"Terriers of indeterminate ancestry, old-fashioned, working Sealyhams, and shortlegged terriers have all come to be known as Jack Russells. The reason for this is that there has grown up a cult—and a snob cult at that—which makes the possession of a 'Russell' terrier something of a status symbol."
—JACK RUSSELL AND HIS TERRIERS, BY DAN RUSSELL
"True terriers they were, but differing from the present show dogs as the wild eglantine differs from a garden rose."
Twenty-three breeds of terrier are recognized by the American Kennel Club. The Airedale is the biggest and, alphabetically, the first; the cairn is the smallest and the West Highland white is the last. (The Yorkshire terrier is officially in the toy group.) There are Australian, Welsh and Scottish terriers from abroad. an American Staffordshire terrier here at home and Border terriers for those who prefer neutrality. There are fox terriers and bullterriers, soft-coated Wheaton terriers and wirehaired miniature Schnauzers. They are a diverse and scrappy group. But there is one terrier virtually in a class by itself, because it is most emphatically not recognized by the American Kennel Club or the Kennel Club of its native Great Britain. It is the Jack Russell terrier.
"The first time I saw one," says an AKC official, "I thought, 'That dog's a mistake.' Esthetically, it hit my eye wrong. They're an unrefined dog."
November 2, 1981
That's true. And Jack Russell people are delighted about it. In their eyes, unrefined and unrecognized is the same as unspoiled, and the last thing this world needs is another strain of spoiled, yapping terrier. "The snob appeal of the Jack Russell," says Captain Arthur Haggerty, an authority on dogs and dog owners, "is being able to say, 'We're not recognized by the AKC, and we don't want to be recognized.' A Jack Russell person is the type of person who would buy a Bentley instead of a Rolls-Royce. It's the exact same car without the grille, you know. They're so wealthy they don't have to worry about impressing anybody."
The grille, in this case, is a long pedigree and a trunk full of ribbons from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show—the most glamorous of the shows put on by the American Kennel Club, and one which has been utterly dominated by terriers over the years. Jack Russell people are not interested in dog shows. They are interested in a working terrier, one that will dig to foxes and dislocate the spines of rats, while at the same time making a fine house pet. The knock against the AKC is that as soon as a breed achieves recognition, it is shown in prestigious events like the Westminster. As soon as it is shown, there are champions. As soon as there are champions, there are champions that are too valuable to "go to ground." The working qualities of the breed become secondary to physical conformation, and 10 generations later you have a lovely looking terrier that will flee before Rattus norwegicus.
"If these terriers ever become soft-bred show dogs," says one Jack Russell owner, "John Russell will turn in his grave."
"In the show-dog world there's too much backbiting," says Mrs. Harden L. Crawford III, president and founder of the Jack Russell Club of America, which she operates out of her home in Far Hills, N.J. "If a judge puts up somebody else's dog, you have to worry about whether to invite him over for dinner now. Jack Russells have come at a time when people don't want to be bothered by that anymore. The dog is what it was always meant to be: a super pet and a family dog, and if you want to hunt him, fine. The goal of the club is not to establish the Jack Russell as a pure breed, and certainly it isn't to gain acceptance by the American Kennel Club. We want to keep these terriers as they are: healthy in mind and body. To do that, somewhere along the line you're going to have to introduce some new blood."
That enlightened view is based on seeing what generations of inbreeding has done to such dogs as the St. Bernard, the Dalmatian, the Irish Setter and the bulldog. "Look what they did to the cocker," says Mrs. Gordon Little of Middleburg, Va., who has the largest Jack Russell breeding kennel in the U.S.—34 dogs. "Bred the brains right out of them." It is sort of the rallying cry of Jack Russell owners who are opposed to the American Kennel Club, a dog-lover's "Remember the Alamo!" Look what they did to the cocker!
In Great Britain, however, there is a strong faction within the Jack Russell Club that would like to see the breed gain Kennel Club acceptance. (Ironically, the Rev. John Russell, after whom the breed is named, himself was one of the founding fathers of the Kennel Club.) "Above all," the English breed standard states, "if the Jack Russell is to develop as a pure breed, then any further introduction of blood from any other breed must cease."
