Sunday, January 06, 2008

Bad Dog: An Article for Prospective Terrier Owners

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

Bad Dog:

Author Philip Lee learns the hard way why you should not buy a Jack Russell terrier

Every 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


Anonymous said...

Not a week goes by that I don't get a letter from a reader of our syndicated pet-care newspaper feature.

"Help! Help! We have a Jack Russell and he digs, barks, chews and killed the hamster!"

To which I want to say: "Congratulations! You have a genuine Jack Russell!"


I love terriers. LOVE THEM. I love their zest for life and their sense of humor. And they are as cute as a summer day is long. But I don't have a terrier because they DO NOT FIT MY LIFE. Duh. How hard is that to figure out? Apparently, very.

PBurns said...

My favorite people are the ones with little tottering kids who think Jack Russells are like Toy Poodles or Maltese, and who act shocked when I say it's NOT okay for their barely walking kids to pet my dogs.

"Jack Russells are not good with very small children," I explain. "They have a habit of removing the front lip of children that squeal and jerk when they move."

And it's not a lie. A working Russell has to have brains and discretion, and most of the time it's all fine, but working terriers also have "the code that explodes" within them, and when that happens they are true terriers. Bottom line: they are not a dog for everyone.

"Is he he good with cats," I am asked. "Oh yes," I reply, "he loves them. What flavor is yours?" And no, that is NOT a joke.


Anonymous said...

well, now ... I gotta say ... the nastiest dog I've ever met was a Maltese.

My neighbor and I trade pet-sitting, and she was caring for a friend's Maltese. All I had to do was walk across the street, let myself into her garage and feed the little dog along with hers. He came at me like a rabid wolverine and tore a hole in my jeans. I fed him a towel, which he ripped into as I backed myself out of the kennel run.

He didn't eat that day.

Social Mange said...

Great article, and great site with the prospective JRT owner profiler. I wish I could get both into the hands of people who think JRTs are always like Eddie on Frasier. NOT.

I admire terriers but know that I am just too lazy for an energetic and intelligent dog, so I'll admire them from afar :-).

Anonymous said...

I love your honesty, Gina and Terrierman. :) Not all dogs are for all people - something I recognized as soon as I started flipping through books about dogs as a teenager. I voraciously absorbed all of these facts about the different breeds as interesting trivia, but realized that it was indeed valuable information.

When the time came to choose a dog for myself, I took honest look at my lifestyle and realized that I would do best with a couch terrier, er.. I mean.. Boston Terrier. Hanging out with me in my computer chair and naps on the couch punctuated with short walks, weekly hikes and games of fetch in the house.

Anonymous said...

Another thought - in more ways then one - it is of course, we who have put the bolts on the neck of this "monster". Not only did we create the Jack Russell to be who he is, but it is us who have forsaken the lifestyle of our ancestors that necessitated terriers like him. Men and women would love the Jack Russell if they were farm owners 100 or even 50 years ago - when these fearless little guys kept their children, livestock and food safe from vermin. :)

PBurns said...

There is no reason at all for the lap-dog loving and show-dog loving crowd to EVER own a Jack Russell Terrier or a Border Collie. These are not their dogs, and they will often find it is more than they want. For these folks, getting a Jack Russell Terrier or a Border Collie makes as much sense as a budgie owner deciding he wants to own a Redtail Hawk or a Golden Eagle because "they're so cool and smart." Budgies and hawks are both birds right? How different could they be? What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, it turns out!

We require a license and training to own a Redtail or an eagle. It's not quite that bad for a Jack Russell or a Border Collie -- but almost. There are a lot of Jack Russell Terriers and Border Collies in rescue whose only fault is that they are true working terriers and true working collies.

I think if we kept the dogs and put down the former owners of these dogs, a lot could be made right with the world in short order. Give "the blue solution" to 20-30 stupid people who did not research or listen before they acquired the dog they now want to dump, and I think the message would get out pretty quickly about thinking twice about getting a Jack Russell or Border Collie.

Lord knows, killing the dogs because the people are stupid has not worked all that well. Let's fly the airplane tail first into the wind, and see if this canard might yet take flight if we kill up the leash rather than down. Yes, I am a radical thinker. Vote for me, and we will fix quite a lot very fast. I promise.

That said let me say that people still work terriers and they still work border collies. And I am not saying that all Jack Russells and all Border Collies need to be employed in their original mission (though I encourgage that). But I AM saying they DO need to be employed, and the employment is a lifetime employment, not a "five months and then I got bored with it," kind of thing. A dog is a 10-15 year committment. In this day and age, you may have your dog longer than your spouse. In fact, count on it, and plan accordingly.


Anton said...

Oh there's apparently a fix for everything. Its called "training". The rapidly growing multi million dollar industry and maker of TV celebrity.

Well Im sick of the advise on most JRT sites. You get one and to avoid all hard wired traits you then apparently set about trying your hardest to make it into a different breed. Fortunately no ammount of training will do this for the keen game JRT.

All the traits that make a JRT a "bad dog" are the traits that it's bred for. So why for G's sake would you get one if you didnt like all those things it's bred for?

Many people own JRTs with no problem at all or training for that matter. The dogs do their thing in the appropriate environment. They then still come in at night and snuggle up on the bed for a sleep like a lap dog might.

The simple truth is that it's a dog not suited to urban living and cannot be made to be.

Marisol said...

