The Briard (pronounce bree ARD) is believed to be the oldest of France’s four native sheepdogs (the others are the Beauceron, Picardy, and Great Pyrenees). The earliest evidence of the breed’s existence dates back to 8th century tapestries depicting large, rough haired, Briard-like dogs, sitting at the feet of Emperor Charlemagne. Besides Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparte was another prominent Frenchman believed to have owned Briards. In fact, paintings, engravings, and letters from 1815, suggest that the famous leader was so fond of his Briards that he brought them along with him to the island of St. Helene off the West African coast, where he was exiled for life.
The breed was not called “Briard” until around 1809. Prior to that time they were known as “Chien d’Aubry”, Chien d’Montargis”, and, most commonly as “Chien Berger de Brie” or “Chien de Brie”. Briards did not originate in the region of Brie; many breed historians believe that “Chien de Brie” may be a corruption of “Chien d’Aubry” due to their similar sound. More support for this theory is found in the fact that all three names except Chien de Brie are related to Aubry de Montdidier. A French courier to King Charles V, his murder in 1371 at the hands of Richard de Macaire became the stuff of legend. The killing occurred near ville de Montargis, with Montdidier’s beloved dog as the only witness. The dog gave his master’s murderer no peace, following him and barking, growling, even lunging for his throat, which eventually implicated the man in the King’s eyes. The King ordered a duel between the dog and Macaire; the face off was held October 8th, 1371, at Notre Dame in Paris. Two versions exist of the outcome; one is that the dog killed Macaire, the other is that the dog bested him, so Macaire confessed to the murder and was later hanged for his crime. In either case, Aubry’s dog became a hero.
A statue of a Briard was placed on top of the door of the Cathedral of Montdidier, in commemoration of Aubry’s heroic pooch. It was destroyed in World War I, but another statue, called Chien d’Montargis, was sculpted by Gustave Debrie in 1870. This bronze statue depicts Aubry’s Briard attacking Macaire and can be seen in the garden of l’Hotel Durzy in Montargis. Briards, according to one breed expert, are “not a breed created by modern zoology but rather is the natural descendant of…the dog of pre-history. He has evolved through time by natural selection for the qualities needed in his work.” Most shepherd dogs were bred to either herd or guard, but Briards were used for both. These dogs were considered partners with the shepherds because they were often left alone to take care of the flock. Such responsibility necessitated an intelligent dog, who was willing and able to make independent decisions; modern Briards still retain these qualities.
Briards were often used in the unfenced farm valleys of France, where sheep grazed between rows of crops. Briards kept the sheep moving along these grassy strips and ensured they did not eat the crops. Maneuvering the sheep through these narrow rows meant they needed to be agile, quick and light on their feet, and able to make abrupt turns or stops. The standard for modern Briards requires these same skills. This breed was also employed to move large flocks to different pasture lands over many miles, including to mountain grazing areas in the summer. Their ability to tend these flocks, keeping them safe and within boundaries, required them to be powerful leaders. This tendency to take charge is part of the modern Briard’s genetic makeup as well.
Earlier in their histories, Briards’ guarding duties often meant entering into a fight to the death with wolves or even poachers. After the French Revolution (1789-1799) land was divided into smaller sectors. This change allowed Briards to take on more peaceful duties, where they were used to keep their masters’ flocks closer to home and guard their families’ homesteads at night.
The Briard and the Beauceron are similar French sheepdogs, once thought to be variations of the same breed. The first official documentation to distinguish between the two types was written by priest Abbe Rozier in 1809 when he wrote about the long and short haired shepherd dogs of France. The long haired he called the “berger de Brie” (Briard) and the short haired he labeled the “berger de Beauce” (Beauceron). Pierre Megnin, a veterinarian and zoology professor, identified and described the two types of sheepdogs in more depth in 1863. These two breeds were not officially considered separate until 1896 and continued to be interbred until the 1900s.
