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The Future of Dogs

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.

Many “Originals”
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.

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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