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Rat Terrier Dog Breed Information

General Information:

Height: 10 – 18 inches
Weight: 10 – 25 pounds
Life Span: 18 – 23 years
Coloring:   The coloring of the rat terrier can vary quite a bit. They can be blue, chocolate, grey Isabella or pearl, black, lemon, tan and apricot. They can also be bi or tri color if one of those colors is white.
Area of Origin: The United States of America
Similar Breeds: Jack Russell Terrier, Parsons Russell Terrier, Toy Fox Terrier, Smooth Fox Terrier, Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, American Hairless Terrier

History and Origin:

The American Rat Terrier has its origin in the United States as the name indicates but the breed has its roots in the Great Britain using the Manchester Terrier and the Smooth Fox Terrier. This combination came to the United States in the late 1890’s and the only color they displayed was the black and tan. This black and tan terrier found a champion in President Theodore Roosevelt who gave the breed its name, as he owned three early on.

Once in the United States and named the Rat Terrier for its skill at catching vermin, the American breeders set about improving the breed. They crossed them with the Beagle, the Smooth Fox Terrier and the Whippet. From the Whippet the Rat Terrier got their speed and agility as well as some of the brindle and blue colors. The Beagle contributed its hunting ability, some bulk and the deep red color. Size came from the Chihuahua and the Smooth Fox Terrier.

Other breeds believed to be involved in this breeds beginnings include the Bull Terrier, Old English White Terrier, Manchester Terrier and Fox Terrier. Then larger toy Fox Terriers were bred with the Rat Terrier and the Toy Rat Terrier was born.

The Rat Terrier became tenacious at vermin hunting and rat baiting. Stories abound regarding their tenacity in this regard. One such story had a single dog killing as many as 2500 rats in seven hours. From the 1910’s to the 1940’s the Rat Terrier was seen on just about every American farm controlling the rodents, but by 1950 poison was doing their job and the breed began to dwindle. It was not until the late 1970’ s that numbers began to increase again.

Soon the Decker Rat Terrier was born to be a hunting dog – they are larger and have fixed ears. They are great retrievers and are not hesitant even in water. The Decker Rat Terriers have hunted deer, wild pigs, bears and even cougars. The Decker also makes a great companion animal no matter how tough he is.

Then in 1972 the hairless Rat Terrier was born and that developed a whole new strain within the breed. There are two sizes of the American Hairless Terrier – the standard and the miniature. The standard is over 13 inches tall and under 18. The standard should weigh 10 – 25 lbs. The miniature is 10 inches to 13 and weighs between 7-10 lbs.

All of this genetic diversity in respect to the various breeds that were crossed in order to form the Rat Terrier increased the intelligence and health of the breed. Today’s Rat Terrier’s all came from a couple of founding dogs and a closed gene pool. The long history of genetic refinement increased the variability and usefulness of the breed. The issue today is whether the Rat Terrier will continue to be bred as a working dog, with all the traits a working dog needs, or will he be bred for conformation, losing the working dog skills.

The breed was officially recognized by the United Kingdom Kennel Club in January of 1999.The American Kennel Club finally did the same in July of 2010. The AKC however allowed the Rat Terrier to enter into the Companion events such as Agility, Obedience and Rally. Rat Terrier Harpur’s Giddy Upp “Gigi” and D.Davidson Harpur was the first to win an AKC sanctioned title and it was won in Agility.

The National Rat Terrier Association is the largest independent registry and they maintain the lineage records on the breed going back for decades. The Association is in opposition to AKC closed-registry breeding rules.

The Rat Terrier has been featured in several movies and novels. This includes a rat terrier names Buttons in a scene in Lady Be Good, a rat terrier is mentioned in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The rat terrier belonging to Shirley MacLaine is mentioned in her Out on a Leash book in 2003. John Sandford refers to rat terriers in his novels.

In his short story The Bear, a fyce or Rat Terrier is featured by William Faulkner. He is named Nip and he attacks a bear to protect his person. Marley is a rat terrier featured in Charles Trippy’s You Tube series: Internet Killed Television.

Personality and Temperament:

The Rat Terrier is often thought to be a Jack Russell Terrier, but in fact they are completely different in looks and temperament. Rat Terriers are more refined in their musculature, bone structure and head. They are not wiry in coat like the Jack Russell either but rather have a short single coat.

When it comes to personality and temperament the Jack Russell Terrier is much more aggressive than the Rat Terrier. The Rat Terrier is of course ‘all terrier’ in personality and temperament, just less aggressive than some other terriers. They can turn it down and be a couch potato or lounge in your lap just as happily as they can run around the house and yard.