Following the Paris Canine Exhibition—the first ever French dog show--in May 1863, the Briard captured the attention of the public when Charmante, a female Briard, came in first place among the shepherd dogs. By then, through judicious crossings with the Beauceron and Barbet (an ancestor of the Poodle), its appearance had been improved. In 1885, the first Briard was officially entered into the French Pedigree Records book. The dog was a black male, born in 1882, named Sans-Gene and owned by Prince de Bearn.
But it was not until 1896 that breed historians mark the emergence of the modern Briard. It was in this year that the first French club for breeders of shepherd dogs was founded. This club was the outgrowth of a meeting held in the market of the village of Villete; among the attendees was Pierre Megnin who later headed up a breed club for the Beauceron. Another result of the meeting was the formation of a committee charged with drawing up breed standards; by 1897 the first known Briard standard had been written. It was revised in 1908, 1924, and again in 1925. The standard from 1925 is still in effect today. In 1909 the Friends of the Briard (Les Amis du Briard) was formed. This club was disbanded in WWI, but was reestablished afterward in 1923.
Briards have a well documented history of exceptional and heroic military service. The breed was enlisted by the French Army as sentry, messengers, and as searchers for wounded soldiers in World Wars I and II. Their keen hearing was an asset in sentry duties and they showed an exceptional ability to search through the bodies on the battlefield for the wounded. Legend has it that the military men believed that if a Briard passed by a wounded soldier on the battlefield, the soldier must be beyond all possible help. These dogs carried food, supplies, and munitions to soldiers in the field. In WWI, the breed almost went into extinction because of the extensive use of them by the French military. Many died heroes; their breed characteristic of working beyond the point of exhaustion to perform and complete a task, caused the death of a number of Briards during the wars. The metal entry door to one of France’s military cemeteries contains a depiction of the head of a Briard on it, in tribute to their heroism. A painting by Jean Etienne Mondineu, shows an injured WWI soldier in uniform, leading an injured Briard to the Blue Cross camp (the animal equivalent of the Red Cross).
A famous American believed to have owned Briards was Thomas Jefferson. Both he and the Marquis de La Fayette are credited with introducing the breed to the United States. La Fayette, a French nobleman who fought in the American Revolution and worked to gain French support for the United States, became friends with Thomas Jefferson when Jefferson was the U. S. Ambassador to France prior to the French Revolution. While in France, Jefferson also became friends with Pierre Samuel DuPont de Nemours and developed an interest in French sheepdogs.
In 1789 when Thomas Jefferson boarded the ship the Clermont to return home, he had with him his two daughters, two of his slaves (James and Sally Hemings), sixty European trees, and one pregnant Briard, which he named Bergere. She gave birth to two puppies while crossing the Atlantic, one of whom was named Clermont, after the ship. Ensconced at his home in Monticello, Mr. Jefferson imported another Briard from Normandy in 1790. La Fayette sent him a female Briard in 1806. In 1809, Jefferson told Pierre DuPont, who was sailing to the United States, to bring him back another pair of Briards and to have La Fayette select them.
Jefferson sent two Briards to Judge Harry Innes in Kentucky in the early 1800s in hopes the breed would spread throughout the state. Over the course of thirty years Jefferson used his Briards to herd his Merino sheep and tried to carefully breed them with the aim of disseminating them across the U.S. Some of the names of Jefferson’s Briards, besides Bergere and Clermont, were: Grizzle, Buzzy, Armandy, Norman, and Sancho. Jefferson described them as “The most careful intelligent dogs in the world.” He also said of them: “Their extraordinary sagacity renders them extremely valuable, capable of being taught almost any duty that may be required of them, and the most anxious in their performance…the most watchful and faithful of all servants.”
Despite Thomas Jefferson’s efforts, Briards did not become established in the United States until the early 1900s. Some of the American soldiers returning from World War I brought back Briards; it was then that the breed caught the attention of dog fanciers. The first litter of Briards, bred by Barbara Danielson of Groton, Massachusetts, was registered with the AKC in 1922. In 1928 the Briard Club of America (BCA) was formed; they adopted the breed standard of Les Amis du Briard, with only minor modifications. The AKC recognized the Briard in 1928.