This notion is ridiculed by D. Brian Plummer, the colorful English author, hunter and past chairman of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain, in his book The Complete Jack Russell Terrier. "The madness to preserve racial purity of a mongrelly type like that of the Jack Russell terrier is ludicrous to say the least.... I must confess that my famous stud dog. Warlock—a noted producer of his day—is a blend of beagle, pit bull terrier, fox terrier and Jack Russell, and is certainly under no disadvantage with his mixed ancestry."
There has always been some mystery behind the bloodlines of the Jack Russell terrier. The very first one, a bitch named Trump, was purchased from the milkman. Legend has it that young John Russell, an undergraduate at Oxford, was taking a walk in May of 1819 when "...a milkman met him with a terrier—such an animal as Russell had only yet seen in his dreams; he halted, as Actaeon might have done when he caught sight of Diana disporting in her bath; but unlike the ill-fated hunter, he never budged from the spot till he had won the prize and secured it for his own."
That passage comes from the Rev. E.W.L. Davies' 1882 biography, A Memoir of the Rev. John Russell. It tells us quite a lot. Not least, it tells us that at the age of 23, John Russell was dreaming about dogs. It also tells us that Trump was something of a canine goddess. As befits such a beast, a portrait of Trump hangs in the harness room of Sandringham, a royal estate in Norfolk, England. It has been called a blueprint of how a Jack Russell terrier should look. Trump was white, with tan patches over each ear and another at the root of her tail. Her coat was thick, close and slightly wiry, which protected her from wet and cold. Her legs were straight, her jaw powerful and her rump well-muscled. She weighed about 12 pounds and was the size of a vixen fox. "Her whole appearance," said the Rev. John Russell, "gave indications of courage, endurance and hardihood."
Russell made Trump the progenitrix of his famous line of white-bodied, working terriers, although it-never has been adequately explained what type of animal he bred her with. Russell (1795-1883) was a gruff character, much written about, whose infatuation with hunting went back to his boarding-school days. There he kept ferrets, and once used them to even a score with an overbearing senior monitor by slipping the ferrets into the poor fellow's rabbit hutches. It earned the boy a flogging with a whalebone riding whip.
When Russell became the vicar of Swymbridge in 1832, he gained notoriety as the Hunting Parson because he was also Master of the Hounds. This dual role was viewed with distaste by the bishop of his diocese, who once accused Russell of refusing to bury a child's body on a Wednesday because it interfered with the fox hunt. Repeatedly the bishop asked Russell to give up his hounds, and repeatedly Parson Jack refused. One time, however, he did an about-face. "With all my heart," said Russell, "I'll give up the hounds."
The bishop offered to shake on it.
"Mrs. Russell shall keep them," the parson said.
The man had cheek. He is probably best described by an anecdote from Dan Russell's book (Dan is no kin to Parson Jack; the name is a pseudonym):
"Like all good huntsmen Russell was a good field naturalist and very observant. On one occasion he had drawn one of the best coverts blank [i.e., it had failed to produce a fox] when he noticed a thistle in the field. He said to a man standing by, 'Want to earn a shilling? Smell the top of that thistle, then smell it all the way down.' The man did so and sniffed heartily at the stem of the thistle. He was nearly at the bottom, when he gave a snort of disgust. A fox had cocked his leg there. 'There's a fox here somewhere,' said Russell, put his hound back into covert, found the fox and killed him after a good hunt of one hour, forty minutes."
A man like that deserves to have a dog named after him. He would do almost anything to hunt fox. He would ride after his hounds, less interested in killing the fox than in chasing it, and when the fox went to ground, it was time for the terrier to go to work. Parson Jack preferred a longer-legged terrier that could run behind the hounds, rather than a runty one that had to be carried on horseback, so there was usually a short delay while the terrier caught up with the pack. Then the terrier (which derives its name from the Latin terra: earth) would locate the hole which the fox had entered and would go to earth. This is why it was important that Trump was the size of a vixen. When it came upon the fox underground, a good terrier wouldn't attack its prey (which would mean the end of the hunt and, occasionally, the end of the terrier), but would bark excitedly, dodging in to nip the fox so that the poor beast would not be entirely unwilling to bolt out of its hiding place to face the hounds again. In this way Russell could dig to the two animals, pull his terrier out by the tail and hold back his hounds while the fox dashed out. After a suitable head start, the hounds were released and the hunt was on again.
