Like many people, my wife Diana and I had long been in the habit of buying purebred dogs without bothering to learn much about their breeding beforehand. And so it was in 1977, when we made an impulse purchase of a Jack Russell Terrier named Phineas.
Despite the many other wonderful dogs who’d blessed our lives, we’d never known another like Phineas. Though short-legged and weighing barely 15 pounds, he thought he was 10 feet tall. And never had we known such a hunter! He became our “Orkin Man,” dispatching gophers more efficiently than any other predator.
Yet it turned out that Phineas wasn’t purebred after all. He was what old-time Terrier people called a sporting dog—a mixed-breed of indeterminate ancestry whose forebears had been bred and judged not on beauty, conformation or pedigree but on their ability to hunt. In fact, many JR owners in those days called their dogs “glorified mongrels.” And indeed, Phineas seemed to be a generic mutt who represented the wonderful qualities of all dogs: He was “Pete the Pup” in the 1920s Our Gang movies, with a painted black circle around one eye, and “Nipper,” the Fox Terrier who listened to “His Master’s Voice” on old RCA Victor records.
We loved this mutt-like quality. And although Phineas lived just a year—tragically falling victim to a coyote trapper’s poison—we were smitten with JRs. Five more generations would follow him into our hearts during the next 30 years. And while none was exactly like Phineas, each embodied the same “doggie” qualities we loved. JRs, we realized, don’t just look like generic dogs, they share all dogs’ past and future as well.
And judging from their past, their future doesn’t look good.
Bred for the Task
The Jack Russell is named after Reverend John Russell, the 19th-century Anglican clergyman who developed the type. Throughout his life, Russell passionately devoted himself to fox hunting. To serve this sport, he created, through careful breeding, the spunky little Terrier bearing his name. So Jack Russells and fox hunting go together like peanut butter and jelly: One cannot understand the dog without knowing what he was bred to do.
Fox hunting required dogs: long-legged Fox Hounds to chase the fox and smaller Terriers to go underground after the fox when it dove into its den. The Terrier’s job was not to kill the fox but to drive him out of his hole so the chase could continue. This was the Terrier’s vocation. The name, derived from the Latin word terra, meaning “earth,” signified the dog’s function. But it also symbolized the role that land played in the ancient and ubiquitous partnership between dogs and humans.
While there is no consensus among scientists as to just when or how this partnership began, somewhere between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago (depending on the estimate), dogs and people first learned the mutual advantages of cooperation. Some believe it occurred after early people discovered how to breed wolves for tameness. Others say that the wolflike ancestors of modern dogs simply found that scavenging in villages and joining human hunts were more reliable ways to find food than killing game themselves. But however this relationship began, people soon learned it was to their advantage to take dogs as hunting partners. A few thousand years later, the advent of agriculture offered still more ways to cooperate. In exchange for food and shelter, dogs herded and guarded livestock and killed varmints that threatened crops. And by working on the land together, dogs and people became companions.
Over time, the land shaped the dogs. Bred by farmers, herders and hunters from different regions, they developed varying skills and conformations. But these early people did not create breeds in the modern sense. They didn’t insist that dogs only mate with others descended from the same foundation ancestors. Rather, they kept types of dogs, such as Shepherds, Hounds, Spaniels, Retrievers and Terriers—dogs defined not by pedigree but by what they did and where they lived.
Such was the evolution of Terriers, as their owners custom-bred dogs to fit their own requirements. By 1800, this crossbreeding had produced, among others, a type of dog known as the Fox Terrier. But although its long legs were perfect for chasing foxes overland, they were a disadvantage for underground work. Fox Terriers who spent too long in a hole suffered terrible cramps and even crippling disabilities.
Russell saw this problem. Even while a student at Oxford, he realized that fox hunters needed a special kind of Terrier—one tough and brave, an expert excavator able to stay underground for extended periods, with short legs and a narrow chest that could squeeze through tight spaces. Then one day in May 1819, Russell met a milkman with just the dog he was looking for. Her name was Trump, and during the remainder of his life, Russell bred Trump and her descendants to any Terrier he could buy or borrow who approximated his ideal. He didn’t care about pedigree or papers. He just wanted dogs who did the job. This produced a line of small, brave Terriers perfectly suited to go to ground after badger, otter and fox.