Even though Briards are not widely known in the United States, they can be viewed on commercials, have appeared in a number of TV series, and enjoy a presence on the internet and social media. A few of the TV series that have featured Briards are: “Dennis the Menace” (Ruff), “My Three Sons” (Tramp), “Get Smart” (Fang), “The Addams Family” (Them), and “Married With Children” (Buck). In addition to appearing on David Letterman’s “The Late Show” and a local Atlanta news show, a Briard named Norman Cobb, of Canton, Georgia, has his own facebook page and youtube video.
An online news article and video from April 2011 about Norman, highlight the intelligence and physical agility—and downright fun--of the Briard. He competes in obedience trials and, by fifteen months of age had already earned his Companion Dog Title after taking first place four times. But it is for a different talent that Norman has landed guest spots on several TV shows. Norman can ride a razor scooter. His owner, Karen Cobb, explained that he played with her children’s scooter in the backyard, so she decided to give him a ride on it. After that, she decided to show him how to push it himself and now he can be seen on the internet, riding his razor scooter and having the time of his life.
Today Briards are still used to herd and guard flocks, as well as assisting in search and rescue operations and police and military work. Briards participate in conformation, obedience, tracking, flyball, and agility competitions. They are used as therapy dogs, watchdogs, and loyal companions. Briards enjoy only modest popularity in the United States, listed 125th out of the AKC’s 167 breeds, while in its native France, the number of Briards is second only to the number of German Shepherds. Briards are popular also in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland, Scandinavia, and Holland.
Briards are large dogs whose appearance should reflect their innate strength, agility, and alertness. Males are 23 to 27 inches tall when measured from the ground to withers; females measure 22 to 25 ½ inches in height. The length of the Briard measured from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock is either the same or slightly more than the height. Female Briards can be a bit longer. No weights are given by the AKC for Briards because they are working dogs, but males range between 75 and 100 lbs and females between 55 and 65 lbs.
The Briard’s outer coat is coarse, hard, and long. When rubbed between a person’s fingers it makes a dry, raspy sound. The dog’s slightly wavy hair falls flat and should exhibit a healthy sheen. Hair length on its shoulders is six inches or more. Their heads are covered with a generous amount of hair that lies flat and parts in the middle. Eyebrows arch up and out, rather than lying flat, and curve, lightly veiling the eyes. Head hair should not be so profuse that it covers the eyes completely or obscures the shape of the head. The under coat hair is fine and fits tightly against the body.
The color of the Briard’s coat may be black, shades of gray, or shades of tawny. Deeper hues of each color are preferred to lighter. Combinations of two of these colors are allowed, but not in the form of spots. Two colored coats should show a gradual and symmetrical transitioning from one color to the other. The coat may not be solid white. In fact, white is only allowed in two manifestations: as individual white hairs scattered throughout the coat and as a single white spot, no larger than an inch in diameter at the roots, on the dog’s chest.
The Briard’s head (measured from occiput to nose tip) is forty percent of its height (measured from ground to withers), although it is acceptable if the head is slightly longer. The dog’s head in silhouette, viewed from above, the front, and in profile, looks like two rectangles of equal length but different heights and widths; the skull forms the bigger rectangle and the muzzle is the smaller. The Briard’s head has clean lines, without jowls or any extra flesh under the eyes, at the temples, or sides. The head connects in a right angle with the neck.
The width of the head at the skull is slightly less than the skull’s length, when measured from the stop to the occiput. The prominent occiput is not visible because of the Briard’s hair. The dog’s forehead is slightly rounded. The muzzle must never be pointed or narrow; with the mustache and beard it is wide, terminating at a right angle. The toplines of the skull and muzzle are parallel, joined by a clear stop. The stop is even with the eyes and located halfway between the nose tip and the occiput.
