There are some breeds that don’t really inspire a strong reaction when you meet one, other than a pleasant feeling of, “Oh look, a new dog!” However, other breeds definitely bring about a love or hate reaction in many people, largely because of myths and bad training. For example, most people either love or hate a Rottweiler, depending on their own experience with the breed and whether they’ve heard any horror stories about a badly trained Rottweiler. But some dogs are so frequently mistaken for another breed that they are relatively unknown. Whether you love or hate the feisty Jack Russell Terrier, you may not realize that you could be adopting a Parson Russell Terrier instead.
Depending on how old you are, you may have grown up watching the PBS show “Wishbone”, which might have made you fall in love with a similar spunky little terrier breed called the Jack Russell Terrier. The Parson Russell is an extremely similar cousin of this breed, and many people actually end up adopting the Parson Russell when they meant to get a Jack Russell – and loving their dog anyway. However, many people find this dog’s energy annoying, and avoid them at all costs. In my own experience, I’ve found these dogs to be surprisingly good guard dogs, and the world’s foremost experts on digging holes. That doesn’t mean that I hate the breed – but my preference for larger dogs, and my dislike of holes in my yard, has led me to avoid adopting a Parson Russell myself.
But today I wanted to talk about this little guy, and see if we can’t convince a few readers to give a Parson Russell a chance. After all, every dog deserves a loving home, and Parson Russells are a pretty popular breed despite not being well known – meaning there are a lot of them to go around. So, here’s what I’ve discovered about this breed.
If you consider a breed to only be a true breed based on when the AKC recognizes them, you’re in for a big surprise – the Parson Russell hasn’t been AKC registered for very long! Parson Russells have been around in some form or another since about 1795, making them older than many of the other breeds we’ve reviewed here on the blog. The breed got its start as a hunting dog, mostly hunting foxes.
The reason that they weren’t adopted into the AKC until recently was due to some drama that happened between the Parson Russell Terrier Club of America, and the AKC, when the AKC decided to attempt adopt the breed into the registry. The dog is a working dog, with a strong prey drive to go after foxes, rabbits, and other small mammals.
The Parson Russell is a small dog, known for having a very flexible, lithe body. They are athletic to the core, and very well proportioned with rectangular heads. They tend to be mostly white with tan or black markings, and their coat can come in three varieties: smooth, broken, or rough. However, one thing that all Parson Russells share is that their coat will be weatherproof, a characteristic that was bred into them so that they could hunt in all seasons. Their ears are small and v-shaped, and usually flop over, and the tail is usually held upright. Many breeders will dock the Parson Russell tail, but if it’s left to its natural state, it will be medium in length and carrot-shaped. Parson Russells stand between 10 and 14 inches tall, and only weigh about 13 to 17 pounds as adults. Overall, these dogs look sporty and boyish, with no feature that could really be considered cutesy or beautiful getting in the way of their spunky attitudes.
The Parson Russell personality is where so many people start to fall on either the love ‘em or hate ‘em side. This dog can be summed up by the words curious, energetic, outgoing, and tenacious. Other words that you might use would be confident, alert, and tireless. Yes, this is a dog with absolutely endless energy. If you want a couch potato, this is not the dog for you. A Parson Russell needs hours of exercise or play time every single day, and you ignore this need at your peril. The Parson Russell, maybe more than any other breed out there, will absolutely become destructive and mischievous if not given the exercise he needs.
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But that doesn’t mean they are bad dogs. In fact, if you have a good, firm grip on dog training, the Parson Russell is a very smart, eager-to-please breed. They are known for working in show business and performing in trick competitions specifically because they are easy to train once you find the right tools. Parson Russells are simply very busy dogs who really need an outlet for all that energy. Think of them as perpetual hyperactive toddlers who never take naps, and you’re starting to understand what life with a Parson Russell would be like. They are known for digging and chewing if they get bored, so you’ll want to have a lot of toy options around to keep your Parson Russell busy. An indestructible dog ball, tug o’ war ropes, or a fetch disc will all come in handy to keep your Parson Russell entertained.
The Parson Russell will definitely wander if not well contained, because their instinct is to go hunting. And this breed is known for being totally fearless, so traffic or an underground fence isn’t likely to stop him if he’s on the move. They are definitely independent thinkers, but they prefer to be around their people as much as possible. They really are very friendly, and will love meeting strangers and being the star of the show whenever possible. If you are a single person who entertains a lot, and you’re willing to let your Parson Russell ham it up for guests, you’d get along just fine. In order to keep the hunting instinct satisfied, you’ll probably want to invest in either some plush toys that look like prey, or a toy that lets your dog “hunt” a treat down, like a KONG.