The Best Terrier
When Russell died in 1883 at age 88, his Terriers were famous. He left several to his fox-hunting friends, who in turn passed them on to others. All shared Russell’s philosophy that his Terriers were a type, not a breed, periodically requiring outcrossing to preserve their hunting qualities.
Indeed, as every “MFH” (Master of Fox Hounds) had his or her own idea of the best Terrier for the locality, depending on soil, weather, kind of quarry and style of hunting, each—like Russell—experimented with various crosses to produce the best dog for the conditions. In Derbyshire, where hunts covered great distances, longer legs were favored. In the wintry Lake Country, rougher coats predominated. Huntsmen accustomed to carrying the Terrier in a saddle-mounted bag until they put him to ground preferred shorter dogs.
Given the various needs and conditions and the variety of bloodlines introduced, Terrier strains proliferated. Besides types known today, many others, now rare or extinct, appeared as well, including Jones Terriers, Trumpington Terriers, West Wilts Hunt Terriers, HH Hunt Terriers, Scorrier Terriers, Hucclecote Terriers, North Devon Terriers and Ynysfor Terriers.
The genes of many of these strains eventually found their way into the Jack Russell as well, producing a dog who came in virtually infinite variations. But whether short or tall; bowed- or straight-legged; “smooth”-, “broken”- or “rough”-coated; long-muzzled or short-muzzled—they shared a reputation for bravery and endurance that captured the respect and attention of an entire generation of English sportsmen.
Soon, American fox hunters discovered Reverend Russell’s Terriers and began acquiring them. And they, too, outcrossed to produce those best suited for local conditions. They did not adhere to a “closed stud book,” which stipulated that dogs could only be mated with others descended from the same foundation ancestors. So local differences proliferated and the little dog’s genes became progressively more diverse.
But meanwhile, outside fox-hunting communities, the canine world was moving in the opposite direction. Dogs were losing genetic diversity, not gaining it, as the pastoral way of life that had sustained the ancient partnership between dogs and humans began to break down.
A demographic whirlwind known as the Industrial Revolution was sweeping the Western world. Displaced by poverty and machines, farmers fled to the cities. As urban centers grew, rural communities dwindled and disappeared; the values of a new urban middle class replaced the ethic of stewardship shared by those who once lived on the land.
Among the casualties of this whirlwind were hunting and working dogs. Without a rural culture, there was little left for them to do; so, with the death of one came the transformation of the other. A new kind of dog buyer emerged, an urbanite who wanted pets and companions, not farm animals or hunters.
The earliest visible sign of this change were dog shows, the first ever held in England in 1859 at Newcastle-on-Tyne. Three years later in Birmingham, England, Fox Terriers competed prominently for the first time. By the 1880s, dog shows were wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. And as they multiplied, so did breeder associations, which set conformation standards and kept pedigree registries. These groups joined to form national kennel clubs to coordinate their activities, promote their dogs and organize shows. England’s Kennel Club was formed in 1873 and the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1884. (The first U.S. show—New York’s Westminster—was held in 1877, sponsored by the Westminster Kennel Club.)
With the advent of dog shows and breed clubs came a whole new idea of what the perfect dog should be. Whereas sporting dogs were judged by their stamina, hunting ability and courage, show dogs were measured by their beauty, style and how closely they supposedly resembled their progenitors. Breeders sought to produce dogs with perfect form. They wanted uniformity in appearance, which could only be achieved by closing the stud book. A Sealyham or Scottish Terrier must have parents who are Sealyhams or Scotties, and so on back to their foundation stock, somewhere in the mists of time.
Unfortunately, closing the stud book inevitably leads to what biologist Raymond Coppinger would later call “an evolutionary dead-end”:
Sexual isolation from the greater population of dogs leads almost inevitably to dire consequences for those dogs that get trapped in a pure breed .... Once the stud book is closed on a breed, it is unbelievable how fast they become inbred …They are caught in a genetic trap.
The purpose of such close breeding was to replicate dogs, ensuring that they resembled their parents as closely as possible by reducing genetic variability. But rather than preventing change, this hastened it. By reinforcing familial genes, close breeding not only increased chances the pups might share desired characteristics—the same head shape or coat color, for example—but also made it more probable that they’d share undesirable traits as well, such as the same allergy or propensity for kidney disease. And since no one knew what all the genes did, reducing their diversity put affected animals at risk in the same way that today, the lack of genetic diversity threatens cheetahs with extinction, or declining biological diversity imperils the health of natural ecosystems.
