The Jack Russell Terrier

Legendary fox hunter is vigorous, scrappy, and bold



In the early and mid-1980s, psychologists and wanna-bes flooded the market with self-help books to encourage people to be assertive without being aggressive, to stand up for themselves, to stop acting like wimps in their relationships.

The Jack Russell Terrier never needed such counsel.

The scrappy little dog popularized in television comedies and commercials and on the big screen is the epitome of the assertive and energetic personality: he's bold, brash, vigorous, and supremely self-confident, characteristics that often stun owners who thought they were purchasing a couch potato or a lap dog.

The breed history is wrapped in legend. Named for Parson Jack Russell, a hard-drinking, hard-riding hunter of the 1850-70s, the dog is from the same basic stock as the AKC-registered Wire-haired Fox Terrier1. The parson favored a dog that was bold enough to follow the fox into its earthen den but not so aggressive that it would kill the quarry. His terrier was trained to find and flush the fox for the houndsmen and their foxhounds; it was a flexible dog, able to maneuver in underground dens, mostly white so it could be easily seen, and of the same flamboyant character as the parson himself.

Breed fanciers describe their favorite as a strain of fox terrier, kept pure from the early days, much as fanciers of some hunting breeds have continued field strains of their breeds that today differ from the dogs seen in the show ring.

Physical appearance and temperament

The Jack Russell Terrier is first and foremost a working dog, so character and skill are more important than uniformity of size and coat type. The breed has a size range from 10-15 inches at the withers in the standard of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America and 12-14 inches in the AKC standard. It can have smooth, wiry, or "broken" coat and is mostly white with black, tan, or brown markings.

The dog must appear balanced and be in fit condition. Ears are moderately thick with the flap tipped forward towards the front of the skull. The chest is relatively shallow and narrow, giving an athletic appearance. The rear end provides power and propulsion, feet are cat-like with hard pads, and the high-set tail is docked to about four inches in length. Movement should be free, lively, and well-coordinated.

Faults in the breed include shyness, disinterest, overly aggressive, lack of muscle tone, and lack of stamina or lung reserve.

The Jack Russell is a fearless, happy, alert, confident, intelligent and lively hunting dog. These qualities make him a sturdy, vigorous companion, ready to meet the world on a moment's notice, and, unless he is appropriately trained and exercised, can be subverted into wanton destructiveness. The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America describes the character thus: "The unique personality of this feisty little terrier is capturing the hearts of many, but they are not a dog for everyone. While adaptable to a variety of environments, they are first and foremost bred to be hunting dogs."

As appealing as he can be_ and that is very appealing_ the Jack Russell is not the ideal pet for everyone. He has his share of terrier aggression towards other dogs and is deadly towards animals it considers to be prey. Thus cats, hamsters, gerbils, and other household pets can be in jeopardy if the dog is not supervised or confined. Furthermore, this militant streak makes it difficult to keep a Jack Russell in a home with other dogs, even others of its breed. Like most terriers, the Jack Russell is a digger and a barker; if not given enough opportunity to indulge these inclinations outside, he may dig holes in the furniture and bark at everything that moves.

However, in spite of caveats about its sometimes irascible temperament towards fellow canines and small animals, the Jack Russell can be a terrific family pet. He has a gentle and kindly nature with people and is usually friendly with small children -- if they are well-behaved. He will likely not put up with poking, prodding, or abusive rough-housing from boisterous or ill-behaved youngsters, but he is amenable to learning tricks and games.

Although a Jack Russell can be a successful apartment pet if owners are prepared to provide considerable exercise and channel the pet's need to work. But the Jack Russell shines as a suburban or rural pet, especially if he has a barn and some horses for companions. Born in fox-hunting country in England, the breed has a special affinity for horses and is a superb ratter. Barns that are fortunate enough to have a Jack Russell in residence are generally free of invasion by rats, mice, woodchucks, and other pests.

