If you’ve ever walked up to someone with an adorable little white terrier on the end of their lead and exclaimed, “Oh, look! It’s a Jack Russell!” only to be informed that the dog was a Parson or a Russell, you know how confusing it can be. The Parson, Jack Russell, and Russell Terrier all bear the name “Russell” in their breed title. They are all predominantly white, and they all share a breed history. So, what’s the difference?
Though to the average eye these three powerhouse terrier breeds may appear the same, there are some distinct differences that separate them into their own unique breed classifications. If you’re already feeling a little confused, you certainly aren’t alone. Even long term breeders and owners of these three terrier types sometimes get befuddled when trying to untangle the web that is the reasoning behind why three different white terriers all bear remarkably similar names.
The Similarities Between the Breeds
When it comes to breed history, the Parson, Jack, and Russell have much in common. The roots of all three breeds can be traced back to 19th century England and the home of the Reverend John “Jack” Russell. Reverend Russell, also known by the name Parson Russell, lived and ministered to a small congregation in Devonshire, England. When not tending to the needs of his church people, Reverend Russell devoted himself to his favorite pursuit—hunting. An avid gamesman with a penchant for hunting red fox, Reverend Russell was keenly interested in developing a dog breed with the tenacity to drive quarry from beneath the earth and the stamina to keep up with his larger hounds and horses on a hunt. In his quest to accomplish this, he began by obtaining white Fox Terriers which he then selectively bred to enhance breed traits which would make the dogs more suited to the work he intended to use them for. Russell’s very first white terrier was a female dog named Trump. It was she who would become the foundation bitch upon which Russell would build his “kennel.”
As Reverend Russell passed on and others continued his lines, the original Reverend Russell white terrier began to undergo changes. Though Reverend Russell’s original intent was a terrier of confident nature, strength, and fiery attitude, he also favored a terrier with slightly longer legs more in keeping with the landscape of his beloved Devonshire. As other owners obtained his stock and relocated to other parts of the world with more varied terrain, the desire for a terrier with slightly shorter legs and of stockier proportions arose, and selective breeding commenced to achieve this result. This purpose-driven breeding would produce a dog of sufficient differences to warrant a new breed classification down the road.
The Differences Between the Breeds
If you were to ask a breeder of Parsons and a breeder of Jack Russells whose dog was the original Reverend Russell breed type, you’d likely end up with quite a fight on your hands. There is little agreement between the two groups when it comes to this issue. To add to the confusion, in 1914, the United Kennel Club’s Arthur Heinemann penned the original “Jack Russell” breed standard in 1904 and also founded what he termed the “Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club” in 1914.
To best understand the breeds and their various differences, it is helpful to examine them one by one:
The Parson Russell Terrier
The Parson Russell Terrier is a working terrier with an intensely high prey drive. Named after the Reverend John Russell, this breed’s handle was derived from its breeder’s occupation and surname thus becoming the Parson Russell Terrier. Characterized by his bold nature and independence, the Parson Russell Terrier was highly prized for his ability to creatively solve problems. Since a large part of the Parson Russell Terrier’s original purpose was to chase quarry seeking refuge in a foxhole back above ground, the Parson’s height and girth were incredibly important to this breed. The ideal Parson should measure at 12-15” at the withers (highest point of the shoulder), possess an easily compressible chest and flexible body, and weigh between 13-17 lbs. The breed standard calls for a dog that is balanced, “square”, and moderate in physical appearance. This breed has gained official breed recognition with the American Kennel Club and is considered a “miscellaneous” breed with the Canadian Kennel Club. It is also an accepted breed in all FCI governed countries. Though still very much a working terrier, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America’s greatest complaint about the Parson Russell Terrier is that it has become a gentrified dog destined for the show ring and has lost touch with its original roots as a canine intended to be a working dog only. Since the name Jack Russell Terrier belonged to the JRTCA and to use it without permission would constitute copyright infringement, the AKC instead chose to coin the new breed title that this dog now bears: the Parson Russell Terrier.
The Jack Russell Terrier
The breed standard for the Jack Russell, as defined by the JRTCA, calls for a dog ideally suited to hunting in every capacity. Interestingly enough, this written standard varies very little from the AKC’s version for the Parson Russell Terrier, leading people to believe that these two breeds are essentially one and the same.
The JRTCA’s standard places a heavy emphasis on the original purpose of the breed as a fox hunting terrier. The Jack Russell Terrier is highly valued for his tenacity and tough nature. According to the JRTCA’s desired specifications, the ideal Jack Russell measures between 10 to 15” at the withers. As with Parsons, the length and height of the dog should be relatively proportional to each other. Other than this one differentiation in allowable heights, the Jack Russell and the Parson Russell are essentially the same dog.
Though the JRTCA was offered the opportunity to gain official breed status with the AKC, they preferred to remain their own entity to allow themselves to focus on the priority of producing and preserving a terrier of superior working ability.
The Russell Terrier
There is no argument from the Russell people; they know and understand their roots. A variant of Reverend Russell’s original breed prototype, the Russell Terrier takes a vastly different shape than either the Parson or the Jack Russell. A dog that is intended to be longer than he is tall, the ideal Russell is rectangular in shape and measures between 10 to 12” at the withers.
Balance is important to the Russell Terrier’s conformation as well. Though also a hunting breed, Russell Terriers were intentionally bred for softer temperaments, making them more ideal family companions than the more energetic and fierce Parson and Jack.
Though the Russell Terrier’s roots do stretch back to Reverend Russell, the breed owes its current incarnation and breed standard to its development in Australia. This beloved, happy breed only recently gained AKC and CKC recognition but has long been recognized in its native England and Australia as well as all FCI countries. Interestingly enough, in all countries but Canada and the United States, the Russell Terrier is known as the Jack Russell Terrier.
What’s the difference between a Parson, a Jack Russell, and a Russell Terrier? Sometimes it feels a little like the dog equivalent of asking, “What came first? The chicken or the egg?” Though there are similarities, there are also differences that make these breeds distinctly different enough to maintain their own breed titles with their various club registration bodies. It’s about as clear as mud, isn’t it?