If you are in the business of breeding and selling dogs (and I am not) or you have dogs that people think are cute (pretty much everyone), you will get people inquiring about working terriers who have not done their research, may not be living in a stable home (i.e. they travel a lot, or move often), have never had a dog or trained a dog, or perhaps they have unstable relationships (this includes married people!), or perhaps they simply need to hear the Whole Truth about what a working terrier really brings to the table.
A dog is a 15-year obligation and is not to be taken lightly. The average small terrier will end up costing its owner about $500 a year in food, vet care, pet sitting, and other kinds of upkeep and maintenance. This is to say nothing of the cost of major fence installation, major medical events that can occur, etc. Add a few thousand for those, and consider yourself lucky if you never need to spend it.
The bottom line is that a terrier is a $7,500 -$10,000 liability -- not quite as expensive as a child, but a lot less disposable than a guinea pig. On top of it all, a terrier can be a 15-year headache for people that are not ready for what a terrier brings to the table.
The Ottawa Citizen, March 3, 1997
Author Philip Lee learns the hard way why you should not buy a Jack Russell terrierEvery family makes mistakes. Our mistake is named Richie. Richie is a Jack Russell terrier we purchased a year and a half ago as a gift for my wife on her birthday. He is a short-haired dog, white with brown spots and worry wrinkles on his brown and black forehead. He is about a foot and a half long and weighs 17 pounds.
When I say this little creature has taken over our lives, I'm not exaggerating, not a bit.
We decided to buy Richie after we met a lively Jack Russell named Robbie and concluded that it would be fun to have a personable little dog like him around the house. When told about our plan, one of my relatives who has had a female Jack Russell for many years said simply: "Tell them their lives will never be the same." While we thought this was a strange comment at the time, we don't think so any more.
Mistakes often result from a lack of information and poor preparation, and I admit we are at fault here. We didn't do our homework, and we paid the price.
Richie was an only pup, a fat little ball of fur, four weeks old and stumbling along behind his mother on the day we visited him and decided that we wanted him. When he was seven weeks old, we returned to pick him up. As we walked through the yard outside the farmhouse where he was born, his breeder warned: "You'll have to be careful, he's awfully rough."
The little dog we saw romping through the yard was harmless, no larger than a small kitten. Rough? Please. We already had horses, dogs and cats at home. We were animal lovers. We knew what we were doing. We smiled the confident smile of the blissfully ignorant.
Then Richie reappeared, dangling in mid-air with his teeth closed on the throat of the breeder's long-suffering German shepherd. The two dogs disappeared around the corner of the barn. Richie returned alone, choking on a mouthful of fur.
We laughed, nervously, picked him up and took him home.
Since Richie has become part of our lives, I've discovered that these little dogs are quite fashionable. A Jack Russell named Wishbone, who wears cute outfits, acts like a human and tells classic tales, has his own television show for children. Plastic Wishbones, complete with a variety of stage outfits, have been featured as toy of the week at Wendy's restaurants.
A long-haired Jack Russell named Eddie stars in the popular television comedy Frasier. A Jack Russell named Milo played a prominent role in Jim Carrey's movie The Mask. These dogs are regularly featured in television commercials; lately they have been helping to sell Nissans. The other day we saw one in a music video by the Toronto band Skydiggers. There was a picture of a Jack Russell on my daughter's Valentines this year (chosen, of course, in honour of Richie). These little dogs are everywhere.
All I can say to the person who is thinking about how nice it would be to have one of Wishbone's cousins at home, or have a dog like Eddie or Milo in your apartment is: Look before you leap.
Since Richie took over our household, I've done the research that might have prevented our mistake.
A recent issue of Audubon magazine featured a photo essay about the reclusive, wily fox. The spread of marvelous photographs showed a beautiful, athletic red fox at play. The fox was completely self-absorbed, standing up on his hind legs, leaping high into the air, twisting, whirling and almost flying over the tall grasses as he ran. When I saw those photographs, I was looking at Richie.
