When Terriers Attack: Working Dogs Return to Their Rat-Hunting Roots
“I can smell the rats,” says Jordan Reed as he walks into a feed mill in a small Northern California town. At his feet are two small dogs, all muscle and alertness.
Reed, 33, has bright eyes, an auburn beard and a septum piercing, like a bull. He is direct and wry, cracking wise about the expensive-looking rig he’s driving: “All rat catchers drive trucks like this. Just kidding; my friend is out of town and he let me borrow it.” A jack of all agricultural trades, Reed lives on a vineyard in Sonoma County, where he runs a wine cellar. He’s a certified sheep shearer, has raised poultry and worked farmers markets.
He’s also a rat catcher although his mode of pest resistance is unlike any other: Reed has trained terriers to kill. Nicknamed “the Mongrol Hoard” (sic), he employs a team of four rat terriers to catch and dispatch rodents with great precision and speed. The dogs have names like Sir Grumps a Lot and Oh My Good Golly I Can’t Believe I’m Called Herkimer. (Grumpy and Good Golly, for short.)
When Reed and his pack descend on rat-infested sites, they can sometimes kill over 100 in one day. To see how Reed and his rat terriers work, Modern Farmer went along on a job.
It’s unusual for Reed to hunt in a grain mill. He typically brings his pack to farms, especially chicken farms. Grain mills also are great rodent homes — any place with lots of hiding places and plentiful food are — but Reed isn’t sure how much success they’ll have in a place where quarry can hide in the walls or beneath the concrete ground. But the mill’s owner has invited Reed to come hunt and he’s willing to try. (Reed likes to keep client location and names private, to avoid stigmatizing businesses with rat problems.)
Inside, the smell of rat urine is unmistakable: acrid, stale and pungent. The cavernous mill is filled with machinery and pallets of grain covered in the fine, grey silt produced by processing feed. It’s raining outside, and the water taps steadily on the sheet metal exterior.
Terriers were bred to hunt vermin from rats to badgers to foxes. Their short, stocky frames and legs allowed them to ‘go to ground’ — chase quarry underneath the earth.
Our entourage includes the owner of the mill, her two adolescent sons, and Anna Derrer, Reed’s former girlfriend with whom he is still close. Derrer moved to Washington state with two of Reed’s dogs, Holy Mole and Itsa Bella Bella, and has driven down with them for the hunt. Calm, blue-eyed and blond, she has worn thick gloves, a windbreaker and pale purple earrings for the hunt.
Reed has brought just two along for the scouting phase, and those who remain in the truck are howling and baying as if they can’t stand to be left behind. Rat terriers are compact, muscular canines with alert eyes and black, white and tan spots. Reed says that they can also be called American Hunting Terriers or a “farm feist” which is “a Southern name for a rat terrier before the showmen got them and tried to make them all pretty.” The two scouts dart swiftly around, sniffing and nimbly climbing atop stacks of grain many feet taller than them before springing away to assess a scent in a nearby corner.
Reed points out possible entry points for rats, and begins moving pallets and shelving around, looking for holes. He is armed with a modified chainsaw that can blow smoke into an opening in order to flush out rats. Finally, he brings in reinforcements. The pack bounds into the grain mill, ears pricked and noses vibrating.
The hunt is on.
Just 150 years ago, nearly all dogs were working dogs, says Laura Hobgood-Oster, chair of the Environmental Studies program at Southwestern University and author of the book “A Dog’s History of the World.”
But pampered pets have a long history. The upper classes began keeping lap dogs around 3,000 years ago. “You start seeing the elite few people almost all over the world who have their little lap dogs. Pets for the elite people have been around for a long time. You can tell them by their names, the Maltese, the Pekinese.”
It was rise of the middle class that brought pet ownership to the masses; owning and feeding an animal that wasn’t working for you was a privilege.
Terriers, of which there are many different kinds, were bred to hunt vermin from rats to badgers to foxes. Many breeds originated in England, Ireland and Scotland, but eventually spread abroad. Their short, stocky frames and legs allowed them to “go to ground” — chase quarry underneath the earth. They are tenacious, high energy and vocal making terriers a natural choice for farmers combating pest problems. During the 19th century, the control of rats using terriers was so prevalent it was turned into an amusement for gamblers at “rat pits” where dogs and quarry were set loose in pens and people bet on how many rodents the dogs could dispatch. Rat catching was a fulltime occupation; a man named Ike Matthews published a memoir called “Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher, After 25 Years’ Experience” in 1898.
Nowadays, most people know terriers as household pets or from star turns, like Toto the Cairn terrier in the film version of “Wizard of Oz” or Eddie, the Jack Russell terrier on the TV show “Frasier.”
