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Get to Know the Parson Russell Terrier: A Dog of Many Names

Most people know him as the Jack Russell Terrier or even the Russell Terrier. What's the difference? Is there one?

Caroline Coile  |  Sep 14th 2015


First of all, what’s the difference between a Parson Russell Terrier, a Jack Russell Terrier, and a Russell Terrier? You have to understand their history to understand what’s in a name.

Parson Russell Terrier by Shutterstock.

Parson Russell Terrier by Shutterstock.

  • To start with, there was a parson named John (Jack) Russell and a dog named Trump. The parson loved to hunt, and he was always on the lookout for a better hunting terrier. Specifically, he wanted a long-legged terrier who could run with the hound pack and then dispatch the fox once they caught up with it. He found his answer in a female terrier he got from a milkman.
  • He bred a strain of hunting terriers down from Trump. And he considered his dogs a strain, not a breed, meaning that he had no problem with crossing to other breeds or mixes; purity was not his concern, just performance. The parson became a renown dog man and was a prominent dog show judge, but he refused to show any of his own dogs.
  • People referred to his dogs as Jack Russell Terriers. They were long-legged and came in either short or rough coats.
Parson Russell Terrier by Shutterstock.

Parson Russell Terrier by Shutterstock.

  • Short-legged Jacks appeared in the early 1900s, causing a debate over leg length. The short-legged dogs became popular around horse barns, and even today are the more popular type amongst the horsey set.
  • In England, the longer-legged ones were known as Parson Jack Russell Terriers.
  • In the United States, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA) was strongly opposed to AKC recognition. When the AKC did admit the breed, it was recognized as the Jack Russell Terrier.
  • Both long- and short-legged Jacks were called by the same name, although the short-legged ones did not fit the standard of either the JRTCA or the AKC. After several years, the name of the AKC Jack was changed to Parson Russell Terrier to avoid confusion with the short-legged Jacks.
  • The JRTCA still calls their dogs Jack Russell Terriers, and more Jacks are registered with them compared to Parson with the AKC. In fact, the JRTCA is so against registration with the AKC or any other all-breed registry that you can’t join the JRTCA if you register your dog with any of the others, and if you aren’t a JRTCA member, you can’t register your Jack with them or compete in their events. Thus the chasm between the Jack Russell Terrier and the Parson Russell Terrier has continued to grow.
  • The Parson Russell Terrier is the 111th most popular AKC breed, down from 87th five years ago.
Parson Russell Terrier by Shutterstock.

Parson Russell Terrier by Shutterstock.

  • The Parson has competed at the Westminster dog show since 2001, but so far none has yet placed in the Terrier group.
  • The Parson Russell Terrier can be confused with Smooth and Wire Fox Terriers, but the Parson is slightly smaller and has a shorter head. It may also be confused with the Russell Terrier, but the Parson has longer legs.
  • The dog’s love of being around barns and barn animals has earned him the reputation as “the barn dog.”
  • The Jack (but not really Parson) Russell Terrier has appeared in many commercials, and in the TV series Frasier, Wishbone, Rick Stein’s various cooking shows, and in the films My Dog Skip (starring the same father/son pair that played Eddie in Frasier), The Mask, Crimson Tide, Mr. Accident, and Hotel for Dogs. It has also appeared in the book series Jack Russell: Dog Detective. Many of these were the shorter-legged versions. The breed is mischievous, and sometimes too much for average pet owners, but this is exactly the sort of dog who’s easy to train to do all sorts of things.
  • Jack owners include Bette Midler, Audrey Hepburn, Sandra Bullock, Michael Douglas, Sarah Ferguson, Mariah Carey, and Amanda Bearse.

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

Read recent stories by Caroline Coile

About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier