The Rat Terrier is thought to have descended from several different breeds, beginning in England in the 1820s when a Smooth Fox Terrier was bred to a Manchester Terrier. This produced a remarkable dog that was both strong-willed and relentless in his hunt for rats and other vermin. They were feisty little dogs, which is why the English first called them “Feists.”
These dogs were thought to be beyond compare as ratters—dogs that were used to catch and kill the rats that plagued nineteenth-century England and America. A dog that could keep the rat population of the home or business low was certainly appreciated, which is one of the main reasons why these little dogs grew in popularity. In fact, a sport grew out of many owners’ belief that they had the best ratter in the area. Bets were placed and rats were poured into a pit with a ratter to see how many it would kill. The betting wasn’t limited to the “rat baiting” that went on in the pit; it also followed out to farmers’ homes and barns. The record is held by a Rat Terrier that killed 2,501 rats in seven hours in an infested barn.
In the 1890s miners went to the United States to make a living and carve out a better way of life, and these working-class people took their dogs with them across the sea to their new homes. It was during this period that the “feist” was bred again to the Smooth Fox Terrier. When canines are bred for change, it’s usually because someone has decided a slight shift in the canine’s personality, body type, or senses will make a human task easier to accomplish. In this case, these early frontiersmen hoped to develop a stronger hunting dog. Even though this cross didn’t really add anything to the hunting abilities of the dog, it did succeed in stabilizing the existing qualities and characteristics.
It was during his presidency (1901-1909) that President Theodore Roosevelt called his Feist a Rat Terrier, and the name stuck. He’s said to have loved the dogs and was fond of taking them with him on big game hunts. He owned at least three, with Skip being the most popular of the bunch.
The Rat Terrier was later bred to the Whippet and the Greyhound in order to improve the dog’s speed, and it was also bred to the Beagle for that breed’s hunting abilities, scenting prowess, and trailing skills, as well as an increase in size and sturdiness. The Greyhound and the Whippet are thought to be the source of the brindle and blue dogs, while the red color was probably a gift from the Beagle. The Spitz-type dogs were bred in for bear hunting, and to this day some pups will be born with a thicker coat that originated when the Spitz breed was introduced into the Rat Terrier lineage. Today, Rat Terriers are still used for hunting rats in some parts of the world, but they are also used by their American owners for hunting raccoons, wild boar, squirrels and deer.
View the Rat Terrier's full breed standard