Fox hunting in England in the 1800s involved two types of dog. The first was the scenthound, needed to sniff out the quarry and follow its trail. The second was the terrier, used to follow the game underground and chase it out of its hole so that the sport could continue. Because they worked in tight quarters, these terriers were necessarily quite small—so small, in fact, that the hunters usually had to carry them across the field.
But in the mid-1800s, the Reverend Jack Russell decided to improve on the terrier. Known as the “Sporting Parson,” the Reverend Jack loved nothing so much as fox hunting. Based on his experience, he thought that the ideal terrier ought to have two key characteristics:
- Although small enough to go to ground, it should have proportionately long legs so that it could keep up with the horses.
- It should be white so that there was no risk of mistaking the dog for the fox and shooting it.
The foundation of the Sporting Parson’s breeding program was humble enough. The Reverend Jack found his ideal terrier in a nondescript mongrel that he purchased from a milkman. What exactly he bred her and her offspring to is completely unknown, although an early type of Wire Fox Terrier was doubtless involved. But the results were evidently satisfactory, as the new breed gained a small but loyal following among fox hunters.
In 1894, the Devon and Somerset Badger Club was founded with the purpose of promoting badger hunts. Jack Russell’s terriers were repurposed to fit the new niche. It is possible that this repurposing involved some crossbreeding, perhaps with the fierce Bull and Terrier breed for a little added tenacity in combating such a ferocious animal as a badger. Some suggest that this mix added a bit of undesirable bloodthirstiness in the breed, so further crossbreeding with pocket Beagles was carried out to mellow the dog down again.
Both repurposing and crossbreeding resulted in the emergence of many types of Jack Russell Terrier. Some were long-legged, the way the Sporting Parson had bred them. Others were short-legged and barrel-chested.
The Jack Russell Terrier made its appearance in America sometime around the 1930s. After World War II, however, hunting with dogs declined in popularity among all but the elite. The Jack Russell Terrier became a fixture on East Coast horse farms for several decades.
While the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA) flatly refused to pursue AKC recognition, in 1985 a faction split off and formed the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA) for that very purpose. In 1992, the JRTBA achieved a major milestone with the acceptance of the breed by the United Kennel Club. Shortly thereafter, the JRTBA took advantage of an expansion phase in the AKC with the result that the Jack Russell Terrier was entered into the Terrier Group in 2000.
The JRTCA quickly retaliated with one of the fiercest protests in canine history. This organization actually trademarked the name Jack Russell Terrier and then sued the AKC for using it. The AKC backed down in 2003, simultaneously acknowledging an international trend toward distinguishing between different types of Jack Russell. The AKC changed the name of the breed it recognized to Parson Russell Terrier.
Today, three names are commonly applied to dogs descended from the terriers of the Sporting Parson:
- Jack Russell Terrier: This name refers to a long-bodied, short-legged type bred for work, registered by both the JRTCA and the United Kennel Club (UKC). The JRTCA claims to preserve the authentic working Jack Russell, paying no heed to the cosmetic appearance of the dog. This organization maintains an open registry, meaning that terriers can be registered regardless of their breed or mix, as long as their pedigrees can be documented. However, in an effort to keep the JRTCA a breed and not a nondescript terrier, all dogs are evaluated against a conformation standard before registry. Although the JRTCA refuses membership to breeders who register dogs with the UKC, the UKC Jack Russell Terrier is nevertheless nearly identical to the JRTCA breed in appearance, and is also bred primarily for work.
- Parson Russell Terrier: The Parson Russell Terrier is known for a square build stemming from the long legs originally sought after by the Reverend Jack Russell. This version is recognized by both the AKC and the UKC and is extremely popular as a pet. The focus of AKC breeders tends to be more on conformation, while the focus of UKC breeders is more on working ability. Nevertheless, there are no significant differences between AKC and UKC Parson Russells, except that the UKC standard allows for a slightly shorter variety.
- Russell Terrier: This dog can be considered a separate breed in its own right, as it originated in Australia. Parson Russell Terriers were deliberately bred for a smaller size to fit the unique hunting conditions Down Under. The Russell Terrier is often compared to a Welsh Corgi in shape. It is recognized by the AKC.
The Jack Russell, in all of his many forms, is an incredibly versatile dog. Show bloodlines tend to be kept as companions, while working bloodlines tend to be used for hunting foxes, badgers, and groundhogs. However, this is a broad generalization. Many show dogs retain a love for hunting small, furry animals, while most working dogs are also treasured pets.
