Bred for hunting fox, voles, and farm rodents, the Russell terrier has a small, compact body with short, wiry fur and small, intelligent eyes—all of which help to give him a disarming, thoroughly charming appearance. Under the hood, however, you’ll find an incredibly sharp, cunning little mind that soaks up information like a sponge and comes equipped with an almost single-minded prey drive.
What all of this adds up to is a dog who, for the right owner, can be a marvelous companion. Russells love to run, compete, dig, hunt, and play. Tricks and games will keep them alert and happy. But make no mistake, this is a high-maintenance breed that can very quickly become headstrong, aloof, and destructive if bored or not shown proper guidance.
To see the Russell terrier is to love the Russell terrier. These dogs are universally recognized for their small, inquisitive faces, sharp, bright eyes, and overall friendly demeanor. Their coats come in two varieties: “smooth” or “broken” (scruffier and wire-haired). To refer back to those famous TV Russells, Wishbone was a smooth-haired Russell, while Eddie was broken-haired. Most dogs in the breed are white with some variation of brown, black, or tan spotting.
Russells were bred to be able to go to ground and chase burrowing game, so their bodies are squarish in shape and compact. The hallmark of the breed is their diminutive size, with males and females of the breed being just about equally sized at 10–12 inches tall and 10–15 pounds.
Here’s a question for you: Is the Russell terrier going to be your first dog? Because you do not want the Russell terrier to be your first dog. These little guys have a huge motor and are blessed with brilliant little minds. As a result, they require a deft hand, someone with enough time to keep them occupied and active, and someone who doesn’t mind putting in the time and effort to train them—something that will need to be an unending, lifetime activity. For as enjoyable and fun as the Russell terrier can be, these are high-maintenance little dogs.
“They’re wired up for activity,” says Dennis Riordan, DVM, of Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. “They are hyper. They are the definition of a terrier. I always say, ‘I like them, but I‘d never have one.’”
For starters, digging is an ingrained part of their personalities. It’s not merely a bad behavior that can easily be trained out of them; it’s who they are. Bred to hunt burrowing rodents, going to ground is second nature to these little guys. As such, you can expect lots of help tilling your garden. This is also the behavior a bored Russell will revert to most often if left unattended for too long.
The one thing you can (and clearly should) train them to do is not treat your couch like a flower bed. These little fellows will start to dig in cushions and rugs if they get bored indoors, but can fairly easily be trained to understand that couches are not for digging.
Additionally, a high amount of energy plus a lot of smarts equals a dog who can and will get bored exceptionally easily. Which is why they thrive best in households where they can have a job. They are enthusiastic hunters and runners but are also very adept at agility, obedience, flyball, and rally competitions—though sometimes with mixed results.
For puppies, training can and should start extremely early. Russells are bright enough to start soaking up instructions as young as eight weeks old. If you wait until six months, you’re going to be dealing with a much more headstrong dog.
Finally, Russells have an incredibly high prey drive. This means that any small critter (cats included) that makes its way into your backyard is going to be on the hit list, and the Russell is cunning and quick enough to catch a lot of them.
You can live with a Russell in an apartment, but you’re going to have to make him a full-time hobby in order to keep him alert and not destructive. Houses with fenced yards are better options and farms are ideal. “They’re very nice farm dogs,” Riordan says. “They burn that energy off.”
Russells are bred to hunt in packs and groups, so houses with other dogs should be fine, though their energy levels won’t mesh well with every personality type. Socialize any current dogs in the household with a Russell terrier to see how they get along before you commit to owning a Russell.
Because of their innate prey drive, cats aren’t good companions for Russells. It’s possible for Russells to overcome their nature if they are acclimated to cats at a very young age and trained properly, but that is very easily the exception and not the rule.
Contrary to what we see in “Frasier,” Russells need more stimulation than most seniors will probably be able (or willing) to provide, but any active adult can enjoy a Russell as long as they have the patience. Households with children are also good because kids can often keep a Russell occupied for long stretches of time. But it’s recommended children be over the age of six or so. The Russell terrier is a pretty easy-going dog, but pulled tails or ears could very quickly result in a nip.
For as intensive as their mental and activity needs are, Russells make up for it by being pretty “set and forget” when it comes to physical care. They are fairly light shedders and the natural oils in their hair don’t tend to hold on to dirt or burs, so a quick brushing maybe twice a week to keep things looking neat is all they should require. Baths are going to be more of an “as needed” kind of chore rather than a regularly scheduled event.
Russell terriers are, by and large, a healthy breed. A quick perusal of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America’s website will show you an intimidating list of ailments that can befall the breed. However, the vast majority of those illnesses are rare occurrences. By and large, the American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends getting your Russell terrier tested for BAER (related to hearing) and having a PLL DNA test (related to the lens of the eye) done as well. Additionally, watch for eye infections. As your dog gets older patellar luxation (loose kneecaps) can occur.
The question on your mind is probably, “So are Russell terriers, Jack Russell terriers, and parson terriers the same dog?” And the answer is an enthusiastic “sort of!” Strap in, because this can get confusing.
So all three dogs are currently considered separate breeds. However, as you might suspect from their names and nearly identical appearances, they share a common history. That history starts with an English reverend (parson) named, wait for it … Jack Russell.
Russell enjoyed fox hunting and was looking to develop a small, agile, intelligent dog who could keep up with fox hunters, but was compact enough to follow a fox into a burrow and flush them back out again. The dog he developed was 10–12 inches tall, white with brown spots, and was blessed with great intelligence and an incredibly strong prey drive.
After Rev. Russell’s death, hunters in hillier regions wanted a dog with similar attributes, but slightly taller, with a longer stride better suited to their terrain. This is where the parson Russell terrier started to be developed. Meanwhile, Rev. Russell’s original breed of dogs made their way down to Australia, where they were developed into the Jack Russell that we know today.
So where does that leave us now? The parson, Russell, and Jack Russell are currently accepted as three different dogs, despite having the same basic shape and coloration. The main differences are in size, and even that can be pretty subtle: Jack Russells top out around 15 inches; parson Russells at about 13, but with a more squarish body; and Russells are the smallest in the group, at about 12 inches tall. Australia and other FCI countries call the Russell terrier Jack Russells, though they will sometimes be colloquially referred to as “shorty JRTs,” due to their smaller stature compared to traditional Aussie Jack Russells. Meanwhile, in the U.S., there is no breed recognized as “Jack Russell terrier” by the AKC, which only lists the parson and Russell terriers. This means that functionally speaking, the Jack Russell and the Russell terriers are the same dog, even though they have different breed standards put forth by different governing bodies.