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Interpreting the Breed Standard

Interpreting the Russell Terrier Breed Standard
Part 1: Blueprint or Impressionism?

Candace S. Lundin, DVM, MS

The Russell Terrier (known as a Jack Russell Terrier in FCI) is a somewhat newly recognized breed for the AKC (full recognition mid 2012), despite the Jack Russell Terrier’s (JRT) long-time familiarity to much of the public. Because this small terrier has existed in many shapes and sizes for a couple of hundred years in the UK and probably since the 1950s in the US before it was ever considered a pure-breed, everyone seems to have a picture ingrained in their own mind as to what a JRT should look like. That picture is often based on what each remembers seeing as a child.  So, some think of a leggier, lighter-weight, nearly all-white terrier; others think of a short-legged, heavy muscled, “puddin” style dog with a good amount of spotting; and then we have everything in-between. 

These disparate views of what constitutes a Jack Russell Terrier has carried through to modern day, and these different types of JRT can be found in many of our current pedigrees.  The existence of various types in the ancestry of our current Russell Terriers commonly results in inconsistency in litters, in what we see in the show ring, and in what judges choose to place.  But we now have a breed standard, based on the JRT breed standard first written in 1983 by the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Australia and then approved in 1991 by the Australian National Kennel Council, and later by FCI (International Canine Federation) in 2003, and so shouldn’t we have solved our problem with what general type constitutes a Russell Terrier? 


The Fancy likes to say that a breed standard is a blueprint for a breed. Percy Roberts, long respected judge, wrote “A breed standard is the blueprint. The breeder is the builder, and the judge is the building inspector”.  No disrespect to Judge Roberts, but my father was a builder and we always had several blueprints laying around the house.  They were mathematical, engineering diagrams. None ever stated that the length of one wall should be moderately longer than the height of another wall (a common description in breed standards).  If our breed standards were as specific as a blueprint, we could do a computer generation of the ideal Russell Terrier, and everyone would easily agree on correct breed type.  So, I do not think our standards are blueprints for our breeds.  Rather they describe an impressionist 3D artwork of our breed perhaps, or they provide concepts to consider in deriving breed type.  This means that there is a fair amount open to interpretation by breeders and judges alike. So, the purpose of this article is not to simply recite the breed standard but to suggest how to interpret key parts of it.  Of course, it is my opinion, as an experienced single-breed breeder, who has studied this breed in depth. The reader is asked to consider my view, but everyone will need to interpret the standard for themselves, hopefully keeping the best interests of the breed in mind.  


Quotes from the AKC breed standard of the Russell Terrier have been grouped into categories for ease of discussion.



The Russell Terrier is strong, active, lithe…

Substance… neither too coarse nor too refined.

            …sturdily built…with smooth muscle transitions…

            …clean, strong neck…

            …moderately well boned.

            …loins are short, strong, and well-muscled.

Hindquarters are muscular and strong.

           …weight proportionate to height.

What is lithe? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as “flexible, supple”.  When the standard was first drafted in Australia, club members in Queensland said that it was meant to mean “slimly built”, but those in New South Wales said “bending, readily pliant, limber, supple”. When I look at photos of many of the early JRTs in Australia, few were “slimly built”. (Fig 1).  My interpretation of “strong, active, lithe” is that it should be a strong, sturdy dog that retains its flexibility and is supple enough to enter a fox hole and turn around in it.  

The 10- to 12-inch JRT (called the Russell Terrier in AKC) was developed separately from the Parson Russell Terrier (PRT), and so it is not just a smaller version.  The JRT was developed in Australia, the Parson Russell in the UK.  It is actually the Parson Russell Terrier that is most closely aligned with the type of terriers that Rev. John Russell had, and not the kennel club recognized JRT.

The AKC Russell Terrier, developed as the Jack Russell Terrier in Australia, has a type that is different from the Parson Russell Terrier.  I can not say it enough; it is not a height variety of the Parson. Both standards call for balanced dogs, but the Russell Terrier standard uses the terms: sturdily built; strong is used as an adjective several times; and moderately well boned.  On the other hand, the Border Terrier standard talks about it being “rather narrow in shoulder, body, and quarter,” although it does state “medium bone, strongly put together”. Both the PRT and Border Terrier call the bone medium, whereas the Russell Terrier uses the term moderate. I interpret it as a difference.  For me, the Russell Terrier should be an overall heavier-built dog than the PRT or Border Terrier, while still being of a size to go-to-ground.



Length: Height

       …body of moderate length and rectangular profile.

      The body is proportioned marginally longer than tall, the silhouette representing a distinct rectangle when measured from the point of shoulder to point of buttocks than from the withers to the ground.