There are many stories about the reasoning powers of terriers, the Lassie-ish talent to think out problems that might buffalo an ordinary cur. One of Trump's immediate descendants was named Tip, and Parson Jack used to tell a story about Tip that illustrated this deductive process. They were hunting a certain area one time when a fox bolted and, after a long chase, found refuge in a place called Gray's Holts, a copse so catacombed with badger tunnels that it was impossible to dig to the fox. It had escaped. Some time later they hunted the same general area and, again, a fox bolted. The hounds were in close pursuit when, to Russell's great surprise, Tip took off in the opposite direction.
"He's off, Sir, to Gray's Holts. I know he is," a companion shouted.
The dog had recognized it as the same fox that had eluded them before. Sure enough, the fox eventually circled around, and when it arrived at Gray's Holts, there was Tip, giving tongue, growling, huffing its 13-pound body into such a fearsome state that the fox veered off. Recalled Russell, "Perfect success crowned the maneuver: the fox, not daring to face the lion in his path, gave the spot a wide berth; while the hounds, carrying a fine head, passed on to the heather, and after a clinking run killed him on the open moor."
Tip eventually passed away in the terrier equivalent of dying with one's boots on. The old dog died of asthma while to ground even as Parson Jack was digging to it and the fox it had cornered down there in the bowels of the terra.
Russell himself died at the carious old age of 88, and when he did his kennels went the way of the four winds. Some of the direct descendants of his terriers came into the hands of a sportsman named Arthur Heinemann, who is sometimes cited as the last of the true Jack Russell breeders. Heinemann died of pneumonia at the age of 60, in 1930, after falling into a pond while coursing on New Year's Day, and his kennels were subsequently dispersed. Good thing, too, Jack Russell fanciers would say. If some of the original blood of Trump had still been around, undiluted by crossbreeding, it no doubt would have been coursing through the veins of an idiot terrier—Look what they did to the cocker!—with none of the reasoning ability of a chicken, never mind Tip. "As an illustration of what in-breeding can do," writes Dan Russell, "the author remembers that in his youth, when there was little mechanised transport, every village had one or two 'naturals,' because the young men married girls from next door. Over a period of years, this in-breeding resulted in some children being born 'simple.' Nowadays, boys can range farther afield for their brides with the result that the village 'natural' is a thing of the past.
"What is sometimes forgotten," he continues, "is that John Russell bred a type of fox-terrier, not a separate breed.... Although his favorites shared his fireside, they all worked to fox. One can imagine that any young dog that showed reluctance to face its enemy underground was speedily got rid of."
First and foremost, Jack Russell's terriers had to be game. They also had to be primarily white so that they could be quickly distinguished from the fox—both underground and in the open field, where a bloodthirsty hound might find a tan-colored terrier too tempting to resist. Introducing bulldog blood to a fox terrier or Border terrier added both whiteness and gameness, but it produced too hard a dog, one that would silently kill the fox underground instead of bolting it. Beagle blood would soften this cross, while also adding an appropriate amount of tongue. Tongue is very important, and there is a world of difference between a dog that gives tongue and a dog that yaps. Modern Jack Russell owners repeatedly draw this distinction between their dog and other terriers. The point is, Jack Russells are a mongrelly dog. That milkman back in 1819 wasn't carrying around a mutation—he had a rather nice-looking accident that dog breeders and sportsmen have been trying to copy for the last 162 years. Their efforts are now collectively referred to as the Jack Russell terrier, because the direct line of Trump's descendants has long since vanished.
