Parson Russell Terrier: Dog Breed Profile

Characteristics, History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Portrait of Parson Russell Terrier

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Playful and plucky, the Parson Russell terrier (PRT) is a small dog with a big personality. These terriers have instant appeal, thanks to their small size and lively expressions. Originally bred for hunting foxes, today these pint-sized canines excel in everything from agility to dock diving and barn hunts. They make excellent pets—if you can keep one step ahead of these clever little dogs who can be independent thinkers and strong-willed.

Don’t confuse the PRT with the Jack Russell terrier—though it would be easy to do so. The two breeds share a common origin and plenty of similarities, but today are considered to be two distinct breeds. The Parson Russell terrier conforms to a more specific body type and breed standard, while the Jack Russell terrier includes a broader range of possibilities. However, the personality and drive of both breeds remains similar.  

Breed Overview

Group: Terrier

Height: 13 to 14 inches

Weight: 13 to 17 pounds

Coat: Smooth or rough short double coat

Coat Color: Solid white or white with markings in black, tan, or both (known as tri-color) 

Life Expectancy: 15 to 18 years

Characteristics of the Parson Russell Terrier

Affection Level High
Friendliness High
Kid-Friendly High
Pet-Friendly High
Exercise Needs High
Playfulness High
Energy Level High
Trainability Medium
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark Medium
Amount of Shedding Medium

History of the Parson Russell Terrier

The history of the Parson Russell terrier traces back to England in the 1800’s. John Parson Russell, a minister and avid English sportsman, desired a smaller foxhound that could keep up with foxes on the hunt and easily ‘go to ground’ to pursue the swift creatures into their underground burrows and flush them out.

Starting with a small terrier of uncertain pedigree named Trump, Russell began a selective breeding program that would eventually produce a kennel of petite terriers with a distinct look and tenacious personality on the hunt. The dogs were of sufficient stature to run with larger English foxhounds across the English countryside, but had a flexible frame and slight enough build to squeeze into foxholes and bay the fox from its hiding place.

Russell died in 1883, but the legacy of his small but mighty hunters would live on. In fact, the term ‘Jack Russell terrier’ began to be used to describe a wide range of small working terriers and hounds. This speaks to the impact that Russell made on the world of hunting dogs in England and beyond, but also brought its own challenges.

A growing number of breed enthusiasts felt that the term ‘Jack Russell terrier’ was being applied too liberally to an increasingly diverse pool of terriers—many of which had shorter legs and a longer back than the standard to which Russell developed his breed. In 1904, Arthur Heinemann is credited with the first breed standard for the Jack Russell terrier. A decade later, he would found the Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club in England which aimed to keep the breed true to the type and vision that John Parson Russell worked so hard to develop.

However, a great number of dogs with a diversity of characteristics were exported to other countries, including the United States under the term ‘Jack Russell terrier.’ This has sparked decades of debate between purists of the breed standard and those who place an emphasis on the breed’s working ability.

In 1985, the Jack Russell Terrier Association of America was founded. The club’s breed standard reflected Heinmann’s breed standard from 1904. Then in 1990, England’s Kennel Club recognized the Parson Jack Russell terrier as a variant of the fox terrier and adopted a 14-inch standard for the breed. Moving forward in time, the AKC gave the Jack Russell terrier registration status in 1997 and then added it to the terrier group in 2003.

Today, though, you won’t find ‘Jack Russell terriers’ in the list of AKC-recognized breeds. Why not? In 2003, the AKC moved to change the breed’s official name to Parson Russell terrier to better identify the specific characteristics of this breed. The Jack Russell Terrier Association of America changed its identity to match—becoming the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America.

This change wasn’t unanimous among the small working terrier community. A committed network of breed enthusiasts feels strongly that the intent and emphasis of this breed should be on working ability and retains the name ‘Jack Russell terrier.’ The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America maintains its own breed standard and registry.

However, today the Parson Russell terrier is known as a long-legged and sturdy hunter. Some say that this strain of working terrier has a higher drive and intensity than the Jack Russell terrier. Advocates for both Parson Russell terriers and Jack Russell terriers claim that their type is a truer representation of what John Parson Russell intended for his dogs—a small but mighty hunter. 