Health, care, and training

When dogs are bred for working and not particularly for the pet trade, genetic diseases tend to be few and the animals generally healthier in temperament. But when the breed gains in popularity and careless breeding is done to fatten the pocketbook, genetic problems begin to crop up. The Jack Russell has shown some susceptibility to ataxia (progressive neuronal abiotrophy), corneal dystrophy, glaucoma, and lens luxation, but these are not of the magnitude seen in more numerous breeds. This situation may change as the Jack Russell finds his way into pet shops and back yard breeding operations.

The Jack Russell needs little grooming and no special physical care. However, he does need to be obedience-trained to walk on a leash, come when called, and stand to be handled. As usual with terriers, owners must have saintly patience to work these dogs in obedience trials, but the Jack Russell club offers agility, go-to-ground, search n' sniff, and racing for the breed. Although the club only registers those dogs that meet the working standard, Jack Russell-type dogs are all welcome to compete in these events even if they do not meet registration criteria as breeding or conformation stock.

All dog breeds were developed to do particular jobs. They guarded flocks and herds and homes; gathered livestock from the fields and drove them to market; flushed and retrieved game birds; trailed and cornered larger and fiercer game; and hauled the worldly possessions of wandering tribes to new homesites and the products of villagers to market. Today, few breeds (except those used by hunters) are dedicated to these jobs; more and more, dogs are companions first, show dogs second, and workers last_ if indeed they work at all. Those that do work have modern jobs_ instead of hauling sleds and herding sheep, they are service dogs, therapy dogs, police dogs, sniffer dogs, search and rescue dogs, circus dogs, or obedience dogs, and they have been bred to have the temperament for their new careers.

But a few breeds still maintain their original temperament and purpose. Two major exceptions are the Border Collie and the Jack Russell Terrier. Clubs of both breeds are determined, even stubborn, about maintaining the heritage of their dogs. That means that working ability is more important than conformity of size or coat type, working attitude is preferred over mild-mannered affability, and working character is favored over general adaptability. If purchasers of Jack Russells assess whether these qualities fit their family and circumstances and are prepared to deal with them, the terrier can be a perfect pet. If owners are less than careful in their selection, they may need the services of Russell Rescue, a committee of the JRTCA that assists in placing dogs that need new homes.

"The majority of dogs (in Russell Rescue) are unwanted simply for being Jack Russells by nature and behavior," according to a pamphlet provided by the group. "Owners often find that they were unprepared for the care required for this feisty terrier and did not understand the nature of the breed and their instinctive desire to hunt."

Jack Russell club is adamant about protecting the breed

The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America could be described as either paranoid or arrogant in its attempts to protect this type of working terrier, but they cannot be blamed for their zealousness in light of the experiences of clubs for other breeds. Cases abound where recognition by the American Kennel Club has resulted in development of two types of dogs within a breed_ the dogs that catch the eye of breeders, judges, and spectators in the show ring and the dogs that maintain working character. The distinction is particularly noticeable in several hunting breeds; the show ring dogs tend to be larger, have longer coats, and often lack movement that indicates strength and stamina in the field.

The JRTCA has taken a strong stance against recognition of the breed by any all-breed registry. At the request of the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association, the breed was accepted into the United Kennel Club in 1992, but JRTCA does not endorse this recognition. Instead, the JRTCA approved a policy of refusing membership to members of the breeder's association and to applicants who register their dogs with the breeder's association or the UKC. The denial extends to all groups that promote any kennel club recognition of the breed.

To register a Jack Russell with JRTCA, owners must complete an application and send the following documents:

In addition, the owner must be a member in good standing of the club.

If the dog does not meet the broad standard or does not have the appropriate paperwork, it cannot be registered. However, a dog that does not qualify for registration may still be listed in the club's recording system so he can compete in performance events.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

This page is a part of the Dog Owner's Guide internet website and is copyright 2021 by Canis Major Publications. You may print or download this material for non-commercial personal or school educational use. All other rights reserved. If you, your organization or business would like to reprint our articles in a newsletter or distribute them free of charge as an educational handout please see our reprint policy.

We will be modifying the Dog Owner's Guide site with new and updated articles in 2021 as well as new booklists so check back often to see what's new!

Contact us