Rat Terriers have a great personality – happy, calm and sensitive by terrier standards. They adapt to change better than other terriers like the Jack Russell. They respond to the moods of their people or noises. They are sensitive socially and that makes them easy to train and easy to live with. The trick is early socialization to which the Rat Terrier will respond much better than other terriers like the Jack Russell.

The Rat Terrier is loyal, playful and very active, but can be withdrawn and reserved with those they do not know. Because of this they do make good watchdogs. This breed is intelligent, observant, full of energy, obedient and devoted. They are friendly to other dogs and can be submissive to people and other dogs. Most are extremely affectionate with their human family. If raised with children they will be good with children.

They may bark but they do not yap. Regardless they are all terrier. They are feisty and fearless little dogs. With training they will be well mannered and well rounded. They are eager to please their humans and they will go anywhere with you. They are used today as hunters, swimmers, farm dogs, show dogs, and family pets. Adult rescues fit easily into human families with children and without them.

You can avoid the hassles of Small Dog Syndrome and territory or resource guarding if you are a strong, confident, firm and consistent pack leader. Your Rat Terrier is also quite fond of digging under fences and playing Houdini, the great escape artist. He is a true terrier with a constantly running motor, high energy, and he is never boring. He will keep you entertained 24/7.

The Rat Terrier is stubborn and people pleasing is not his thing. When not chasing vermin he is pleasing himself. He is the clown of the family who will keep the rest of the family entertained.

Exercise & Training:

Early, intense socialization to both people and animals is the key to a happy Rat Terrier and family. It is really important to exposure your Rat Terrier to as many and as various people, animals and places as possible in the first three months of their lives.

A well socialized Rat Terrier will be much easier to train, to play with and just to live with. They will do great in Obedience, Rally and Agility and they will want to win. This will serve for their exercise as well. They need about 20-30 minutes a day preferably outside and playing. If you let them they would stay out a play most of the day. Just remember what escape artists they are.

Make sure your Rat Terrier gets as much mental stimulation as physical. A bored Ratty will make their own stimulation and you won’t like the results. They will dig, tear things apart and yap nonstop. They also want to chase everything that moves so never leave them alone outside off leash.


The Rat Terrier has a coat that is bred for the job of chasing vermin and going to ground. The coat will resist snagging and soiling when he is hunting the vermin.

Grooming is not a big issue with the Rat Terrier. They shed twice a year and a good brushing at that time will be the most they will need. Other than that, comb them gently once in a while to get rid of any dead hair. Or use a brushing mitt once a week or so.

They can be bathed once in a while and they will need it after they go to ground after prey. Just be careful not to dry out their skin by bathing them too often.

Health and Wellness:

The current version of the Rat Terrier has turned out to be a very hard canine specimen indeed. All the cross mixes used to make this breed have served them well. But now they are becoming more popular and this is leading to puppy mills, backyard breeders and more health issues.

The Canine equivalent of the CDC, the CHIC or Canine Health Information Center is recommending genetic testing of Rat Terriers for hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, Legg-Calve-Perthes Syndrome and cardiac abnormalities. They are also susceptible to elbow dysplasia, von Willebrand’s disease and hypothyroidism.

The hip and elbow dysplasia is one of the most serious health issues that the Rat Terrier faces. The Patellar Luxation is also potentially crippling as the dog’s knee cap slips and slides off the knee routinely. This can be a painful and devastating condition.

One other major issue the Rat Terrier might face is the Demodectic Mange which is also known as demodicosis caused by a mite. The mother dog passes this mite onto her puppies shortly after they are born. It is not transferable to humans or other animals, only from mother to pups. It a Rat Terrier with a compromised immune system has these mites, they can develop Demodectic Mange. Red, scaly patches similar to psoriasis in humans appear on the skin of the dog’s head, legs and neck. The fur falls out and the patches can spread over the entire dog and become infected.

Interesting Facts about the Rat Terrier:

  1. Breeding Rat Terriers for appearance was only introduced in the 19th Century
  2. Rat Terriers are not currently Registered by the AKC (American Kennel Club) and are therefore in the category of dogs termed Unrecognized Breeds
  3. In 2010 the AKC recognized them for Obedience, Agility and Rally. They are not eligible for Confirmation.
  4. Rat Terriers originated in US and were originally bred as ratters, mixed from an original breed of Fiesters in England and Europe.
  5. Mythology claims that Teddy Roosevelt had Rat Terriers and coined the name of the breed. There are however many historians of the breed who do not believe there is any truth to this myth.

Organizations dedicated to the Rat Terrier:

Breeds Similar to Rat Terrier Dogs:

Breed Information Rat Terrier

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