Parson Russell Terrier competing at dog show
Bruno Vincent / Getty Images News

Parson Russell Terrier Care

When it comes to caring for a Parson Russell terrier, make no mistake about it—these small dogs involve a big commitment. Equipped with seemingly endless energy and an inquisitive, intelligent nature, this dog breed is always on the go. For this reason, PRTs often make good pets in homes with children, since they’ll gladly play for hours. However, it’s important to teach kids how to treat the dog with respect.

Parson Russell terriers need at least several solid walks or a run each day. Once they’ve reached adulthood, the long-legged PRT makes a compact jogging partner. Without sufficient exercise and mental stimulation, they can be high-strung at home and even resort to destructive behavior.

Fortunately, they are well-suited for a number of canine competitions. Aside from plenty of success in the show ring for conformation, the PRT has enjoyed top honors in canine agility, dock diving, go-to-ground trials, and barn hunts. Such activities are a great way to bond with your dog while also giving this breed an outlet for his intensity and drive.

With this breed’s energy requirements in mind, it’s important to note that their small size may seem well-suited to apartment life, but their exercise needs are supersized by comparison. Of course there are happy, healthy PRTs that are city dwellers, but you need to be prepared to give this type of dog a regular, active outlet if you plan to keep him in an apartment.

The Parson Russell terrier is also not generally recommended for first time dog owners. In addition to the breed’s abundant energy, the terrier personality often manifests itself in a stubborn or independent streak. Owners of a PRT must exhibit effective leadership from the beginning to avoid this little dog from dominating the house or preferring to pursue his own ideas. The breed is not known for being overly shy or timid, but still benefits from a positive, firm approach.

Keeping in mind the breed’s origin helps shed more light on its personality, although each individual dog is different. Initially bred to work with a pack, the Parson Russell terrier generally is compatible with other dogs. Aggressiveness or a quarrelsome nature were viewed as undesirable traits and were avoided in the early breeding program.

Additionally, the independent nature may well stem from the fact that these dogs were bred to be able to independently track a fox and, if necessary, pursue the quarry into its burrow.

Though the training and care of this dog breed are anything but low maintenance, the grooming routine is. This dog’s short, coarse coat just needs an occasional rub with a grooming mitt to keep it in order. A bath will keep doggy dander in check and odors away, but it’s not needed on a routine basis. Trim the nails as needed, brush your dog’s teeth regularly, and be sure to keep the ears clean. 

Parson Russell Terrier puppy outside with toys
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Adult Parson Russell Terrier outside
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Parson Russell terrier in water
Gabor Geissler / Getty Images 

Common Health Problems

The Parson Russell terrier generally enjoys a long life—up to 15 or more years, with few major health concerns to be aware of. However, to help ensure the heartiness of the breed, responsible breeders screen for hereditary health issues such as eye problems, deafness, and more.

Some of the most common health problems affecting this breed include:

Diet and Nutrition

The Parson Russell terrier is an active dog breed that will do best on a quality high-protein dog food. Don’t let these little dogs become overweight; limit meals to twice a day and keep treats in check. Remember, too, that this agile breed is capable of jumping up to surprising heights—so don’t leave your dinner table unattended!

Pros
  • Intelligent and quick learners

  • Low maintenance coat

  • Adaptable to many canine competitions

Cons
  • Needs strong leadership

  • High exercise needs for a small breed

  • Not recommended for novice dog owners

Where to Adopt or Buy a Parson Russell Terrier

If you’re looking for a Parson Russell terrier, you might want to begin your search with rescue groups. The energy and enthusiasm of the breed sometimes results in unprepared owners surrendering these dogs. However, if you know what to expect from a PRT, you might find your new best friend waiting at a rescue.

There are also a number of breeders of Parson Russell terriers throughout the United States. Both the breed club and the AKC are good resources to identify potential breeders.

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

The Parson Russell terrier is an energetic breed that requires considerable time and training, but rewards you with abundant love and a long lifespan. If you're considering a PRT, do your research to ensure that you have what it takes to keep this small and spunky dog happy and healthy.

Here are some similar breeds to check out: