Parson Russell Terrier

Peter Richards
Peter Richards (BVSc, MRCVS)
 
Photo of adult Parson Russell Terrier

The Parson Russell Terrier shares much of its history with the Jack Russell Terrier. The original breed was created by the John “Jack” Russell, a clergyman in Devon who wanted a hunting companion. His tenacious breed was adopted by foxhunts who used them to flush foxes from warrens or burrows. The divergence of the Parson Russell Terrier from the Jack Russell came from a need for hunting dogs with longer legs which were better suited to rough terrain.

Parson Russells are playful and extremely active dogs who love nothing better than an active lifestyle full of new places to explore. They have a strong prey drive, which can make them unsuitable to keep with other species, however, a well socialised terrier will happily play with children and other dogs. Parson Russells are most suited to country life although it is possible to keep them in apartments if they’re provided with enough physical and mental stimulation.

About & History

The Parson Russell terrier is a close relative of the Jack Russell Terrier with which it has a shared history. In 1815, the Reverend John “Jack” Russell was a 20-year-old on the cusp of his career. Aside from theology, his great passion was hunting, so he was always on the look-out for hunting dogs. The story goes that while out walking by the river Cherwell he came across a terrier who was so perfect that the Reverend felt he had to have her. After bargaining with her owner, Rev. Russell finally took the terrier bitch, called Trump, home with him. Trump was to be the basis for the new breed that Russell created. These terriers were bred for endurance. They had to be able to keep up with the horses and hounds of a foxhunt. They also had to be small enough to fit down a hole when the fox “went to ground” and determined enough to flush the fox out alive so the hunt could continue. Rev. Russell was more concerned with performance than appearance so the emergence of the Parson Russell Terrier as a distinct breed was left to future generations.

Following the death of Rev. Russell, the original terrier began to diverge into two separate breeds, the Jack Russell Terrier and the Parson Russell Terrier. Hunts that ran over hillier terrain required a dog with longer legs to keep up with the hounds over rough ground. Those with shorter legs were kept at home as rat-catchers, watchdogs and companion animals. The longer legged type became Parson Russell Terriers, whilst the shorter legged variety continued as the Jack Russell Terrier.

Official recognition of the breed by Kennel Clubs worldwide was a slow process. Due to the amount of variety and crossbreeding, Kennel Clubs refused to recognise the breed as it was difficult to establish a breed standard that would cover them all. In the 1980s, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain split between those who sought to create a breed standard and those who disregarded appearance in favour of temperament and working ability. In 1990, the Parson Russell Terrier was recognised as a variant of the Fox Terrier. However, this recognition lumped the longer-legged Parson along with their shorter-legged cousins. It was not until later that the Parson Russell Terrier and the Jack Russell Terrier were recognised as separate breeds, although there is still some debate and controversy around breed standards and classification!

Appearance

Parson Russell Terrier Large Photo

The Parson Russell Terrier is a small but strong dog. They have longer legs than Jack Russell Terriers, such that they are as tall as they are long. A male Parson Russell should be about 36cm tall at the withers, while bitches are slightly smaller at 33cm. The body is squarely built with a wide chest for its size. Two hands should span the width of the chest when the thumbs are placed at the withers. They have wedge shaped heads with a black nose and dark eyes. Their triangular ears hand down with the tip level with the eyes.

The coat is flat and dense. Any curls or waves exclude an individual from the breed. There are two types of coat: smooth and broken. Both have coarse hairs but the broken coat type tends to be slightly longer. As a result, Parson Russells with broken coats can have more prominent eyebrows and beards. The colour should be mainly white with markings of:

  • Tan
  • Lemon
  • Black
  • Any combination of those three colours

Character & Temperament

Like other terrier breeds, Parson Russell Terriers have strong personalities. A well-trained and socialised Parson Russell is playful, confident and full of energy. They get on well with other dogs and children, but you may want to supervise younger children. Whilst they love to play with children, they do so on their own terms and don’t appreciate rough handling. If a terrier doesn’t like what’s going on and feels it can’t escape, they can nip or bite.

