MAMMAL

Jack Russell Terrier

canis familiaris

What is a Jack Russell terrier? It’s a big question and a small dog. Smallness is itself only a small part of the answer, which also requires links to British bloodlines (quite!) and thus to God (cf. below), as well as the ability to make baying noises when and only when a red and only a red fox is in sight!

On April 1, 2003, the American Kennel Club did something highly unusual: it changed a breed name. Officially “Jack Russell” is now “Parson Russell,” in keeping with the international standard set by the dog’s country of origin, the UK. The name “Jack Russell” will henceforth no longer exist in American breeding circles because it is no longer considered a breed, but an umbrella term spanning a cesspool of terrier miscegenation. What does this mean?––The true Jack is the Parson and the other Jacks, well they’re just crap.

In theory, one can no longer pronounce Jackish-looking terriers to be Jack Russells, not unless you want to offend someone who has higher social aspirations for their canine. You can’t bandy about the term Parson Russell either, because if you’re wrong then you piss off purebred owners by defiling the nomenclature expressly reserved for the more aristocratic Jack cousin, who is really more of a John than a Jack in the following classy, and ever-so-Gosford Parky ways:

It is a fine, drizzling day circa 1870, and the Reverend Parson John Russell examines his terriers before setting off on yet another fox hunt in the English countryside. Such a splendid group! All reveal a proper balance at the withers (12”-14”); a clean silhouette, the flexible chest required to go underground and find the fox; a tail bobbed to work as a fox-fetching handle; a moderate tuck-up in the top-line; something-or-other “pastems” and etcetera. In short, each dog entire is a perfect specimen of the classic working terrier. And why wouldn’t it be? the Rev asks himself. For I bred these John Russell terriers my very own self, when I should have been reading the Bible and scolding people for having sex on Wednesdays!

Little did JR know the blasphemy awaiting his chosen terriers and his name. Once the famed “Sporting Parson” died, people began Jack Russelling willy-nilly, expediently lumping all kinds of working terriers together. (Too fat/stupid/cowardly to make it into a fox tunnel? No matter! You’re on for the hunt!) In this way, many very ugly, vulgar, and downright inappropriate deviants got involved in fox hunting whether they bayed politely or bit off the foxes’ heads like the godforsaken mutts that they were. What became of these distorted half-breeds? Why, shipped off to the US of course, a breeder’s prick-eared, short-legged, bull-headed nightmare.

No more mongrels! we say. Only those worthy of Parson JR’s blessing may be pedigreed and dog-owners who think they have purebred JRs (i.e., PRs) had best double-check. Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Greece, and Italy are also on for pure Parson preservation and have PRT’d their terrier clubs in accordance with the peppery Brits. Jolly good. But in a wildly surprising move the French have given the UK the finger and are mixing with abandon, declaring JT and PT to be two varieties of the same breed (“Terrier du Reverend Jack Russell”) with no difference—pas de différence—in their gene pools. Equally strange is Australia’s “no worries” embrace of those common JRTs that are a bit rougher around the edges or maybe a touch too violent for PRT classification. Australia is the only country thus far to recognize both the PRT and the JRT as distinct breeds.

So how can you tell? Short and stumpy is out. Too tall is also wrong. If it’s more Williamsburg than Park Slope, or a tad, um Australianish it’s probably a Jack, ergo a “nothing” on American soil. For more accuracy, request the Standard from the PRTAA (www.jrtaa.org), or just look at the owner…

But but but: will the name change catch on? Probably not. The Russian Wolf hound made its official US switch to Borzoi in 1936 and some people still refer to it as “Creepy Unctuous Swan Dog” as it floats imperiously past their building, giving them the hairy frosty-blue inbred eyeball.

—Amanda Gersh

Amanda Gersh is a fiction writer. She lives in Brooklyn.

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