© John Jeanneney, October 2008
We get quite a few inquiries about Jack Russell Terriers over the phone or by e-mail. Are they good tracking dogs? Should I train mine to find wounded deer?
Russells have recently acquired quite a reputation as tracking dogs. This is based largely on the fact that they are used by professional hunters in Africa to find shot game for their bowhunting clients. If an antelope doesn’t go down within sight, a few Russells are turned loose on the hot line. They quickly find the animal dead, or if alive, they hold it at bay so that it can be finished off.
Some of these African critters, like the big gemsbok, have long, lance-like horns that they can use with precision to skewer the attacking dogs. It’s dangerous work for the terrier and many of them are killed before they learn to have some caution. The Russell has a heart as big as his head, and is not by nature a cautious dog.
This use of Jack Russells works on the plains game of Africa. The animals are generally shot by bowhunters out of blinds as they come in to drink at water holes. The guides and the terriers are close by and ready to go. This is very different from the use of cold-nosed tracking dogs in North America where they are used only when necessary and generally many hours after the deer, elk or bear has been shot. The question is: Does the wide use of Jack Russells on plains game in Africa prove that they are going to be useful over here where our conditions and hunting traditions are so different. I have my doubts, and I have some experiences to back up my concerns.
About twenty years ago I owned a small, very good Jack Russell. Banner weighed eleven pounds, and I used him mainly for underground work on woodchucks, often called groundhogs. There were also some coons and a fox. One summer I took enough groundhogs to seriously reduce my dog feed bills. Teddy Moritz’s column, “Working Dachshunds” gives you a good picture of how small dogs, with the right attitude, can take out a lot of nuisance groundhogs and offer some very good sport.
I had plenty of fun with Banner until one night when I was coon hunting with my Black Mouth Cur. Banner had come along for exercise; he lagged behind a couple of hundred yards, investigating something. Then I heard him yelp, and a coyote gave his chattering laugh. When I rushed back to the spot, there was nothing to be seen but some of Banner’s white hair on the ground. I searched for several days but never found a trace of him.
Anyway, before Banner disappeared he taught me quite a bit about the breed. I don’t base my conclusions about any breed upon one individual dog, but Banner’s underground skills helped me get to know a number of Jack Russell groundhog hunters, who used to come up to work the horse country near where I lived. Teddy Moritz would join us with her mini-dachshunds. The small dogs, dachshunds and little Banner, really held the hunt together. The area was full of groundhogs whose dens made the fields and pastures treacherous for horses and their red coated riders of the Millbrook Hunt. This was during the period when coyotes were just beginning to filter into the Mid Hudson Valley area, and before these invaders largely cleaned out the groundhogs.
I saw a number of Russells work, and game they were. They would battle and dig under ground, and they had no quit. But they didn’t seem to have much in the line of nose. After all, the breed had been developed in England primarily for underground work, with a little rat killing on the side. One of the problems of groundhog hunting was deciding which dens were occupied so we could send down a small dog to locate and work the chuck. If the groundhog could be located and harassed, he wouldn’t be able to dig away. Then we could dig down to the spot with shovels so that bigger, stronger dogs could draw and kill the chuck.
The best dogs to show what dens had a chuck in them were the dachshunds. My tracking wirehaired dachshunds excelled at this. They would come up to a den entrance that a Russell had checked out with little interest. With a finer nose the dachshund could tell that the den was occupied, and then the fun would begin.
All this reinforced the impression that I had gained from trying to tree squirrels and coon hunt with Banner. It seemed to me that Jack Russells didn’t have such great noses for either air scenting or ground scenting, Certainly they had better eyesight than the dachshunds; they could see a squirrel twitch high in a tree, but they had neither the nose nor the patience to work out an old, cold line.
I talked this over with the then president of the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association to which I belonged at the time. He was certainly an experienced fox hunter, and he didn’t agree at all with my opinions. “Russells have excellent noses”, he said. As proof he told me a story of hunting foxes. The terriers had bolted a fox; it came out of one den, ran about 50 feet and down into another den. The Russell came out of the den shortly after the fox and then tracked it into the second den. “That proves something about the terrier’s nose”, said the President. Does it? Obviously these Russell folks were living in a scenting dog world very different from my own.
Sometimes I wonder if Jack Russells and their owners don’t have a character trait in common. Both are confident that they can do just about anything. Jack Russells can certainly track easy, wounded deer, but they are not the dog of choice on a tough scent line.
Banner, a Jack Russell Terrier who excelled underground