Jack Russell Groups in Dogfight Over Standards

You'd think making it into the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show would be a coup and an honor for the Jack Russell terrier. But that depends on whom you talk to.

The Jack Russell Terrier Association of America (JRTAA) is delighted. In fact, it's their Jack Russells who will make their debut at New York's Madison Square Garden this month. But the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA) will not be popping any champagne corks that day. On the contrary, the JRTCA views the American Kennel Club's (AKC) legitimization of the Jack Russell as a threat to the survival of the breed as they know it.

"Our club was founded back in 1976, among other reasons, to keep kennel club recognition from happening to the Jack Russell," says JRTCA board chairman Glen Churchfield of Lancaster, Ohio.

"Kennel clubs have a couple of functions, one of which is to standardize a breed for appearance, size and shape. Our objective is behavior, to keep the Jack Russell a working terrier. So kennel clubs have the wrong objectives for us." And, he adds, "We have 8,000 members who feel the same way."

Controversy Started in 1985

The controversy began brewing in 1985 with the establishment of the Jack Russell Terrier Breeder's Association, whose members soon became eager to have the terrier registered. After structuring its services and activities to become compliant with AKC standards, the group changed its name in 1997 to the JRTAA. It was accepted into the AKC's registry that same year.

AKC acceptance was "inevitable," Churchfield concedes. "There's always a lot of enthusiasm for kennel club shows among dog fanciers who like to get into a ring and show a dog," he says. "And any new breed in the AKC means revenue and popularity."

The terrier familiar to TV audiences as Eddie on "Frasier" was named after the Rev. John Russell (1795-1883), an English vicar and avid huntsman who bred his dogs from a specific strain of fox terriers for the express purpose of flushing foxes from their holes during a hunt – an impossible task for fox hounds, whose size prohibits access to foxholes.
"In the English hunt, when the fox went into a hole, the terrier man would be summoned," Churchfield explains. "He'd come along and drop the terrier, who would go into the hole and flush the fox."

Size Specifications Are At Issue

In fact, it is disagreement over the vicar's size specifications for his namesake that spells the main difference between the JRTCA and JRTAA. The JRTAA maintains AKC registration was essential because the terrier's name has been "misused to describe all mix and manner of working and hunt terriers, many of which bear little similarity to Russell's own terriers."

The JRTCA insists recognition "by any all-breed registry … will be detrimental to the preservation of the Jack Russell as the sound, intelligent strain of working terrier it has been for more than 100 years."

The primary concern of Ailsa Crawford, JRTCA's founder and president emeritus who brought the first Jack Russells to this country from England nearly 40 years ago, is that AKC-imposed breeding standards will bring about undesirable changes.

"I've spent 30 years of my life trying to prevent this," says Crawford, who lives in Far Hills, N.J., where she owned and operated one of the first Jack Russell kennels in the U.S., from 1960-1977. "(The AKC has) ruined every breed. They're just interested in the money end of it, and it's a shame."

Fox Terrier Cited As Example

Churchfield cites the fox terrier as an example of how breeding according to AKC standards can change a dog.

"Back in the '20s or '30s, (the AKC) accepted the fox terrier. At the time, that WAS the Jack Russell," he says, explaining that the fox terrier resembled the Jack Russell in every way, from appearance, size and conformation to its comportment in the field.

"Today, the fox terrier isn't recognizable," he says. "They're much larger, and built so they couldn't possibly do the job. Today's fox terrier can't even fit into a foxhole."

Don't count on one of these clubs disappearing any time soon. If the AKC-sanctioned group continues to breed according to the kennel club's standards, Churchfield predicts, "then there will be two kinds of Jack Russell."