Posted: Wed May 22 00:00:00 PDT 2002
By Eve Adamson
A Rat Terrier probably never saved the Earth from imminent destruction, but pound for pound these versatile little dogs are heroes to their owners. Coco, a year-old Rat Terrier and companion to Peggy Schilling of Zachary, La., is frightened by the garbage trucks that drive by the house a few mornings each week, but that doesn't stop her from performing her guard-dog duty. Well, sort of. Staying safely under the bedcovers where she sleeps, Coco defends her home from the intruder.
"She leaps up and barks furiously, but she never comes out from under the blanket," Schilling said with a laugh. "She's really scared, but she wants to do her job, too."
Invaluable farm dogs. Able hunters. Exuberant watchdogs. Savvy showbiz veterans. Cherished companions. Rat Terriers can do it all-and they have. At the turn of the century, they kept Teddy Roosevelt company in the White House. In 1935, Shirley Temple tucked her Rat Terrier into bed in the movie "The Little Colonel." More recently, Rat Terriers have been featured in commercials for Little Caesars Pizza (the one where the dog hangs onto the seat of a man's pants), Six Flags Theme Parks, Dreyer's Ice Cream, 1-800-COLLECT, PetsMart, and Kibbles 'N' Bits (the little dog jumping back and forth over the Bulldog is a Rat Terrier).
"They are such a sweet, easygoing dog, probably America's best-kept secret," said Pam Mills, Rat Terrier breeder and secretary of the Rat Terrier Club of America.
Terrier Of All Trades
Rat Terriers can fit into almost any mold, although they are happiest when they get to earn their keep. "They really like to have a job, even if it's just chasing sparrows off your sunflowers," said Kyle Symmons, a breeder/trainer in Temecula, Calif., who trained Chance, the American Bulldog in the movie "Homeward Bound."
When Symmons was young, Skipper, his grandmother's hardworking farm Rat Terrier, loved to dash into the milk barn whenever someone opened the doors, leap up the hay bales and run along the rafters, chasing down every rat that dared to show its whiskers. Now Symmons keeps his 12 Rat Terriers fully employed as Hollywood actors.
Because of their colorful origins, anyone researching the Rat Terrier's family tree will encounter a variety of accounts. "Rat Terriers are like Americans-a pinch of this and a pinch of that," Mills said. But the histories do agree on a few facts. In 1820s England, there was a small black-and-tan terrier, the result of a Manchester Terrier/Smooth-Coated Fox Terrier cross, with White English Terrier (extinct since the 1920s) most likely thrown into the mixture. Dubbed a "feist" because of its tenacity, these dogs were excellent ratters, hunting partners and companions.
In the 1890s, this ratting terrier was introduced in the United States and was soon combined with other breeds. More Smooth-Coated Fox Terrier was added, transforming the most common coat color from black and tan to white with black spots and tan trim. Beagle crosses enhanced hunting ability by adding a scenthound component, and Italian Greyhound crosses added the skills of the sighthound. The Italian Greyhound also gave the Rat Terrier an elongated body and calmer temperament, according to RTCA Vice President Donna Kratzke.
"If it wasn't for the Italian Greyhound crosses, Rat Terriers would be Jack Russell Terriers," said Ceci Giacoma of the American Rat Terrier Rescue Association in La Verne, Calif.
Even though they are considered a truly American breed, precursors of the Rat Ter rier are evident throughout history. In old England, royalty and commoners alike engaged in ratting competitions, and a ratting terrier named Billy was credited with killing 2,501 rats in seven hours in Suffolk. During the Middle Ages, when commoners were prohibited from hunting in the royal forests, Rat Terriers made perfect hunting dogs because they were easily hidden from those policing the forests for poachers. If commoners were found with a hunting dog, they would be severely punished, and their dogs would be lamed or killed, Kratzke said.
"Many poor farmers were saved from starvation by their Rat Terriers, who knew how to avoid being caught," said Nick Lopiparo, an Alpharetta, Ga., breeder and president of the American Rat Terrier Kennel Club.