But even if most terrier owners don’t work their dogs, modern events still exist to recognize the dog’s bloody ancestral roots. Terrier owners participate in field events intended to mimic hunts where dogs race through manmade tunnels and dens to earn titles, like the American Kennel Club sanctioned Earthdog tests. A recent addition to the faux-hunt scene, Barn Hunt, is even meant to specifically recreate the experience of rat hunting, sans rat killing. Missouri dog-owner Robin Nuttall was inspired to create Barn Hunt by her own dogs, a Doberman named Calla and two miniature pinschers, Zipper and Prada, who occasionally catch and kill voles. She wanted to enter them in trials, but many accept only breeds traditionally bred for killing vermin. Barn Hunt accepts all breeds of dogs, and since Nuttall held her first trial in April 2013, there have been over 200 trials held and 3,400 dogs have been registered to take part.
Of course, many who use working dogs will tell you trials are all good for fun and exercise, but that you don’t know if you have a working dog on your hands until it actually works.
For most, a rat is an unpleasant surprise in a restaurant kitchen or subway track. On a farm, rats can burrow under buildings or gnaw at their foundations, rendering them unstable. They will devour poultry and their eggs, spread disease and chow down on animal feed. In short, they eat money.
Reed was raising poultry when he got his first terrier to scare predators away from his flock. Without prompting, the dog started snatching up rats attracted by his birds. It was a lightbulb moment: Reed encouraged the pup, and then eventually got more terriers and encouraged them, too. Soon, the Mongrol Hoard was born, and he started hiring himself out to local farms. He charges a small fee for his services (between $50 and $75, plus “a box of beer”) and won’t return to sites where famers aren’t willing to change their habits in order to discourage rats. Hunts typically last 3 to 4 hours and he usually enlists help, including the farmer, to move around pallets and other good hiding places. His record is 121 rats in three hours, he says. Dead rats are vulture food — collected, but left out for the prey birds to eat.
Besides being efficient, death-by-dog is more humane for the rat and better for the environment than poison, say ratting proponents. Commonly used anticoagulant poisons thin the blood and cause internal bleeding. Rats die slow deaths, and they pass the poison on to anything that eats them, from wildlife to farm animals. For organic farmers, the Mongrol Hoard are a chemical-free solution to their pest problems.
Soon, even more farmers may be lining up for Reed’s services, as the state of California has banned the sale of most anticoagulant rat poisons beginning July 1 to all but professional exterminators.
Then a massive brown rat shoots out from underneath a ladder, barreling so fast it’s just a blur with a tail.
Inside the grain mill, it is a scene of controlled chaos. Plumes billow from a hole near the front entrance where Reed has attempted to roust the rats with his converted chainsaw. Dogs careen around the dark space. The mill owner’s sons are doing bunny hops on their bikes when they aren’t racing after the dogs or helping Reed move aside possible rat cover. “Squeaker is my love!” Reed calls, as he gives the dog a lift up a ladder so that she can patrol a loft area. He urges them on, swinging his arms and hollering, “Get ‘em Grumps! Get the rats!” (Reed is not afraid to give a command; later in the day he employs the same urgency when insisting a reporter help eat a grilled cheese sandwich.)
But it’s starting to seem like Reed was right. The rodents have gone underground, evading the Hoard.
Then a massive brown rat shoots out from underneath a ladder, barreling so fast it’s just a blur with a tail. But before the rat can make a getaway, one of the Hoard blocks its exit while another pounces. The dog shakes her head once, twice and it’s over. The rat is obviously dead, hanging from the dog’s jaws like a wet washrag. All of this happens in less than a minute.
“Take it away from her,” Reed calls to Derrer, who is standing nearby.
“I’m letting her crunch it up a bit,” she says in response, before she stoops down to pluck the rat away from the dog. She carries it in her gloved hand over to a milk crate, where she deposits the body. The rat is large, with long yellow teeth and is mostly unmarred, save a smudge of blood near its chin.
One rat down.
Today, rat hunting is rare but not unheard of. There’s even a team of urban rat hunters who take on the rodents of New York City. And there are websites, clubs and books devoted to the art of rat-hunting and working terriers.
Patrick Burns describes himself as “six feet and a bucket of fun.” By day he works at a Washington D.C. nonprofit. In his spare time he runs Terrierman.com, a website about working terriers, and he has written a book on the subject.
“If you start off having terriers as a kid, a big day in your life is when you’re five or seven or eight or ten, when your dog nails a rat in the backyard,” says Burns. “You feel like you’re a hunter and your dog is a mighty wolf.”
Unlike Reed’s, most terriers were bred to chase their quarry underground, through networks of tunnels and dens. This is how Burns’ two Jack Russell terriers, Mountain and Gideon, work. Burns and his dogs hunt possums, raccoons, groundhogs and other quarry on farms all over Maryland and Virginia. He doesn’t charge the farmers anything, although he might get a bottle of wine when Christmas arrives.