While no one anticipated all the ways show breeding might change dogs, nevertheless, many sporting Terrier people, including Reverend Russell, were unhappy with this development. By 1867, just eight years after the first dog show, the famed dog expert Thomas Pearce, writing under the pseudonym “Idstone,” complained to the editors of Field magazine that “dog shows do tend to the production of useless beauties. This applies to every description of dog, and it is an evil we cannot remedy.” Because dogs were judged on looks rather than ability, he noted, often prizes went to exactly the wrong dogs. “Every year,” he continued, “dogs … will be taking first prizes, champion prizes and medals. The drones will be decorated whilst the bees are left unnoticed … the test of the worth of the dog is wanting, especially as regards courage.”
Consequently, Pearce noted, many purebred Terriers had become “poor, craven, shivering, shy, nervous animals, destitute of any qualification for the active, hustling, neck-or-nothing life of a country gentleman’s companion.”
Pearce and his contemporaries had a right to worry. Show breeders were changing the character, conformation and abilities of dogs as they sought to follow the fluctuations of fashion. “The better bred [Fox and Sealyham Terriers] are, of less value they are for work,” wrote J.C. Bristow-Noble, author of Working Terriers in 1919. Few of his “well-bred” dogs were “of use for real work,” he wrote. “Their noses were far from true, all grew to too large a size, particularly the Sealyhams; all lacked stamina, courage, and intelligence … so at length I gave up the attempt of making workers out of pedigree Terriers and confined myself to building up a strain of workers from crossbred Terriers.”
In 1931, the famed Terrier expert, Sir Jocelyn Lucas, noted that “the show bench is ruining Sealyhams as a worker” and lamented the “post-[First World] war craze for enormous heads.” Cairn and West Highland Terriers bred for show, Lucas reported, had become too “nervy to be a success underground.” The “show bench” he also said, has “ruined” Dandie Dinmonts and they, along with Cairn, West Highland and Scottish Terriers, are “chiefly known for show or as companions, for which latter purpose they are well suited, since they are very nice dogs, take up little room and require little exercise.”
To be sure, many nonsporting dogs were nice. In fact, they often made better pets. Sporting dogs were not for everyone—not even for most people. Bred to find, chase or kill game or varmints, they were too aggressive. They had more energy than their owners could tolerate, requiring virtual marathon runs to give them sufficient exercise to prevent their tearing the family sofa to shreds.
Jack Russells had all these faults. What concerned people like Lucas was not that show dogs were undesirable but that they threatened the future of sporting dogs. As more dogs were bred for pets and show, sporting-dog numbers declined. Would, they wondered, sporting dogs—and most important, their qualities of courage, strength, stamina, hunting ability and genetic diversity—eventually disappear altogether?
Driven by Demand
Whatever its ultimate effect, nothing could contain the exploding demand for show and pet breeds. And paradoxically, the more these dogs became unlike their sporting ancestors, the more they would be touted as replicas of the “original” dogs.
Each breed club began to promote theirs as “ancient”—a living relic of an earlier time. Making these claims required maintaining the myth of direct descendancy from the “original” dogs. Yet such “original” dogs never existed. The very concept of a breed—dogs whose reproduction was carefully restricted via a closed stud book to dogs descended from the same foundation stock—was an invention of the breeder associations.
However mythical, these claims of old lineage tapped the wellspring of show dogs’ appeal. For while we may love our dogs whether they’re deemed “ancient” or not, imagining them as relics of an early, pastoral way of life resonates within us. No matter where we live or what we do, love of the land is in our blood. For millennia, dogs and people lived on the land, working, herding, hunting, defending, rescuing. And when people began moving to cities, they yearned for the pastoral way of life all the more. They still do. Dogs preserve for us an emotional connection to our bucolic past that remains in memory and imagination. And when they demand that we take them for walks, they reawaken this connection. They become guides in a journey to rediscover our own genetic roots.
By the 1950s, the working- and show-dog cultures were following entirely separate paths, isolated from—and often hostile toward—each other. But demographics were on the side of the show dog. As the century wore on, show dogs waxed as working dogs of all kinds, from Shepherds to Terriers, waned.
Meanwhile, paradoxically, in England, JRs were becoming wildly popular. Even while they remained favorites of fox hunters, the feisty Terriers had been discovered by the working classes as well. Some took them as pets and others put them to work killing rats, stoats and rabbits. The new owners began breeding them for such a variety of jobs that “the mongrelly Jack Russell,” as Terrier historian D. Brian Plummer put it, “became even more mongrelly.”
