The Parson Russell Terrier descends from dogs developed in Devonshire, England, in the early 1800’s. In 1819, a young John (Jack) Russell was wandering the Oxford University campus shortly before he was to sit for an examination for which he apparently was ill-prepared. He came across a milkman accompanied by an unusual, but adorable, terrier bitch. Russell found her so delightful that he bought her on the spot and named her “Trump.” Trump became the foundation for the Jack Russell Terrier and the Parson Russell Terrier breeds. Based upon her appearance (which was similar to a Wire Fox Terrier but with shorter legs and a wider skull), Trump is thought to have been a cross between a Black-and-Tan Terrier and a Fox Terrier.
After Mr. Russell graduated from Oxford, he bred Trump to create a terrier with legs long enough to keep up with his hunting foxhounds, a chest narrow enough to permit entry into a fox’s den, strength sufficient to keep a fox at bay, and a temperament that was fiery but focused. He deliberately avoided introducing so-called “killer blood,” because he wanted his terriers to set the fox running above ground, rather than kill it below ground and ruin the chase. He bred for consistency in temperament, not especially for consistency in looks. It is thought that he introduced Fox Terriers, Beagles and perhaps the now-extinct Old English White Terrier into the mix. Parsons terriers were also distinctive because they were primarily white, with minimal tan and/or black markings mainly on the head and rump. The Parson Russell Terrier mirrors Russell’s distinctive stock.
After Mr. Russell’s death, his dogs and their descendants became hugely popular with sportsmen and apparently were crossed with Dachshunds, Corgis and assorted toys and terriers, causing considerable variation in size, shape and type. These Jack Russell Terriers were often seen with short legs, long bodies and big chests. This variability in height and overall size made the breed ineligible for acceptance by The Kennel Club (England), despite being one of the most popular breeds in the British Isles. Breed enthusiasts formed their own Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain in 1974 and organized their own competitive shows.
In the early 1980s, that club split in two: those who wanted to fix an objective standard for their terriers, and those who gave priority to temperament and working abilities without strict regard to physical “type.” The first group split off and formed the Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club for purposes of promoting the true terrier type developed by Mr. Russell. They developed their own breed standard and were granted recognition by The Kennel Club in 1989.
In 1997, the Parson Jack Russell Terrier was accepted by the American Kennel Club as a member of the Terrier Group. In 2003, the breed name was officially changed to the Parson Russell Terrier, to distinguish it from the Jack Russell Terrier, which is not recognized by the American Kennel Club. The Parson Jack Russell is longer-legged and more squarely built than the shorter-legged, slightly longer-bodied and less conformationally consistent Jack Russell Terrier.
The Parson Russell Terrier is still widely use with foxhounds in England and is popular worldwide, as is its close relative, the Jack Russell Terrier. Despite being more uniform in type than the Jack Russell Terrier, the Parson retains the clever, courageous and single-minded disposition so common among Jack Russells. It is often seen in stables and in obedience and agility competition. It has become an overwhelmingly affectionate family companion as well, although as a high-energy terrier, it is not a dog for everyone.
The average life span of the Parson Russell Terrier is 13 to 15 years. Breed health concerns may include cataracts, cerebellar ataxia, congenital deafness, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, lens luxation, myasthenia gravis, patellar luxation and von Willebrand disease.