In the benching area, surrounded by panting dogs crowded into crates and standing patiently while being primped on grooming tables, the woman sat in a folding chair, visibly distraught. Tearyeyed, she continued: “Right before you got here, a prominent breeder came by and said he will breed a dog with the head held higher. The head has to do with movement in the field, in making eye contact with the sheep, the pattern of behavior that has evolved from two centuries of work. Now I regret having fought so hard for this. The standard should not threaten the dog as a working animal, but I believe it now will.” About the same time the Border Collie war was raging, AKC enthusiasts saw an opportunity to register the Jack Russell Terrier (JRT), an irascible, independent dog with an intense work ethic, extremely diverse genome and phenotype as dissimilar as that of the Border Collie. Many Jack Russell Terrier breeders vehemently opposed the action, claiming that the breed’s physical and working characteristics would be jeopardized by this move. Nevertheless, the splinter group formed the requisite national breed club, named itself the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA) and gained AKC recognition in 2001.
A lawsuit ensued. After an expensive court battle, the name Jack Russell Terrier was awarded to the working phenotype and the AKC changed the conformation dog’s name to Parson Russell Terrier. The AKC parent club is now the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America.
Writer Alston Chase, who includes the story of the breakup of the breed in his book We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear (2008, Transaction Publishers), told me, “The Jack Russell Terrier is a feisty, very aggressive, very tough dog. But middle-class urbanites don’t really want that kind of dog. They want a dog that will be a good pet.” Chase, who lives in rural Montana, has bred the working terrier since the 1970s.
The public took notice of the rather obscure breed when it became a media darling in the 1980s. Chase said, “The overbreeding followed the popularity driven by the media, not by the dog itself.” Aggressive and difficult in a pet environment, the breed was misrepresented as a mischievous lap dog on shows like the NBC sitcom Frasier. Surprised and disappointed by their dogs’ ornery personalities and exercise requirements, urban pet owners abandoned JRTs at shelters in record numbers.
According to Chase, one of only a handful of people in the U.S. continuing to breed the old-fashioned dog, “We’re doing what we can to prevent extinction of the original breed, but people aren’t in love with the value of diversity in the dog. They want dogs that look alike.”
Geneticist Jasper Rine, in a letter to the AKC supporting the Border Collie anti-conformation campaign (included in the appendix of McCaig’s 2007 book), predicted what was to come. “It may be nearly impossible to breed for a particular behavior based on heterozygous advantage and still achieve a homogenous conformation.” Breeding dogs for fixed conformation means breeding for homozygosis (the formation of genetically identical gametes) of the genes that contribute to appearance. In doing so, genetic linkage (the tendency of genes located in proximity to each other on a chromosome to be inherited together during meiosis, or cell division) may result in genes near those controlling conformation becoming homozygous as well. Unfortunately, chance determines which genes are swept up. By breeding for conformation, breeders may be breeding away from desirable behavior, even putting alleles (forms of a gene) at risk for extinction.
So, what has happened to the Labrador Retriever, Border Collie and Jack Russell Terrier over the last 15 years?
The shorter-legged, more compact field-bred Lab continues to be shown in Canada, the UK and other countries that don’t disqualify individuals based on size. In the U.S., conformation and companion Labs are getting increasingly larger. Will diseases linked to large size compromise the American line? Time will tell.