“The first hunt Terrier shows I attended in the 1950s,” Plummer wrote, “were indeed extraordinary sights, with the most amazingly variable types of dog being proudly shown as genuine Jack Russells; some of them displayed hints of Collie, or, not infrequently, Dachshund, in their lineage. Many were quite hideous, but handsome is as handsome does, and some of those monstrosities proved to be incredibly good workers.”
Nevertheless, this mongrelly drift troubled many Jack Russell fanciers, and in 1974, to counter it, they formed the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain (JRTCGB), appointing Plummer as its first chairman. The club’s first task was to define the breed and set conformation standards. And the result was chaos. “Near-riot prevailed” at those early meetings, Plummer later recalled. Nevertheless, they did set a “standard of sorts.” At the beginning, Plummer wrote, “any dog that conformed to a rough description of a Jack Russell Terrier was eligible for registration in the initial register.”
Likewise, two years later in America, Terrier enthusiast Mrs. Harden L. Crawford III, having acquired her first Jack Russell from a friend at the Essex Hunt and fallen in love with the little dog, founded the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA), dedicated to preserving the sporting qualities of the Terrier. Recognizing the importance of diversity, the club refused to close the stud book or set narrow conformation standards, and resolutely opposed recognition by the AKC, whose breeding practices would turn the JR into a show dog.
But neither of the original English and American clubs was entirely successful in fending off those determined to transform the JR into a pure breed. In 1983, in England, some of these advocates founded their own club, closed the stud book, drew up conformation standards and applied for Kennel Club membership. Likewise, a year later, some American JR advocates founded a similar organization, eventually called the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America (PRTAA); according to its website, this was done “in response to growing concerns that the breed was being misrepresented as a short-legged Terrier.” Dedicated to “continuance of the traditional, purebred Parson Russell,” it closed its stud book, established breed standards and applied for membership to the AKC.
Thus, Parson Russell breeders, however well-intentioned, had succumbed to the illusion that infects so many in the dog business—to tout theirs as “original” and “pure.” But the Jack Russell was never a breed, never “pure” and never fit any conformation standard, as those long familiar with the dog knew.
“After some 90 years,” wrote Reverend Russell’s biographer, Gerald Jones (using the pen name “Dan Russell”) in 1979, “there can be none of the original Russell blood left today. Even if one could trace a Terrier’s pedigree back to Russell’s dogs, there must have been so many outcrosses that the original blood would have been thinned to the vanishing point. If one had bred true, one would now be producing half-wits.”
Certainly, none who knew Russell believed any such thing as a “pure” or “original” Jack Russell ever existed. As Lord Paltimore (whose father and grandfather had been close friends of Russell) explained to Lucas, “It is entirely misleading to talk of a ‘Jack Russell’ Terrier. Mr. Russell always said that he had no special strain of Terrier. If he saw a likely dog he would acquire it, and if suitable in his work he would breed from it, but he never kept any special strain.”
But although the breed clubs’ depiction of the “Parson Russell” rested more on myth than on historical fact, the image it created—of the leggy dog as the “original” JR—continued to build. In 1992, the television sitcom Frasier debuted, featuring a Jack Russell named “Eddie,” and in 1995, the PBS children’s program Wishbone appeared, about a JR who traveled through history wearing period costumes. These programs showed Jack Russells as terribly appealing, but by depicting them living in apartments and wearing skirts, they also grossly distorted the dogs’ true character.
Believing Jack Russells to be cuddly couch potatoes and good with children, the public flocked to them, often with tragic consequences for both dogs and people. Children were sometimes bitten, the family cat killed or other pets mauled. Soon, JR rescue organizations, dedicated to finding second homes for rejected dogs, had more than they could handle.
The public, in short, had fallen madly in love with Jack Russells, but wanted them as gentle pets, not feisty sporting dogs. And this popularity vastly accelerated the Terrier’s transformation into a modern show breed. In 1990, the Parson Jack Russell was recognized by Great Britain’s Kennel Club, and in 1997, its American counterpart was accepted by the AKC.
Following their own misreading of JR history, Parson Russell breeders set standards designed to produce taller and gentler dogs. None were allowed under 12 inches. Only smooth and broken coats were permitted (even though most of Russell’s had rough coats), And, since the parson’s own dogs were, they declared, “bold though cautious,” they decreed that submissiveness in the modern breed “is not a fault” while being “quarrelsome” is. “Overt aggression towards another dog” they deemed a disqualification.
