From my ‘Crossing the headlines’ column in Dog World (21st January 2016).

A subject that has certainly generated lots of interest on social media and reams of column inches in both the canine and general press has been the recognition of the Jack Russell by the Kennel Club.

It’s certainly been fascinating to read the many glowing eulogies of this tenacious little terrier and watching the usual suspects jumping on the bandwagon as it presents yet another opportunity to give the KC a good hiding. Claims were made that there was a ‘Jack’ for everybody (is there any breed that’s suitable for everybody?) and some claimed that these terriers were virtually free from all hereditary and congenital defects and KC recognition would be ruinous for them. A look at the breed’s websites certainly provides interesting reading, for example, the British Jack Russell Terrier Club was formed to preserve the PURE JACK RUSSELL, safeguard the old undiluted bloodlines and protect it from being crossed with other terrier breeds. In fact, it goes on to put its success down to the fact that ‘no crossbreeding should be allowed by anyone for any reason whatsoever.’ A number of breeders boast of their ‘unbroken bloodlines going back 60 years’.

The clubs have their own standards and shows. The criteria for registration with the JRTCGB states that the terrier must be at least 51 per cent white, which is contrary to some critics assertions that looks play no part in the breeding of this type of dog (how does having brindle markings have any effect on ratting ability?), the terrier must not have any KC registered terriers within its pedigree and it should conform to the breed standard (back to those darned looks again). The JRTCGB standard also states that the JRT ‘should not show characteristics of another breed’ and listed in its ‘faults’ is ‘any evidence of foreign blood’.

The JRT clubs’ strict stance on colour certainly gives food for thought; if our KC adopted something similar we’d see no registrations of lilac Frenchies, red and white Bostons or platinum Pugs.

Safeguarding the breed

All fair enough and it could well explain why the carefully bred examples shown on their respective sites bear little resemblance to the general public’s idea of a Jack Russell. I’m sure many of us can understand why lovers of this type of dog would want to safeguard its working abilities and preserve these valuable lines for future terrier men/women.

However the truth is most ‘Jacks’ aren’t destined for a working life… and in the new year (following the horrific death of 22-year-old Liam Hewitson when he was attacked by his Pit Bull cross) several papers carried articles that stated that the little Jack Russell has been named as one of the dogs most likely to bite humans.

According to the latest Liverpool police figures – the UK’s second most perilous city for dog attacks – the humble Jack can have a bite as big as its bark.

The Sun reported that the family favourite was responsible for six out of 71 dog attacks in the city, where a breed could be identified – double the number from 2014.

This story sparked a conversation down our local pub (which is home to several ‘jacks’ and is located in the heartland of this little dog) and out of a group of 12, five of us had been bitten by a ‘Jack Russell’ and the story behind these incidents was always the same, ‘wrong type of dog owned by the wrong type of people.’ 

My own experience was particularly horrific. As a kid in North London, Jack Russell’s were the most commonly kept kind of dog. My friends Faye and Kelly each had a Jack Russell. These dogs were completely different to each other. Faye’s was short legged and had a thick wiry coat and beard. Kelly’s was prick eared, smooth coated and longer legged. Their temperaments were also vastly different. Faye’s dog accompanied us everywhere. Kelly’s dog couldn’t be trusted out with us as he wanted to attack every dog he came into contact with. He could only be walked by Kelly’s father.

One morning, during the school summer holidays, there came a frantic knocking at our front door, accompanied by a pitiful wailing. I opened the door to be confronted by a sight I will never forget, Faye and Kelly stood on the step outside, Faye had her hand covering her mouth and blood literally pumped out over her fingers.

Kelly frantically explained that her dog had suddenly ‘and for no reason’ just ‘gone for her’. He had leapt up when Faye had bent down to stroke him and ripped the bottom part of her lip away. The girls had run to my house (as their parents were working) because my mum was a nurse. Luckily my mum was home and immediately realising the severity of the situation rushed her to hospital. Faye had to have reconstructive surgery and was scarred for life.

Even at that young age (14) I knew that neither the dog nor his ‘breed’ was to blame for that terrible incident. This highly energetic, spirited little terrier spent its life either frantically running around a small concrete back yard, or sitting up in the front window barking madly at everything and anyone passing, only occasionally having this monotonous existence broken up with a short night time walk around the block. Nothing was known about the dog’s parentage and he was never socialised or given any opportunity to burn off some of his boundless energy. This happened way back in 1988, and still, all these years later, no lessons seem to have been learned. We still have people with their rose tinted spectacles firmly in place claiming (dangerously in my opinion) that this type of dog can be suitable for everyone.

Positive and negative traits

Thankfully, the clubs that have formed to protect the ‘true working Jack Russell’ are quite open and honest about the breed’s positive and negative traits and the Jack Russell Club of America (which makes a point that it is NOT affiliated with the AKC) and is dedicated to protect the working Jack Russell, has a page that gives a worst case scenario of owning a Jack. It says the points raised have evolved over a number of years and that even many experienced dog owners are overwhelmed by the demands of a Jack Russell leading to many dogs being abandoned even before they reach adulthood.

It wisely states that the JRT are country dogs… when made to live in a city their needs and instincts do not change. It’s a dog that needs to be employed, it will bring you great joy (when they are happy) or great grief (when they are not).

It also adds that they are most definitely not recommended as ‘apartment dogs’ and ‘will not tolerate even unintended mistreatment from a child’.

It is also remarkably open about health problems within the breed – problems that I witnessed in my work in boarding kennels – that include, spinocerebellar ataxia mutation, patella luxation, primary lens luxation and degenerative myelopathy mutation. My Uncle owned a much loved ‘farm-bred Jack’ many years ago who ‘went off his back legs’. The JRTCA website’s openness and frankness, a real warts and all approach, is a lesson to us all. It is patently clear that they love their dogs.

Of course at the root of many of the problems with the JRT (and something we all have in common) is the ‘willy nilly’ breeding of dogs, with no thought to their temperament or how they will fit into the modern day household environment; these dogs aren’t bred to work and a quick buck must be the main motivation for their production and the results can be seen in shelters up and down the country. As the JRTCA wisely states even experienced owners can be overwhelmed by the demands of a Jack Russell and last month dog wardens in Bradford reported that the breed was the most abandoned due to its aggressiveness. And the poor Jack is lumbered with the same identity problems that beleaguers the Staffordshire Bull Terrier… every little white dog with the odd brown patch is called a Jack Russell… when in fact, nine times out of ten the unfortunate ‘jacks’ in the shelters are almost a parody of the real thing.

This is what the JRTCGB should be campaigning against… the smearing of their beloved carefully bred breed by these indiscriminately-bred, temperamentally unsound imposters that masquerade under that hallowed name. Surely following the JRTCA example and educating the public about what constitutes a ‘real’ JRT and the possible pitfalls of owning one (possibly preventing so much human and canine suffering) is far more important than rowing over KC recognition which to me appears all a fuss about nothing. The JRTCGB has its strict registry (of pedigree working JRTs) which they have maintained for over 40 years and I can’t understand how KC recognition could possibly impact on or ‘pollute’ (their term… not mine) any of that if years of mass unregistered backyard breeding hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference.

Read more on Dog World’s website