Probably the most famous Rat Terrier owner in American history was Teddy Roosevelt, whose loyal companion, Skip, helped rid the White House of a rat infestation. Skip was a perfect pet for Roosevelt, who engaged in a vigorous lifestyle. While mere humans often found it hard to keep up with the robust president, Skip reveled in his owner's high activity level and hunting prowess.
During the '30s and '40s, Rat Terriers were seemingly ubiquitous on American farms. "They must have been the most common breed in the country," Giacoma said. "I wonder if there was a farm without one in those days."
Whenever Mills takes her Rat Terriers to rare-breed shows, she is barraged with inquiries. "People are always telling me they had a dog just like that as a kid, and almost everyone called them Rat Terriers."
A Rare Breed
Ironically, the Rat Terrier is now considered a rare breed. With the advent of effective pesticides and more mechanistic farming, Rat Terriers became less necessary. Coupled with a rise in the popularity of purebred dogs in the 1950s, Rat Terrier numbers began to dwindle.
But the breed is making a comeback through the efforts of breed clubs and devoted breeders. The RTCA has developed an official breed standard and is going through the long process necessary to secure American Kennel Club recognition. Rat Terriers can be registered by Universal Kennel Club International and several other registration organizations, such as the Animal Research Foundation and the Continental Kennel Club, which specialize in the registration of rare breeds.
Rat Terriers are a sleek, beautiful, low-maintenance breed, requiring only an occasional brushing, nail trimming and teeth cleaning. There are several variations, including small and large versions, those with short legs and a range of colors.
Intelligent and patient, Rat Terriers are one of the best dogs to have with children. "They are so good with my seven grandchildren, who just love them," said breeder and American Rat Terrier Kennel Club Vice President Frank Messina of Maurepas, La. "The best thing about them is their temperament. They're very friendly, and I've never had a single aggressive dog in any that I've bred."
Proficient hunters of prey, from squirrels to wild boar to deer, Rat Terriers will consider any small, fleeing critter fair game. They'll also guard you, your children and your belongings with a ferocity befitting a dog four times their size. They get along with other dogs and work well in hunting, knowing when to lead and when to let a larger dog take over.
Because the AKC doesn't recognize Rat Terriers, they can't participate in most dog shows, although rare-breed clubs offer shows where they can compete for conformation, obedience and agility titles. "Rat Terriers love to please, and they really excel in agility," Kratzke said. "We built an agility course behind our house and we didn't even have to show my son's two dogs how to do it."
Rat Terriers can also participate in AKC Fun Matches, and breed clubs often host their own Rat Terrier events, such as the American Rat Terrier Kennel Club's Fifth Annual Rat Terrier Cajun Jamboree Show & Play Day, held in April in Alpharetta, Ga., where Rat Terriers compete against each other in conformation, agility, obedience, rat racing and going to ground.
If good health is your primary consideration in choosing a dog breed, the Rat Terrier may be the dog for you. "They are such hearty little dogs," Messina said. "I never have to take them to the vet unless they get in an accident. My vet said he'd starve to death if he had to rely on Rat Terrier business."
As the Rat Terrier's popularity increases, so does incidence of irresponsible and profit-centered breeding. Giacoma said her group ends up with unwanted Rat Terriers because people fail to research the breed or because they buy on impulse. "We placed 15 or 20 dogs in the past year, and it's going up very rapidly," Giacoma said.
Whether your passion is hunting, farming, protection or friendship, consider having a Rat Terrier at your side. These healthy survivors, hard workers and loyal lifetime companions are always willing to do whatever you do and go wherever you go. "They're a 15-pound dog that thinks they're a 50-pound dog," Symmons said. "Rat Terriers don't have Small Dog Syndrome. They really can do it all. If they came in a 65-pound size, there would really be no reason for the existence of any other type of dog."
Eve Adamson is a free-lance writer based in Trenton, Florida.
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