The rat terrier is a dog for whom the name leaves no ambiguity: This little guy was bred for a purpose. Often mistaken for Russell terriers, rat terriers are small, adorable little dogs with intelligent eyes and a keen mind. Fast, nimble hunters, they excel at agility competitions and love to run.
Boasting an ancestry that goes back some 500 years, the rat terrier breed became established in the United States throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. Small, extremely quick, and blessed with a sharp mind and a killer’s spirit, these agile little dogs excel as hunters of vermin and other small animals. As the use of poisons and mechanical traps became more widespread, the rat terrier’s usage on farms began to dwindle, and people began to realize the bright, friendly dog made an excellent house companion as well. Nowadays, thanks to a resurgence in their popularity in the 1970s, you can find the rat terrier in a variety of settings, serving as both faithful companion and tireless working dog.
People unfamiliar with the breed often confuse rat terriers for Russell terriers. They are similar in size to the Russells, with standard rat terriers topping out around 18 inches tall and the miniature version clocking in at under 13 inches, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). They also have a slender build similar to the Russell and an alert, intelligent face.
The coat of the rat terrier is shorter and glossier, however, consisting of a dense, single coat that can be found in a variety of colors, of which black, tan, grey, blue, and apricot are the most common. You’ll also find rat terriers in a variety of bi- and tri-color variations, with white acting as the base.
Their dark eyes are bright and alert, and the breed’s large, upturned ears underscore their intelligent, curious nature.
The tails of rat terriers are often docked in working dogs to prevent injury, though naturally shorter tails do commonly occur in pups.
Like most of the terrier breeds, these are brilliant little dogs. They take to training incredibly well and pick up on tasks quickly, but will also show a propensity to get stubborn, the AKC says.
The rat terrier is an active, energetic dog who loves engaging in activities with humans and other dogs alike. They’re naturally highly social dogs who develop bonds quickly with their owners. Socializing them early on is important, and obedience training is going to be a must as well; rat terriers are smart enough to think up ways to get into trouble and small and nimble enough to get to places you would prefer they didn’t.
“There’s a lot to early socialization,” says Dennis Riordan, DVM, of the Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. “That’s why families are so good [for rat terriers]. Because everyone is touching them and interacting with them.”
They are a breed that will need daily exercise and stimulation to stay healthy and keep from being bored. But, good news for city-dwellers or apartment renters, they are small enough to get their needs met indoors, as long as you’re willing to devote some playtime to them.
True to their original purpose, the rat terrier will spend a lot of his outside time on the lookout for small prey. This will include a huge amount of digging. For the most part, it’s not something that you’ll be able to train out of them—it’s in their DNA—but they are smart enough to learn very quickly which part of a yard or garden is “theirs,” and can be trained to only dig there.
With an incredibly high prey drive, your rat terrier won’t be great as an off-leash dog. While they will learn to heel and stay perfectly well, if a squirrel or neighborhood cat crosses their vision, they will probably be unable to resist the urge and are likely to give chase.
Another caveat to the digging: These little dogs are Houdinis. If left to their own devices for too long in an unsupervised backyard, they will find a way out. They are incredible jumpers, so shorter fences are a risk, and even if the fence is tall enough, they will tunnel under it if given half a chance.
Rat terriers are alert enough to make very good watchdogs and will happily alert you to strangers at your door. Apartment dwellers should be aware, however, that while the rat terrier isn’t prone to reckless barking, their barks are shrill and distinctive. So people on your floor will very quickly be able to tell which dog is yours.
True to their heritage, rat terriers are perfectly suited farm dogs. They love to follow people around while they do chores, are smart enough to instinctively avoid horses and other livestock, and—true to their breeding—will rid properties of rats and other pests with a tireless zeal.
Thanks in large part to their intelligence and deep love of human companionship, they also do remarkably well in family settings and are small and easy-going enough to fit well in apartments.
They are active animals who will be happiest with a backyard to run around in and a place to dig a little, but their compact size also means they can get their exercise indoors, making them well suited for seniors and urban settings. They love children because of their willingness to play, and rat terriers aren’t so big they overwhelm children with their energy, nor are they so small as to risk getting seriously hurt by them.
Good news! Rat terriers are pretty close to a “set it and forget it” breed when it comes to grooming. Once a week brushing paired with a hose down every four to six weeks should be all you need to keep yours looking shiny and clean, the AKC says. Farm or working dogs will naturally require a little more maintenance, and apartment dogs might need a little less, but by and large, the rat terrier is blessed with a coat that is short enough to not mat up and naturally oily enough to not hold on to dirt. They are seasonal shedders, so make sure you’ve got a shedding tool or rubber curry brush handy to collect the excess, or resign yourself to having hair everywhere twice a year.
Throughout their relatively brief development history in the U.S., rat terriers have been blessed with a surprisingly varied gene pool. One benefit of this is their surprisingly hardy constitutions. Rat terriers routinely live to 15 years of age or more, and the breed has a low number of chronic issues. A few things to watch out for, however, are hip dysplasia, patellar luxation (loose kneecaps), Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, and cardiac and eye disorders. Farm or working dogs will also want to keep an eye out for ticks (which can spread Lyme disease) and mites (which can cause demodectic mange).
The first dogs bred for their ratting abilities can be traced back to Europe almost five centuries ago, all the way to Hatch, a dog aboard king Henry VIII's favorite ship. Most of those dogs were mongrels who individually showed an aptitude for vermin hunting, but by the 19th century, dogs were being bred with rat-catching (or rat baiting) as a specific goal. The rat terrier breed was established in the United States near the turn of the 20th century, as farmers began breeding fox terriers with bull terriers, English white terriers, and Manchester terriers, the AKC says. From there, farmers in the Midwestern plains states began breeding their new rat terriers with Italian greyhounds and whippets, adding incredible burst speed to the breed’s profile.
The rat terrier breed was firmly established as a reliable farmhand by the 1920s.
By the middle of the 20th century, as farmers began relying more on traps and poisons, the rat terrier fell out of popularity, and the breed was sustained by a handful of dedicated breeders until the dogs gained a boost of popularity as a family pet in the 1970s. The American Kennel Club (AKC) allowed rat terriers to enter competitions in 2006, and finally recognized the breed in 2010.
- Rat terriers come in three sizes: miniature, standard, and a larger size commonly called the Decker. Only the first two sizes are recognized by the AKC.
- Long recognized as masters in their namesake-craft, one New York City resident penned a letter to the editor of the New York Times, suggesting roving packs of rat terriers as the solution to the city’s rat problem.
- The Shirley Temple film The Little Colonel, filmed during the height of the breed’s initial popularity, features a rat terrier, according to the AKC.
- Musician and filmmaker Laurie Anderson made an entire documentary about her rat terrier, called Heart of a Dog, released in 2015.
- Rat terriers have acted as companions for the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, William Faulkner, Shirley McClain, and Carrie Underwood.