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March 5, 2014

Many Of Us Horse People Share An Affliction Called Jack Russells

Photo by Sara Lieser

Until about 10 years ago, our family always had dogs of proper size (at least knee-high) that displayed normal behavior. The Jack Russell terror in our house started with a phone call from friends who were at a terrier trial and saw these "adorable puppies" just desperate for a good home. At the time, neither my husband nor I had a clue about terrier trials or the fact that a Jack Russell is never desperate for anything.

With a lot of encouragement from people who were really just looking for partners in crime, we agreed to look at the puppy. It was a female, about fist size. She looked harmless enough and, like all puppies, was irresistible. She moved in and immediately took over operations.

We named her Digger, and that stopped her from ever digging for anything. Instead, she concentrated on climbing trees. Her great passion in life was squirrels, and in pursuit of her prey she would hurl herself into the trees and tear up the branches in complete oblivion to the fact that this was not a dog thing to do.

If she ever downed a squirrel, I'm sure it was from a heart attack, since the creatures certainly never expected the dog to follow them up the tree.

We were forever approached by visitors who would hesitantly ask us if we thought there was a dog in the big tree out front? We would once again drag out the ladder and get Digger down while the people sighed in relief—relief that they weren't crazy.

As sweet as Digger was, she was heavily into revenge. She hated being left home alone, and she gnawed a plum-sized hole in the center of the linoleum kitchen floor the first time we abandoned her for an hour. I didn't mind the hole so much as the location. The whole floor had to be replaced.

A while later, when we thought she was grown up and could be trusted alone in the house, I arrived home to find a puddle in the middle of the dining table. While checking for a leak in the ceiling and finding none, it suddenly dawned on me what had happened. She would have paid dearly, except I could not find her anywhere until I had stopped laughing at her nerve.

Don't think for a minute that a Jack doesn't know exactly what it is doing and why. They are truly scary.

One weekend, my mother informed me that she "had a surprise for me." Strange things happen when Mother visits, and I sure was surprised when she showed up with another Jack Russell puppy. It was a present from my groom, who got a puppy for Christmas from us two years earlier. Payback is a bitch, but in this case it was a dog, and we named him Chipper.

Chipper had eyes just like Lady in Lady And The Tramp—big, brown, and sparkling—and Digger tolerated him, although she found his fascination with fetching balls, sticks and anything people would throw a bit much. When we lost Digger to sudden heart failure, I thought a breather from Jacks would be nice, but then our borrowed live-in kid wanted a puppy, and the circus was on again.

At a show in Tampa, Fla., I found Scooter. He was the opposite of the ugly duckling. As a puppy he was adorable, and every day he matured to become more splay-footed, cross-eyed and long-backed. His final shape is odd, to say the least, but Mother Nature tries to keep things in balance, and Scooter is one of the smartest dogs I have ever met.

He is a hunter to the core. Left to his own devices, he will use the dawn's early light to pile up half a dozen rats, who find themselves dead before they even wake up in the morning. He never barks, just strikes and kills without a sound—and goes on to the next victim.

Chipper loved to torture Scooter when he was a puppy. He would keep him at bay by growling and snapping and generally demonstrating who was in charge at every opportunity. One day, Scooter, now much heavier and certainly twice the length of Chipper, decided he'd had enough. He promptly bit Chipper's ear off. As my husband dove for the half ear to rescue it, Scooter looked him squarely in the eye and swallowed hard. All gone!

After repeated fights, both dogs were neutered, a feature that only slightly tempered their urge to kill each other but in no way got rid of their basic aggressiveness. Both of them will stand up to a dog of any size at the drop of a hat. I think the breed is missing the gene that helps evaluate size, because it's hard to imagine that every Jack Russell was born with a Napoleonic complex.

Recently, we hosted a regional championship Jack Russell trials, complete with agility, go-to-ground, races, conformation and some other classes. A glaring omission in the prize list was a class for obedience—what a surprise! The Jacks are the nightmare of every dog school instructor, and perhaps the accepted fact that they "don't train well" is one of the reasons for the popularity they enjoy with horse people.

After all, when you spend all day schooling horses, you have little energy left to train the dog. If the dog is known to be virtually untrainable, you can shrug, sigh, and apologize for your unruly dog while feeling confident that everyone understands that things are beyond your control.

One positive feature is the "easy handling," which allows you to carry, transport, wash and hide in hotel rooms this little dog, which will wake up the whole hotel with his sharp barking if the spirit moves him.

The Jacks always stray where they aren't supposed to be at horse shows, but they rarely get into trouble, although you do. They have a sixth sense about horses and appear to know from birth how to avoid being flattened by their hooves, even while in hot pursuit of game.

A good hunting Jack—which is 99 percent of them—is far better than a cat as a deterrent for rats, since they waste no time playing games. They just carry on like little killing machines, displaying the most ardent bloodthirst and pure joy in hunting. They may look sweet and innocent curled up on the couch, but you can see your little pooch get up, stretch, yawn, and say to himself, "Well, I think I'll go kill something."

A few years ago, I ran into a man at Dressage at Devon (Pa.) who was posted next to a cage with four Jack Russell puppies. All our relatives and friends had at least one by then, so I wasn't interested, but I had a German girl with me who went all aflame and ran to call her parents about the possibilities of becoming owned by a Jack Russell.

While she was away, the man with the puppies asked me, "Don't you want a puppy?"

"Absolutely not," I said, "I can't stand them."

The man hesitated, then he leaned closer to me and whispered, "Neither can I. These belong to my wife."

We then commiserated about the horrors of the breed until we ran out of breath. "So," he asked when we were finally through, "how many Jacks do you have?"

I reluctantly admitted to two. He also had two, in addition to the puppies. We each confessed we probably would always have at least one around.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Because," said the man, "all other dogs bore me."

This article originally ran in The Chronicle of the Horse magazine on Dec. 11, 1998, and has been a favorite on the website since 2006.

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