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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 an ambitious 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 Russell, with standard rat terriers topping out around 18 inches tall and the miniature version clocking in at under 13 inches, according to the Rat Terrier Club of America (RTCA). 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 bicolor and tricolor 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.
Though some rat terrier puppies are born with naturally short tails, these terriers have had their tails traditionally docked. However, this is a controversial practice—according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), docking is almost always for purely cosmetic reasons and, despite proponents saying it prevents injury while working in the field, health benefits haven't been proven.
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 be willful.
"If compared to a human, a rat terrier would be like the child at a birthday party who is the first to join a fun game, shout in excitement, and eager to open the presents," says Stacy Choczynski Johnson, DVM, veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance.
The rat terrier is an active, energetic dog who loves engaging in activities with humans and other pups 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 they're small and nimble enough to get to places they shouldn't.
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 Johnson says 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.
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 home alarm systems 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.
But you don't need to have a farmstead to have a happy rat terrier. 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. But, as with any dog, it's important to supervise puppy playtime and always teach your children how to properly interact with pets.
"Children can be scary for dogs that are unfamiliar with tiny humans," Johnson says. "Children should learn how to be respectful to their dogs and read dog communication cues. For instance, this means no pulling on the puppy's tail and no intimidating direct eye contact."
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 your pup looking shiny and clean.
Farm or working dogs will naturally require a little more maintenance, and apartment dogs might need a little less upkeep. 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.
And when it comes to training your rat terrier, consistency—and getting an early start—is key.
"Rat terriers are fast, prey-driven, and focused on their own goals—not yours," Johnson says. "It's important to teach them sit and recall commands from the get-go. Focusing on 'sit' and 'come' from the day the puppy comes home will pay off in the long run."
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. Owners of 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).
Johnson says rat terriers can also develop environmental allergies, which can cause skin infections and require long-term maintenance.
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 mixed breeds 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, the now-extinct English white terrier, Manchester terriers, and many (many!) other breeds, according to the RTCA. From there, farmers in the Midwestern plains states began breeding their new rat terriers with beagles and whippets, adding incredible burst speed to the breed's profile, according to America's Pet Registry.
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 to rid their property of vermin, 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 registered the breed in 2013.
- 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.
- 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.