This feisty terrier can be a real asset on a farm. Not only can he rid the barn of rodents and other vermin, but he will happily sound the alert when anything is amiss.
While the Jack Russell can be challenging to train, those who are up to the task can find many ways to enjoy his intelligence. He can be the ultimate trick dog, or he can compete in fast-paced sports such as agility and flyball. And don’t forget the terrier-oriented sport of earthdog, where terriers race against time to sniff their way through a tunnel to a den of rats (safely caged away from harm).
Even though terriers are independent, the Jack Russell can be a great companion and assistant to mankind. He is an adventure-loving hiking partner (on a leash, please), a sharp-nosed detector of contraband, and a determined search-and-rescue worker. When his activity requirements are met, he is also a pleasing therapy dog.
The Jack Russell Terrier may be small, but his personality is larger than life. He fears absolutely nothing, and can find an unlimited number of ways to get himself into trouble. This dog is a bundle of energy—he must have something to do, or he will quickly become testy, destructive, and compulsive. And the something to do must be something strenuous. A quiet walk on a leash will not suffice.
The Jack Russell has to have time outdoors to satisfy his curiosity, but he also must be kept safe, as he is a natural escape artist with a penchant for mischief. He can easily escape physical fencing by digging, climbing, or jumping (some Jack Russells can jump as high as five feet!), and he stubbornly ignores the tingle of an underground fence collar. Therefore, he requires nearly constant supervision.
While he can easily get along with visitors, even if in a slightly reserved manner, the Jack Russell Terrier is jealous and short-tempered, making him a poor choice for homes with small children or most other dogs. A few Jack Russells, however, can learn to accept polite dogs of the opposite sex if raised with them. No Jack Russell can be trusted around cats or pet rodents, but he is guaranteed to love the company of horses.
The Jack Russell Terrier is an intriguing mix of stubbornness and obliging good nature. He thrives on fun and attention, and is smart enough to learn just about anything in seconds. However, he prefers to perform a task once and once only. His hearing is remarkably selective, and he will persistently ignore any command that he feels is stupid or boring. To encourage a Jack Russell to obey the first time every time, the trainer must be firm and consistent, but very positive and upbeat, willing to go to great lengths to reward compliance. Never give way to frustration if your Jack Russell Terrier does not mind—he is not above snapping if he feels that he is being treated unfairly.
There are few dogs as single-minded as a Jack Russell at work. Once he scents his prey, he will follow the trail to the bitter end, regardless of danger or physical discomfort. When the game goes to ground, the Jack Russell will dig in after it. He generally does not bark when at work, but either chases the game back to the surface or holds it in place until help arrives.
The Jack Russell Terrier is a hale and hearty little dog. He suffers from no major health problems.
However, note that he is very prone to obesity. Don’t give in to his begging! He’s cute and cunning, but he will live much longer if kept to a slim working weight.
Dislocation of the lens of the eye is a minor genetic problem found in this breed, as is kneecap slippage. Although the latter ailment is not common in Jack Russell Terriers, it is devastating. Crate rest is an important part of the cure, and these active little dogs can become extremely depressed during the process.
Mast cell tumors are also found in Jack Russell Terriers.
Note that when a Jack Russell Terrier is outdoors his feisty temperament can lead him into all sorts of scrapes and accidents, some of which could be fatal. Keep your working terrier safe by fitting him with a tracking collar before sending him underground, and always be ready to dig him out at a moment’s notice. Above all, keep your nose open for any whiff of skunk perfume. Jack Russell Terriers are prone to skunk toxic shock syndrome. If they inhale skunk scent and cannot get back to fresh air on their own, they could die of respiratory failure within minutes. Even dogs that can reemerge safely are at risk of fatal anemia and kidney failure, not to mention unpleasant facial ulcers.
- Convenient size.
- Tidy habits, including no drooling.
- Minimal grooming needs (especially smooth-coated variety).
- Few health problems.
- Longevity if protected from accidents.
- Tenacity when at work.
- Unsuitability for homes with small children or other pets.
- Excessive barking.
- Tendency to bite.
- Destructive tendencies.
- Deeply ingrained desire to dig.
- Incredible ability as an escape artist.
- Tendency to wander.
- Need for extraordinary amounts of exercise and mental stimulation.
- Constant low-grade shedding of highly visible white hair (especially smooth-coated variety).
- Need to periodically strip out dead hair of wire-coated version.