Sunday, March 5, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Between now and April Fool's Day, JRs will be in the limelight on many fronts

Times pet columnist

Sometimes style isn't substance. And in the case of the Jack Russell terrier, don't be fooled by Eddie, Wishbone or Skip.

What you see isn't necessarily what you're going to get, warns Mary Strom of Portland, a 10-year breeder, Jack Russell Terrier Association of America member and editor of "The Ultimate Jack Russell Terrier" (Howell Book House, $34.95).

The Jack Russell terrier was developed in Southern England in the 1800s to hunt fox, not to taunt or torment Niles and Frasier on the NBC-TV hit comedy "Frasier" or to educate children about classic literature on the popular PBS series "Wishbone."

Named for an English parson, the alert, feisty and confident little terrier was a long-kept secret in this country until it was sprung on American television audiences during the '90s with the likes of Eddie, Wishbone and others in commercials.

Well, if you think that was something, you haven't seen anything yet.

Meet Enzo, the 20-pound JR featured in the title role of the film "My Dog Skip," which opened at numerous area theaters Friday; check out "My Life as a Dog," by Moose (aka Eddie) with Brian Hargrove, a $19.95 HarperCollins volume published last month; the American Kennel Club welcomes the JR into the terrier group April 1, meaning it can compete in all-breed conformation shows; and May 17, check out the emotional profile "Angus," by Charles Siebert (Crown, $18.95).

"He is smart," Enzo's trainer Mathilde DeCagney told the Los Angeles Times, "and he is eager to learn."

That doesn't put him in the Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Old Yeller class, but he does put on a memorable performance in "My Dog Skip," when he is called upon to snarl, be overly protective, feign a coma, play baseball and football and even drive a car.

The film, based on the delightful 1995 volume by the late Willie Morris, details the special relationship between the author growing up in a rural Mississippi town and his fox terrier in the 1940s.

Director Jay Russell cast Enzo before any of the two-legged cast members. The acting community can be a small world sometimes, even when it comes to the four-legged types. It seems that Enzo has been the backup for his father Moose on "Frasier"; not to be outdone, Moose appears in "My Dog Skip" as the elderly pet.

"I was looking around for a movie dog which was a fox terrier," Russell told the Los Angeles Times. "I couldn't find any. So I wanted to keep it at least in the same sort of terrier family. We learned about the Jack Russells (DeCagney) had. I thought that was close enough."

Russell sought to challenge the energetic dog and his trainer throughout. "I told her (Decagney) I wanted to get as much (of the action) as possible in wide shots," he said.

"If you watch a lot of animal movies, a lot of the action the animals do are in little pieces. It's very cutty and separated and that's how tricks are put together."

On another front, this one more literal, Moose and Hargrove visited here yesterday for a fun-filled book signing at Three Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

The whimsical autobiography begins with the always candid Moose's rationale for writing it: "One, I wanted to put an end to the vicious rumors about me. Two, America had been clamoring for my story for years. And three, I had already spent the advance. Yeah, like I'm the first author to ever do that, either."

Sprinkled throughout the book are Moose-isms in dog-biscuit designs. Here's a taste: "He who learns fast, gets fewer treats." "It's better to sniff than be sniffed." "(Request of Veterinarians) If it ain't broke, don't fix it." "The best things in life are worth licking." "Bred for ratting, born for catting." "Sometimes there's nothing better than chasing your own tail." "Dogs always tell the truth. Ever see us blushing?"

You get the idea.

Moose, who turned 9 Christmas Eve, came from humble beginnings and a litter of four in Florida. Since then, he's been on a roll.

The spirited "Angus" (the Crown volume to be released in May) is at the opposite end of the emotional barometer.

Last August, Angus, which Siebert and his wife Bex had purchased as a 10-week-old puppy on a farm in Devon, England, was killed a month prior to his first birthday by coyotes (the author suspects) in the woods near the couple's cabin in Quebec.

Written in "first dog," it describes the beautiful bond Angus established with his owners, the terrifying attack and life slipping away.

In the epilogue, Siebert details that final night when his wife found Angus lying in the field, the subsequent drive across the border to a Vermont emergency veterinary hospital and the fleeting hope the dog might survive.

"I remember sitting there with him for the next half hour or so, Bex (his wife) and I taking turns holding the oxygen mask over his nose, talking to him, fantasizing about getting him back here (to the cabin) and nursing him, day by day, back to health. And for the longest time, it seemed time had stopped, that we were all adrift in our own fatigue and the absence of thought, buoyed up only by the apparent recovery and rising spirits of Angus there before us on the table, tail still wagging."

Because the hospital was not equipped for the more elaborate treatment Angus required, staffers recommended the Sieberts consider driving Angus 200 miles south to another facility in Burlington, Vt. They agreed. Angus was gently positioned in the back seat of their car inside a glass aquarium-like device with a plastic lid over the top, a tube sticking out leading from a tank of oxygen.

