Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Russell Terrier: A Contrived History

Show dogs are about boxes and theories, not den holes and reality.

On June 27th, 2012, the AKC added the "Russell Terrier" to their list of breeds fit for a rosette.

What's a Russell Terrier?  

Like the "Parson Russell" Terrier invented before it, this dog is 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?"

The Wikipedia page on this breed tells you something else, of course.  Here we find this bit of clap trap:

[The Russell Terrier] is a working breed not a companion breed. They are bred by dedicated Fanciers to preserve their working functional conformation and the instinct to employ their original purpose as earth terriers.

This is advertising typed up by 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.

Dedicated fanciers? What gibberish. 

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.

What does "working functional conformation" 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!

So what is a "Russell Terrier"?

Simply said, it's just another artificial schism of the old Jack Russell Terrier, and one more tall tale from Kennel Club rosette chasers.

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 last year.

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 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" terrier, 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" -- the dog now on the cusp of making its formal debut on the Big Stage in the AKC.

The history here is a joke, of course. 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 Terrriers" 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.


PipedreamFarm said...

At least, for this working dog, there is a slight difference in the name between the pretender and the real deal.


The Midland Agrarian said...

So, these geniuses are going to take a strain from within a "breed"; breed only that strain, and narrow their gene pool even more?

I only went twice with earth work hunters. The one dog was missing about half its lips from coon bites. I wonder how she would have fared in the show ring with her perpetual snarl?

Water Over The Dam said...

A writer for DogWorld (US) in the 1980s described all KC breed histories as reading like they were written by a tipsy Manhattanite, typing with one hand while holding a martini in the other.

Sherri said...

Have I told you lately I love you, Patrick? I'm dealing with somebody over on fb on the breeder's discussion right now about what to breed for. Silly me, I said top priority should be working ability. You can pretty much guess that fell on deaf ears. They stated they are breeding after the "AKC Standard which they uphold regarding particular area's like feet, etc. but all designed with the working dog in mind." Seriously? And you know your dog will work how? When asked if they've ever hunted their terrier(s), they said they've done Earthdog competitions.

Sharon Yildiz said...

I do want to add that the JRTCA is as responsible for conformation showing as any of the all-breed registries. In 1995, I got a JRT puppy that was dual-registered JRTCA and UKC. I set about entering him in any and every sport I could find. In JRTCA events, he did go-to-ground and flat & hurdle racing. We did not do conformation.

In UKC, I entered him in obedience and agility.

He also did "natural hunting underground," and was featured on the cover of True Grit.

I don't know about now, but at that time, the JRTCA shows were these HUGE conformation events where racing and go-to-ground was just a sideline event. At some of them, there were 20+ different conformation classes, including things like "dog with best coat," "best 3-6 month male puppy," etc.

To get ribbons in these *JRTCA* conformation shows, there was rampant crossing of JRTCAs to white Lakelands. The F1 generation looked like a JRT but "better." The F2s had lamb coats and weren't showable. I didn't want any part of this and stayed out of conformation, though I had dabbled in conformation with one dog of another breed in the past.

Once my dog started earning agility and obedience titles in UKC--where we also DIDN'T show in conformation--the JRTCA kicked me out of the club. Their justification was that I was supporting a "conformation" registry. Even though I wasn't showing in conformation anywhere, and despite the JRTCA itself hosting trials with hundreds of dogs competing in conformation.

After I got kicked out, I went ahead and added UKC conformation to the list. My dog became the national #1 UKC JRT in conformation, #2 in obedience, #1 in weight pull, and #7 in agility... and got to star in some Purina ads. BTW, he was neutered without being bred. I've never bred a litter in my life--I do conformation and every other sport purely for entertainment.

Anyway, I've always found it quite hypocritical that JRTCA and the working terrier people condemn even competing in all-breed agility, when they themselves are making tons of money from conformation events. That's why I didn't bat an eyelash when I later got a Border Collie and showed him to an AKC championship, as well as competing at advanced levels of stockdog competition.

Anyway, just wanted to add this perspective. The JRTCA is not as squeaky clean as you might guess...

PBurns said...

Sharon --

Oh sure there are rosette chasers at JRTCA shows. Been there and seen that. The AKC and the JRTCA are pretty different, however...

For one, you cannot throw a leash at a JRTCA show without hitting someone who had dug a fox, a coon a groundhog, etc. If you want to know what a working terrier looks like these folks do not have theories, but expereince. Not so at the AKC. A JRTCA judget is also goting to be a digger, not just a wizened old lady who is an "expert" on 100 breeds like in the AKC.

