If you don’t have your own Jack Russell, you know at least one person who does. Typically a short, square, patchy, little dog, Jack Russells are likely the most heavily represented breed in South Africa’s pet scene.
What we know to be a Jack Russell in our country is - on a visual basis at least - fairly removed from the Jack Russell breed that was developed in England in the mid-1800s. Three different breeds share the origins of the Jack Russell, these being the Jacks, the Parson’s Russell and the Fox Terrier, and as such we tend towards labelling any short, robust, predominantly white dog with patches of brown as a Jack Russell, or at least a mix. Longer legs and the presence of black in the coat sees us labelling the dog as a Fox Terrier mix. Visit any shelter page and you’ll find this to be an accurate statement. In truth, the Jack Russell Terrier comes in a variety of coat colours, coat types and length of leg and very rarely will two look the same.
But who is the Jack when he is at home?
For us to understand the needs of the Jack Russell as a pet, we need to look into his history and understand that form follows function and like any breed of dog, we have engineered him to perfectly fulfil a role.
In the Jack Russell’s case, his role was to go underground in pursuit of foxes. For this he needed to be compact, athletic, persistent, vocal, and an excellent digger.
It has been a long time since we’ve needed Jack Russells to go to ground and hunt foxes in South Africa, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the keys to his genetic make-up remain. As such we have pint-sized little terriers who have a deep-rooted desire to hunt, dig and bark. And bark. And bark!
Jack Russells are born with these traits and it is critical that potential owners understand that this little tyke needs a significant amount of input in his life each day. They are not a breed to be left home alone most of the day, unless you want complaints from your neighbours about their barking, or you are happy to have your garden extensively landscaped au Jack. If allowed access to the house while you are out, it is highly likely that you will return to your Jack having hollowed out your sofa in pursuit of, well - nothing, really. Your Jack needs secure fencing and gates, or he will perfect the art of escape. A Jack Russell’s athleticism and tenacity make them absolute masters at climbing, jumping and squeezing themselves through seemingly impossibly small and narrow spaces. Any dog who manages to escape once will never stop trying.
One thing most Jack owners learn early on is that a Jack will do just about anything for a ball or toy; items that move are particularly exciting. While ball play is a great outlet for your Jack’s energy, he may become completely obsessive about it, to the detriment of his mental and physical health. The Jack owner needs to be extremely mindful of not inadvertently developing his keen interest in things that move, into obsession. One only needs to look online for videos of Jacks obsessing over shadows, bubbles, balls and just about anything that moves. The easiest part about owning a Jack is developing their obsession over something and obsession is a very unhealthy place for a dog to be.
Your Jack will proudly present his hunting spoils to you - anything furred, scaled or feathered that moves within his exceptional reach is good for the hunt. Don’t forget about his predilection for the significantly unappealing species like snakes, bees and wasps. He will not learn from his actions and it will never be “just once” that he is bitten, stung or gored.
Jacks are renowned for consuming things - toys, blankets and balls included, and this may cost you dearly down the line when he needs to see the emergency vet to have bits of “indestructible” toys and other items removed from his gut. With their predilection for hunting, snakes are a concern, both being bitten or in the case of the spitting snakes, getting spat in the eyes. Any altercation with a snake warrants a trip to the vet; despite a huge amount of our South African species not being of medical concern, it’s certainly a case of rather safe than sorry.
When introduced to other species at an early age and with the cultivation of desirable inter-species behaviour, your Jack will usually get on with the family cat and perhaps even another resident furry critter quite well. It is critical to not set your dog or your other furries up for failure and all interactions with other species should be heavily micromanaged. If not introduced and coached into coexisting with other species appropriately from an early age, it is highly likely that your Jack will kill or maim any other species that comes into his space. This includes the neighbourhood cats. Likewise a Jack owner should always be mindful of prey species that may be encountered on a walk, such as rabbits and hares. If your Jack becomes overly animated with his nose to the ground and his tail in the air, you’d be best to clip that leash back on.
From a behavioural perspective, Jacks can become extremely possessive of anything they perceive to be a resource, and this can equate to toys, food, comfortable resting spots, and their human’s affection. It is a sight seldom seen that two Jack Russells will happily play together without it turning into a sparring match over a resource. Two Jack Russells together can be an extremely volatile situation that confusingly alternates between virtually sharing each other’s skin, and wanting to remove it.
A Jack Russell has an incredibly powerful bite relative to his overall size and anyone who has inadvertently been nipped by one even in play will bear testimony to this. Being terriers, they are not a soft-mouthed breed, and bite inhibition does not come naturally to them. Teaching them bite inhibition takes time and patience and cannot be achieved with a heavy handed approach.
All this being said: not all Jack Russells are fearless little tykes. The breed is equally represented by nervous, anxious dogs whose fear behaviour can manifest in other ways. In multi-dog environments it often sees this sensitive little beast become the target of aggression from other dogs whether in the multi-dog environment at home, or in any social dog gathering. Jack Russells are frequently the recipients of stitches due to altercations at the dog park, and it’s not because they threw the first punch.
Jack Russells shed fur like nobody’s business, and they do it year-round. If black is your clothing colour of choice or if dog shed is not your scene, consider whether perpetual (read: neverending) white fur will do your head in. While a frequent brush will keep their coats in good condition, it won’t stop the shedding, and it’s ill-advised to clip a Jack Russell due to their fair skin and sun-loving ways.
The Jack Russell is considered a healthy breed overall, though owners should be mindful of things like skin cancer, cataracts, patella luxation and of course trauma-related incidents.
The governing bodies in estates and complexes tend to lean towards small breed dogs and as such the Jack Russell is always high on the list of popular choices. He is a most fabulous companion for the keen and involved owner and there are few better hot water bottles than a Jack Russell under the duvet in the middle of winter. However, your pint-sized buddy has needs beyond a bowl of food, a ball, and a bed and if you live a sedentary lifestyle or one that leads you away from spending an above-average amount of time with your dog, a Jack Russell is an unwise choice.
The shelters in South Africa are filled to the brim with Jack Russells; there are so many homeless Jacks that there isn’t even a breed-specific rescue for them. There are big ones and small ones, short legs and long legs, up ears and down ears, long tails and short tails (docking is illegal btw). You are absolutely guaranteed to encounter at least two Jacks at every single SPCA and shelter in the country, and in most instances their only crime is being exactly what they are supposed to be. Many Jacks end up paying the ultimate price for being the product of their unsuitable environment.
If you have space in your home and heart for these quirky little dogs, please visit your local shelter and offer up a lifeline to the special little breed of awesome.