THE first chapter of this lesson-book has gone to the printer, so I don't quite know what I said in it, but I think we had finished the home-life of the ferret and were just taking it out of its box. Different professors have different opinions as to what is next to be done with it. Many (and they are good men too) think you should put it into a box about eighteen inches long, ten inches high, and ten wide; the box to be divided into two compartments, with a lid to each, and with leather loops to these lids through which to thrust a pointed spade so as to carry it on your shoulder. I have tried this plan, but I have never quite liked it. I have found that after a heavy day's work the box was apt to get heavy and feel as if it were a grand-father's clock hanging on your back. Then the ratting spade was engaged instead of being free to mump a rat on the head in a hurry, or point out a likely hole to the dogs. When a ferret was wanted, all the others would dash out and have to be hunted about to be re-caught. Now and then the lids came open and let all out; and now and then I let the box slip off the spade and fall to the ground, and then I felt sorry for the ferrets inside it! No, I have always carried my ferrets in a good strong canvas bag, with a little clean straw at the bottom, and a leather strap and buckle stitched on to it with which to close it. Don't tie the bag with a piece of string—it is sure to get lost; and don't have a stiff buckle on your strap that takes ten minutes to undo. Remember the life of a rat may depend upon your getting your ferret out quickly. Never throw the bag of ferrets down; lay them down gently. Don't leave the bag on the ground in a broiling sun with some of the ferrets in it while you are using the others, or in a cold draughty place on a cold day; find a snug corner for them, if you can, and cover them up with a little straw or grass to keep them warm.
If, when carrying your ferrets, they chatter in the bag, let them; it is only singing, not fighting. I have never known a ferret hurt another in a bag. Always bag your ferret as soon as you have done with it; don't drag it about in your hand for half an hour, and don't put it in your pocket, as it will make your coat smell.
When I have done work and turned towards home, I have made it a rule always to put a dead rat into the bag, as I think it amuses the ferrets and breaks the monotony of a long journey; just as when I run down home I like taking a snack at Swindon Station, just to divert my mind from the racketing of the train and the thought of the hard seat. When you get home, give the ferrets a rat for every two of them, if you can afford it, for then they need only eat the best joints. If you have not many dead rats and want to save some for the morrow, one rat for three ferrets is enough for twenty-four hours; but don't forget to give them water or milk.
I think I have said enough as to the management of ferrets, and will go on to speak of the necessary tools. The chief thing is a good ratting spade. What the musket is to the soldier, the spade is to the rat-catcher. You may get on without it, but you won't do much killing. I have tried many shapes, but the one I like best is on the pattern of the drawing in the frontispiece. It should not be too heavy, but yet strong; and, therefore, the handle should be made of a good piece of ash, and the other parts of the best tempered steel, and the edge should be sharp enough to cut quickly through a thick root. The spike should be sharp, so as easily to enter the ground and feel for a lost hole. This will constantly save a long dig and much time; besides, one can often bolt a rat by a few well-directed prods in a soft bank —not that I approve of this, as there may be more than one rat in the hole, and by prodding out one you are contented to leave others behind. No, I think the ferret should go down every hole challenged by the dogs, as then you are, pretty sure of making a clean job of it.
Besides the spade, I have always kept a few trap boxes. These are to catch a ferret should one lay up and have to be left behind. I bait them with a piece of rat and place them at the mouth of the hole, and it is rare I don't find the ferret in it in the morning. I also take one of these traps with me if I am going where rats are very numerous; then, if a ferret stops too long in a hole, I stick the mouth of the trap over the hole and pack it round with earth and stop up all the bolt holes, and then go on working with the other ferrets. When the sluggard is at last tired of the hole, it walks into the trap, shoving up the wire swing door, which falls down behind it, and there it has to stop till you fetch it.
If I am going to ferret wheat stacks where rats have worked strong, I take with me half a dozen pieces of thin board about a foot long. I do so for this reason. The first thing rats do when they take possession of a stack is to make a good path, or run, all round it just under the eaves; and when disturbed by ferrets, they get into this run and keep running away round and round the stack without coming to the ground. Therefore, before putting in the ferrets, I take a ladder, and going round the eaves of the stack I stick the boards in so as to cut off these runs, and when a rat goes off for a gallop he comes to "no thoroughfare," and feeling sure the ferret is after him, he in desperation comes to the ground, and then the dogs can have a chance. I once killed twenty-eight rats out of a big stack in twenty minutes after the ferrets were put in, all thanks to these stop-boards; and though I ran the ferrets through and through the stack afterwards, I did not start another, and so I believe I had got the lot.
