How the little spaniel from France developed into the wildly popular versatile hunting dog.
The history of the Brittany can be divided into two parts: before 1907 and after 1907. Tracing the breed’s progress since 1907 is relatively easy. Getting a clear picture of its development before that time is next to impossible.
Brittany is a beautiful region of France. The people who live there are French citizens; they speak, read, and write French and they enjoy a thoroughly modern lifestyle just like the rest of the country. But in order to understand the development of its native breed of pointing dog, it is important to consider just how isolated the region was, and in some ways still is, from the rest of the nation.
Geographically, La Bretagne (“Brittany” in English) is a peninsula in the far west corner of the French hexagon. Culturally, its people have always felt somewhat separate from the rest of the country. Their traditional language, Breton, is not a French dialect but a Celtic language related to Welsh and Cornish. In fact, until the turn of the 20th century, much of Brittany’s population did not even speak, read, or write French. So, it is not surprising that very few French texts make any mention of what kind of dogs there were in Brittany before 1900.
Fortunately, many of the British sportsmen who traveled to the region in the 1800s wrote articles and published books about their adventures. Reading through them today, a fascinating picture emerges of what the dogs in Brittany were like in the mid-1800s. One of the most detailed accounts is from a book titled The Wanderer in Western France written in 1863 by George T. Lowth. In it, Lowth describes short- and long-haired pointing dogs that were “found everywhere” in Brittany.
In many villages I saw specimens of a highly-bred shooting dog. These were so like English Pointers, having the same fine head and eyes, and sinewy light frame, as compared with the old French pointer, that I took them at first for English dogs, whom some of our sporting and wandering countrymen, who are to be found everywhere on the face of the globe where there is a bird to be shot, or a wild animal to be hunted, had brought over to Brittany. Naturally, my question was,
“What English gentleman is there living near here?” To my surprise I was told that there was no Englishman there, and that this was the common breed of dogs of the country. Subsequently, I saw dogs of this breed everywhere. They are marked in the same way as our Pointers, have the same fine eye, the same easy, active movement, the same rapidity of stride in action, and look all over the working animal.
Farther down the country there is a breed very similar in all respects, only rather smaller, but these possess all the fine characteristics of the larger race. There is also a breed of setters, quite equal to any in England, and in fact not to be distinguished from them. These animals are claimed in Brittany as a native breed, but one cannot help suspecting that it owes its origin, not very many years since, to some of our emigrant countrymen, settled since the war in various parts of that country—so tempting to them from its moderate cost of living and its many advantages in sporting—two irresistible attractions for English sportsmen.
John Kemp also wrote about his hunting adventures in Brittany and said that it was common practice to cross spaniels and setters.
I have put a spaniel to a well-bred setter bitch, and been lucky enough to combine the ranging qualities of the latter and the hunting perseverance of the former. The French have tried this cross very frequently. I lately purchased one of the produce, and I can say that few dogs perform better in the field than this one.
Another classic book from the same era is Wolf Hunting and Wild Sport in Brittany, written in 1875 by Edward William Lewis Davies, who lived in Brittany for two years in the 1850s. He mentions seeing all kinds of dogs: Harriers, Poodles, double-nosed Spanish Pointers, and “mongrels of the lowest type.” He also wrote about a “Brittany Pointer.” This has been interpreted by some as the first mention in English of the Brittany Spaniel. But there are other, earlier descriptions such as the one above, and it is clear that the Brittany Pointer described by Davies had a short coat:
They certainly are not so fine in the skin as the Spanish or English pointers; but, although they do not carry long-haired jackets and feathered stems like setters or spaniels, their coats are thick and close set, and well adapted to the rough country in which they do their work.
However, Davies does write about local hunters cropping the tails of their dogs. Could some of the dogs been naturally short-tailed, a defining characteristic of the first Brittanies?
There is a sad disfigurement practised on Brittany Pointers…the tail, that indicator of all a dog’s thoughts, that silent tongue that explains all he means, is chopped off in puppyhood, and a mere stump is left, scarcely longer than that of a Salisbury Sheepdog.
One aspect of the Brittany legend that Davies does confirm is that hunting dogs in the region were used by local braconniers (poachers).
Yet the poor uneducated peasant of Lower Brittany, the braconnier who gets his livelihood by the chase, shooting partout [everywhere], breaks a pointer for his own use, immeasurably superior in many respects to the highly-trained dogs so often met with in our turnip fields and grouse moors. …he will, as already stated, face the thorniest brake, never rake in drawing for his birds, and above all will retrieve his wounded game by land or water perfectly.
