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The Rat Terrier is a small American hunting dog that is bred to dig, burrow underground, and chase small vermin. Don't let this tenacious terrier's size limit him, as Rat Terriers are such natural hunters that they can be trained to hunt things like groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits, hares, snakes, and even some larger animals like badgers. Dogs have been used as hunting companions by humans for centuries and some breeds have been especially developed to hunt. The Rat Terrier is one of them, possessing an innate prey drive, a wriggly, athletic, agile little body that can negotiate fast turns made by prey trying to escape, a great sniffer for tracking prey, alert eyes and ears for locating and following prey, and the ability to dig underground for small animals that may think that a burrow is a safe retreat. If you're searching for the perfect hunting companion to flush out hard-to-reach game, the Rat Terrier is an ideal choice to raise and train.
Training a good hunting Rat Terrier, like any hunting dog, is about 50% based on the dog's ability, and 50% on training. Being patient and using positive reinforcement to bring out your dog's natural hunting abilities and skills is the best approach with any hunting dog, and especially with capable, alert rat dogs. Skills you will want your Rat Terrier to master in order to hunt include familiarization with specific prey animals, ability to negotiate rough terrain, practice locating and following scent trails, and experience chasing quick prey that may make unexpected moves, twists, and turns. Your Rat Terrier will also need to know how to alert you when he has located prey or cornered something too big for him to take on, so handlers can move in and harvest prey. These skills will help form the foundation that every good hunting dog needs before taking to the hunt.
Condition your dog so he is in good shape, and does not injure himself during hunting. Make sure your dog is used to new equipment, sights, and sounds, that will be used during hunting so he is not distracted or frightened. Depending on the quarry you are after, you can use live animals to motivate and practice hunting skills, or train your Rat Terrier to follow specific scents obtained commercially or from carcasses. Other hunting dogs are an invaluable tool in teaching a Rat Terrier or any other dog to hunt. An experienced hunting dog will model behavior for a younger, more inexperienced dog to follow. All of these tools will set you up for success in your training.
The Use the Nose Method
Create a trail with treats
Grind some treats under foot and walk a straight line to set a simple scent trail. Put a cache of treats at the end of the scent trail for your Terrier to find.
Follow the trail
Let your Rat Terrier loose to find and follow the treat trail. Let him receive his reward at the end, as it will help to reinforce the fun and excitement in finding the trails later on.
Make it more complex
Make scent trails more complex by adding turns, making them longer, adding distractions, hiding the cache better, interrupting the trail, making longer spaces between scent “pockets”, and practicing in different places until your dog becomes proficient with his nose.
Pair animal scent
Pair the treat trail with the scent of the animal you want your Rat Terrier to hunt. Add an item scented with the animal's smell at the end of the trail to play with. Let your Rat Terrier follow the trail until he finds the scent at the end.
Remove food scent
Gradually remove the treat scent so your Rat Terrier is just following the scent of the animal you want him to target on. When he is proficient at this, you can start moving to natural areas where quarry is present to get your Rat Terrier to discover actual scent trails.
The General Hunting Skills Method
Make sure your Rat Terrier has good obedience and recall. Teach him any specific skills such as 'Speak', 'Go Right' or 'Go Left' and verbal or hand signals to be used during hunting.
Practice commands and recall in outdoor situations where distractions are present. You will especially want to practice recall to ensure your dog will perform in actual hunting situations.
Get your Rat Terrier in great physical condition so he can cover lots of ground looking for scent trails and chasing fast agile prey. Rat Terriers are close hunters, which means they stay near handlers, and quarter, covering ground back and forth around hunters. Your dog should also be familiar with negotiating thick brush, water, rocky and heavily forested areas.
Socialize with other dogs
Socialize your Rat Terrier with other dogs as young as possible. Rat Terriers do not always socialize naturally with other dogs, so you want him to be comfortable working with other dogs so he can work as part of a pack and learn from other experienced dogs when necessary.
Familiarize with equipment
Make sure your dog is used to gun fire, ATVs, and hunting equipment such as GPS or ferret collars, used to keep track of your dog at long range or for short range underground work. This will keep your dog from being distracted or frightened during actual hunting.
The Learn by Experience Method
Familiarize your dog with quarry by using carcasses and scent on rags as toys to encourage your Rat Terrier to be aggressive to specific prey animals. Keep items with animal scent on hand during every training session so that you are prepared to use them as needed.
Introduce your dog to live prey animals such as rats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits in cages. Get your dog excited about the animal. Reinforce aggressive behaviours like barking, lunging, and growling at the animal, but be sure to maintain control at all times for the safety of all the animals involved. Consult a professional handler for the prey animals if necessary.
Release caged prey animals for your Rat Terrier to chase. The chase itself is usually a reward for a prey driven Rat Terrier, but remember to praise and encourage your dog. Have a professional on hand to maintain the safety of all prey animals, if necessary.
Hunt in a pack
Introduce your dog to other experienced hunting dogs and allow your dog to learn from them. You may want to keep an inexperienced dog on a leash at first, allowing off-leash hunting with the pack as your Rat Terrier becomes more experienced.
Introduce and practice directions and commands required for hunting. Use them in actual situations to direct your dog to perform behaviours required for the specific hunt. Behaviours such as 'Speak', 'Stay Close', release commands, and recall commands are all commonly used in hunting scenarios.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 05/30/2018, edited: 01/08/2021