Jack Russell Terriers and the Mobile Child

Supervise! Keep them in your vision at all times or physically separated--child in play pen or dog in crate.

Jack Russell Terriers and the Mobile Child

Our little boy, Daniel is part of a terrier pack, or at least he thinks so:

The day care teacher: "Oh, so you have four dogs! Isn't that nice. Hmmm...That may explain why Daniel has been licking his little friends faces."

My mother: "Margaret, Daniel seems to want to eat his cheerios out of the palm of my hand!"

Aunt Brenda: "You know how you want me to have the dogs sit before the go out the back door? Well, when I told them to sit, Daniel was the first one to obey!"

Daniel: "Leash! Leash! Leash On!" ( I'll give you one clue, Scamper, Daniel and I were leaving for a walk and Scamper had her leash on already.)

These are the times that I wonder if this terrier thing has gone to far, the funny (and rather embarrassing) moments that go along with being the parents of a baby who IDENTIFIES with terriers. At such times I am comforted by the fact that most of the time Daniel seems quite clear about the fact that he is a human and also seems to understand that humans do things for the terriers. With his little plastic shovel and hoe in hand he will sometimes follow me around the yard as I clean up chanting, "poopoopoop." He loves to fill the water bowls in the kennels, and hold the flexi when we walk Tully. We are pleased to have Daniel develop a bond with the dogs, and as terrier possessed parents we try to remember that the development of that bond is our responsibility and that the outcomes of Daniel's connection with the terriers depend on our attention, understanding and effort.

When Daniel became able to move himself toward the dogs, when he became "mobile", the demands on our attention, understanding and effort increased considerably. Because we adopted Daniel when he was four months old, we didn't have him long before we became less concerned about what the terriers would do to him and much, much more concerned with what he would do to the terriers if he got his hands (or his feet or his mouth or his entire little body) on them, and then even more worried about what they would do to him if he did something to them. We had no particular reason to worry, our dogs are all very sweet-tempered, but still we worried.

We have not gone out of our way to encourage Daniel to interact with the terriers. We have taken this approach for a number of reasons, foremost among them being our concern for his safety, and following closely on that, our concern for the well-being of the dogs. Until Daniel was well into his second year, when he was old enough to understand some simple explanations about the dogs, we discouraged him from touching them. We wanted him to begin to have the sense that touching a dog or any animal is something that you think about before you do it. Despite all of this, he adores them, talks about them, and seeks them out. Each day presents a new and complicated challenge in child/terrier management. Yesterday, it was Daisy chewing on the ladder of his fire truck as he tried to push it around the room. He was indignant, yelling "Daisy, NO!" Today it was "Scamper, No!" just because the poor girl walked too near the darn truck. Last week, he fought to get out back to join them as Fergus was throwing his weight around trying to run everybody off from the mole he'd trapped under the deck. Lord Have Mercy!

Some of the letters to the editor in the June '95 True Grit got me thinking about the subject of "the mobile child" and terriers. I was touched by the pictures and letters from Lisa Moreschi, Alexis Haas, and Helena Perry. For those of you who missed these, Lisa's picture shows four week old Jordan, his daddy and their JR, Ripley, curled together in dreamland while Helena's picture shows her little grandson (five or six months) chewing on one very tolerant terrier's tail even as he crowds another dog off the blanket they are sharing. Alexi Haas' letter conveys what is to me a very familiar mix of love, pride and concern. It is apparent that the Haas family love their JR, Chester, very much and are very proud of his loving and protective feelings for their new baby Nicolaus, but at the same time have good reason to be concerned that Chester might not be reliable when Nicolaus goes "mobile." These letters and photographs also confirmed my belief that the kind of supervision we must give our children and our terriers changes when babies become able squirm and stretch their way toward dogs.

As I said, we didn't have Daniel when he was Jordan's or Nicolaus' age, so we don't have any idea if our dogs would have had the same loving and protective response to him that Ripley and Chester have had to "their" respective tiny babies, but we have lived with four terriers and a very mobile child who has managed on occasion to get a handful of hair, or a paw, or an ear. Just like Helena's daughter, we rushed headlong to intervene, praying desperately in the interim that Fergus ( it was usually Fergus because he has always been very fond of Daniel) did not stop being an absolute angel and snap at his little torturer.

So far, the males have never responded to Daniel with anything but utter patience and kindness. Scamper, who is my familiar, grumped at him occasionally when he first started to walk and decided to test her commitment to keeping her spot next to me on the couch. Like any dog pup worth his salt, Daniel deliberately and( and often surreptitiouslya) tests the dogs willingness to stand their ground. Our solutions to these problems have changed with regard to their particulars as Daniel has grown and changed. However, the general approach we take has stayed the same. Child proofing your Dog by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson (my favorite dog book),has a chapter titled "The Family Dog and the Toddler". In this chapter is an acronym that has become my watchword. It is S.A.F.E. Kilcommons and Wison write: "Dogs and toddlers should NEVER be left unsupervised. Even the kindest dog will react when cornered by a child trying to measure the depth of the canine ear with the sharp end of a pencil. It is the parents' job to keep the dog and child S.A.F.E." . I would make one small change in this important advice and that would be "Dogs and mobile children should NEVER be left unsupervised...; while toddlers are outrageously able to bring trouble upon themselves and all within their reach, creepers can wiggle over and put the hurt on too!"

