Science & History
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The Future of Dogs

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.

Purebred Trap
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.

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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