Jack Russells are working dogs, bred to hunt foxes. Their name comes from Rev. John Russell, "The Sporting Parson," who bred a fine strain of terriers in Devonshire, England, in the mid-1800s. The legend goes something like this: One day, when the Parson was attending Exeter College at Oxford, he spotted a sturdy white terrier riding confidently on top of a wagon. He was so taken with this feisty little dog that he purchased her on the spot and named her Trump. She is the founder of the breed. The Parson bred these dogs throughout his life, keeping careful records and placing emphasis on the characteristics that enabled the dogs to work and hunt. The Sporting Parson's tradition has continued in Jack Russell clubs in England and North America for more than 100 years.
Today at Barnstaple, England, there is an inn named Jack Russell, and there hangs a portrait of Trump and the Sporting Parson, the man I hold at least partly responsible for my troubles.
Jack Russell terriers are fox-hunting machines, possessing superior intelligence and gifted with great speed. They have athletic, muscular, compact bodies that run low to the ground, perfectly balanced. They have small chests that allow them to run down fox holes, or in any other small space you can imagine. Some of them can climb trees and fences.
In short, these are remarkable little dogs. Bad dogs.
Members of the Jack Russell terrier Club of America have posted a warning on the Internet about the dogs they love. The web site is called The "Bad Dog" Talk and it asks the one important question we failed to ask ourselves before we brought Richie home: "Is a Jack Russell terrier the right dog for you?"
Many dog owners are overwhelmed by these small, high-maintenance pets and they abandon them. I consider myself an experienced dog owner, yet I understand the sheer panic these poor people feel when they realize what a problem they have on their hands. The statistics are tragic. Jack Russells are the most commonly abandoned dogs in North America.
The Bad Dog website points out that the little terriers are bred to hunt, and if they are not hunting, they will "invent new and fun jobs for themselves," which includes their favourite job, "guardian of the world," when they become fierce protectors of their possessions and family. They also like to chase cars, hunt birds and dig holes both outside and inside the house.
I can tell you that all of this is absolutely true. If anything, The Bad Dog Talk is understated.
Richie, I am proud to say, has lived up to his breed's reputation.
In the past year and a half he has been run over by vehicles twice. The first time, last September, he disappeared when he was on a supervised walk, made his way from our upper meadow down through the woods to the highway, where he chased a car and caught it. When we found him he was in shock. He had a broken leg and all the fur was scraped off the top of his head. That little accident slowed him down for a couple of weeks. We hoped he had learned a lesson about cars, but resolved to keep him chained to a tree when we weren't walking him in the woods.
Then, one afternoon during hunting season, he darted under the tire of a truck that was driving slowly along the dirt road that runs past our yard. He was on his chain, tied to a tree. We had negligently allowed the chain to reach the edge of the dirt road. Witnesses to this accident swear the rear truck tire ran right over his body, and they were convinced that he must have been badly, if not fatally, injured. The chain broke and he disappeared for a couple of hours.
He finally showed up at the house, a little shaken, with a raspy voice from a minor neck injury, but very much alive. That accident slowed him down for a couple of days. We now know he doesn't learn lessons.
He likes to jump up onto our kitchen table to snatch food or lick the plates after a meal. (He consumed an entire apple tart at Christmas.)
He fights with every dog that comes near our property. The only dog he has any respect for is our eight-year-old Doberman, who put him in his place at an early age, although he still harasses her and encourages her to play rough. She loves him.
One of his favourite games is chasing our two horses. The closer their hooves come to kicking him in the head and killing him the better he likes it. His horse game scares me, and when he starts playing it I have to turn my head away.
He enjoys sitting on the couch and protecting his perch. He has to sleep on our bed at night, with his little body touching ours. I haven't slept soundly in months.
When he was a puppy and we left him alone in the house, we locked him in the kitchen, where we figured he couldn't do much damage. He started digging a hole through the kitchen door. After he made it halfway through the door and we got tired of coming home to a pile of wood chips, we stopped locking him in there.