The Briard’s eyes are level and set wide apart; the gaze is direct with a questioning look. Their large eyes are black or black-brown and the rim of the eyelids is dark, matching the coat color. Their ears, covered with long hair, are thick, firm at the base, and set high on the head. When left natural, ear length is half or slightly less than half the length of the head. Their straight ears never lie flat against their heads and, when alert, are raised just enough to make the skull appear square shaped. In the case of cropped ears, they are upright and parallel; when alert, the ears face forward with the hair falling across the ear opening. Cropped ears are broad at the base, long, and taper to a rounded tip. The Briard has a square, black nose with wide open nostrils. Their black lips are firm, fitting neatly over strong, white teeth into a scissors bite.
Briards’ strong necks are shaped like truncated cones. Their long, sloping shoulders form a forty-five degree angle to the horizontal plane, blending into the withers. The broad, deep chest has a breastbone that is somewhat convex in front. The ribs are curved forming an egg shape, rather than rounded. The moderately tucked abdomen shows good volume. The dog’s topline shows a slight incline from the straight back to the withers; from the loin upward is another slight incline to the croup, which is muscular with a sloping, rounded finish. There is no sway or roaching in the strong topline. The Briard has a natural tail with generous feathering; the tail is carried low, hanging straight with a crook at the end. When stationary the tail bone hangs to the point of the hock, where it forms a crook, looking like a “J” when viewed from the dog’s right side. In motion the tail curves without rising above the topline of the back, except for the crook.
The forelegs in side view are vertical, with pasterns at a slight slant. Legs are straight and parallel to the body’s median line when viewed from the front or rear. The distance between the front legs is the same as the distance between the back legs. (The construction of the legs determines the Briard’s endurance and ability to work and is therefore a critical aspect of the dog’s build.) Removal of dewclaws on the forelegs is optional.
Briards have powerful hindquarters which give them flexible and almost indefatigable movement. The pelvis is sloped at a thirty degree angle from the horizontal plane. The hind legs in side view are well angulated; the metatarsus is inclined somewhat, with the hock forming a 135 degree angle. Briards must have two dewclaws on each of their hind legs, set low, which allows a wide base for each foot. (If the nail breaks off, the dog will not be penalized as long as the digit remains.) When the hocks and metatarsus are parallel, the rear toes should turn out slightly. Briards’ feet are rounded and slightly oval shaped. Their strong toes are arched and compact with well developed pads that are covered with strong tissue. These dogs have hard, black nails.
Briards have a light and supple gait that is almost cat-like. They can spring into action, make abrupt turns, and stop suddenly. They appear to glide when they move, as if not even touching the ground. They must exhibit both strength and flexibility when in action.
A Briard is not generally a recommended breed for the first time dog owner. If you are considering owning one of this breed, careful research and honest assessment of your family’s temperament and lifestyle, are imperative before making a decision. These large, loving, and intelligent dogs require a great deal of both time and attention. They also require a firm leader, consistent training, and early and ongoing socialization. If you do decide, after researching and assessing, that you are ready to make the commitment required, the rewards will be much greater than your investment.
French actress Gaby Morlay (1893-1964) accurately dubbed the Briard “a heart wrapped in fur”. Briards quickly develop bonds of great affection and loyalty toward their human families. Briards are known to be good with children of all ages and never grow too old to play. However, as with any breed of dog, young children should be supervised with them and older children need to be taught respect for the dog’s boundaries. This breed is content and quiet in the home and adaptable to household routines. They are happy to be near you and do not fare well when away from their family for too long. In fact, Briards require a lot of entertainment and interaction from their humans to be happy; a frustrated Briard can become aggressive or destructive.
Gentle but fearless, they have a powerful instinct to protect their families or owners, along with their homes. They make great watch dogs, with their keen sense of hearing, constant alertness to any change in their environment, and fearlessness. Because they are sensitive to changes in their environment, when you bring something new into your household, whether it is a baby or a piece of furniture, you will need to get your Briard comfortable with the change. Your dog will need you to demonstrate that whatever it is, it is something good, and not dangerous.