Yet by stipulating taller Terriers, the PRTAA had ignored the advice of countless early JR people, including that of Russell’s friend and neighbor, Alys Serrell, who advised that “a leggy dog is of little or no use for underground work.” And its emphasis on less quarrelsome or aggressive dogs merely seemed to confirm what Pearce and other early Terrier people detested most—that show breeding not merely undermined a dog’s sporting ability, but its fighting spirit as well.
Jack Russells, who have managed to remain a crossbred sporting dog for more than a century, now find their collateral cousin, the Parson Russell, caught in a purebred trap. Inbreeding is underway. Blencathra Badger, a Parson Russell who won Best of Breed at the 1991 Crufts (England) Dog show, sired 174 pups in the U.S. alone and another 79 since returning to the UK, and has been touted to have had “no known foreign blood [in his line] for 14 generations.”
So, not surprisingly, although the Parson Russell’s stud book was closed less than 25 years ago, the dogs are already losing much of their once-glorious diversity. Many look mass produced—spindly dogs too tall for serious underground work and with monotonously similar coats and conformation. Certainly these “spiders,” as some critics call them, are less robust than Russell’s biographer “Otter” Davies’ description of Trump, whose “loins and conformation of the whole frame [were] indicative of hardihood and endurance.”
The transformation of the Parson Russell from mixed to pure breed parallels the history of all purebred dogs, and serves as a warning of the dire future that awaits them. For while many breeders take great care not to breed too closely or propagate inherited diseases, once the stud book is closed, even the most careful line breeding merely postpones the inevitable.
Already, veterinary pathologist George A. Padgett has found 532 diseases afflicting purebred dogs. Over two-thirds of Newfoundlands are born with a genetic defect, he says, as are 40.3 percent of Cairn Terriers, 29.8 percent of Bichon Frisé and 33.5 percent of Scotties. Others report that 30 percent of Dalmatians are born deaf. Borzois have been bred to have noses so long that some pups have difficulty suckling their mother’s teat. Many Norwich Terriers, Bulldogs and Boston Terriers can only be whelped by cesarean section. “A modern Bulldog,” according to Keith Steward Thomson, former president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, “more resembles a veterinary rehabilitation project than a proud symbol of athletic strength or national resolve.”
Aggravating this tragedy, says Padgett, is breeding of what he calls “matadors” (e.g., Blencathra Badger)—show-ring champions who “produce large numbers, perhaps hundreds or even thousands, of offspring.” Equally destructive is the belief shared by many breeders that any dog who wins in the show ring is “breedable”—an idea that, he says, is “just plain dumb. No. It’s not dumb, it’s stupid!”
Given such human folly, what hope is there for dogs?
Mixed Breeds Are the Future
Like many others, my wife and I love purebred dogs. They are beautiful, and their much-touted “ancient” connections to the land resonate within us. We bought purebreds to reestablish those connections. Moreover, their very uniformity seemed to offer promise of their immortality.
When a beloved dog, whatever its breed, dies, we seek to find another just like him. So we go to a breeder and buy a replica. By doing so we convince ourselves that our departed dog continues to live in the soul of the new one. We think we have purchased his immortality. But we haven’t.
Purebreds represent neither dogs’ past nor their future. As geneticist Richard Dawkins tells us, genes are nearly “immortal.” So those of purebreds are no older than those of mongrels. A dog’s true connection with the past lies in his character and abilities, not his genes. For millennia, dogs were defined by the jobs they did, and crossbred to ensure they would continue to perform them well. When the rural people who created these jobs disappear, dogs lose this past, and attempts to freeze their shapes in time through inbreeding do not preserve it. They merely rob dogs of a future.
Purebreds can be saved only by opening their stud books. Just as the meek shall inherit the Earth, so lowly mixed breeds, including perhaps the few remaining crossbred Jack Russells, represent the future of dogs.
This article is an adaptation from the author’s new book, We Give our Hearts to Dogs to Tear: Intimations of Their Mortality (Transaction Publishers), a memoir of the Chase family’s 32 years in Montana, which they shared with successive generations of Jack Russell Terriers. The book considers the mortality of, and connections between, the land and dogs: how suburbanization and declines in land stewardship threaten the former, and indiscriminate inbreeding by show dog breeders imperils the latter.