They are the tiniest stars of Steeplechase, only 10 to 15 inches tall and around 15 pounds in heft.
But they are fierce, and they are fast, having been clocked at up to 35 mph.
They are the Jack Russell terriers that each year race in the infield of the Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens, sometimes running an unobstructed flat track, other times leaping hurdles.
How do the little rascals fit into Steeplechase?
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Historically, they fit quite well. Steeplechase horse racing originated with fox hunting: Hunters on horseback would challenge each other to race cross-country to a landmark such as a church steeple.
Like the foxhounds those hunters followed on horseback, Jack Russells were bred for the same pursuit.
“Jack Russells were originally bred to hunt fox, and their job was to follow the fox to ground. If the hounds on a hunt chased a fox into its den, it was the Jack Russells’ job to bolt the fox back out so the hunt could continue,” said Ursula Schwalbe, secretary of the Dogwood Jack Russell Terrier Club, an affiliate of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America.
Schwalbe, who lives in Habersham County, Ga., has about 15 Jack Russells. She was organizing the Steeplechase races Saturday.
She said the breed is about 200 years old, dating back to when the Rev. John Russell began breeding them for the hunt in southern England. Russell lived from 1795 to 1883, and in 1873 was among the founders of England’s Kennel Club. Some called him “the Sporting Parson” and “Father of the Wirehaired Terrier.” The Parson Russell Terrier is another version of the breed, though its standards are different.
The Parson Russell Terrier and Australia Russell Terrier are recognized breeds derived from the Jack Russell line, she said.
In America, Jack Russells aren’t just for fox hunting now, Schwalbe said: “The variety of quarry these dogs can hunt in America varies. They can hunt groundhogs, raccoon, opossum, badger, fox, and nutria has been recognized.”
Training them to race is not difficult, as the dogs are enticed to chase a furry piece of fleece pulled on a string. Preferably that prey moves fast and far enough ahead to stay just beyond their reach, but not always. Sometimes they catch it, but not for long because they’re muzzled.
All the training takes is drawing out the instincts already reinforced through breeding. Rewarding the terriers with a snack is unnecessary. They just want to catch what they’re chasing.
“They will chase anything that moves,” Schwalbe said. “You introduce them to a lure as a puppy. It’s something that we all do either with a tug toy or a fleece toy. It’s something that’s very natural in playing with the dogs. Some of us take a line with a drag toy on it and teach them to focus on chasing the lure. Most of them absolutely love it.”
The muzzles, not so much. “The hard part is introducing them to a muzzle, which is for their own safety and the safety of the catchers in the catch pen,” Schwalbe said.
Each race ends with the dogs passing through a rectangular opening in a partition at the finish line, after which the catchers have to round them up.
One dog unaccustomed to the restraint gave up on chasing the lure Saturday and instead focused on trying to pry the muzzle off.
The ferocity with which terriers pursue their prey makes them good barn guards — better than cats, Schwalbe said. A Jack Russell makes a fine rat or mouse catcher for wherever animal feed is stored and likely to attract vermin.
But the dog’s energy and enthusiasm have their drawbacks. Jack Russells are not for people who just want a lap dog to lie on the sofa with them and watch TV. They need activity. If left to their own devices, they will zip around the house and find things to rip apart like the varmints they were bred to hunt, and those things could be other pets.
“They’re very high energy, and they have a high prey drive,” Schwalbe said. “They’re a dog that does not sit idle. If you satisfy their instinct to chase or run on sort of a daily basis, they can be a great couch potato in the evening, but you need to be committed to burning off a little of that energy.”
So if your elderly grandmother’s not so firm on her feet, doesn’t get out much and needs a pet to kill mice in her basement, get her a cat. If she’s robust, runs a farm and has rats in her horse barn and a possum stalking her chickens, a Jack Russell might be just right.
Those willing and able to invest time in training them love them.
“They can be extremely rewarding,” Schwalbe said. “They’re a breed that you get out of them what you put into them. So if you’re willing to put in time and energy, you get an amazing, amazing companion.”
And a darn good exterminator, too. Just make sure the dog exterminates what you want it to.
Said Schwalbe, “If it’s not something you’re committed to giving time and energy to, you get a monster dog.”