He's virtually untrainable and often won't come when called. (This may be the result of our shortcomings as trainers, but we did manage to turn our Doberman into one of the most obedient dogs on the planet.) Richie will sit for the blink of an eye if you're holding a piece of food in your hand. And after an epic struggle, we finally managed to housebreak him. Or perhaps I should put it this way -- he pees outside when he wants to, which is most of the time.
We recently asked the owner of that cute terrier named Robbie, the one that inspired our mistake, if she had any humorous terrier stories to pass on. She replied grimly: "How about tragic?"
Incidentally, Richie hates Robbie. They can't be left together.
Fourteen years ago, Catherine Romaine Brown of Mt. Holly, New York, received two Jack Russells as a gift, and her life immediately became a shambles. Today she has 10 of the little dogs and is a Jack Russell breeder. She wrote a book about Jack Russells that was published last September and admits that her life has gone to the dogs.
Six years ago, a dog she sold to one of her neighbours was killed when she was trying to find him a new home. She realized that there were dogs out there who needed her help, so through the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America she pioneered a rescue service that places unwanted or abandoned terriers in good homes.
Since 1991, her rescue service, which quickly expanded into a nationwide network, has placed more than 600 Jack Russells abandoned by people who couldn't handle living with a bad dog.
A Canadian version of the rescue service is run by Marla Robinson in Guelph, Ont., in conjunction with the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Canada.
Ms. Brown says the problems often begin when a family realizes their terrier is the most intelligent member of the household. "You soon realize you're their pets," she says.
People buy these dogs because they're small and cute, then they move the dogs into the city, where both the owners and the dogs have nervous breakdowns. "They can't take the stress of a city," she says. Even if the dogs are being walked in city parks, they'll challenge every dog they encounter and often have disastrous battles with German shepherds, rottweilers and other large dogs.
"They think they can conquer the planet," she says. "I call them loaded guns."
She says the television exposure given to Jack Russells has created grave misconceptions about the breed. She has met Wishbone's trainer and now knows that the canine television star is a typical Jack Russell: "a very difficult dog." Television Jack Russells are bad, but they're good actors. Then people bring one home and "find the cat dead."
She has heard stories about Jack Russells who have dug through the outside walls of a house and escaped, and another who dug down through the kitchen floor and spent the day roaming in the subflooring of the home.
They need exercise and lots of it, far away from roadways because cars are the leading killers of Jack Russells. "They're little heartbreakers," she says.
Meanwhile, the members of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America are waging a campaign to keep their dogs from being "recognized" by kennel clubs. If these dogs were bred for the show ring instead of the woods, they would lose what makes them special: their great intelligence and strong bodies.
The club points to what has happened to the fox terrier, a close cousin of the Jack Russell, which is a prized show dog but has lost its working traits. The fox terrier's conformation has changed over the years: its jaw lengthened, shoulders straightened and chest deepened, so that today these terriers couldn't run down a foxhole even if they wanted to.
The club wants Jack Russells to remain what they are -- feisty, bad little dogs -- which is a courageous and admirable stand.
As for us, we're learning to cope with our mistake, for when we couldn't train him, he trained us.
We take him for a long walk every day through the woods in back of our house. He tears out the back door, heads for the trail with his nose to the ground, and does what he was born to do. He's a pleasure to watch. These walks offer a pause in our busy lives.
When we leave him alone in the house, we put him in a large, well-built, steel-mesh kennel with a rawhide bone to chew. He doesn't seem to mind as long as he's had his run first. His runs keep his mind right.
As for all of his other bad habits, we've simply admitted defeat.
Through it all, I've grown fond of this bizarre little creature. He amuses me and I admire his blind courage and absolute devotion to our family.
We're stuck with a bad dog, and as penance for our mistake, we'll spend the next 15 years trying to keep Richie alive.
I don't mind so much. In our digital, plastic, conformist world, I figure it's a fine thing to love a creature who has to be protected from his own reckless spirit.
Philip Lee is the editor of the Atlantic Salmon Journal and author of Home Pool.
Thinking of buying a true working terrier? Read this first