Training a Rat Terrier to Hunt: A novice’s approach that worked

Nifty’s first rat in 2016 (not my usual hunting attire!)

If you have a rodent problem you’ve probably tried every trap made – and then some (Google it, and you’ll find some interesting homemade contraptions) and then watched as after a few mortalities, the rats quickly learned to avoid or even disable the traps. (After finding one trap we had set literally covered up by debris that they had obviously moved over it, I almost worried they would start setting traps for us!) Rats are incredible smart, and for that, as well as their compassion for their own kind (you can Google that too) I admire them. But as farmers we have to try to limit their impact and acknowledge that they are thriving beyond a natural level due to our farming activities. As organic or sustainable stewards, we are not going to use poisons. It then comes down to employing cats, ferrets, or terriers. Cat’s can’t usually take on a full-sized rat and ferrets have their own issues of management, but terriers, in particular rat terriers, can be amazing. (Check out YouTube if you want a demo) Not to mention they are also loving, loyal, snuggly pets.

If you purchase a pup from a reliable breeder – meaning one who takes hunting temperament into consideration rather than primarily show or pet qualities, then you are off to a good start. I found Nifty by asking other farmers on Facebook for recommendations. (I’ll post his breeder’s info at the end of the article). These dogs are born with an instinct to hunt, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to take an active role in refining that drive. Otherwise, not only will the rats find places to hide, but the dog is likely to want to chase cats, chickens, etc.

Video of Nifty and “his cat”:

The Goal

Again, this was my first rat terrier to work with, the commands I came up with can be altered to your own, but the premise is simply this: You will be working with them as a team. You will be the second set of eyes, the one who can poke a stick into a tight spot, the one who can lift a pallet where a nest of tunnels has been built, and so on. Therefore, you must have a set of commands that informs the dog what you see or what you are about to do to help them.

Start with a Lure

Buy or make a small lure – a stuffed bit, about the size of a rat, made of real animal fur. I bought one online, but you could make one. Don’t let the dog use this as a toy, only use it during training sessions. I tied a long string to mine and placed it behind some bales of straw with the string in my hand. When Nifty showed any interest in sniffing around the straw, I would stand by him and tug on the string. When he noticed the movement, I would say “There it is” and point. Then when he went in for it, “Get it!”.  When he did get the lure, he was praised thoroughly. Sometimes I used treats as a reward, but he loved the praise enough for that to be adequate. Training with the lure started as soon as he showed any interest in chasing the chickens, etc. The praise of hunting for the right thing HAS to happen concurrent or before any scolding for chasing the wrong thing!

A big one!

Look where I’m Pointing

Most dogs watch our hands, looking for the ball to be thrown, the treat to be doled out. I found it very helpful to train Nifty to look where I was pointing. Rats like to hide in odd places, including up in rafters where the dog may not be able to scent them very quickly. By teaching him to look where I was pointing, the rodents have a much harder time avoiding him. In addition to using the lure to help him understand what pointing means, I used treats. I would toss a treat a short distance away and then point, saying “There it is!”. It didn’t take long. It is easy to confuse them, so use this carefully. Even now, I sometimes find myself saying, “I don’t know where it is.” When the “subject” has gotten away. I shouldn’t use this; it is too close to the phrase I want him to understand.

Building on this, and as a way of practice, hiding a favorite toy, chew bone, etc., and then saying “Where’s your bone?”, looking around, then pointing and saying, “There it is, get it” is also fun for everyone.

Go Around

The other very useful phrase tells the dog to go to the other side of something – a drain pipe, a building, a stack of wood, while you stay on the other side and try to flush the rodent out towards them. Teaching this was a bit more difficult, but Nifty learned the concept through trial and error. If he told me that there were rodents under a pallet, for example, I would use my pointing cue along with the term “go around” and then lift the pallet in a way that made the side opposite me easiest for him to access. Now it works for larger spaces, sliding barn doors, sheds, etc.

The whiteboard in the barn July 2020

Team Effort

Without a doubt, using only a single dog to reduce a rodent problem will be the most effective if you plan on working as a team. I count on Nifty to locate the rodents and let me know if he needs help. He has a specific bark that I have come to associate with a located “target”. In fact, even if I don’t see it, he has never been wrong! This included him once going nuts on the outside siding of our barn. He tore and bit at the wood until finally Vern and I went into the tool room on the other side, closed Nifty in with us, and took off the dry wall. Nifty’s score board that day went up by 13 rats. (I did a lot of shrieking as the little buggers ran hither and yon in the small space trying to escape).

There are places on our farm, that despite my best efforts, the rats will always get away. But the regular harassment that Nifty deals out keeps their numbers down even when he can’t actually kill them. As a demonstration of this fact, there was a period of time where we were not able to let him out during the day (we were occupied with caring for aging parents). During that few weeks, rats and ground squirrels proliferated, including moving into an attic space. Oiii.

The Kill

One thing I don’t want to forget to mention is the importance of nurturing the animals kill instinct when they are very young. This is rather tricky if the first thing they chase down doesn’t happen to be a rodent. Nifty’s first kill was a poor little wild turkey poult. He trotted up with it so proudly. I grit my teeth and neither praised nor scolded him. Then I did my best to help him encounter some desired victims. If your farm has rodents, you have this opportunity. When the first appropriate kill is accomplished,  heap on the praise and start using a cue of “that’s a leave-it” or other term to apply to birds, cats, etc. (FYI, Nifty’s best bud on our farm in one of the cats, see video link above).

Nifty and “his” Cat, Dibs

When a kill happens, Nifty’s technique is not to shake-and-break. Rather, he gives it what we call “the massage of death” – rapidly biting up and down the animal’s body. I suspect this is an instinct that helps them rapidly dispatch an animal in a tight burrow or space where shaking wouldn’t be possible.

After it is properly “massaged” I let him confirm this and then take it away from him and praise him. If he is hunting multiple varmints, as in a nest situation, he will drop it as fast as he can and go for another, sometimes coming back later to confirm death. We relegate the poor little critters to the compost pile in the garden.  


Terrier breeds were originally bred to hunt animals that go underground (that’s the origin of the word terrier, for terra or earth). In recent history, many terrier breeds have been used only for show and as pets – or perhaps for agility and other field trials that don’t actually involve dispatching live animals. Rat terriers were quite a popular breed in the early 1900’s (both my parents had them, or crosses, as young people), but then became very hard to find. They have definitely made a comeback, I believe in thanks to people appreciating the organic, relatively humane way they help reduce rodent problems. But other terrier breeds and crosses might also be great ratters. Look for a small to mid-size bloodline (I’d suggest 15- 20 pounds mature weight) as this is a great size to be brave enough to take on a ground squirrel (they are fierce!) and still be maneuverable.

Nifty was bred by Clearbrook Kennels in Washington State. I hope they are still breeding when I one day add another.

My Final Novice Advice

If I, without any previous ratter experience, can successfully train a working rodent terminator, you can too. My final advice is to not put it off. Once you get a pup, you must begin to nurture its down-and-dirty, sticking its nose into every cranny, hunting nature. As with all working dogs, from livestock guardian dogs to ratters, you have to keep the ultimate goal in mind when you are raising them. Oh, and get them a good flea collar. (The Seresto 8 month collars are our choice).