What to Know About Parson Russell Terriers

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on June 06, 2022
6 min read

The Parson Russell terrier is largely the creation of an English minister who was also a fox hunter. The Rev. John Russell wanted a dog that could run a fox to ground and then flush it from its lair. Today, this peppy, medium-sized terrier that still bears his name is known as a loyal companion and beloved family pet. Parson Russells also excel in the show ring and in canine sports.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized these small, mostly white terriers as Jack Russell terriers in 1997. In 2003 the AKC changed the name of the breed to Parson Russell terrier, following the lead of kennel clubs in England. The clubs wanted the breed to represent Russell's standards for his dogs. In 2012, the AKC recognized similar dogs who are smaller with the breed name of Russell terriers. 

The AKC does not currently recognize a breed called Jack Russell terriers, although many people still use this name.

The terrier class of dogs was bred to hunt animals such as foxes, badgers, rats, and otters. The root of the word terrier is the Latin "terra," meaning earth. Terriers pursued their prey both above and below ground. They are an ancient breed much beloved by their owners and frequently depicted in art and literature. The AKC lists 31 types in their terrier group, including the Parson Russell and the Russell. 

Parson Russell terriers must be of a particular size, measuring from 12 to 15 inches at the withers. The dog's silhouette should be square rather than rectangular, with the height at the withers being marginally greater than the distance from withers to tail. Dogs who are from 10 to 12 inches tall at the withers and more rectangular in shape may be Russell terriers.

A weight between 13 and 17 pounds is perfect for a Parson Russell in good condition. Their chest must be small, with a flexible rib cage that allows the dog to go underground easily. The breed's heritage as a hunting dog is so important that show judges ignore any scars or injuries that occurred in the field.

Parson Russells can be solid white, white with some black or tan markings, or white with both black and tan markings. Often, dogs have markings only on the head, or on the head plus a spot on the tail. More markings are acceptable as long as the main color is white. 

Parson Russells have double coats that are harsh but shiny. The coat can be smooth or "broken," which means rough and wiry. Russell was called "The Father of Wirehaired Terriers" because he favored rough-coated dogs when such coats were not popular.  

The head of a Parson Russell reflects its terrier nature, with strong jaws and a gaze that is direct and intelligent. The breed has drop ears, which means the tips fold, hiding the ear opening. 

The Parson Russell temperament is one of intelligence, boldness, and confidence. A long-lived breed, the Parson Russell has a life span of 13 to 15 years.  

The hardest part about owning Parson Russell terriers is making sure they get enough exercise. If you are an active person, consider exercising with your dog. Walks are good, or you could try a canine sport. You can do them competitively or just for fun. Good choices for Parson Russells include:

  • Agility. Coach your dog through an obstacle course.
  • Barn hunt. Dogs hunt through straw for caged rats.
  • Dock diving. Dogs leap from a dock into the water to retrieve a toy, competing for the longest jump.
  • Earthdog events. Dogs hunt caged prey underground.
  • Lure coursing. Dogs chase a plastic lure around a course that tests their ability to hunt down prey.  
  • Rally. You and your dog work your way through stations in a low-key, fun event. 

As for grooming, Parson Russell terriers are fairly low-maintenance. Both smooth coats and rough coats require regular brushing, although with different implements. Rough coats need occasional clipping or plucking to avoid matting. Other grooming tasks include baths, daily teeth brushing, nail trimming, and ear cleaning. 

Feed your pet high-quality dog food and schedule a visit with your veterinarian at least once a year. Your vet can help you with fleas and ticks, parasite prevention, and other routine care. Dogs need year-round care to prevent heartworms.

Your vet can also advise you about immunizations. All dogs should receive core vaccines to protect against distemper, parvovirus, rabies, and canine adenovirus-2. Depending upon your location and other variables, your vet may recommend non-core vaccines as well. 

Parson Russell terriers are vigorous dogs. They are at risk for a few health issues, but these are relatively rare. You can have your dog tested for some disorders, and breeders are reducing some of these conditions by testing their stock before breeding. 


Some dogs are born deaf. Breeds with white coats are more likely to have this type of deafness. Deafness doesn't cause a dog pain or discomfort, but it can make training difficult. Also, deaf dogs aren't as aware of dangers in their environment, such as traffic. Their owners must be extra alert on their behalf. It may be possible to reduce or eliminate congenital deafness by removing deaf animals from breeding stock. 

You can have your dog checked for deafness with Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response Testing or BAERTo screen puppies for congenital deafness, technicians use a shortened procedure that doesn't require sedation. 

Luxating Patella

Joint problems are common in dogs. Parson Russells are at risk for an inherited disorder in which the kneecap is loose. 

In milder cases, dogs may exhibit skipping or hopping in their gait. More serious cases cause lameness and may require surgery.


Ataxia causes dogs to lose coordination and have trouble standing and walking. There are two types of ataxia that affect Parson Russell terriers.

  • Late-onset ataxia. Dogs begin showing signs between the ages of 6 and 12 months. There is no cure for the condition, and affected dogs are often euthanized, often around two years after onset. There is a DNA test for late-onset ataxia.
  • Cerebellar ataxia. A problem in the cerebellum, a part of the brain, causes this form of ataxia. Signs appear in the first few weeks or months of a puppy's life and often result in euthanasia by the age of 1 year. There is no DNA test for this condition, but a linkage test is available. A linkage test looks for sections of DNA that are often associated with the disease. 

Parson Russell terriers have personality pluses, but they are not the right dog for every household. They have these positive characteristics: 

  • Parson Russell terriers are highly trainable and can learn tricks.
  • They are affectionate family members and are usually good with children. 
  • They are good with other dogs.
  • They excel in canine sports.
  • They are great companions for hikers, bikers, and joggers.

Like most breeds, though, they also have a few drawbacks:

  • They require exercise and mental stimulation.
  • They can be problematic barkers
  • They like to dig.
  • As diggers and jumpers, they can be hard to keep inside a fence.
  • Their hunting instincts mean they shouldn't be trusted around small pets.
  • They are moderate shedders, and they shed year-round.
  • They don't like being alone and may have separation anxiety.
  • Without proper obedience training, they can be hard to handle.

While the Rev. Russell gets the credit for the Parson Russell breed, credit should also go to a dog named Trump. In 1819, the reverend bought Trump from his milkman and used him to found a breed. 

Parson Russells were bred to hunt red fox above and below ground. Traditionally, they joined with foxhounds to run the prey to ground. The Parson Russell's job then was to "bolt" the fox, driving it out of hiding.

After the Rev. Russell's death, people called almost any small white terrier a Jack Russell. However, another terrier fan, Arthur Heinemann, made it his mission to get the breed back to its original standards. He founded the Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club in 1914. Since that time, kennel clubs and breeders' clubs have made several name changes for the breed. Names and breed standards still vary. The variations are of no great importance to most dog lovers, though, and don't matter at all to the feisty little dogs.