As they sped toward the hospital, high dramatics began to unfold, when Bex noticed the oxygen supply was depleted. She immediately opened all the windows, pulled off the plastic lid and allowed Angus to capture as much fresh air as possible.

Angus survived that scare, and as soon as the couple reached the veterinary hospital, the staff began efforts to stabilize the dog. As the day progressed, the gallant young JR survived two cardiac arrests before succumbing to a third. It was like three strikes and you're out.

A certain loneliness now engulfs the Siebert household, a psychological chasm that we pet owners experience all too often.

The focus of two literary works, a movie and countless commercials, the Jack Russell finds itself in the center of something entirely different - a tug-of-war between national clubs, one favoring American Kennel Club recognition, the other opposed.

Founded in 1985, the Jack Russell Terrier Association of America supports AKC conformation, obedience, agility, earthdog and tracking competition and is recognized by the New York registry as the parent breed club.

Its statement of purpose:

"The Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (former name) was founded in response to widespread misrepresentation in America of the Jack Russell terrier, as a long backed, short-legged, heavy-bodied terrier of questionable temperament, measuring 10 to 12 inches and incapable of following a fox anywhere."

From an initial membership of 10 breeders in New England, the association has grown to approximately 150 nationwide.

Since 1987, the club began to structure its services and activities in compliance with the AKC guidelines, and in 1992 the breed standard was revised to incorporate the AKC's recommendations for structure and layout. Four years later, it was revised again to meet all of the New York registry's criteria.

The opponent in this scrap is the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America, although it has allies in the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain along with numerous other JR clubs worldwide.

The much-larger Jack Russell Terrier Club of America opposes AKC recognition in order "to preserve the working ability, great intelligence, sound physical structure and broad standard so necessary for a variety of work of this unspoiled type of working terrier."

The highest compliment the JRTCA receives come from its registry, it claims. "Those familiar with kennel-club registries would say they are proud to be associated with a registry that turns down dogs with genetic faults," says the JRTCA position statement.

"Kennel-club registries accept anything, and thus implicitly condone breeding from it. By turning down dogs with inherited defects, the JRTCA is doing a great service to protect the Jack Russell terrier and keep out serious faults in the breed. Likewise, kennel-club registries accept dogs which are the product of brother/sister, mother/son or father/daughter matings. This sort of inbreeding has contributed to the physical and mental downfall of many breeds, making them unsuitable for work or companionship.

"The Jack Russell will be preserved if it continues to be protected by the JRTCA, its registry and JR owners who truly have the terrier's best interest at heart."

Overnight popularity for a breed produces nothing but problems for dedicated breeders. Up pop puppy mills and backyard breeders hoping to make a quick profit before moving on to the next breed capturing the public's fancy.

Both national clubs are making a concerted effort to educate the public that the cute Eddie and Wishbone of TV fame and Enzo of "My Dog Skip" aren't exactly what you get when you purchase a JR without doing your homework.

Here are some caveats about the breed:

-- It is first and foremost a hunting dog. In that package comes a dog that might bark, exhibit an aggressive nature and be a prolific scent tracker (particularly when that female dog three blocks away is in heat).

-- It is bred to go underground. That meansthere's a good chance of it becoming a prolific digger unless you find something else to occupy its attention.

-- It's a big dog in a small body. The 13- to 17-pound animal demands plenty of exercise morning and night. If that's not on your daily agenda, don't even consider a JR.

-- It's fearless and always confident, to a point where it won't back off a confrontation in the park or neighborhood sidewalk with that 120-pound giant.

-- A shedder. Don't be fooled by its short coat, it drops a good portion of it year around.

-- Requires firm, consistent discipline. Extremely intelligent and often preferring to play the alpha role, the JR will assume the boss role if you don't.

-- Due to its natural hunting instinct, it has a propensity to chase cats, birds, rabbits and other small pets.

-- Lengthy life span. It's not unusual for a JR to live 15 years and longer. Be prepared for a long-term commitment.

-- Needs a fenced yard. Because of its hunting instincts, the JR will roam far and wide. It is an escape artist with a Houdini reputation. Meaning secure the gate and build a rock trough beneath every inch of the fence, making a dig out difficult.

-- Not recommended for apartments or condominiums. If by now you haven't gathered this isn't a good apartment or condo companion (don't tell Miles or Frasier), something's wrong. We're not talking brain surgery here, only common sense.

If you're looking for an adjective that best captures this supercharged breed it would be versatile. Consider the JR is adept in obedience, agility, racing, hunting, herding, police work (drug sniffing), therapy (it's a favorite in nursing and retirement homes) and, of course, acting.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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