Terrier fans tell the rest of the story

By Steve Behrens

You probably wouldn’t want one. Not if you knew what they’re like. Leave them alone and they’ll rip your couch, dig up your garden, growl at your kids.

This is the word on Jack Russell terriers, like the zippy, smart little dog that stars in Wishbone on PBS.

Wishbone is so amazingly cute that many children demand a doggie just like him, and thousands of adults want one, too. The upside of this dog is so readily apparent that the greatest admirers of the breed, including the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America, feel obligated to spread the word about the downside.

The problem is much the same with dalmatians — back in the spotlight with the recent Disney movie — and dalmatian lovers were quick to throw cold water on too-eager dalmatian buyers, says terrier club activist Catherine Brown. “The dalmatian people have done a wonderful job of educating the public.”

In the case of Jack Russell terriers, Brown has witnesssed “an incredible growth of misplaced animals” in her role as coordinator of the terrier club’s national Russell Rescue service, which arranges adoptions of abandoned dogs. Instead of a handful of terriers looking for homes, there are 20 at a time.

One puppy was taken back to a New York City pet shop two weeks after being bought by a young woman, says Terri Batzer, administrative director of the terrier club. The buyer, who kept her dog in a cage all day, found that it would bite her ankles when she got home from work.

Brenda Koeppel, who does referrals for Jack Russell breeders, says she’s gotten “countless” calls from parents whose kids demand a dog like Wishbone, or like “Eddie” on NBC’s Frasier. “I’ve made it a point to let people know they’re great dogs — I love them — but they’re not for everyone.”

Fans say the Jack Russell is a big dog in a little body. Compared to today’s pedigreed fox terriers, they’re more like the original hunting dog of a century ago — bred by a foxhunting English parson named Jack Russell to think like foxes and follow them into fox holes.

“They need outside activity,” says Batzer. “They need a fenced yard. They’re not happy in a house or apartment. They will destroy the place if they don’t have something to do.”

“They tend to see themselves as head of the pack if they’re not given training,” says Koeppel. “This isn’t the kind of dog that’s going to put up with being abused [by children].”

Brown says a Jack Russell is a “a very small, prey-focused hunting dog” with a strong will and a need for training. She advises that the dogs “are not good with small children” or with other pets.

Well, that may be an overstatement, in the view of Jackie Captan, the Southern California animal trainer whose backflipping dog, Soccer, plays Wishbone. Captan says she has bred Jack Russell terriers for 12 years and placed many in homes with children.

Not every Jack Russell has the patience to deal with human kids, but a breeder or buyer can learn a lot about a dog’s temperament. “With any breed you’re buying,” Captan suggests, “you have to look at the mother and father.”

But not every human adult has the patience or commitment to serious terrier husbandry to examine the lineage of a prospective pet.

Koeppel discourages the casual dog-shopper. “A couple nights ago,” she remembers, “I got a call from a younger man. He and his wife were recently married and they wanted to have a Jack Russell terrier, but they didn’t want to change their lifestyle. I told them frankly that I didn’t think so. I think I did talk him out of it.”

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