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.