In the world of purebred dogs, the list of breeds named for their originators is decidedly short. Amalgamated breeds such as the Boykin Spaniel and Doberman Pinscher – two contemporary canines that appeared largely due to the efforts of a single fancier – have granted immortality to their founders, L. Whitaker Boykin and Louis Dobermann. However one breed pioneer will forever be remembered for having his name bestowed on not one, but two separate breeds: the Rev. John Russell.
The Parson Russell Terrier and its cousin, the Russell Terrier, are heirs to the furry fortune amassed in the whelping box of their namesake from Dartmouth, England. Both breeds owe their existence to the reverend, described by his biographers as demonstrating greater devotion to the sporting life than to his parishioners.
In early 19th-century Britain, Terriers were commonly kept on farms and in villages to control vermin, just as they are today. Both long- and short-legged dogs were utilized for this purpose, although the taller, straight-legged animals were also used for sport.
As noted by the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America, Russell was a renowned huntsmen with a passion for foxhunting, hounds and working Terriers. “Rev. Russell was a founding member of England’s Kennel Club in 1873, and in 1874 he judged Fox Terriers for The Kennel Club. In his day, Rev. Russell was called ‘The Father of the Wirehaired Fox Terrier,’ at a time when it was thought that wire coats were a passing fad. Rev. Russell’s bloodlines are found in the pedigrees of early Smooth Fox Terriers, for as a breeder of broken coats he often bred to smooth-coated Fox Terriers to improve coat quality. His bloodlines are also found on both sides of the wire-coated bitch, L’il Foiler, dam of the well-known wire champion, Carlisle Tack, said to be indistinguishable from the type of Terrier bred by Parson Russell.”
Rev. Russell’s passion for foxhunting precluded him from becoming distracted by trends of the conformation show ring. The ecclesiastic outdoorsman was interested only in his dogs’ ability to follow the horses and go to ground. The thrill of the chase mattered most and depended greatly on the steadiness of his dogs’ performance.
“After Rev. Russell’s death [in 1883], the name ‘Jack Russell Terrier’ was misused to describe all mix and manner of working and hunt Terriers, many of which bore little, if any, similarity to Rev. Russell’s own Terriers,” according to the PRTAA. Crosses were made to a variety of breeds during this period, including the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Small, crooked-legged dogs soon flourished in southern England, eventually finding passage to the nation’s former colonies. In America and Australia these dogs were put to work on farms and in cities, although their type was dramatically different from that of their foxhunting ancestors.
In 1904, a breed standard was drawn up by Arthur Heinemann, and a parent organization, the Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club, was formed in the U.K. 10 years later. During the 20th century, crossbreeding continued and soon the survival of the original type was threatened. Although the short-legged Jack Russell Terrier developed its own loyal following in the U.S. and Down Under, sportsmen in England’s southern counties successfully managed to preserve the long-legged original.
To ensure the continued preservation of the Terriers that Rev. Russell used while foxhunting, British fanciers reorganized in 1985, adopting Heinemann’s original breed standard. In 1990, full Kennel Club recognition was granted to the breed known as the Parson Russell Terrier.
American fanciers formed the Jack Russell Terrier Association of America in 1985. In 2000, the breed was granted full membership in the American Kennel Club’s Terrier Group under this name. Three years later, in an effort to distinguish the original dogs from their short-legged descendants, the name was officially changed to Parson Russell Terrier.
The “Parson Russell” or “Parson,” as foxhunters and fanciers alike affectionately refer to the breed, retains all of its original qualities and remains a popular companion among the horsey set. Registrations for 2012 place the breed 97th among the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.
Balanced Height and Length
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard references the Parson Russell Terrier’s development as a working animal that “trailed hounds and bolted foxes from dens so the hunt could ride on.” The breed is still capable of performing its original role today, thanks largely to its balance of proportions that present a clean silhouette.
A classic long-legged Terrier, the Parson’s height is balanced with its length. Both size and bone are defined as “medium,” and the impression made is one of “strength and endurance.” The breed is neither coarse nor racy in appearance.
Bred to perform equally well above and below ground, the Parson’s proportions are critical to its ability to do both. “The ideal height of a mature dog is 14 inches at the highest point of the shoulder blade,” according to the standard. Bitches will ideally measure 1 inch less. Although “slightly” shorter or taller individuals are acceptable, overall balance cannot be compromised and exhibits measuring less than 12 inches or more than 15 inches are to be disqualified.
Height at the withers is “slightly greater than the distance from the withers to tail” and length “will vary according to height.” This difference can be “possibly 1 to 1-1/2 inches,” however the overall proportion creates a rather square standing profile.
“Balance is the keystone of the Terrier’s anatomy,” according to the standard.
A Flexible Chest
Despite its balance of proportions and unexaggerated silhouette, the Parson Russell possesses one extraordinary feature that’s the result of its specialized subterranean service: a flexible chest.
The long legs that allow the Parson to follow the hounds and riders during the hunt fail to provide easy passage in and out of the foxholes. Unlike its short-legged cousins, the breed would have difficulty turning around underground if not for a lateral flexibility of its back and a small and “rather elastic” chest conformation.
The breed’s chest is defined by the AKC standard as “narrow and of moderate depth, giving an athletic, rather than heavily-chested, appearance. Although the ribs are “fairly well sprung, oval rather than round,” they do not extend below the elbow and are neither shallow nor barrel-shaped.
The AKC breed standard also provides instruction for evaluating the merits of the chest. Known as “spanning,” this hands-on examination is the only way to accurately determine if a dog is suitable to perform its intended underground function.
“To measure a Terrier’s chest, span from behind, raising only the front feet from the ground, and compress gently. Directly behind the elbows is the smaller, firm part of the chest. The central part is usually larger but should feel rather elastic. Span with hands tightly behind the elbows on the forward portion of the chest. The chest must be easily spanned by average-size hands. Thumbs should meet at the spine, and fingers should meet under the chest. This is a significant factor and a critical part of the judging process. The dog cannot be correctly judged without this procedure.”
Two foxhunting cousins of the Parson, the Border and Patterdale Terriers, also exhibit the long legs and flexible ribcage required of a long-distance runner and go-to-ground worker, although they are distinguished by their comparatively drab coloration.
A Natural Appearance
The Parson Russell Terrier is a handsome breed whose clean silhouette is not distorted by its “broken or smooth” coat. Its natural appearance and predominantly white coloration are important breed characteristics.
The texture of the breed’s weatherproof double coat is described by the standard as “harsh, close and dense.” A “good sheen” is present, and the hair is “straight with no suggestion of kink.” The breed’s clear outline offers a mere suggestion of a beard and eyebrows. A lack of undercoat is a fault, as is a topcoat that’s “soft, silky, woolly, or curly.” Sculpturing of the furnishings is to be “severely” penalized.
Parson Russell Terriers are white or predominantly white. Colored markings are “clear” and may be black, tan or a combination of the two. “As long as the Terrier is predominantly white, moderate body markings are not to be faulted,” according to the standard’s section on color. Grizzle is an acceptable color, but should not be confused with brindle. The brindle pattern suggests a distant cross with the Bull Terrier or similar breed and is a disqualification.
As a true working Terrier, the Parson may present old scars and cosmetic injuries on its somewhat thick and loose skin. If the result of “honorable work or accident,” they should not be held against the dog in the show ring “unless they interfere with movement or utility for work or breeding.”
No matter its name, the tough and talented Parson Russell Terrier remains a living legacy to one man’s passion for the chase and the pleasures of country life.