Rats are a big problem in New York City. It’s the stuff of urban legend, visitor nightmares and the bane of restaurateurs’ existence. The city uses traps that feed the rodents warfarin, which thins the blood, eventually leading to death. But it barely puts a dent in the varmints’ population.

When it gets bad enough for citizens in Manhattan that it hits a newspaper, the Ryders Alley Trencher Fed Society often shows up to dispatch at least some of the rats, scare many more away from the area, and give residents at least a modicum of satisfaction.

So, why is a story about New York’s pest problem a topic for Best In Show Daily? BecauseRATS is a group of people who travel under cover of darkness through Manhattan’s parks and alleys, releasing their Terriers to do exactly what they were designed to do: catch and kill rodents.

You might think the group is just a bunch of hoodlums, trying to show off how tough their dogs are, getting some kind of twisted kick out of killing animals or even defying authority by turning dogs loose in the city. You’d be wrong, though. Way wrong.

Richard L. Reynolds, an AKC judge and one-time breeder of Beagles, Jack Russell Terriers, Smooth Fox Terriers, English Foxhounds and Norfolk Terriers, says RATS might just be the smartest group of rat hunters in America. A management analyst by day, Reynolds says the non-canine part of the group includes lawyers, veterinarians, a card-carrying Mensa member and a woman with a doctorate in Middle Eastern antiquities. He’s quick to point out, however, that RATS isn’t about the people – or even the rats.

“It’s about the dogs, one hundred and ten percent,” he says.“We have quarry out there that is getting dispatched, [but] it pays off in preserving breed type. It pays off in evaluating structural qualities of the dogs.” Reynolds actually admits that “most of the time I’m rooting for the quarry.”

Reynolds’ devotion to dogs’ original purposes affects his judging. “When I judge, I don’t judge like anybody else. People love me or hate me,” he says. For example, he has a “fetish” about hocks on Dachshunds because he knows that’s what enables them to “shift into reverse when they’ve got a quarry that wants to eat their face.” And he dislikes too much angulation in a Smooth Fox Terrier’s hindquarter because it lessens the dog’s endurance.

An Auspicious Beginning

The not-so-ragtag bunch of rat chasers got started about 15 years ago during a dog show at Liberty State Park. Reynolds was the show chairman, and exhibitors were upset because rats were traversing the grooming area. Park workers suggested that maybe some of the terriers could do something about the problem. That’s exactly what several exhibitors did – set their dogs on the rodents. Thus, RATS was born.

The first two words in the group’s name, Ryders Alley Trench Fed Society, come from one of the first alleys that the group hunted in, Reynolds explains. In pre-Revolutionary War times, the alley ran behind a row of theaters, he says, and George Washington used it to enter theaters without being recognized. As a New York history buff, Reynolds says he gets a kick out of that. “Trench Fed” refers to the fact that RATS’ JRTs, Cairns, Bedlingtons, Borders, Dachshunds, Smooth Fox Terriers and Norfolks don’t live in a pack. Each lives in its own home, not eating from a trough, but from a bowl. The wooden bowl used to feed such dogs in Britain was known as a trench, Reynolds says, so the dogs were “trench-fed.” The “Society” was added so the acronym would be “RATS.”

It’s no accident, he says, that the group includes both short-legged and long-legged dogs, including one dog that’s half Dalmatian and half JRT. The short-legged dogs flush out the rats into the open, then the taller dogs “catch them on the fly.” However, Reynolds says, one standard Dachshund “can actually run down a running rat and catch it.” Bedlingtons are important to the group, he says, because they’re “fast and mean,” as they were originally bred as multipurpose poachers’ dogs.By the way, the RATS dogs aren’t just your average dogs – almost all are conformation champions. Most compete in earthdog or tracking too. “Rat hunting is a sideline,” Reynolds quips.

The best nose in the group has been Reynolds’ own Norfolk, 13-year-old Lizzie, but she’s officially retired. “I’m heartbroken out there without her. All the dogs miss her,” he says. She’s been blind for quite a while now, but “someone forgot to tell her. Over the years, she’s been the most exceptional nose I’ve known, and she doesn’t need her eyes.” While he’s looking for a new Terrier, he goes out with his other Norfolk, 10-year-old Dudley. But Reynolds probably won’t get another dog of that breed, he says. “Their body structure isn’t conducive to the type of hunting I’m doing right now.”

In addition to removing a couple thousand rats from the city each year, the group goes to truck farms, orchards and fairgrounds with rodent problems. In the summertime, the dogs hunt woodchucks for people whose property has been invaded by them. Once they were asked to rid a small island surrounding a lighthouse in Boston Harbor of muskrat. Turned out the dogs had no idea what to do with a muskrat. “They didn’t do a real great job,” Reynolds says.

Friday Night’s for Hunting

In lower Manhattan, however, RATS likes to go out with about eight dogs at a time, often on a Friday night so everyone can sleep in on Saturday. A number of variables determine whether it’s a good night for rat hunting, Reynolds says. “We can’t take a rat in its den. We have to have the rat come out and feed. That depends on the availability of food and the barometric pressure.” The rats won’t come out when a low front is heading for the city. Garbage set out by businesses for pickup is the other necessity, as is a degree of safety for the dogs. “We try to find safe places to hunt with a plentiful supply of rats,” he says. Alleys and parks with garbage cans often fit the criteria.

Reynolds claims that he’s a “lousy” dog trainer, but the RATS dogsall obey one command: Drop. That’s how the dogs’ owners keep them from harm’s way. For example, if a hunter is headed into the street, “drop” stops him in his tracks.

And no dog has ever gotten sick from hunting rats with the group. Reynolds explains that rats are not food to the Terriers. “For the most part, dogs won’t rag [tear apart] their quarry. It’s not a food thing. The essence here is that the Terriers are doing what they’re bred to do, and that’s chase vermin. If you had to exist on the amount of rats we kill, it would be a meager existence indeed. But we chase a [lot of them].” Hundreds of rats’ lives are “made miserable” in the course of one outing, he says. “If we catch 30 or 40, it’s amazing. Some nights we catch one. There have been two recorded nights in the last 15 years when we’ve got nothing.”

In his years of rat hunting, Reynolds has learned a lot about the rodents. “Rats, by nature, run in a prescribed direction. And you try to put a dog there. It becomes a challenge of wits that we usually lose. We have a lot of fun and the dogs have a lot of fun.” He also says that rats become resistant to warfarin, and a mating pair can result in 24,000 more rats in just one year.

He comes back again to the real point. “You end up proving the breed standard. We worship the AKC standard. The Borders are superstars. I attribute their efficiency to the standard.” For one thing, it calls for an otter-shaped head. Reynolds says what’s important about that is it gives a “certain amount of fill under the eyes which is protection from being bit.” An effective vermin hunter knows – or learns – that it’s safer to grab a rat from the front, not from the back. “A good Terrier will grab it by the front end, shake it once, and the party’s over,” he says.

“This has been going on for hundreds of years. The dogs have been bred for it for hundreds of years. It’s how we prove breed type.”

And, once again, “it’s all about the dogs.”

To see the RATS dogs in action, watch a short video from WNBC or a 27-minute video by Jeff Formosa.