Burns brings an arsenal of equipment with him to assist in the hunt, including a shovel, a post digger, a saw and veterinary gear. Occasionally, he has to dig the dogs out of the ground and they wear radio locator collars that Burns can use to track them.
“Every dog is a potential for disaster out in the field,” says Burns. “They get caught in a trap, run away, get hit by a truck, get caught in wire, get skunked underground, et cetera.”
Burns is not short on opinions (“Owning a working terrier without allowing it to work is like owning a vintage bottle of wine so you can read the label,” he writes on his website) and doesn’t have patience for those who think terrier work is cruel.
“There’s a communication between the dog and you,” says Burns. “You’re out there because you enjoy hunting and the dog enjoys hunting. It’s an ancient code between the dog and the person. The dog becomes fully actualized. To some degree, so does the human as well, when they hunt.”
‘If you start off having terriers as a kid, a big day in your life is when you’re five or seven or eight or ten, when your dog nails a rat in the backyard.’
Burns and his dogs typically don’t kill their quarry, unless the dog has cornered a groundhog, which he says he is duty bound to kill on behalf of farmers.
“When the dog starts to bay underground, I always laugh,” says Burns. “The reason I laugh is because I can hear the joy, the absolute joy in the dog. At the end of the day, the best day is when nothing dies and the coon runs away.”
Burns’ sentiments were echoed by other terriermen.
“I’ve got a passion for these little dogs,” he says.
His 22 Sealyhams have “old fashioned London names” like Madgie, Ethel, Rosie and Maude. Once Old Hollywood’s dog du jour (Humphrey Bogart and Alfred Hitchock are counted among their fans) show breeding made them large and clumsy, says Parsons, and he favors small, fit dogs. Parsons and his pack hunt along riversides where rats gorge on the eggs of native bird species and also on farms.
A good terrier, Parson says, is like the boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr. because “you’ve got no squashed nose and cauliflower ear.”
Lindsay Cameron works on a horse farm in Yorkshire, England and has kept terriers for several years. She never set out to be a ratter.
“But then when we got Oscar,” says Cameron. “He’s got such a high prey drive I thought ‘I need to do something with this dog, he needs to work.’”
Cameron networked with other ratters on Facebook, taking Oscar (loves to cuddle) and her other Jack Russell, Ted (very pretty), on outings to local farms and gardens.
“For me, it’s seeing the dogs having a good time,” says Cameron. “That’s what I enjoy about it most and it really is so good for their brains as well.”
On a good day, they kill 80 rats or more, she says. Cameron doesn’t recommend terriers as pets to those who don’t want to work their dogs. A few days without a hunt will make Oscar a bit “full on,” as Cameron puts it. “He’s not naughty but he just gets a bit excitable and you can see he’s like, ‘I need to get out and kill some rats’,” she says.
In the end, Reed was right. The Hoard killed just two rats at the grain mill. But only two rats showed their faces, so technically, the hunt boasted a 100 percent kill rate.
Afterward, Reed, Derrer and the dogs head over to a local brewery for drinks and food. No less than three people ask if the dogs are related. Reed fields the queries good-naturedly, but says that when he grows tired of talking about his dogs, he will tell people what their job is, and that tends to put a quick end to chitchat. The average person doesn’t want to hear about how the cute little pup falling asleep in his arms will become a seasoned rat killer.
Reed says that he respects his dogs, but does not think of them as “surrogate children.”
“My dogs are not pets,” says Reed. “My dogs are dogs.”
‘They think you love suffering. I care a lot more about how an animal dies than you might think.’
Reed does not sell dogs, and has disdain for show dog culture and those who breed for profit, as do many in the working dog world. Opponents say show dogs are bred for looks, hurting their utility in the field. In 1994, the debate over the induction of border collies into the American Kennel Club was so heated that a defense fund was set up to try and fund a lawsuit that would exclude the dogs from AKC ranks. Recently, rat terriers were admitted to the AKC.
“The show world getting ahold of my dogs scares the crap out of me,” says Reed.
Derrer says when she first started ratting, she worried for the dogs, who would return with fat lips and other battle wounds. But the dogs’ drive and passion dissolved her apprehension. Once, she says, Holy Mole caught a rat, fell into a horse trough, and bounded from the water having not once released her prey.
Reed says that people have trouble clocking that he is an environmentalist who does not kill for fun.
“They think you love suffering,” he says. “I care a lot more about how an animal dies than you might think.”
Reed is not short on words, but when it comes to his relationship with the Hoard, he is thoughtful and then succinct.
“There’s a bond of trust between you and the dog,” he says, “that you can’t describe, other than to say it exists.”