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Most Parson Russells are pretty healthy dogs. Unlike many other breeds out there, the Parson Russell has a very dedicated fan club in the Parson Russell Terrier Club of America (remember, they were the only registry for this breed up till five years ago!), so there are a lot of recorded instances of Parson Russells getting all kinds of illnesses. But this doesn’t mean the breed is unhealthy, it just means that the Club has kept extremely detailed records. Most vets agree that a Parson Russell is not going to be a huge concern when it comes to health.
That being said, a few things that Parson Russells may be at risk for include:
- Progressive retinal atrophy
- Patellar luxation
As always, getting a puppy that has been evaluated for deafness and genetic eye issues should be a top priority when adopting a Parson Russell from a breeder. You should also be sure to have the vet keep an eye on your Parson Russell’s knees, and only feed a Parson Russell the recommended number of calories every day to keep them at a healthy weight (that calorie count includes treats!).
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Grooming and Care
If the Parson Russell needs lots of exercise, they make up for it in part by needing next to no grooming. They need a weekly brushing to keep the dead hairs from shedding, and the occasional bath to keep their coat clean. Otherwise, regular nail trimmings and dental care, as well as a regular check of the ears to remove wax buildup, are all that a Parson Russell needs in grooming. Be sure to stay on top of the nails with this breed – they have strong nails that grow fast because they were bred to dig out fox holes. A good nail clipper or grinder will be an important part of your canine care kit.
Obviously, we’ve already established that this dog needs a ton of exercise. But just what is “a ton”? Honestly, the answer is probably “more than that”. Whatever you are already doing with your Parson Russell, you could be doing more. They are that active. But for people who are considering this breed, the best thing that you can do for this dog is to first, ensure that you can give them at least an hour every day of active, hard play. A casual walk is not going to cut it; you need to play fetch, wrestle, or go to a place where they can run and dig to their heart’s content.
Next, get this dog involved in something that directs his energy. Whether that means canine competitions, lure coursing, show business, or just learning a lot of tricks, the Parson Russell needs some sort of job to do. And regardless of whether you give them a job and lots of exercise, be prepared for them still digging around and chasing vermin in your yard. It’s just what they do.
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Kids and Other Pets
Parson Russells are usually great pets for older kids, but they aren’t going to be very patient with a young child who will pull at their tail or handle them roughly. Once your child is old enough to understand how to treat a dog, though, pairing them with a Parson Russell is a great idea – especially if your child is also super active. They can wear each other out!
With other dogs, a Parson Russell can be a good companion. You’ll have to keep a close eye on them to make sure they aren’t becoming a bully. But firm training will ensure a happy pack. Unfortunately, the Parson Russell Terrier is probably not a great companion for any other pet. They are too likely to see a cat, rabbit, bird, gerbil, or anything else as prey.
Is a Parson Russell Terrier Right for You?
The best type of owner for a Parson Russell Terrier is either a person or a family that is very outdoorsy and active. If your idea of a great time is a long hike, an adrenaline-soaked obstacle course, or a road trip filled with tons of stops to explore a bunch of campgrounds and natural attractions, then you would likely be a good match for a Parson Russell Terrier. If you would rather be playing football in the yard with your rowdy cousins on Thanksgiving instead of watching the parade on the TV, you are the type of person that would get along with a Parson Russell. But if you are a novice dog owner who isn’t quite sure how to train a dog, beware. Although you can learn, especially if you’re willing to hire a professional trainer, the Parson Russell will definitely put you to the test. You may be better off starting with a less feisty breed. Additionally, if you are someone who has to leave your dog alone for long work hours, a Parson Russell may not be the best breed for you.
The Final Word
While this dog can be a nightmare for some owners, others find them to be the most playful and fun companion they’ve ever had. It all comes down to how much time and energy you have to invest in your dog. Parson Russells can be fantastic family pets for the right family, or they can be little menaces in the wrong hands. But don’t let their annoying reputation scare you away. As with many other breeds, the big problem here is the people, not the dog.
Personally, I’ve met Parson Russells that fall on both sides of the fence, and while small dogs aren’t for me, I wouldn’t shy away from this breed if I was in the market for a fun little companion. They also make great guard dogs for apartments because they aren’t afraid to let you know that someone is around – in fact, they aren’t afraid of anything, really. I think that all this dog needs is a chance!