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   The Truth About The Jack Russell Terrier

February 7, 2002


The Jack Russell was developed in England by hunters obsessed with only one thing — the extraction of small wild animals from holes in the ground.

Buster the Jack Russell is an original piece of work by San Francisco artist Jack Lowry.

Order a Jack Russell t-shirt with Buster in full color on the back. Check it out.

An article in Dog and Kennel (April, 1997) suggests that, "The Jack Russell is not so much a breed as it is a type of dog — one that was developed to go to ground in pursuit of game such as fox and badger." This single statement was enough to catch my attention about the Jack Russell.

A few years ago, I had an encounter with a badger from the back of a large horse after I had apparently ridden across its burrow. It was immediately clear that this is not a cute woodland creature. It is a small-eyed, nasty brute that would fight in the same weight class as most terriers. One glance at the badger standing tall in the entrance to his burrow, and all one thousand pounds of my horse was eager to concede the contest. I realized that any dog willing to follow this fellow into his home must be formidable in his own right.

Although I have been unable to see a Jack Russell and badger in action, I recently had a firsthand opportunity to observe the Jack Russell in action at a ratting competition, formally called an earthdog trial. This was the best I could do, given the dearth of organized badger hunting outside of Wyoming ranch country. If you are not one of the dozen folks who have ever attended an earthdog trial, let me describe how it works. A convoluted tunnel, up to thirty feet in length, is dug into the ground. The tunnel, nine inches in height, is covered with plywood and dirt except at the far end where a wooden lid is left uncovered. By lifting the lid, a cage with a rat can be inserted into the tunnel and the dog can be pulled out at the end of their opportunity to "go to ground." I suspect that the rat is heavily dosed with Valium so that it does not die of fright in the first five minutes. Participants deny this, and I did observe that the rat appears to go to sleep, but I suspect that this is either shock or the onset of medication.

One by one, dogs are turned loose to enter the hole and "work the rat." Working the rat consists of digging and energetic barking to let the hunter know where the quarry is cornered. Once that dog has barked for several seconds, the earthdog trial judge takes off the plywood lid, and the dog is extracted. Most of the terriers were enthusiastic about this activity as they should have been. The Jack Russell Terriers, however, took this chore to a new dimension. On one occasion, the entire cage and dog, with his jaws locked around the wire mesh had to be extracted as one unit. It took several minutes to find a crowbar to pry the dog loose.



In the Dog and Kennel article that I mention above, the author substantiated my experience. He wrote that to unearth a Jack Russell in the wild, "…sometimes requires the assistance of earth-moving machinery." In simple lay language, I take this to mean that getting a Jack Russell out of a burrow may require possession of a backhoe. I don't know about you, but I prefer not to purchase a dog that requires a large piece of machinery to manage it. The problem is that the Jack Russell's appearance is deceptive. The breed, popularized by Eddie on the television show Frasier, looks very different on the big screen than when lock-jawed to a rat cage. When dozing on a living room sofa, Eddie looks small, impish, and cute. What few viewers know is that the television star exhausted and was discarded by two owners before his current trainer found him on the doggie green mile.

There is an entire store in Virginia hunt country that carries only merchandise dedicated to pedaling this image of the breed. Jack Russell ashtrays, Jack Russell plates, Jack Russell jock straps. In the confines of this store, it is easy to believe that this diminutive dog with the eager expression is cute. I have something very important to say here. The Jack Russell is not cute. It is a very active, intelligent piece of gristle.

If you think that I am overstating my case, I'd like to go a step further and suggest that the Jack Russell is the only breed that does not even know when it is dead. Note the example of Mugsey who was hit by a car and buried in the backyard of owner Viola Tiszi of Maryland. The next morning, Viola found Mugsy waiting on her back porch for breakfast. Mugsy apparently woke up, thought he had gone to ground, and dug his way out when he couldn't locate the rat. It is not a good sign when animals are unable to accept their own deaths.

The Jack Russell Terrier Club is remarkably honest about all of this. Their literature includes the following warning label:

This breed loves to dig, to bark, are ceaselessly aggressive, and follow a scent with a single-minded passion. If they do not have an outlet for these natural instincts, there is likely to be hell to pay.

And that is the good stuff. The warning is followed by allusions to a taste for household cats, kids' fingers, and other Jack Russells.


Even the American Kennel Club, the most conservative of organizations, alludes to the Jack Russell's rough and tumble nature. The breed standard adopted in 1998, which describes the ideal for the breed, states that, "[O]ld scars and injuries, the result of honorable work or accident should not be allowed to prejudice a terrier's chance in the show ring…". I can imagine a handler discussing her dog's scar with the judge at Westminster. She would shrug, lift her eyebrows and sigh, "It was just a small badger."

All of these cautions and the extensive work by the Jack Russell Terrier Club of American to head off inappropriate placements of puppies have not prevented the Jack Russell from becoming the latest "in" dog. It has been difficult for the public to ignore the breed's high profile appearances in movies, advertising, and television. However, if you have not yet set your sights on this brown and white terrier, I would suggest the following guidelines: Jack Russells are generally best for people who live on hundreds of acres and do not go to work daily. If you are not likely to say, "Which thoroughbred are you jumping today, dear?" or if you live the regular life that includes work and family, I'd suggest the piranha as an easier alternative.

Sorry, Eddie.


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