In the United States, dog breeding in recent decades has been focused almost entirely on one thing – what will sell. We all know a fellow dog owner who chose a new dog or puppy based primarily on its looks, and not on its energy, temperament or suitability for their lifestyle or household environment.
In a day and age when most dog breeding revolves heavily around appearance, it is therefore encouraging to see some enthusiasts continuing to breed dogs to ensure that their working qualities are preserved.
One example of these preservation efforts is a volunteer group based in New York City. The Ryders Alley Trencher Fed Society (R.A.T.S.) is helping to rid the Big Apple of disease-carrying rats, with a lethal weapon at their disposal – an army of working terriers, who have an unmatched ability to root out the rodents posing problems to city residents.
This story was recently featured in the first episode of the second season of the podcast A Life of Dogs.
A short history of working terriers
The name ‘working terrier’ dates back to the fifteenth century, derived from the French for digging dog (chien terrier). Various types of terrier were often used on small farms as vermin control, reducing the nuisance posed by foxes, badgers and groundhogs. The first true working terrier breed was the Jack Russell Terrier, named after the Reverend John Russell, who was an enthusiastic dog breeder in the United Kingdom in the 1800s.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, terriers were brought across from the U.K. and became more prevalent in the United States. In fact, the terrier group was very popular in the early days of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and has won Best in Show more times than any other group. This includes the most recent iteration, with King – a Wire Fox Terrier – triumphing in 2019.
These days, it is not uncommon for owners to find themselves struggling to control a terrier breed after buying or adopting them. Their smaller size leads to a misunderstanding from many buyers who simply want a lap dog without an active lifestyle.
Instead, the terrier is often a dog who can be found chasing the neighbor’s cats, barking too frequently, or having an abundance of energy. If not directed properly, the terrier can cause problems with destructive behavior.
How R.A.T.S. uses working terriers
With over two million rats in New York City, the R.A.T.S. group plays a vital role in controlling the rat population. Acting on a voluntary basis, the group conducts regular, organized rat hunting with a wide variety of working terriers. Richard Reynolds founded the group in the 1990s.
“Some of us are dog show people, and we get a bad rap of doing evil things in our breeding of dogs and so forth,” explains Reynolds. “But the fact of the matter is that we’re right out there in the trenches trying to preserve the working qualities of these breeds.”
R.A.T.S. not only works to rid the city and other places of disease carrying rats. They also focus on promoting and preserving the working qualities of the breeds that they work with. Some of the terriers that they commonly use in their hunts are:
- Patterdale Terriers
- Bedlington Terriers
- Norwich Terriers
- Yorkshire Terriers
These dogs were originally bred for hunting vermin both above and below ground. It is clearly important to the members of R.A.T.S. that these dogs continue to effectively perform the work that they were originally bred for. As such, they go out into the streets of Manhattan each weekend to allow the dogs to hunt and kill Brown Norway Rats.
In speaking to members of the group, their efforts to promote these working qualities are at the forefront of what they do. Firstly, the dogs must be proven as good rat hunters before they will be considered for breeding. Their owners also focus on overall health and temperament when looking to select a dog for breeding.
To ensure that some of the best dogs are genetically furthered, some members even freeze sperm from their better workers to be able to breed them later.
After spending some time with Reynolds and his team as they worked to eradicate rats from the streets of New York City, it was clear that they enjoy working with their dogs and hunting.
It was also obvious that they enjoyed watching these twenty pound “serial killers” demonstrate the innate qualities that they were bred for hundreds of years ago.