|Art by Kevin Brockbank for a 2011 article in Dogs Today.|
The Kennel Club’s tar pit is more than just cunning and powerful. It is also patient.
What's a Jack Russell Terrier?
Well, I guess we are about to be told -- and by people in the Kennel Club who have never dug on a dog.
Like the "Parson Russell" Terrier and the "Russell Terrier" invented before it, the Kennel Club Jack Russell Terrier will be a show ring creation cocked up by fantasists who hope to sell puppies to romantics and those eager to get in on "the ground floor" of a "new breed that is actually very old."
Right. (cough :: cough ) How's that work, exactly?: "New breed that is actually very old?"
This is the advertising copy of a dog dealer hoping to sell to a pretender, neither one of which will ever own a locator collar or dig a hole five feet to a dog facing formidable quarry underground.
But they are "dedicated fanciers" we will be told.
People who hunt their dogs are not "fanciers," they are hunters. They are men and women who go into the field with worn boots, forged shovels, and steel digging bars, and who consider it a good day if their dog comes out alive and there are no vet bills to pay.
We will be told about "working functional conformation." What does that even mean? The only "conformation" requirement of a working terrier is that it have a chest small enough to get to ground, and on that score the only meaningful judge has four legs and teeth, not two legs and a Facebook account!
I have written the true history of the Jack Russell Terrier on numerous occasions in books, blogs, web pages, and magazine articles. A short version was told in Dogs Today.
The thumbnail version is that after the Kennel Club ruined the Fox Terrier by pulling it into the show ring and making it too big in the chest to actually fit down a hole, and with too soft a coat to actually thrive in winter, that dog fell out of favor in the field.
Kennel Club Fox Terriers as digging dogs? That's been mostly fantasy for the last 100 years.
Meanwhile, the popularity of the Jack Russell Terrier -- the non pedigree Fox Terrier -- soared.
In response, the Kennel Club decided to pull the working Fox Terrier, now called the Jack Russell Terrier, into the show ring for another try.
There was only one small problem: the Jack Russell is a working dog and because the standard is the work, there's a huge variety in the size of the dog, depending on what is being hunted and where. A working Jack Russell Terrier may stand anywhere from 10" to 15" tall.
What to do?
Kennel Club theorists have never let actual experience with working dogs get in the way of crafting "standards" or writing up just-invented histories. And why should they? After all, the folks in the Kennel Club are not too interested in working dogs. Their interest is almost universally in ribbon-chasing and puppy peddling to people who want pets.
For these arm chair sages, the solution about what to do with an overly-broad working standard is as simple as a razor: cut the dog into two or three or four breeds, and cut work and health out of the equation entirely.
A standard that required honest work below ground would make for too small a class at shows.
Simple tests to make sure the dog had a good nose and a solid voice would take too much time at ring side, and might reduce interest in the dog as well.
Remember, the Kennel Club sages tell each other, the goal here is to promote the breed and in order to do that we need to make it easy to participate.
Dog shows, after all, are a "sport" that caters to 60-year olds with bad knees and a little too much weight on the trunk. Asking these folks to dig three feet to a baying dog is a bit much, don't you think? Instead, how about if we simply judge the dog by walking it around the ring once on a string leash? And how about if we make allowances for the incompetent and infirm as well, and allow dog owners to pay someone else to walk their dog around the ring? I mean we do want to be inclusive, don't we? Not everyone has the time or the strength to attend a dog show and walk once or twice around a ring. Some people only have money, the poor things!
And thus was born the "Parson Russell" a dog created whole-cloth by the Kennel Club based on the putative "standard" of a man who hunted badger with his terriers -- a creature John Russell never hunted at all.
And the end result?
About what you would expect -- a dog sliding into the tar pits along the same route taken by the Fox Terrier 100 years earlier, with chests quickly becoming too big to work fox in natural earths, and with coats too soft to stand up in winter.
And what about the smaller dog?
This is the "Russell Terrier," and the history here is a joke. Believe it or not, the AKC ascribes the origin of this dog to Australia -- a country the Reverend Russell never so much as visited!
And are these "Russell Terriers" actually worked to ground? Hard to find any that are! And why would they be? You do not need Kennel Club registration to work a dog -- you need a locator collar and a shovel and a little knowledge about wildlife. Not much of that in the world of show dogs!
Now could a "Russell Terrier" work? Oh sure. Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Provided a dog has a small enough chest, and a little piss and vinegar coursing through its blood, any dog can probably be made to work underground if given experience and opportunity.
But for a dog to actually work underground, it has to have an owner that will actually take it out into the field. Even if the dog is the right size and has the right attitude down the leash, the owner up the leash has to have the willingness, desire, upper body strength, and tools to get the job done. As I once noted about the Cairn Terrier:
The most important requirement of a working terrier is not found in a Kennel Club conformation standard; it is having an owner that will take it out in the field and give it the opportunity to work. This, above all, appears to be the missing part of a Cairn Terrier.
In the world of the Cairn Terrier, there seems to be no shortage of people that will drive across three states in order to win a rosette, but few if any that will brave the winds of winter to find a fox. Own a locator collar? Treat a ripped muzzle? Dig down four feet through frozen soil and marl? Surely you are joking! A Cairn Terrier owner cannot imagine his or her little dog (much less themselves!) doing such work. Fantasy ends where a whipping wind and a sharp shovel begins.
Can the same be said of the Russell Terrier, the Parson Russell Terrier, and the Jack Russell Terrier? Absolutely.
And so we get down to it: No matter how good or bad the Kennel Club product is, the dog will never see the field and in quick order the balancing points and essence needed in a working dog will fade away or distort. It will be like a ship built by a man who has never seen the water and only seen a picture of a boat.
And, of course, the genetic wood pile will be limited and closed, which means coefficients of inbreeding will rise and with them disease.
And where will it all end? Where it always does with the Kennel club -- bleached bones in a tar pit.
As always, the threat to working dogs is the tar pit of the Kennel Club from which no breed has ever emerged intact and still working.
Tar pits look benign -- cool water tends to pool on top -- but nothing has ever come out of them but bones.
In the case of the Kennel Club, what has emerged, time and time again, are exaggerated dogs devoid of working instinct, nose, and common sense, with coats inappropriate for the job, and skeletal structures that are often inadequate for a day in the field.
No one who courses dogs looks to a Kennel Club dog to do the job, and the same is true for working sled dogs, herding dogs, cart dogs, pointers, setters, or retrievers.
Terriers are not an exception to the rule.
And will it stop with Jack Russells? It will not.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Kennel Club is likely to reach out for the Patterdale.
Remember, it takes only a handful of pretenders and dog dealers to make a breed club under whose auspices the Kennel Club can raise its flag. And the Kennel Club’s tar pit is more than just cunning and powerful. It is also patient.