The Parson Russell Terrier was first bred in the south of England in the mid-1800's to hunt European red fox, both over and under the ground. The Parson Russell ran with horse and hound as the hunt trailed the fox across the Devon countryside. When the hounds drove a fox to ground the terrier followed, baying to bolt his quarry so that the chase could continue.
Everything about the Parson Russell Terrier says foxhunting: conformation, character, attitude and intelligence. He is of balanced and flexible build with straight legs and a narrow chest. He measures ideally between 12" and 14" in height. Coat is broken, dense, straight, harsh and tight so as to give a smooth appearance from a distance. His height gives him the length of leg to follow the fox and hounds, and the narrow chest, flexible frame and tenacity to follow a fox below ground. He is bold though cautious in temperament, an independent, intelligent terrier accustomed to working alone with only his instincts to guide him. Indeed, many a tale has been told of a Parson Russell finding the fox before the hounds could.
The Parson Russell is named for the most renowned of British huntsmen, Rev. John Russell, "The Sporting Parson" (1795-1883), whose passion for foxhunting, hounds and working terriers is legendary. Rev. Russell and his compatriots bred with care uniform terriers measuring 14" in height and 14-17 lbs. in weight. Rev. Russell's own terriers were known to be of a distinct type: white or predominantly white with tan or black and tan markings traditionally confined to the head and base of tail.
Rev. Russell was a founding member of England's Kennel Club in 1873, and in 1874 he judged fox terriers for The Kennel Club. In his day, Rev. Russell was called "The Father of the Wirehaired Fox Terrier", at a time when it was thought that wire coats were a passing fad. Rev. Russell's bloodlines are found in the pedigrees of early smooth fox terriers, for as a breeder of broken coats he often bred to smooth-coated fox terriers to improve coat quality. His bloodlines are also found on both sides of the wire-coated bitch, L'il Foiler, dam of the well known wire champion, Carlisle Tack, said to be indistinguishable from the type terrier bred by Parson Russell.
Foxhunting in the southern part of Great Britain was, and is today, comprised primarily of mounted hunts riding over the fields of the countryside. Terriers working these hunts were required to be baying terriers. Parson Russell demanded that his terriers be "steady from riot", for the hunt ended if the fox did not bolt. In the south, "hard" Russells who tried to kill the fox underground were suspected of carrying undesirable bull terrier blood (hence the brindle disqualification in the standard). In the northwest of England near the Scottish border, foxhunts are not mounted and man and dog follow the fox on foot over rocky terrain. Northern terriers are often expected to be hard dogs who can latch onto their quarry and drag it from the earth as the rocks make it difficult to dig. In the north, hard Russell-type terriers were suspected of carrying Lakeland or fell terrier blood (hence the faulting in the standard of a curly or kinky coat).
The Parson Russell Terrier was, and should remain, a baying terrier whose job is to bolt, not kill, his quarry. This part of the breed's history affects both its correct type and attitude in the show ring today.
After Rev. Russell's death, the name "Jack Russell Terrier" was misused to describe all mix and manner of working and hunt terriers, many of which bore little, if any, similarity to Rev. Russell's own terriers. The mounted style of foxhunting in southern England had been hampered by expanding agricultural practices and the sport became expensive. Those without sufficient land or resource took to fox and badger digging for terrier sport. Terriers were carried to known settes and released down an earth to attack whatever they found, no horses or hounds required. These terriers were more aggressive than intelligent, and needed not the leg, stamina nor common sense of the early Parson Russell. The public came to know a "Jack Russell" only as a game working terrier, regardless of shape or size. Unfortunately, it was this kind of terrier: long-backed, short-legged, prick-eared, frequently achrondroplastic and of questionable temperament, that was imported to America incorrectly bearing the name "Jack Russell Terrier". Rev. Russell and his compatriots would never have recognized these terriers as the Parson Russell or the Fox Terrier, for indeed they are not.
The first breed Standard was drafted in 1904 by Arthur Heinemann, who founded the Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club in 1914. The standard called for a 14" terrier and accurately reflects the original Parson-type terrier. This type terrier was kept alive by sportsmen in southern England and recorded through the years by well-known dog fanciers.
In England in the early 1970's, a 10" to 15" height standard was devised to encompass the myriad of commonly popular post-war breed distortions. The 10" to 15" standard calls for a "balanced" terrier as does the 12" to 14" standard. From a breeder's standpoint, the 10" to 15" standard is impossible to reproduce as a 10" balanced terrier has none of the bone, substance, or stature necessary to satisfy breed function.
The Jack Russell Terrier Association of America (JRTAA), originally the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA), was founded in 1985 to help restore and breed to the original Parson Jack Russell Terrier breed standard. The JRTAA standard was based upon the Heinemann standard and was written to represent the Parson Russell Terrier as a working terrier to red fox and red fox alone. With the specified 12" to 14" standard height range, the JRTAA breed standard defined a terrier that could perform the dual functions required of Rev. Russell's terriers, to both follow the fox both above and below ground.
In January of 1990 the breed was recognized on the 14" standard in England by The Kennel Club as the Parson Jack Russell terrier, a working variant of the fox terrier. The Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain (PJRTC) was composed of working terrier people who felt the breed was seriously endangered by the practices of those who advocated a 10" to 15" standard, and they took the breed to Kennel Club recognition to protect the original standard.
In July of 1997, the Board of Directors of the American Kennel Club unanimously accepted the Jack Russell Terrier into its registry, effective November 1, 1997. On January 1, 1998 the breed became eligible for competition in all AKC events, including conformation participation in the Miscellaneous Class at all-breed shows. The breed was accepted into the AKC Terrier Group on April 1, 2000. On April 1, 2003, the name of the breed was changed from Jack Russell Terrier to Parson Russell Terrier to differentiate the true Parson-type terrier from little generic terriers casually referred to as "Jack Russell". The Jack Russell Terrier Association of America club name was changed to Parson Russell Terrier Association of America (PRTAA). The Breed Standard was revised effective September 29, 2004.