The modern Jack Russell terrier can be either smooth-coated or wiry. He comes in two sizes: up to 11 inches at the shoulder and up to 15 inches at the shoulder. His head should be well-balanced and carried on a strongly muscled neck; his jaws powerful with a scissors bite: and his ears V-shaped and dropped. His tail, which is usually docked, should be at least four inches long, enough to give a man a good handhold. The dog's chest should be narrow enough to be spanned by two hands behind the shoulder blades. "We have a tendency to breed them too stocky or chunky in this country," says Mrs. Crawford, who shows only 339 Jack Russells in the registry of her club, which was founded in 1976. (It has been estimated, however, that there are 3,000 Jack Russells in the U.S.) "If we keep breeding them like this, they're going to have trouble going to ground. But there are many people who could care less about them going to ground. They want them mostly as pets."
And fine pets they make, although if confined to, say, a city apartment, they can be difficult to house-train and tend to lift their legs on the furniture to mark the territory. (Parson Jack no doubt would approve.) They are affectionate to the point of crawling beneath their masters' bedcovers, and are reportedly wonderful with children. "The Jack Russell relates better to people than other terriers," says Captain Haggerty. "Some people consider this a sign of intelligence. I think not."
Haggerty considers the pit bullterrier to be the most intelligent of the terriers, because all the dumb ones died in the pits. But apparently all the attractive ones died in the pits as well, and there must be very few people who would let a bullterrier crawl beneath the covers. But returning to the Russell. Betty Smith, an Englishwoman who owns Jack Russells, has practically made a study of how well they relate to people. She finds they are intelligent enough to communicate on many different levels. For instance, there is the ear level, and in her book, The Jack Russell Terrier, Mrs. Smith writes that they have "the most amazingly expressive ears, which they can move up and down like no other dog, and with which they can almost talk." The qualifier is dropped when she moves on to the barking level: "Once you learn their language, they can talk."
She describes the famous Jack Russell "Hurry, hurry!" bark, which is akin to a whimper; its "In-need-of-human-assistance" bark, which is persistent and penetrating, reserved for moments such as when a pony is caught in a bog; its "Stuck-in-empty-hole" bark, which it is willing to repeat until you have pulled it out by its four-inch tail; and its "Stuck-in-hole-with-badger" bark, which is a bit more alarmed. When it comes time to describe the obnoxious "Stuck-outside-want-in" bark, Mrs. Smith sketches this scenario: cold night; hot fire; deep armchair. Ahhh! Gentle scratch on the door. Bleep. Another scratch and a pitiful whimper. Twinges of conscience. Pause. Two short barks. Pause. Jack Russell attacks the door with both forefeet—yet another level of communication—scratching off the paint. (They are demanding little dogs.) Furious, you fling open the door, ready to wring his strongly muscled neck, when "he shoots in, turns around two or three times, and then leaps into your arms. You can't be cross after that," Mrs. Smith assures us.
That's another thing. Jack Russells are little comedians, tiny Steve Martins constantly exploring the absurd. (As opposed to, say, the basset hound, which leans more toward dry wit.) For instance, Kipper, who is Mrs. Crawford's Russell, regularly attacks the vacuum cleaner, evidently mistaking it for a very small man from outer space. He also has some strange eating habits: plums, lettuce, sandwiches. Anything for a laugh. "To see a dog eat a grape has got to be the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen," Mrs. Crawford says. "It's not because he's a garbage pail. These dogs think they're human." (Indeed, Mrs. Little was once reduced to pretending to dine on dog food in order to get one of her Jack Russells to try it. "I was just keen on it," she recalls, "making lip-smacking noises and the rest of it.") Kipper also regularly smiles at Mrs. Crawford, something his owner never confessed until she started getting letters from other Jack Russell owners saying that their dogs were smiling at them.
This human quality within the Jack Russells is, by all accounts, their most endearing trait. They are also fearless to the point of self-destruction, charming, enjoy the company of horses and, because they live by the saying "Monkey see, monkey do," tend to reflect the attitudes of their masters. All this became frightfully significant when a rumor was circulated that the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, had put in an order for one of Mrs. Little's Jack Russell pups.
In the summer of 1980, then-candidate Reagan rented Wexford Farm, a retreat in Middleburg, Va. built by John F. Kennedy. It happens to be about a mile down the road from Mrs. Little's home, and the caretaker of Wexford, Marky Love, owned one of her Jack Russells. His name was James. Reagan would take James on daily walks, and the two became fast friends—confidants, one might say. Reliable sources report that Ron and Nancy cuddled with James in bed. James was a grandson of Mrs. Little's dog Willie, and rumor had it that the Reagans had requested a First Pup from Willie's next litter.
The word spread like wildfire among Jack Russell terrier owners, whose numbers include Jimmy Carter's sister, Ruth Stapleton, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis' mother, Mrs. Bingham W. Morris. As has been previously mentioned, the snob appeal of this little beast is considerable. The rumor proved unfounded, however, much to the relief of one of the breed's admirers, who envisioned foreign dignitaries being attacked by the feisty Jack Russell—not to mention the disturbing possibility of the Oval Office being marked by a deftly cocked leg.
Presidents and dogs have gone together for a long time. George Washington kept foxhounds. Lyndon Johnson had a pair of beagles, Him and Her, which gave some of their best tongue when dangling by the ears. When he was running for Vice-President in 1952, Richard Nixon had a black-and-white dog named Checkers that got him out of a lot of trouble when he was accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions. Checkers was a cocker spaniel.
But terriers have probably been the most popular breed to inhabit the White House. One of the Kennedys' nine dogs was a Welsh terrier named Charlie. Woodrow Wilson had an Airedale, and Franklin Roosevelt had a Scottish terrier named Fala. Fala has been called "the most influential dog in American history." While touring the Pacific shortly before the 1944 election, Roosevelt forgot Fala in the Aleutian Islands and sent a destroyer back to pick him up. The Republicans, fiscally minded hounds that they are, publicly objected to such use of taxpayer money, thus breaking that time-honored political maxim: Never belittle dogs, because there are millions of them in the country, and some of their masters are voters. Roosevelt parried with a brilliant speech, allowing that he didn't care what the Republicans thought of him, but to attack "my little dog Fala" was going too far. The voters apparently thought so, too.
Teddy Roosevelt had both a fox terrier named Scamp and ferrets to chase the rats through the White House drains. He was on the right track there—ferrets are weasel-like animals, easily domesticated, which dine on rats—but if Teddy had been really serious about ridding the White House of rats, he would have traded in Scamp for a good Jack Russell. Of all the things they do, Jack Russells are best at killing rats. No less an authority than D. Brian Plummer, in his Tales of a Rat-hunting Man, writes, "I make no bones about it.... My best ratting terriers have been some of the assorted hotchpotch we call Jack Russells."
Plummer knows whereof he speaks. In 1977 his ratting team of four Jack Russells took three tons of rats from assorted chicken farms and maggot factories in northern England—1,126 in a single day. (Parson Jack, incidentally, never took on rats; it was foxes or nothing.) Somewhere within the mongrelly Jack Russell obviously lurks the blood of Billy, a bulldog-terrier cross who weighed 26 pounds and in the early 19th century killed 1,000 rats in 54 minutes in a rat pit. One rat every three seconds. Writes Plummer: "The courage of a dog who could stick his nose into a pile of a thousand rats is beyond question."
Plummer considers the rat to be greatly underrated as quarry. "I know of no sport as exciting," he writes, "and have friends who will come from as far afield as Germany for a good night's ratting." Further, the ratter is one sportsman who's not likely to live to see the day when his prey is an endangered species. "Value the sporting qualities of the rat very highly indeed," warns Plummer. "He will be the last quarry that the anti-field-sport people will seek to protect."
You doubt this could be a sport? Listen to this rat tale as told by Plummer: "One of my friends, who was the owner of the poultry farm, succeeded in dislodging an old scabrous buck skulking in the poultry droppings under the trays. He ran along the trays, raced up my arm, and disappeared down the floppy neck-hole of my sweater, scrabbling against my naked chest. The night, previously sweltering, suddenly became very, very cold, and my whole body went incredibly clammy with fear. With sweating hands, I reached down and grabbed his tail, which was lashing around my face at the time, and drew him scrabbling and scratching from my sweater.... It is no exaggeration to say I was limp with terror. I called it a day and sat in my car trying to get my breath back."