Though some contestants may take the shows a little too seriously, the JRTCA tends to put things in perspective. No professional handlers are allowed, and contestant classes are announced with some humor: "Tall hairy bitches in ring two, small smooth dogs in ring one."

The highest award at the JRTCA is for working dogs and the only reason I got to nationals is to see that Bronze medallion class. The pop tents with the just-invented kennel names from the shiney new faces? God bless them, but I do not need to meet more wanna be dog dealers!

As for the "white lakeland" stuff, that's like talking ahout a black Jack Russell -- there's no such thing; it's called a Patterdale. A white lakeland is just a term cocked up to describe an regsitered slape-coated rough coated rusell that may be a bit too big and look a bit too much like an odd-looking old fashioned wire Fox Terrier. But of course, a slape-coated unregisteresd wire Fox Terrier IS a Jack Russell, isn't it? All of fhese dog are very close branches on a very small bush.

The JRTCA is guilty of being successful; it's the largest Jack Russell registry (of any type) in the world. I have never shown at a JRTCA show, but I did (many, many years ago) show AKC. So, yes there are soem things similar (a show is a show and a rosette chaser is a rosette chaser), but there's a lot that's different, from theory to practice, and from health to performance.



Anonymous said...

When it comes to entries on these designer breeds (another example Shiloh shep) wiki is wholy unreliable since they are guarded by their fanatical breed enthusiasts.

boct said...

..all akin to wine tasting..'the floral emephones of bergamot tantalizing the fruitness flavors of the palate with renascence of millennium oak accenting the ambiance of fermented globules of utter passion..'

As you might say Patrick..Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot!!

baj said...

Dear P:
16 years ago we bought a JRT from a breeder in Calistoga CA.Luna was the runt of the litter and very timid, she was the only one my 3 year old son could get his hands on. We had to protect the pup from his loving embrace. We saw the parents of Luna on display behind a fence. They were from Scotland, they were leaping high in the air and barking and growling at us with murderous intent. I told my wife that this cute little pup would be a handful but she was smitten. A year later we got a letter from the breeder saying that our JRT was a PRT due to new rules of confirmation. I never cared about this as we only wanted a pet but our broken rough coat PRT is a game as any dog with any brand. The act of crawling in a small hole is fine if that is your thing but it is the heart of these breeds and the mentality that make them great. The kennel clubs are a bureaucracy designed to make money and gratify egos. Shame on them if they breed out the game in a dog but please leave room for what is a truly great animal the PRT.

npw said...

"Shame on them if they breed out the game in a dog"

I dunno baj, I'm thinking they do not deserve the "game". It takes a lot to make these creatures truly happy and I really do not think most pet owners have the stomach for it.
I will admit I was a bit shocked at the mayhem 2 fox terriers could produce (they were "ring rejects" so I got them free). I never "worked" them, just took them on loooooong walks and let them roam my couple of acres. The vet bills were nuts (adult woodchucks can really rip up a dog). Often I'd host play dates in my yard and the kids would find stray parts of animals here and there (including a severed skunk head. Weird!). I kept thinking, "what if normal people had purchased these dogs?".
I do see a lot of young JRTs on pet finder sites and can't help but think if they weren't so hyper and prey driven, perhaps they'd still have a home.

jack manitou said...

Hi there and greetings from Finland.

We have here 2 breeds, Working JRT's and Parson Russel Terriers (I'm not going to mention Jack Russel Terriers which are totally different, AND I think these are fro Oz. These one's are very short legged)
Working JRT's here have their own club, and Parson Russel Terriers go under national Kennel Club.

Why I write this is that, at least here, PRT's are not just showdogs, but are used as to what they were bred to do. Hunt. Just yesterday I was hunting raccoon-dogs, we got 4 btw. We had some fresh starting dogs, and some veterans with us. We had total of 11 dogs with us, which of we used 6 to go under... ;-)
I myself (and wifey, who uses dogs also for agility) have 3 PRT's.
Their height variation is quite big, the bitch is 11.8", younger "boy" is 14.2" and the older "boy" is whopping 16.5". All fit in acceptable variation while ideal height for bitch is a bit under 13" and for male it's about 14.2" ;-)
Also scars and missing teeth etc. are acceptable in show rings, if the are from hunting accidents.

In my point of view, both are the real deals. Here. I suppose it can be so also over there.
Happy Hunting.

Jack / Finland