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The Future of Dogs

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.

Times Change
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.

Alston Chase is one of America's foremost nonfiction writers and a leading scholar specializing in intellectual and environmental history. In 1992, he received an Ark Trust Genesis Award Commendation. He, his wife Diana and their seven dogs live in Paradise Valley, Mont.

Photograph coutresy Alston Chase

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