Now that's sport. Mrs. Crawford went ratting with Plummer and saw his Jack Russells kill a couple of hundred rats in a condemned chicken house in a matter of a few hours. She didn't particularly enjoy it, though. Earlier, Plummer had stopped up all the ratholes in the chicken house, except for one or two, and saw to it that there was plenty of chicken feed to lure his prey out. When the hunters returned at night, there ensued a veritable rat race for the exits—which were plugged—and the Jack Russells found plenty of opportunity to wreak their vengeance. "When you turned on the lights of the chicken house, the rats all leaped out at you in midair," Mrs. Crawford reports. "It was unpleasant."
Not for the Russells, who grab the rats by the back, if possible, and break their loathsome necks with a quick and angry shake. To continue shaking the rat is considered bad form, for doing so allows other rats to escape. One shake and onward. Jack Russells practice this move when they play fetch—even Jack Russells who have never seen a rat. They do not retrieve a stick, they kill it. Grrrrr. You can't believe the little dog that was smiling at you a minute ago can be so vicious. Writes Dan Russell, "Terriers can be likened to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the house they are almost soft and love the fireside but, always, the great idea is, 'Let's go out and kill something.' "
All too often that "something" turns out to be themselves. The courage that allows them to take on fox, rat and badger becomes recklessness, even stupidity, when they take on, say, a horse's hoof. Many go the way of one of Plummer's dogs: "Poor old Drum, a heck of a good hunter and a really loyal dog. I eventually lost him after he leaped out of my van into the path of a sports car." Tiffany Teeter, who has six Jack Russells on her farm in New Hope, Pa., says, "They all think they're Irish wolfhounds, which is a bad thing, of course, in terms of survival." She estimates that a Russell is doing very well to live six years on a farm—they'll average 14-16 years as a house pet—and has heard of three different instances of a Russell being killed by a hay bale thrown from a loft.
Mrs. Crawford had three Jack Russells several years ago who chased a bull raccoon down a drain pipe. When they hadn't emerged by 6 a.m. the following day, she called in a backhoe. It dug for 12 hours, creating a ditch 11 feet deep that ran for 300 feet and cut all the electrical lines to the house. When finally uncovered, there were the three Russells, scrabbling all over each other to get closest to the raccoon, which was backed against the cellar. Russells can live up to a week underground without food or water, and in that instance, all emerged unharmed, including the raccoon.
Mrs. Crawford's dogs were considerably luckier than those owned by one A.H. Lockwood, who went fox hunting one day in the Pennines in England with two Jack Russells and a Border terrier. The three dogs went to ground under a large rock and were heard to cry out suddenly, as if in pain. Then silence. Fifteen minutes later the alarmed Lockwood crawled in after his terriers. He found one, then another, both dead. He then went after the third, a Russell named Prince. By this time Lockwood was in a small tunnel and gasping for breath. He finally found Prince, who was dead as well, although Lockwood didn't realize it, and was pulling the dog out when he discovered that his limbs were going numb. Happily, a companion outside the hole, aware that something was wrong, yanked Lockwood out by his feet. When Lockwood came to in the hospital, a doctor informed him he had almost died, like his terriers, of that miners' nightmare, black damp.
The question is: Is the world ready to take on the Jack Russell? One fearful owner, upon hearing that the Reagans were considering a Jack Russell, predicted that "all hell will break loose" and that the attendant publicity would once again bring back the days when any small, peculiarly conformed, whitish terrier was peddled as a Jack Russell. To be sure, the one thing this hardy animal probably couldn't survive is acceptance by the masses (Look what they did to the cocker!). And consider the bother. You would be wiping them from cars' grilles like bugs.
One last word of warning, courtesy of Mrs. Smith—and sound advice it is, too, if Ron and Nancy should change their minds and try to finish the job that Teddy Roosevelt started so long ago:
"If you take your terrier ratting, always wear slacks or breeches tucked either into your Wellingtons or into your socks so that the rats cannot run up your trouser legs or skirt. This happens far more often than one might imagine, and, although it may be excruciatingly funny to the rest of the party, if is no joke for you."
Those Jack Russell people. They'll laugh at anything.