country. The inspiration for rat catching groups comes from the UK, where there are several organizations, such as the Royal Albert Ratting Club, who provide volunteer extermination services to local farmers, food processors, and local residents.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Volunteering your dog for rat catching duty is a great way to exercise your dog and do something positive for your community. But there are some things to be aware of before you and your dog get involved. As you might imagine, a dog can get a number of diseases from rats. It’s very important that your dog is up-to-date with vaccines. Additionally, you should train your dog to bring her prey to you rather than to eat it. Your local ratting club can help you with the training. Also, the AKC offers training and non-competitive tests in which rats aren’t actually killed. Humans also present dangers to dogs on a rat hunt. Farm equipment and chemicals come to mind, as well as cars and trucks since rat hunting is an off-leash activity.
Rats are voracious, unsanitary and dangerous. They are called “vermin” for a reason. Humans have spent hundreds of years breeding and training dogs to hunt and kill them, and many dogs have a strong prey drive to hunt rats. It is possible to give your dog a chance to fulfill this imperative, and, if you exercise caution, you can provide her with a really rewarding activity that will also be helping your community.