They are intelligent dogs who love to spend their time exploring or engaging in other activities that fulfil their need for physical and mental stimulation.

Trainability

Photo of Parson Russell Terrier puppy

Parson Russells are intelligent dogs that lend themselves well to training. However, if you don’t make their training sessions interesting or provide enough positive reinforcement, this intelligence will manifest as stubbornness. As always, positive reinforcement is a far better tool for training your dog than verbal or physical discipline, but this is especially important with a terrier.

A terrier who feels threatened or becomes fearful is more likely to respond by snapping or biting. Proper socialisation at an early age is also important to ensure that a Parson Russell learns to get on well with other dogs and children.

Health

The Parson Russell Terrier is generally a healthy breed that can live between 14 and 15 years, however, they are prone to some eye and joint conditions.

  • Primary Lens Luxation – Lens luxation occurs when the fibres that hold the lens in place disintegrate or weaken. This allows the lens to displace within the eye. As well as affecting the vision, the lens can move and obstruct the drainage of fluid from the eye. If left uncorrected, the eye can develop glaucoma, a painful condition caused by excessive fluid and pressure in the eye. Glaucoma can lead to blindness if left untreated. A genetic test is available to identify carriers and affected individuals.
  • Heritable Ataxia – Ataxia describes any condition that affects the gait or balance of an animal. Some lines of Parson Russells are affected by a heritable ataxia that develops between 2-9 months. The development of the disease varies between individuals with some only mildly affected while others struggle to take a few steps before falling. Although the disease is not considered lethal, it may develop to a degree where euthanasia on welfare grounds is an option. No single gene has been identified as the cause, so no reliable test is yet available.
  • Congenital Deafness – Some terriers may be born deaf so if your terrier puppy isn’t responding to sound or commands, there may be an underlying cause. Any loss of hearing should be differentiated from ear infections and other causes by a vet. Although there is no treatment for congenital deafness, a deaf terrier can still be trained and live a relatively normal life.
  • Patella Luxation – As with other small breeds of dogs, the Parson Russell is prone to patella luxation. Normally, the patella (kneecap) is positioned between two ridges on the femur and forms part of the knee joint. If the knee joint is misaligned, the patella can slip out of these two ridges and cause pain or an abnormal gait. The severity of the condition varies but more severe cases will require surgery to correct them. Even in milder cases, arthritis is likely to develop in the affected knee joint.

Exercise and Activity Levels

A Parson Russell’s idea of a good time is energetically tearing around woodland, making sure that they sniff everything in sight. They are playful dogs who love an active lifestyle. While it’s possible to keep them in apartments, you’ll need to take time out to take them for a long, interesting walk or undertake some other mentally stimulating activity. As with other working breeds, if a Parson Russell is left for long alone they will get bored and might turn their paws to destruction.

If you have a garden, make sure it’s well fenced, as a curious Parson Russell will dig their way out to explore and make their own fun.

Grooming

Parson Russells have a coat that is easy to care for. However, they are prolific hair shedders, so a weekly brushing session is recommended to keep everything under control. They have fast-growing nails, which will need trimming if their exercise regime isn’t keeping them down. Equally, their ears should be checked regularly to keep tabs on the build-up of wax which can predispose to infections.

Famous Parson Russell Terriers

While the Parson Russell Terrier is often eclipsed by their short-legged cousins the Jack Russells, the most famous example of the breed is Trump, the matriarch. She was immortalised in a painting which, on the Parson’s death, was bought by King Edward VII. The painting still hangs at Sandringham house, the monarch’s private residence in Norfolk.

There are also a slew of quasi-famous Parson Russell Terriers on Instagram.

Cross-Breeds

While there are no Parson Russell Terrier cross-breeds, the more popular and well-known Jack Russell Terrier has been used to produce several cross-breeds.

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