Socializing your Briard will not detract from the instinct to protect and defend you. Socialization and training must start as soon as you bring your puppy home. Do not wait to enroll him or her in a puppy kindergarten class and follow up with obedience training. Make it routine to bring your pet with you into a variety of different environments and in contact with people of all sizes and ages. This practice should be ongoing, throughout your Briard’s life. Getting your pet accustomed to the world outside of the home and to different people will help your dog to be happy, confident, and well-mannered. Briards are naturally reserved with strangers, so while it is important to encourage people to pet your dog, be careful to respect your Briard’s reticence and not overwhelm him or her.
Briards tend to be aggressive toward other dogs, especially male to male. Socialization from puppyhood helps curb this tendency. Some Briards may not behave well with cats, although generally if they are raised and socialized with household cats, they will get along with them. They may tend to chase or nip small animals, so they should remain on leash when outside in an unenclosed area.
Training a Briard is not recommended for a first time dog owner because they are a dominant breed, with a strong streak of independence, and an uncanny ability to sense any weakness in your leadership. According to Stanley Coren’s breed intelligence list, Briards rank high in the “above average” intelligence category. They are quick to learn, have excellent memories, and do have a strong desire to please you. They are capable of understanding and memorizing an extensive range of verbal commands, tonal qualities, and body language. But because they were bred to make decisions independently, Briards can be stubborn requiring great patience on your part. Their instinct to control situations requires that you maintain clear and firm leadership with your dog at all times. Briards shared a rather egalitarian working relationship with their shepherds and therefore, you need to use consistent and gentle persuasion and praise in training your pet. They are sensitive to harsh or unfair treatment or anger; such tactics will not work and will be detrimental to your pet’s character and happiness. But you must be firm with your pet and enforce the rules and limits you set with your dog, each and every time.
Like all dogs, a daily pack walk is required for their physical and mental health and to maintain your leadership, but in addition, these large working dogs need vigorous daily exercise. They are usually game for a run or jog, and also enjoy going for a swim. As long as they are well exercised, Briards can adapt to apartment life, but a house with a medium sized yard (well enclosed) is preferable. If that is not possible, access to a safe, enclosed, outdoor setting where your Briard can run loose will suffice. Briards are well suited to life in the country, as long as they are not expected to live outdoors.
Briards require do extensive grooming. Plan on devoting two to three hours a week to taking care of your pet’s hair. Their long coats require daily brushing to prevent mats and tangles; this is essential to the health of their skin and hair. The good news is, Briards do not shed much and frequent brushing lessens it still more. Begin brushing the coat and handling the paws of your puppy when it is eight to ten weeks old, even before it has enough coat to need any maintenance. Train him or her not to chew the brush or bite at this time. Starting early will ensure that when your Briard grows bigger and stronger, he or she will cooperate with the grooming process.
Their coarse coats, sometimes referred to as “goat hair” naturally repel dirt and water, making bathing necessary infrequently. Too much bathing can strip their skin and coat of natural oils. In turn, this loss can damage skin and coat health, as well as detract from the beauty and sheen of their hair.
Other grooming requirements for the Briard include keeping their ears clean, removing excess hair inside their ears, and trimming excess hair between the pads of their feet. Your Briard’s teeth should be checked and cleaned periodically, as well.
Briards are prone to the same health problems as most large breed dogs. The BCA founded the independent non-profit Briard Medical Trust in 2005 to promote research and educate owners and breeders regarding health matters for Briards. This breed has a life expectancy of between 10 and 12 years. The leading causes of death are Gastric torsion and bloat and cancer. Gastric torsion and bloat is common in large breed dogs with deep chests. This syndrome occurs if the dog’s stomach or other internal organs twist, blocking them off. Symptoms include panting, retching, and hard or distended abdomen. Immediate medical attention and surgery are required for the dog to survive. Preventive measures include not overfeeding and not feeding dog before exercising. Lymphosarcoma is the most common type of cancer found in Briards. It is not yet known whether this cancer has a hereditary basis.
Other health issues include: