The painting above is by John Emms. a British dog artist whose work chronicled many of the scenes and dogs of the dog fancy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These dogs are not Jack Russell terriers.
Well, allow me to qualify that statement:
In the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a Jack Russell terrier.
There were fox terriers, and the Rev. John Russell (“Jack Russell”) was a sporting parson who rode to hounds in Devon. Foxhunting in the UK is today an illegal and much maligned pastime.
But at the time, it was the most quintessentially English sport. Americans emulated their mother country and imported both foxhounds and foxes*, and the only reason why there are foxes in Australia today is because someone wanted to bring foxhunting Down Under.
It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that foxhunting became a sport of the nobility. Before that, hounds were run on deer, but as the wool industry became more and more important to the country, there became a need to control foxes. Yes, foxes do occasionally take a lamb, but occasionally is far too often.
And deer parks became very expensive to maintain, and it was much economically sensible to turn those forests into agricultural land for growing grain or pasturing sheep. In this environment, deer became scarce, and foxes became numerous.
So if you have this tradition of riding to hounds after deer, why not train the dogs to take on a fox?
And thus began the British tradition of foxhunting began.
Now, foxhunting ends with the hounds killing the fox– at least that’s the tradition. In America, where red foxes have to compete with all sorts of native predators, the numbers have always been fairly low, but on the island of Great Britain, foxes existed in very high numbers. So American hunts usually never end with the dogs killing the fox.
The fox just goes in a den, and the chase is over.
In the traditional British hunt, the foxes goes in a hole, and when the hounds discover it, another dog is brought in to do some dirty work.
This would be the canine equivalent of the ferret– the earth dog
The earth dog’s job is to go into the den where the fox is and make it run out– the traditional term is “bolting.”
When the fox charges out, the hounds either catch it or start running it again.
This is not an efficient way to hunt at all. The best way is to call the foxes in and shoot them, but hunting in this way was meant to be a replacement for hounding deer. In Medieval England, access to these deer forests and the right to keep hounds for hunting was always a right of the nobility. Commoners were given some access to the forests over time, and at different times, these rules were relaxed. However, during the reign of the Hanoverian kings, these laws were quite draconian. Poaching became not only a crime, it became a sort of way of class resistance. The hunts were symbolic of being part of the upper class, and this simple fact is why the Labour Party (the mainstream socialist party in the UK) has always had issues with hunting, especially riding to hounds.
With the fox replacing the deer as the primary quarry, there became a need for the earth dog to help finish the hunt. Deer don’t go to ground. Hounds can cut them off or wear them out pretty easily, but once a fox goes into a den of some sort, the hounds have no chance of catching them.
So the terrier is needed to flush out the fox.
Now, England always had terriers. Their primary purpose was to kill vermin– rat out of the granaries, bolt out badgers, rabbits, foxes, and otters to the gun or into nets or lurchers’ jaws.
They were dogs of the small farmer. Probably the best way to think of these dogs is the general Jack Russell type terriers that aren’t registered today, as well as the Patterdales, borders, and fells. Some of these dogs were dwarfs. Others were wire-haired. Some were smooth. These were commoners’ dogs and were definitely associated with poachers. When deer chasing was the main noble sport, there was no way one of these little dogs would be on a hunt.
But things had changed, but the nobles began to modify these terriers.
Almost none were predominantly white. Red and red sable coloration is very common in these dogs even today, and they had to be common in the early terriers used on fox hunts.
And this presented a problem for the foxhunters:
When a fox is spotted running on the ground, the hunting cry is “tally ho,” and the chase starts again. But if you have a terrier that resembles a fox in anyway, there is a risk that a huntsman might see the terrier, call “tally ho,” and start a false chase.
But if the terrier is mostly white, then there is no way you’re going to mistake this dog for a fox.
Further, a white terrier is by nature that used for hunting foxes on mounted hunts then it is not the dog of a poacher.
And that’s how we got this white hunt terrier, which has since become several breeds.
The original name was “fox terrier.”
In the past hundred years, there are now two kennel club breeds called “fox terriers,” which are the wire fox terrier and the smooth.
These dogs have rather long muzzles, but that is not what they looked like at all when they were being used on mounted hunts.
They looked like the dogs in painting above. We would call them Jack Russells, but what North Americans call a Jack Russell is just this old type of fox terrier.
This is the type of fox terrier that the parson loved, and because this type of fox terrier was used on a regular basis, it retained the old type.
The fox terrier, according to the Rev. John Russell, was a four way cross of farm terrier, beagle, bulldog, and Italian greyhound.
The fact that this type of fox terrier still exists in juxtaposition to the two breeds of fox terrier that are in the kennel club is a really good example of what happens when a dog exists solely for the show ring.
These three breeds are all essentially the same breed, just bred to different standards. The long muzzles, upright shoulders, and stilted gaits of the show fox terriers are quite uncommon in long-legged Jack Russells.
In the show ring, selection pressures for performance can become released, and selection pressures for novelty, even deformity, become more evident.
Both of these breeds of show fox terrier have entirely left their roots.
And that is precisely what got rewarded at Westminster last night. Winning Best in Show last night was a wire fox terrier named GCH Afterall Painting The Sky. This breed has won Best in Show at Westminster 14 times, so it’s not particularly a shocker.
This dog has the typical stilted gait of a wire fox terrier, and she looks nothing like the dogs in the Emms painting.
And if you saw the Emms painting, you’d say they were Jack Russells.
Of course, in the UK, hunt terriers are out of work. Foxhunting as it was once practiced is illegal. They can still be used to rat and control vermin.
They have essentially fallen from their noble rise back into their common roots.
The earth dog as it once existed is largely out of a job, especially in North America where we now coyote chase with hounds and shoot groundhogs. We turned out terriers into treeing dogs, the rat terriers and the feists.
But it’s interesting to me that we celebrate this breed:
It is as English and elitist as anything we can imagine over here. It’s an elitists’ terrier used for an elitists’ sport.
And that’s our show dog of the year.
It tells us that the kennel club system as it exists right now is pretty foreign institution. Most dog people in the country really don’t take it seriously.
And that, I can say, is going to be the thing that saves dogs in this country.
*At one time it was believed that most red foxes in the Eastern US were English red foxes, but a recent genetic study revealed that they are actually native red foxes that wandered down here from Canada.