I think I have enumerated all the tools required for rat-catching. I need not mention a knife and a piece of string, as all honest men have them in their pocket always, even on Sundays. Some rat-catchers take with them thick leather gloves to save their getting bitten by a rat or a ferret; but I despise such effeminate ways, and I consider he does not know his profession if he cannot catch either ferret or rat with his naked hands.
I must now turn to the subject of dogs—one far more important than either ferrets or tools, and one so large that if I went on writing and writing to the end of my days I should not get to the end of it, and so shall only make a few notes upon it as a slight guide to the student, leaving him to follow it up and work it out for himself; but in so doing I beg to say that his future success as a rat-catcher will depend on his mastering the subject.
But, before proceeding further, I am anxious to say a few words in parenthesis for the benefit of the Head Masters of our schools. Admirable as their academies are for turning out Greek and Latin scholars, I cannot help thinking a proper provision is seldom made in their establishments for acquiring a real working knowledge of the profession of a rat-catcher; and I wish to suggest that it would be as well to insist on all those students who wish to take up this subject keeping at school at least one good dog and a ferret, and that two afternoons a week should be set apart entirely for field practice, and that the cost of this should be jotted down at the end of each term in the little school account that is sent home to the students' parents. I know most high-spirited boys will object to this and call it a fresh tyranny, and ever after hate me for proposing it; but I do it under a deep sense of duty, being convinced that it is far better they should perfectly master the rudimentary knowledge of such an honest profession as that of rat-catcher, than that they should drift on through their school life with no definite future marked out, finally to become perhaps such scourges of society as M.P.s who make speeches when Parliament is not sitting. Judging from the columns of the newspapers, there must be many thousands who come to this most deplorable end; and if I can only turn one from such a vicious course, I shall feel I have benefitted mankind even more than by killing rats and other vermin.
Now I must return to the subject of dogs, and in doing so I will first begin on their masters, for to make a good dog, a good master is also absolutely necessary. Anybody that has thought about it knows that as is the master, so is the dog. A quiet man has a quiet dog, a quarrelsome man a quarrelsome dog, a bright quick man a bright quick dog, and a loafing idle ruffian a slinking slothful cur.
First of all, then, the dog's master must understand dog talk; for they do talk, and eloquently too, with their tongues, their ears, their eyes, their legs, their tail, and even with the hairs on their backs; and therefore don't be astonished if you find me saying in the following pages, "Pepper told me this," or "Wasp said so-and-so." Why, I was once told by a bull terrier that a country policeman was a thief, and, "acting on information received," I got the man locked up in prison for three months, and it just served him right. Having learnt dog language, use it to your dog in a reasonable way: talk to him as a friend, tell him the news of the day, of your hopes and fears, your likes and dislikes, but above all use talk always in the place of a whip. For instance, when breaking in a young dog not to kill a ferret, take hold of the dog with a short line, put the ferret on the ground in front of him, and when he makes a dash at it say, "What are you up to? War ferret! Why, I gave four and sixpence for that, you fool, and now you want to kill it! Look here (picking the ferret up and fondling it), this is one of my friends. Smell it (putting it near his nose). Different from a rat, eh? Rather sweet, ain't it? War ferret, war ferret! Would you, you rascal? Ain't you ashamed of yourself? War ferret, war ferret!" Repeat this a few times for two or three days, and when you first begin working the dog and he is excitedly watching for a rat to bolt, just say "War ferret" to him, and he will be sure to understand. Should he, however, in his excitement make a dash at a ferret, shout at him to stop, and then, picking up the ferret, rub it over his face, all the time scolding him well for what he has done; but don't hit him, and probably he will never look at a ferret again.