I have a JRT that I absolutely love and would not change but I always tell people they are not dogs for everyone. Now I have to say I live in the city and he has no issues with this because I make sure he gets plenty of exercise. They need a lot!!! He is in dog agility I take him to the beach or places where he can run. He does follow rules but when he doesn’t want to do something it is a challenge to convince him. I have found that what best works with him is positive reinforcement. Now I have to add I had to rescue him from the wrong owner and he did destroy this persons apartment and he was only eight months old when I got him. I think its greta that you warn people that they are not a dog for everyone. I myself would get another JRT in a heartbeat but I guess I am not the normal dog parent.

Unknown said...

I am wondering what those of you out there think of Just Jesse on YouTube. I owned a female JRT who adored my husband..he was her person yet would disobey all others. I spent alot of time yet never was able to train her well. I had her for years, lived out in the country and had lots of painful misadventures for memories of owning this stray. JRTs have a zest for life yet it can wear you down. Just Jessie on YouTubeis an example of the Wishbone type JRT experience. I just think the training must be very intense.

Jan Bagchus said...

I love my JRT,Junior, I am his human.
He tolerates the cat and Australian Shepherd we have and prefers to be left alone except for his best friend, my daughters chihuahua. I pretty much thought he was untrainable despite the best efforts of numerous people to tell me what I needed to do. Well he trained me. At home,while enjoying training sessions with my Aussie, I noticed my JRT following the instructions as well and learning quicker.He could have made the "fly ball" team but didn't want to give up the ball, lol. This boy flies through the air to catch balls and can play fetch for hours! He eats just about anything I will eat and loves to garden. I use his digging skills to dig holes for my plants. He patiently waits until I say, "dig dig dig!" 90% of the time he stays by my side when we go outside, he rarely ever bolts and amazingly returns when I ask him to come (although I better have something for him when he returns). I love him dearly and he knows it. He tolerates my kissing his little face and hugging him and I tolerate his cranky moods (hence the nick name cranky pants). Odd though 2 of his favorite humans are the little hyper boy across the street and my grandson with ADD.

Unknown said...

My husband and I have a 12 year old female JRT. This article could have been written with her in mind. But she is my baby and has been since she was 6 weeks old. We didn't have any idea what a JRT was when we got her for free from a friend. But in my mind, she was ours for life no matter what. We adapted to suit her needs and she loves us both. I wouldn't trade her or our years with her for anything.

RenoGirl said...

Great article! We have Jagdterrier's and highly discourage anyone other than avid hunters from taking one of our incredibly cute (blood tracking, cat eating, hole digging and super protective) pups home unless they are WELL educated! ;)

WildPaws said...

Brilliant blog! Our Jacks are hard work but we love them :)
From the WildPaws team

Karen Carroll said...

I had JRT's in the early 80's before they became 'fashionable'. Falconers had discovered these hardy dogs and they are ideal for rabbits and are still very popular, as well as mini doxies of hunting bloodlines. Mine were hunting dogs for falconry, flushing rabbits for the Red-tail and Goshawk. My RT would bind to a rabbit, the JRT would be on the other end if I did not get to the hawk in time Hawk is footing the dog to get her off 'her kill' and I was fearful of the dog loosing an eye. But the dog persisted and would just hang on. I would separate them and let the hawk feed. My current stray/rescue JRT is a leggy dog, 17 lbs, not a 'hole dog' but a flusher. She has an excellent nose and even has some 'pointing' instinct which I encourage. She is excellent in the house (not a chewer and I have chew hoofs all over the place for her). Sleeps in her bed, (or with us on cold nights). Protector of the hawks and our home. But not too crazy. I think that the 'spunkiness' of today's JRT's is not good. For my JRT's of the 80's were energetic but not insane like some I've seen now days.

Karen Carroll said...

Note that in one video Jessie the JRT pees on his favorite corner in the house. Males are difficult if not impossible to housebreak. That is where crating comes into an important tool for this trait.

Bebe Russell said...

People often stop me on walks and other places to admire my super-cute female JRT, who at almost 13 years old, is fairly well-behaved. I explain that owning JRTs is a lifestyle. They don't see the many hours I spent to fix the extreme dog-reactivity she exhibited when I adopted her at the age of four. She needed rehoming when she began to attack the Golden Retriever she had lived with all of her life. I explain that while I don't hunt her, she is very busy training and competing in three dog sports -- nose work, barn hunt and terrier trials. She is still competing at the top levels of the barn hunt and nose work sports. This year she earned her Barn Hunt Rat-Champion title and National Association of Canine Scent Work Elite 2 title. She still needs and enjoys a two-mile walk every day and surprisingly that is what turns most people off!

Unknown said...

Huge sigh! Yes, they are little monsters to the bone. I had a JRT/Rat Terrier mix. I loved Diego more than I loved almost anything in my life. He was the most maddening dog, but he was so fiercely loyal and loving to me, that I forgave him on all his little freakish ways. He was my ride or die partner. He went everywhere with me. I miss him so much and it has been well over a year since he got hit and killed by a car. I could not contain that dog. If there was a slight opening in the gate, he was gone like a shot. Thankfully he was not a digger and he had no idea that he could jump the gate with no problem. I had him psyched about jumping since he was a puppy. Thank you for the blog. It is good to see you handle your JRT with all the humor you must in order to keep sanity.

Unknown said...

We have had smooth haired fox terriers for over 40 years now - active, vibrant, intelligent little dogs - but so much easier to handle than Jack Russell’s and much better with children. I have never understood why Jack Russell’s are so much more fashionable when they have so many behavioural issues.