       …measuring slightly longer from the withers to the root of the tail than from the withers to the ground.


Overall presentation is a compact, harmonious, rectangular silhouette.


This is the area of the standard in which too much liberty seems to be taken in breeders and judges choosing a style preference of their own. So much so that I think that some dogs lose type.  Proportion is a critical part of the standard for the Russell Terrier—to differentiate it from the Parson. 

Breed type is terminology that is frequently used in the dog show world, but not everyone agrees with what it means.  Richard Beauchamp in “Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type” writes that there are five elements to breed type: breed character, silhouette, head/expression, movement, coat.  Anna Katherine Nicholas in her book, “The Nicholas Guide to Dog Judging” refers to type as a combination of distinguishing features which add up to give each breed its stamp of individuality. Variations within a breed do not change type, however, and so I would argue for an even simpler view of “type”.  Dogs of the same breed are basically the same type per Dr. Harry Spira in “Canine Terminology”.  There are good ones and bad ones, but if you can tell what breed it is, the dog has enough breed type to make it onto the scale. When you order a T-shirt online and choose a solid color silhouette of a dog of your breed to be imprinted on it, you have chosen a breed type.  You can tell a Scottie from a Wire Fox Terrier from a Sealyham.  Can you identify a Russell Terrier?  We need to at least get to that minimal point in defining breed type for the Russell Terrier so that we have a recognizable silhouette.  The silhouettes of Russell Terriers that have earned AKC championships are far too varied (Fig 2). Obviously, we have a lot of work to do before we can establish basic breed type and to get breeders and judges to agree.  

Proportion of height to length is one of the most important factors in drawing that breed silhouette in our mind. Most breed standards describe height as that which is measured at the withers.  (Are the withers the top of first thoracic vertebral spine or is it the tip of the scapula… that’s a whole different discussion.)  So, let’s discuss length. Breed standards often vary with respect to how length is measured; is it from the withers to the base of the tail or from the point of shoulder to the point of hip?  Let us look at some examples (I rephrased some from the standards in order to create parallel comparisons). 

For the Wire Fox Terrier (WFT), the length from the point of shoulder to the buttock should approximately equal the height.

For both the Parson Russell Terrier and the Border Terrier, the distance from the withers to the tail should be slightly less than the height.

Interpreting these descriptions suggests that the WFT has a square silhouette overall, with that square encompassing the forequarters and hindquarters and so the back itself must be quite short to allow for a decent shoulder and a moderate length to the pelvis.  A straight-shouldered WFT with a steep tilt of a short pelvis could have a longer back and still remain square overall in its silhouette.

The PRT and Border Terrier are not square overall because the length to height parameters do not encompass the forequarters and hindquarters.  This means that a PRT with a good shoulder and hip will appear slightly rectangular in its overall silhouette.  Some call it off-square.

Now we come to the Russell Terrier. The Russell Terrier standard states that the measurement from the withers to the tail should be slightly longer than the dog is tall, but then it also says that the point of shoulder to the buttocks should be proportioned marginally longer than the height. This is a conundrum.  If the length from the withers to the tail is slightly longer than the height, when you add in the forequarters and hindquarters, the overall silhouette becomes very rectangular. (Fig 3) So much so, that the dog’s proportions would exceed even that of a Cesky Terrier that has a ratio of length to height of 1.5 to 1.


The Russell Terrier breed standard gives no numbers or ratios; it simply uses the adjectives “marginally”, “moderate”, “slightly” and each refers to different measurement points. Because length to height measurements can be greatly affected by the set-on of the neck, lay of the shoulder, set of the tail, and pelvic length and tilt, it is probably best not to measure when looking at overall proportion. Instead, focus on the parts of the breed standard for the Russell Terrier that state: “body of moderate length”, “rectangular profile”, “silhouette representing a distinct rectangle”, “rectangular silhouette” (Fig 4). Keep those phrases in mind when evaluating whether a Russell Terrier has general breed type.  Could you tell a Russell Terrier from a PRT if you saw one at the Montgomery County Kennel Club show a few rings away?

Proportion, of course, is more than just a height by length ratio. So, the next factor to consider is the leg length to depth of chest ratio.

Leg length: Chest depth

In the breed standard of the Russell Terrier, this proportion is written as:


The depth of body from the withers to the brisket should equal the length of foreleg from elbows to the ground.

        …midline of the dog is at the elbow and the bottom of the brisket.


From the withers to the bottom of the brisket should represent 50 percent of the distance from the withers to the ground.


The brisket should never fall below the elbow.

The Russell Terrier is not a short-legged dog. The Scottish Terrier, Sealyham Terrier, and Cesky Terrier are examples of short-legged terrier breeds.  It certainly should not appear leggy-looking either. Even the WFT standard states that it is not a leggy dog (“should by no account be leggy”).  So, we want a nice balance between the chest depth and the length of the front legs. Again, we can talk about measuring it, but questions arise. A mature dog may have a chest that drops some.  A stronger dog may have more musculature comprising the “brisket” even if the sternum and elbow joint are at the same level. Yes, I wrote elbow joint, because the elbow is an area that runs from the very tip of the olecranon (point of the elbow) down to the bottom of the joint space formed by the humerus, radius, and ulna. Then, we have a variation in the angle of the upper arm (humerus); if a dog has a good forechest with long upper arm, setting the forelimb back under the dog, it is likely that the point of the elbow will be higher than the adjacent sternum (Fig 5).

In contrast, a WFT with the traditional terrier front or J-front will have the point of the elbow located lower, simply because of the difference in the angle of the upper arm as it comes into the elbow.  So, let us not penalize a Russell Terrier with a good forechest and correctly set-back front limb by saying it is not 50:50 when the brisket falls below the point of the elbow. We also know, from using the wicket to measure dogs, how they can drop down into their chest, so to speak, if a bit hesitant of the process. So, when a judge puts their hand under the chest to measure the level of the brisket, will the dog change its stance, affecting any precise measurement of the elbow versus the brisket?

I believe the intent of this part of the breed standard for the Russell Terrier was to penalize the old-fashioned, barn-type JRTs that were kept around more as ratters. Their leg-to-chest ratio is quite obviously not balanced. If they are one day recognized as a separate breed, they would likely be classified as one of the short-legged terriers. 

Be flexible in your judgement of this aspect, remembering that this is not a short-legged terrier nor should it have any leggy appearance. Consider how a Russell Terrier with a good length of upper arm is going to have its elbow at a higher position on the chest relative to a WFT-type of conformation.


The previously described proportions are obviously affected by size, but I left this last so that we had covered the chest depth to leg length ratio since we find another conundrum in the breed standard. 

The AKC standard states:

Disqualification: Height under 10 inches or over 12 inches.


There is no disqualification for height in the Australian National Kennel Council’s originally approved description of the breed, nor in FCI, nor in the more recent interim standard from the Kennel Club in the U.K., the country of origin for the breed. Since our breed is still early in its development and is based on many Australian and European imports, it is not surprising that size varies greatly. There are pros and cons to having a disqualification for height; perhaps it was believed that it would help stabilize the breed so that it does not encroach upon the PRT.  But as discussed previously, the Russell Terrier is not, and should not be, a smaller size variety of the PRT.  So, do not use size as a crutch in defining that picture in your mind as to what constitutes breed type for the Russell Terrier.  When you look across the rings at Montgomery, you will be unable to determine height before making your guess as to whether you see a PRT or Russell Terrier.

As a breeder, I would much prefer an excellent dog, in breed type, that is slightly under 10 inches or slightly over 12 inches to an average dog within the height standard.

Now for the conundrum, the standard states:

…small, oval-shaped compressible chest…

…small enough to be spanned by an average size man’s hands, approximately 14 to 15 inches at the top set.


The Australian standard and the FCI approved standard for the JRT both say that the girth behind the elbows should be “spanned by two hands, approximately 40 to 43 cm”, which equates to 15.7 to 16.9 inches. That is a big difference from the AKC standard of 14 to 15 inches. One could argue that the AKC standards are allowed to vary from other countries, but the conundrum is that it is nearly mathematically impossible to have a dog with an oval-shaped chest measuring 14 to 15 inches to not be under height if the chest depth to leg length ratio is 50:50. The dog will either be shorter in height or the chest will be deep and narrow (slab-sided), or the dog will be leggy. The only other option is for a larger chest---one closer to that stated in the Australian and FCI breed standards.

The intent for giving a chest circumference in the breed standard is to ensure that the dog can traverse a fox tunnel and turn around if needed to exit. If the chest is spannable, compressible, and flexible, the intent is met. Learn to span correctly. Learn to feel compression. Flexibility is not tested in the show ring, but breeders should be aware of what it means.  Flexibility is demonstrated by showing that the terrier can be folded in half horizontally by making the dog’s nose touch the base of the tail.

Again, breed standards are not precisely engineered manuals of dog construction.  Neither were they drafted by anatomists. Instead, from studying the breed standard, we gain an impression of the founders’ intent for what the breed should be.  A fair evaluation of a dog is then an art, grounded in sound knowledge. 

In this part 1, we have covered Substance and Proportion for the Russell Terrier.  Future publications will discuss Balance, Movement, and other parts of the Breed Standard for the Russell Terrier.


Previously published:    

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