What Were Jack Russells Bred For? Original Role, Jobs, History and More

Written by Jesse Elop
Updated: May 17, 2023
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If you ever need a lively and energetic furry friend, the Jack Russell terrier may just fit the bill. These dogs have reputation for being friendly and playful and are common residents in American households. Although they make good lap warmers now, their main role has not always been as companion animals. Jack Russell terriers were first bred to hunt foxes! This article will explore when and why the Jack Russell terrier was bred and the jobs they have held since.

Key Points

  • Dogs were the first animal domesticated by humans 20,000-40,000 years ago.
  • Jack Russell terriers were recognized as a breed in the 1850s.
  • Jack Russell terriers were first bred to be foxhunting dogs.
  • Now, Jack Russell terriers are companion dogs and show dogs.
Jack Russell Terrier Hound

The Jack Russell terrier is a happy, energetic dog with a strong desire to work.


Dog Domestication

Dogs were first domesticated between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. Historians and archaeologists believe the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by humans, predating the domestication of horses by a large margin. In fact, the dog is the only animal to enter a domestic relationship with humans during the Pleistocene!

herding dog herding a sheep

When dogs were first domesticated, one of their original jobs was herding livestock.


Domestic dogs are descendants of a now-extinct population of wolves. The modern gray wolf is the dog’s closest living relative and there are several similarities between the species; however, they have many different characteristics, as well. Multiple traits that are unique to domestic dogs are the result of breeding and artificial selection. When humans breed dogs to select certain traits, it can lead to widespread changes in the population and the species over many generations. For example, domestic dogs have special muscles in their faces that wolves do not. This is because humans find dogs that seem to show emotions cute. The genes coding for muscles that allow a dog to move its eyebrows and smile were selected for and now, domestic dogs are genetically different from wolves in that respect.


The Jack Russell terrier is a small dog breed that typically weighs between 14 and 18 pounds and stands 10 to 15 inches tall at the withers. Their coats are white with black, brown, or tan markings often on their tails, faces, and ears. The three varieties of Jack Russell terriers are distinct by their coat type; there are smooth coat, rough coat, and broken coat Jack Russell terriers. “Broken” coat indicates a mix of both smooth and rough fur. All coat types are double coats like golden retrievers, border collies, Siberian huskies, and many other breeds. This means they have a thick undercoat, and they tend to shed. Jack Russell terriers were first recognized as a distinct breed in the 1850s.

Jack Russell Terrier hunting on starling bird

The Jack Russell terrier’s high energy and stamina make it an effective hunting dog.


The Parson Russell terrier is a closely related dog breed that shares a similar history with the Jack Russell terrier until their divergence in 1980. Even though there are some physical differences between the dogs, whether or not they are two different breeds is controversial. The only major kennel clubs that recognize the Parson Russell terrier as a separate breed from Jack Russell terriers are the Australian National Kennel Club, the New Zealand Kennel Club, and the United Kennel Club. In Australia, however, only 18 Parsons are registered with the kennel club compared to 1073 Jack Russells. The American Kennel Club does not recognize them as two different breeds and instead updated the name of Jack Russell terriers to Parson Russell terriers in 2003.

Original Role

Jack Russell terriers were bred to hunt foxes.


In 1819, an Englishman named Reverend John “Jack” Russell was responsible for the breed and sought to create a foxhunting terrier. Specifically, the Reverend wanted to breed a dog ideal for driving foxes out of their burrows. Desirable traits for a foxhunting dog are high stamina for long pursuits, and the courage to chase and confront foxes. Tempered aggressiveness was also an important quality that drove the dogs to pursue the foxes. In addition, their small size was not only a helpful characteristic for chasing foxes out of their burrows, but also for easy transport on horseback in “terrier bags”. After the Reverend developed a line of terriers with these traits, they quickly became popular amongst hunting enthusiasts.

Their Roles Today

After World War II, the use of hunting dogs declined. During this time, the primary role of the Jack Russell terrier shifted to that of a companion animal. Today, they are common in households and on stage as show dogs. They are very affectionate, friendly with children, and they get along with other dogs – all traits that make a good household pet. They are also extremely energetic and require a significant amount of exercise. According to the American Kennel Club, Jack Russell terriers have been steadily increasing in popularity since 2015 and are now ranked 72 of 284 breeds for popularity.

Jack Russell terrier with hands in the shape of a heart showing love.

Jack Russell terriers now make popular companion animals.


In dog shows, Russell terriers are relatively new to the game. The breed made its first appearance at the 137th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2013 in the terrier group. They are also contenders in the National Dog Show by Purina and the American Kennel Club National Championship. Jack Russell terriers are yet to win best in show at the National Dog Show, but the closely related wire fox terrier won two years in a row in 2011 and 2012.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © BIGANDT.COM/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Jesse Elop is a graduate from the University of Oregon now working at the University of Washington National Primate Research Center. He is passionate about wildlife and loves learning about animal biology and conservation. His favorite animals- besides his pup, Rosie- are zebras, mandrills, and bonobos. Jesse's background in biology and anthropology have supplied him with many fun facts that might just pop up in some of his articles!

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