The Rat Terrier is an American breed descended from the terriers brought over by English miners and other working class immigrants. These terriers probably included crosses between the Smooth Fox Terrier, the Manchester Terrier and the now extinct white English Terrier. These dogs were used as ratters, and gambling on their prowess in killing rats was a favorite hobby of their owners. Some of these dogs were crossed with Whippets or Italian Greyhounds (for speed) and Beagles (for hunting ability). Eventually, these tough little terriers evolved into today’s Rat Terrier. The breed was popularized by President Teddy Roosevelt, who frequently hunted with his Rat Terriers. Many are still used as ratters and squirrel hunters, particularly in the South, where they are sometimes known as “Feists.”
These small to medium sized, smooth coated Terriers are muscular and medium boned. Bred primarily for farm and ranch dogs to hunt, protect and guard against vermin and varmints, Rat Terriers have strong jaws and are known for their quick, agile movements, which enable them to kill rats and other vermin and small game. Generally 10-25 pounds, they were not however specifically bred to be Earthdogs.Rat Terriers are more suited for trailing, flushing and treeing game or birds, and hunting hares, rabbit or other varmint that usually give a much faster, longer and straighter run.
During the 1910s and 1920s, the Rat Terrier was one of the most common farm dogs. Because Kansas Jack Rabbits were plaguing crops in the Midwest, to increase the speed and versatility of the Rat Terrier, some Farmers began breeding them to Whippets, Italian Greyhounds and other "snap dog" breeds. Around the same time, others in the Central and Southern regions, bred their Rat Terriers to Beagles to bring out a stronger prey and pack drive for hunting purposes. These early crosses eventually gave the breed the speed and "nose", as well as the good disposition they are known for today. A non-sparing, playful, happy-go-lucky, devoted companion that is also protective, and yet can be aloof with strangers. They are an efficient, intuitive hunter as well as an energetic and intelligent companion, at home in the city or country.
A tenacious Terrier of questionable ancestry, named "Skip", was acquired on a trip near the Grand Canyon by our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, and resided there in The White House during Roosevelt’s presidency. The breed's name is attributed to T.R., coined up in honor of his own Terriers’ who promptly exterminated the many thousands of rats that infested The White House after the demolition of the old Jefferson greenhouses, and during the subsequent construction of additional wings.
Rat Terriers, popular from the 1910s through the 1940's, were owned and loved by many of our parents and grandparents. In the 1930s film "The Little Colonel", you can see Shirley Temple putting one of these pied dogs to bed under the covers. As mechanized farming and poison control began to dominate the farming environment, the breed's numbers began to dwindle. In the 1950s the breed was maintained by only a handful of breeders. The breed successfully reemerged during the late 70's through 1980s, but more as a companion dog that hunts, rather than a hunting companion.
In the mid 1920s, Fox Terrier fanciers sought a distinct category for their toy dogs. When the Toy Fox Terrier was officially recognized by the United Kennel Club on February 24th, 1936; those individuals that did not meet the criteria of TFT standard because they were over-sized, mismarked, or had wrong coloration or patterning, were “culled” and often found their way back into Rat Terrier breeding programs. With the desire of some to use these otherwise "good dogs" and because there was no standardized Rat Terrier breed, the practice of hybridizing Toy Fox Terrier stock with those of the Rat Terrier were common in some areas.
This official recognition of the smaller toy types of Fox Terrier began the true separation of our American breeds. With the development of the Toy Fox Terrier breed came the battle of keeping these toy terriers, a toy. Breedings to Toy Manchester or Chihuahua were subsequently allowed and crosses were made within some TFT bloodlines. Although this practice was denounced by many, it wasn't abolished until the breed’s stud file officially closed on August 31, 1960. These mixes ceased to be produced, but the resulting culls may have been introduced into our Rat Terrier breed too.
The Universal Kennel Club (now UKCI), a pedigree service that registered Rat Terriers for several decades, condoned and registered these hybrid crosses. Thus breedings with Toy Fox Terrier's were still occasioned and continued to be used by some Rat Terrier breeders due to the lack of available Rat Terrier breeding stock. These infusions of Toy Fox Terrier along with earlier breedings to Beagles and sight hounds have added a degree of hybrid vigor and certainly influenced the varying types, sizes and colorations that may be seen today.
Recognition of today’s Rat Terrier is limited and little has been written about the breed. This is probably because of this mixed-breed stigma and due to the fact, as recently as 1994, the Rat Terrier did not have a written breed standard. Rat Terriers existed in numbers, but were considered by many to be a strain of Smooth Fox Terrier and sometimes were even referred to as being a "Fox Terrier” by others. For decades, breeders in various pocket communities around the country had been breeding toward their own specific standards; mostly purebreds, but with some crossbreeding for size or color, etc. Registration was haphazard and usually done, if at all, with pedigree services and many individuals lacked a documented multi-generational lineage. Plagued by these problems, and technically, without a written nationwide standard, there was no breed.
The charter members of the Rat Terrier Club of America, founded in 1995, and others worked several years prior to the actual formation of the club, to draft a standard that would correctly define and promote the breed as it is today. Through nationwide correspondence between many hundreds of breeders, fanciers and judges and by using numerous questionnaires and breed surveys, the breed was defined and an accredited, nationwide standard finally written. With a written standard in place and hybridizing discouraged, most reputable breeders have been selecting and breeding Rat Terrier to Rat Terrier with this written Standard used as their breeding goal.
The Rat Terrier Club of America is a nationally recognized organization that promotes the modern Rat Terrier breed and the written, accredited standard. This national standard accurately describes the majority of the Rat Terrier breed, as it exists today. The ideals and format set forth in the RTCA standard, were adopted by the United Kennel Club in January 1999. This has ultimately has brought more uniformity to the breed and helped to establish a more defined Rat Terrier than at any previous time in its history.