Around 1906, a veterinarian named Dr. Grand-Chavin, an officer in the French Army, wrote about seeing small hunting dogs with short tails and white and brown, white and black, and white and orange coats around the town of Pontivy. Other French sources mention dogs known as choupilles (pronounced “shoo-pee”) and Épagneuls de Fougères. Dog expert and author Ronan de Kermadec, who had seen choupilles as a child, described them as a mix of small spaniel and on ne sait de quoi (“who knows what”). They were primarily selected and trained to work very close to the hunter and to flush birds and rabbits from tight cover—basically the French version of an English flushing spaniel.
As for the Épagneuls de Fougères, Gaston Pouchain wrote that they were slightly long-limbed, with a short tail, white and brown or white and black. He also described another type of chien du pays (country or native dog) that was more common in the center of the peninsula. It was short and stocky, white and black and even orange, and sometimes tri-colored or white and brown.
In all likelihood, many of the dogs in the region were simply local variants of the ubiquitous épagneuls de France, descendants of the chiens couchants and chiens d’oysels mentioned by Gaston Phébus. Similar dogs were found further north, in Normandy and Picardy and even in Holland and northwestern Germany. Over time, isolated populations took on slightly different characteristics and were further modified by crosses to the English dogs that came over in great numbers after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
But more than any of the others, the Brittany was influenced by the land and culture—the terroir (soil) of its native region. It was generally smaller than the others, came in a variety of colors, and was renowned for its robust build. Gaston Pouchain wrote that:
This is true for the sheep, the goat, and the horse (of Brittany). … All those men and animals appeared stocky, close coupled, solid, very hardy and with an incomparable, natural strength.
In 1896 a four-year-old tri-colored dog named “Pinçon Royal” was entered in a show in Paris. Even though he was listed in the “various spaniels” category, he is considered to be the first Brittany ever shown since he came from the region and was owned by a local aristocrat, the viscount of Combourg. Over the next few years, a number of other dogs from Brittany were shown, and in 1905 a male named “Boy” was entered into the L.O.F. (the French stud book). He was the first to be registered as an Épagneul Breton.
In 1907 a breed club was formed in Loudeac, France. Led by a lawyer named Arthur Enaud, its members drafted a breed standard and submitted it for approval to the SCC. It was adopted the next year with one significant amendment: black was removed from the list of accepted colors since it was considered a sure sign of cross breeding to English dogs.
History of Brittanies in Post-War France
After the First World War, the Brittany’s popularity grew rapidly, but not without some growing pains. French sportsman Louis de Lajarrige wrote about what happened after Brittanies began to win major field trials.
Every hunter wanted one. Think about it! Their small size and their talents equal or superior to those of the big dogs made them exclusive, practical, easy to fit in the car and the apartment. They started to be mass produced, but their success—due to overzealous and uninformed breeders—was short-lived. People would advertise any little dogs vaguely corresponding to the breed type as “Brittanies”. … Now things have improved. Reason has returned and serious breeders have produced good and handsome dogs that are excellent servants.
By the 1930s the Brittany had made its way across the Atlantic as American sportsman Louis Thebaud, a breeder of Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, began to import them into the US. In 1936, Thebaud and others formed the Brittany Spaniel Club of North America. A second club was established in the US in 1942, and the two were eventually merged in 1944 to form the American Brittany Club.
During the war, breeders in France continued their efforts despite difficult conditions. In his book on the breed, Gaston Pouchain understandably avoids going into too much detail about the darkest days, but the few lines he did leave reveal the harsh realities of the time.
…during those years the members of the Paris chapter, despite the occupation, continued as usual to meet every month at the home of our friend, Bony. We would talk about the past, about the dogs that we had kept despite the restrictions, but most of all about the future. When the liberation finally arrived, my poor (dog) “Jobic” was killed by an unexpected burst of machine gun fire at the Plateau Beaubourg.
A common misconception about the period is that the breed nearly died off during the war years and was rebuilt with dogs brought from America in the late 1940s. But Gaston Pouchain wrote that this was not the case, and that American dogs did not play a significant role in the breed’s recovery.
One morning…I received a telegram from the US. It said that an American was on his way with three dogs that he would like to offer the club to reconstitute the breed that he thought was almost wiped out by the war. So I sent my friend Bonnet to Le Havre, first of all to invite this friendly American to Paris, and also to take delivery of the three bitches. They were indeed Brittanies, white and orange, but of a fairly vague type. I had them given to some friends who were without dogs.
Stuyvesant and Pouchain went on to form a solid friendship, and Stuyvesant confirmed that the breed had survived the war intact. In a letter he sent to the AKC Gazette in 1946, he wrote:
On the whole, the opinion of the experts seems to be that though they lost a great many dogs during the war, the best dogs of the breed were maintained, sometimes at great effort of sacrifice to the owners… they have enough good dogs left so that a further effort on our part is no longer necessary.