S.A.F.E. - Supervise. Anticipate. Follow through. Educate.

Kilcommons and Wilson explain each letter of S.A.F.E. as follows:

  • Supervise. Keep them in your vision at all times or physically separated--child in play pen or dog in crate. And we mean at all times...
  • Anticipate. A dog only has a few ways of protesting. He can move away, hop up on furniture, or go under a bed. Once the dog has done this, he has no other means to stop a child other than a bark, growl, or nip. If you see your dog retreating from a child, stop that child! Anticipate problems before they happen. Do not expect your dog to tolerate something you wouldn't.
  • Follow through. If you say it, mean it. If you tell your child to stop bothering the dog, enforce that. If you tell the dog to sit, make him. All things are easier if your child and dog know that you mean what you say, and say what you mean.
  • Educate. This means both the dog and the child. Teach your child by word and example that animals are to be treated with care. Do not allow hitting, teasing, or other harassment. Teach your dog by practice and patience that people --children in particular--make mistakes, and how to behave when those mistakes happen.

With one important exception, I believe that S.A.F.E. pretty much sums up the general approach to safely caring for a family that includes very young, mobile children and terriers. The exception involves "Anticipate." Our terriers have much in common with other dogs in general and with other terriers in particular. All parents of small children must supervise their interactions with dogs carefully. The important difference is that these other breeds, terriers included, are rarely selected as breeding stock based on their tendency to display aggression during their work. Jack Russells on the other hand....Over countless generations the various ancestors of our Russells shared one particular commonality: they were expected to enter, find, and then to WORK, that is to growl, bay and bite in the face of formidable quarry. His breeder did not necessarily concern himself with Rip's willingness to tolerate a child's caress, rather he sought Rip's absolute refusal to give quarter to any enemy.

So, if we are to Anticipate the problems that might occur in our families, we must always remember that working aggression is a valued part of the Jack Russell's temperament. To me this means my son is absolutely not allowed to approach the dogs when they are eating, sleeping, chewing a toy, playing roughly with each other... It means that my husband and I are very careful about where the baby is when the dogs are eating, sleeping, chewing a toy, playing roughly with each other... We feel that the heartache that could come of just one biting incident would far outweigh the inconvenience and loss of freedom we suffer in avoiding it. As Daniel grows older and more able to make decisions that will keep him safe, we may relax some of these restrictions, but until then: BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY!

Before I finish, I want to encourage all of you to follow, Lisa's, Alexis,' and Helena's example. Please share your various difficulties, questions, successes and solutions with other terrier folk by writing to the club office. We are working on ways to help each other manage our lives with the terriers more successfully. For those of you who fear that your dog might hurt you or someone else, please get help from a trained professional. In this issue of True Grit, we've included the phone numbers of three groups who can refer you to a professional animal behaviorist.

To close, I'd like to apologize to any of you who feel that they know more than they ever wanted to know about my opinions on terrier/ baby management. I really have a tough time saying anything without giving my audience my entire autobiography!. In writing this I have been motivated by the terrible situation suffered by one of my coworkers's and her family. One of the children was badly bitten by a beloved family dog. No one knows why the dog attacked the boy, but the outcome was that the child was badly hurt and is still undergoing surgery. The dog was destroyed. I don't want anything even remotely like this to happen to your family or mine. Ever.


Kilcommons, Brian and Sarah Wilson. Childproofing Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Preparing Your Dog for the Children in Your Life. New York: Warner Books, Inc. 1994


There is a small (but growing) number of highly trained animal behaviorists who can advise you if your terrier has serious problems with aggression. Most of these people are veterinarians who have studied in a variety of areas related to animal behavior. Those to whom you will be referred via the numbers below are either veterinarians or Ph.d. 's who have been certified by the Animal Behavior Society. We would like to gratefully thank Dr. Juarve-Diaz of the Behavior Clinic of Cornell University, Ithaca New York for so generously sharing her time in order to give us this information.

  • The AVMA's American College of Veterinary Behaviorist-800-248-AVMA. These professionals are all veterinarians who are additionally certified by the Animal Behavior Society. There are only eight of these folks in the country right now, but ten more are in the process of receiving their certification.
  • The Animal Behavior Society: 1-912-752-2973. Dr. John C. Wright of Mercer University, Macon Georgia is the contact person. Dr. Wright is the Chairperson of the board of professional certification for the society. Those certified by this society may be either Ph.D.s or veterinarians. Dr. Peter Borchelt, the gentleman who presented the workshop on aggression at the Mason-Dixon Puppy Preview is a member of this group.
  • The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: 1-913-362-2512. The contact person is Dr. Hunthausen ( I missed this individual's first name.) This society is open to veterinarians who are interested in animal behavior. The ten people who are applying for certification for the American College of Animal Behaviorists are affiliated with this group.
  • There are a number of colleges and universities that have behaviorists on staff. Some of these are: The University of California at Davis, The College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A and M, The College of Veterinary Medicine in Athens Georgia, and Tufts University of Pennsylvania.

By Margaret Wheeler