While it’s no longer classed as a spaniel, David Tomlinson finds the Brittany spaniel has the abilities to rival most Continental HPRs – with a little training
The Brittany spaniel may look like our spaniels but in actual fact it is a true HPR. Numbers remain low in the UK but David Tomlinson finds that, with a little training, the Brittany can rival most Continental HPRs.
They say that field trials make for a poor spectator sport. But David Tomlinson has found the glorious exception, The Champion Stake.
Numerous breeds of gundogs from Germany and eastern Europe have become firmly established as working dogs in the UK. Think of German shorthaired, wirehaired and longhaired pointers, weimaraners, Munsterlanders and vizslas. But only one French breed has ever caught on in this country. This is the Brittany, the most spaniel-like of all the Continental breeds. It used to be known here as the Brittany spaniel but “spaniel” was dropped some years ago to avoid confusion with our native breeds. It’s by far the commonest gundog in its native country, where it’s known as L’Epagneul Breton.
Though it may look like a spaniel, the Brittany is a true HPR. It is never happier than when hunting at a gallop, often at a considerable distance from the accompanying sportsmen. Brittanys are blisteringly quick, making even a fit English springer look as if lacks a sixth gear. They are dogs best suited to open country when game is sparse and really takes some finding. A typical lowland shoot in England, with an abundance of reared birds, is far from ideal for this hard-going Frenchman.
Brittany spaniels are cobby-looking dogs with square proportions. This is no accident, for the breed is reputedly modelled on the French cob horse. This was an area in France once famed for its snipe-shooting. In the middle years of the 19th century it drew sportsmen from England. They brought with them their pointers and English and Gordon setters, some of which were left behind at the end of the season. These individuals were mated with the local spaniel, the fougeres, creating the ancestors of the breed we know today.
BRITTANY SPANIEL: IN BRITAIN AND IN FRANCE
It was this mixture of blood that gives the Brittany such a mixture of colours. Orange and white, liver and white, black and white, tricolour or roans are all permissible according to the breed standard. The commonest colour, and certainly the one you see most often in France, is orange roan. In size these dogs are slightly smaller and lighter in weight than an English springer but proportionately longer in the leg. One peculiarity is that many dogs are born tailless, while it was always traditional to dock those born with tails very short.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the breed became established here, following the import of a dog and two bitches by Stanley Smith. Interest in the Brittany grew as more people saw these dogs working. Unlike our native cockers and springers, there’s no divide between show and working types. It’s one of the few breeds with recent dual champions (show and field trial), an impressive achievement.
My first experience of the breed was in its native country, where I was impressed with its speed, endurance and good nose. However, generally speaking, shooting in France, la chasse, is a rather more relaxed and social affair than it is in this country. Untrained and ill-disciplined dogs that would be banished from the shooting field here are often tolerated in France. I came across few dogs that had received much in the way of training, their owners relying on the dog’s natural ability to hunt and point. For these dogs, accustomed to spending their days relaxing in the Café des Sports, the Sunday morning chasse was the highlight of the week and a time to burn off excess energy.
BRITTANY SPANIEL: A RARE BREED
My first encounters with Brittanys in the UK were similar. I suspected that this was a hard breed to train, until spending a day with a falconer, flying his goshawk over one. This dog was a revelation. A stylish and controlled hunter, responsive to the whistle and solid on point. I was impressed. Recent encounters with other individual Brittanys have shown me that a well-trained example is more than a match for any of the other breeds of HPR. I would never consider a Brittany as a peg dog. However I’ve seen one working brilliantly in a picking-up team and it’s a dog with a lot to commend it for rough-shooting.
The plus side of the Brittany is its compact size. It’s by far the smallest of all the HPRs. On the downside is the fact that it’s not uncommon to find a Brittany that doesn’t like retrieving. This isn’t really surprising. Many of the French chasseurs I have met aren’t too bothered about asking their dogs to collect their shot game. This lack of interest in retrieving appeals to falconers. A dog that tries to retrieve your hawk is not a good companion.
Despite its undoubted merits, the Brittany remains a rare breed in the UK. Kennel Club statistics show that only once in the past 10 years have more than 200 puppies been registered in a year (203 in 2007). Last year’s total was a mere 111, compared with 1,436 German shorthaired pointers and more than 2,000 Hungarian vizslas. As the French will confirm, this a high-performance sporting dog that makes a fine companion. But it is also a serious alternative to any of the German HPRs.