Jennifer Peltz

NEW YORK: Bodies tensed and noses twitching, the dogs sniff the hunting ground before them: a lower Manhattan alley, grimy, dim and perfect for rats. With a terse command — “Now!” — the chase is on.

Circling, bounding over and pawing at a mound of garbage bags, the four dogs quickly have rodents on the run.

“Come on ... I mean, ‘tally ho!’?” says one of their owners, Susan Friedenberg. In a whirl of barks, pants and wagging tails, dogs tunnel among the bags and bolt down the alley as their quarry tries to scurry away.

Within five minutes, the city has two fewer rats.

In a scrappy, streetwise cousin of mannerly countryside fox hunts, on terrain far from the European farms and fields where many of the dogs’ ancestors were bred to scramble after vermin and foxes, their masters sport trash-poking sticks instead of riding crops and say it’s just as viable an exercise for the animals’ centuries-old skills.

“It’s about maintaining the breed type through actual work,” said Richard Reynolds, a New Jersey-based business analyst and longtime dog breeder who might be considered the group’s organizer — if it would accept being called organized.

Known with a chuckle as the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society — parse the acronym — the rodent-hunters have been scouring downtown byways for more than a decade, meeting weekly when weather allows.

On a couple of recent nights, an eclectic group of ratters converged on an alley near City Hall about an hour after sunset. The lineups included two border terriers; a wire-haired dachshund; a Jack Russell terrier/Australian cattle dog mix; a Patterdale terrier, an intense, no-nonsense breed that’s uncommon in this country; and a feist, a type of dog developed in the American South to tree squirrels.

“Get ’im! Go!” Serge Lozach yelled as his cairn terrier, Hudson, streaked down an alley after a fleeing rat. Unlike many of the other owners, Lozach doesn’t breed or show dogs, but he has taken Hudson to several alley hunts.

“I like watching him have fun,” Lozach said.

Although the dogs have hunting instincts, it takes training to capitalize on them. Just because your pet runs after backyard squirrels doesn’t mean it could ever catch one.

When at its best, the alley pack works together. One dog will sniff out a rat and signal its whereabouts, often by barking. Another leaps at the hideaway to rout the quarry, and then a third lurches to catch it as it flees. A rat that scuttles into the open might get caught in a rundown, or even a tug of war, between dogs that circle and flank it.

After making a kill with a bite or a shake, the hunters trot back, rat in mouth, and allow their owners to take it from their jaws. The night’s kill ends up in a trash bin.

There’s no official estimate of how many rats rove the city’s streets, basements, parks and subways. But there are plenty.

Officials have tried a number of innovative tactics to rout them, including a 2007 city Health Department initiative that sent inspectors with hand-held computers to map infestations in a Bronx neighborhood and then followed up with owners to address the problems.

But the terrier forays are an unofficial undertaking, and participants say they’re less about killing rats than giving dogs the experience of chasing them. The Health Department declined to comment on the hunts.