In my opinion there is nothing like a thrashing to spoil a dog or a boy; reason with them and talk to them, and if they are worth keeping they will understand and obey. Mind, a dog must always obey, and obey at the first order. Always give an order in a decided voice as if you meant it, and never overlook the slightest disobedience. One short whistle should always be enough. If the dog does not obey, call him up and, repeating the whistle, scold him with a scold in your voice. Don't shout or bawl at him for all the country to hear and the rats too, but just make your words sting. If he repeats his offence, put a line and collar on him and lead him for half an hour, telling him all the time why you do so, and he will be so ashamed of himself that the chances are he will obey you ever after.
Put yourself in the dog's place. Fancy if, when you have "kicked a bit over the traces" at school, the headmaster, instead of thrashing you, made you walk up and down the playground or cricket-field with him for half an hour; but no, that would be too awful; it would border on brutality! But you would not forget it in a hurry.
We humans often behave well and do good, not because it is our duty so to do, but for what the world will say and for the praise we may get. Dogs are not in all things superior to humans, and in this matter of praise I fear they are even inferior to us. They most dearly love praise, and a good dog should always get it for any and every little service he renders to man. Remember, he is the only living thing that takes a pleasure in working for man, and his sole reward is man's approbation. Give it him, then, and give it him hot and warm when he deserves it, and he will be willing to do anything for you and will spend his life worshipping you and working for you; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, he is yours, with no sneaking thoughts of a divorce court in the background.
There is another thing a master should always do for his dog himself and do it with reason. See to his comfort; see that he has good food and water and is comfortably lodged. Don't let him be tied up to a hateful kennel in a back yard, baked by the sun in summer and nearly frozen in winter; often without water, and with food thrown into a dish that is already half full of sour and dirty remains of yesterday's dinner. This is not reasonable and is cruel. When he is not with you, shut him up in a kennel, big or little, made as nearly as you can have it on the model of a kennel for hounds. Let it be cool and airy in summer and snug and warm in winter; keep all clean—kennel, food, dishes, water and beds. Don't forget that different dogs have different requirements; for instance, that a long thick coated dog will sleep with comfort out in the snow, while a short-coated one will shiver in a thick bed of straw. Picture to yourself, as you tuck the warm blankets round you on a cold winter's night, what your thin-coated pointer is undergoing in a draughty kennel on a bare plank bed, chained up to a "misery trap" in the back yard, which is half full of drifted snow. Think of it, and get up and put the dog in a spare loose box in the stable for the night, and have a proper kennel made for him in the morning.
I once had a favourite dog named "Rough" that died of distemper. A small child asked me a few days afterwards if dogs when they died went to heaven, and I, not knowing better, answered, "Yes"; and the child said, "Won't Rough wag his old tail when he sees me come in?" When you "come in" I hope there will be all your departed dogs wagging their tails to meet you. It will depend upon how you have treated them here; but take my word for it, my friend, you will never be allowed to pass that door if the dogs bark and growl at you.
Don't suppose I am a sentimental "fat pug on a string" sort of man. Next to humans I like dogs best of all creatures. Why, I have made my living by their killing rats for me at twopence per rat and three pound a farm, and I am grateful: but I like dogs in their proper place. For instance, as a rule, I dislike a dog in the house. The house was meant for man and should be kept for him. I think when a man goes indoors his dog should be shut up in the kennel and not be allowed to wander about doing mischief, eating trash, learning to loaf, and under no discipline. Now and then I do allow an old dog that has done a life's hard work to roam about as he likes, and even walk into my study (I mean kitchen) and sit before the fire and chat with me; but, then, such dogs have established characters, and nothing can spoil them; besides, they are wise beasts with a vast experience, and I can learn a lot from them. It was from one of these I learnt all about the prigging policeman.
A young dog is never good for much who is allowed to run wild; every one is his master and he obeys no one, and when he is taken out he is dull and stupid, thinking more of the kitchen scraps than of business. No, when I go to work, I like to let the dogs out myself, to see them dash about, dance around, jump up at me and bark with joy. I like to see the young ones topple each other over in sport, and the old ones gallop on ahead to the four crossways, and stand there watching to see which way I am going, and then, when I give them the direction with a wave of the hand, bolt off down the road with a wriggle of content. You might trust your life to dogs in such a joyful temper, for they would be sure to stand by you.
Thank you, young gentlemen; that is enough for this morning's lesson. You may now amuse yourselves with your Ovid or Euclid.