By the 1960s the Brittany was becoming the most popular gundog breed in France. It was also developing strong followings elsewhere in Europe, as well as in North America, where it soon became one of the top Continental pointing breeds on the field trial circuit.
Today the Brittany is one of the most popular pointing breeds on the planet. Descendants of the little dogs from La Bretagne can be found serving hunters from the plains of Patagonia to the Alaskan tundra. They can be seen in the wheat fields north of Paris to the bocage country of their native Brittany. And if your truck breaks down on the dusty prairies of southern Saskatchewan, don’t be surprised to see a Brittany sitting next to the friendly farmer that offers you a lift into town.
Selection and Breeding of the Brittany
The Brittany peninsula is blessed with an abundance of game, verdant countryside and rich culture, but it can be a hard land, isolated and unforgiving. As a result, the domestic animals native to the region tend to be small, vigorous, and tough as nails.
All the dogs in Brittany, choupilles, épagneuls and chiens du pays, were bred for the local conditions and renowned for their rugged strength. When English dogs began to appear, hunters in Brittany saw an opportunity to add to the qualities of their local breeds. Setters in particular seemed well suited to crossbreeding since they shared a number of morphological characteristics with the native dogs.
Pouchain identifies two main periods of crossbreeding. The first, in the mid-1800s, involved local dogs and Setters, Pointers and Springer Spaniels. But the crosses were haphazard, even accidental. During the second period, between about 1870 and 1900, the crosses were:
…desired and sought out by many. They were carried out mainly with English Setters that were closer in type (to the Brittany). And so there appeared highly “setterized” hybrids. And that would explain why the maximum height of 56 cm was admitted in the first (provisional) breed standard.
Crossbreeding ceased after 1907, at least officially. Additional crosses undoubtedly were made after the First World War and may have occurred until the 1950s or even later, but never officially or publicly. In North America, crosses to Setters and Pointers have undoubtedly occurred in the past. Today, is it doubtful that any crossbreeding is still going on. The Brittany has such a massive population of outstanding dogs that there is no need to look outside the breed for new blood.
For any breed with a strong following on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a risk of different types emerging as breeders follow different paths. In the Brittany, differences in type and hunting styles were first noticed just after the Second World War, and became more obvious after 1956 when the breed standard in France was changed to allow a black coat. Through the 1960s and ’70s the Brittany also developed a strong following on the North American field trial circuit, even among horseback field trial enthusiasts, which led to the development of big running “all age” Brittanies.
These and other factors caused what many feel is a split between American Brittanies and “French Brittanies”. Everyone recognizes that the two types have a shared ancestry and are the same breed genetically, but some believe that after nearly 80 years of moving in slightly different directions, the two types are irrevocably split. In fact, in 2002 the US-based United Kennel Club formally recognized the American Brittany and the French Brittany (or Epagneul Breton) as separate breeds. Members of the Club de l’Epagneul Breton of the United States (CEB-US) now register their dogs as Epagneul Bretons and follow the French (FCI) standard for the breed. The club also sanctions tests and field trials based on French regulations.
The American Brittany vs. Epagneul Breton question is the subject of sometimes heated debate within the various clubs, on internet forums, and in e-mail lists. Personally, I have no dog in the fight. I have seen tremendous Brittanies on both sides of the Atlantic and have a great deal of admiration for the supporters of both types. But I do suggest that anyone who is looking into purchasing a Brittany should take some time to investigate the various organizations and breeding approaches to find one that best suits their individual needs and goals.
Brittanies in the Field and Home Today
Brittany is the poster child of the French approach to pointing dogs. They are dyed-in-the-wool upland hunters filled with the same passion for the chase as the sportsmen who created them. If you really want to understand why hunters fell in love so quickly with the little dogs from Brittany, all you have to do is watch a couple work a cattail slough in North Dakota and pin rooster after rooster for their proud owner. Or you could attend a spring field trial north of Paris and watch the cream of the Épagneul Breton crop fly across the ground seeking wild partridges. Or you could ask any Brittany owner how their dogs are around the house and hear nothing but praise for the breed’s loving temperament.
I’ve seen Brittanies in trials in Europe. I’ve shot roosters and ruffed grouse over Sporty, Bandit, and Buster, three tremendous Brittanies owned by my good friend, Bob. I’ve spoken at length with Brittany owners and breeders and some of the best trainers in the world. And the more I learn about the breed, the more I admire it.
In fact, I had a hard time coming up with the list of “cons” for the Brittany. The list of “pros” was easy. But beyond the fact that Brittanies make lousy guard dogs, there really aren’t many downsides to the breed. The bottom line on the Brittany is that it is the fulfillment of the French dream to build a better bird dog. I am sure that if those old braconniers from La Bretagne could see the breed today, they would be thrilled to know that it has conquered the world.
Last modified: October 29, 2020