The Rat Terrier may be the best-known dog nobody knows anything about. Ask somebody if they’ve heard of a Rat Terrier, and they’ll probably reply, “Of course!” Ask them what they look like, where they’re from, or anything that doesn’t require the words “rat” or “terrier” to answer, and you’ll probably get a blank stare.
Face it, the Rat Terrier isn’t the easiest of breeds to ID. Some people confuse him with the Parson (or Jack) Russell Terrier, but the Rat Terrier is finer boned, his tail is usually shorter, and he never comes in anything but a smooth coat. The Rat Terrier may also be confused with the Toy Fox Terrier, but the Rat Terrier is larger than the Toy Fox, may have folded ears, and his patches come in more colors. And some confuse him with the Smooth Fox Terrier, but the Rat doesn’t necessarily have folded ears (in fact, more often he has erect ears), his patches come in more colors, and his head is not as elongated.
The Rat Terrier comes in two size groups: Miniature, which are 10 to 13 inches at the shoulder, and Standard, which are 13 to 18 inches.
Some even larger Rat Terriers are known as Giant Decker Terriers, and are bred for hunting.
The breed descends from crosses made in the 1800s of various terriers, such as Fox Terriers, Old English White Terriers, Manchester Terriers and Bull Terriers. These dogs were brought over by English working class immigrants, and used to rid homes and farms of rats as well as partake in rat-killing contests.
In the Midwest, they were bred to fast dogs such as Whippets to create a dog that could catch the troublesome jackrabbits.
In the South, they were crossed with Beagles to create a dog that could trail, hunt and get along in packs.
Eventually they were all intermixed, creating a fast hunter with a good nose that gets along with other dogs much better than most terriers.
In the early 20th century, and especially from the 1920s to 1940s, the Rat Terrier was one of the most popular farm dogs. With greater use of pesticides and the advent of larger-scale farms over family farms, their use as farm ratters declined and they become far less popular.
They are used to hunt squirrels and other small mammals, particularly in the South, where they may be referred to as feists — a generic term for small hunting terriers.
A Rat Terrier is credited with killing a record 2,501 rats in seven hours in an infested barn.
The Rat Terrier has been bred for foundation, not appearance, for most of his existence. This is why the ears may be pricked, folded or button, and why there’s great variation in breed type. Whatever catches the game is correct type. It’s also why longtime breed clubs such as the National rat Terrier Association opposed recognition by the United Kennel Club (UKC) and American Kennel Club (AKC), as these organizations promote conformation dog shows.
Amidst controversy from within the breed, the UKC recognized the Rat Terrier in 1999 and the AKC in 2010 — although full AKC registration only began in June, 2013.
In North America, the tail is customarily docked short, although it is equally correct to have a natural bob tail or a full-length tail.
The color is mostly white, with large patches of color, usually black, brown or a combination.
A hairless variety exists, but hairless dogs cannot be shown in AKC conformation shows. These dogs are now being bred as a separate breed, the American Hairless Terrier. This breed is interesting because a different gene causes him to be hairless than what is found in other hairless breeds.
A shorter-legged variety exists, which are now bred as their own breed, the Teddy Roosevelt Terrier.
Owners include Theodore Roosevelt, William Faulkner, John Sandford, Shirley MacLaine and Carrie Underwood.
The Rat Terrier is one of the more popular UKC breeds. Because the Rat Terrier has been fully recognized by the AKC for less than a year, no AKC registration statistics are available at this writing.
The breed will have an open registry with the AKC until 2018, which means Rat Terriers not currently AKC registered will be accepted for AKC registration until that date.
Do you own a Rat Terrier? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!
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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.