The Brittany is a gundog breed named for the region of France in which it originated. This breed is renowned by sportsmen across the world and is one of the most commonly used and successful competitors in American sporting dog events. The Brittany is known in many countries as the Brittany Spaniel, but in fact the breed hunts in a manner that is much more similar to a setter or pointer than other Spaniels. One of the primary reasons for the Brittany’s popularity is that the breed is one of the most versatile of all gundogs, capable of hunting numerous game species over almost any terrain. Breeders of Brittanies have long put a premium on working ability as well as conformation, and no other breed has as many dual champions, or dogs who have won titles in both the field show ring. This breed is sometimes known by its French name of Epagnuel Breton.
The Brittany was developed in a very rural and remote region of France prior to the start of this century, and almost no verifiable information about its development has survived. This means that most of what is said about the Brittany’s history is largely speculation and conjecture. What is known for sure is that this breed was developed in the region of Brittany sometime before the year 1900, and that over the past hundred years has become one of the most popular gundogs in both its native country and in the United States.
The Brittany is a member of the Spaniel/Setter family, and many countries still call the breed the Brittany Spaniel. The Spaniels are a group of long-eared and long-coated gundogs native to Western Europe. These dogs are perhaps the oldest of all gundogs, and some breeds may actually predate the use of guns for hunting birds. There is considerably debate as to when, where, and how the first Spaniels developed, and there are a number of theories. Most of these theories fall into one of three categories, a Spanish origin, a Celtic origin, or a Middle Eastern origin. The name Spaniel originated in the French term, “Chiens des l’Epagnuel.” Most have translated this term to mean, “Dogs of the Spaniard.” This has led to the common and logical assumption that these dogs were first developed in Spain. While this is perhaps the most likely theory, there is very scant evidence other than the name to suggest that these dogs came from that country. This theory is perhaps slightly less likely because the nation we know as Spain did not exist until the merger and conquest of several competing Christian and Islamic Kingdoms in the 1400’s, which is after when some breeds of Spaniel are thought to have existed.
In fact, “Chiens des l’Epagnuel” may not refer to Spain at all, but rather to Hispania, a Roman province which consisted of most of what is now Spain and Portugal. In more recent times, a number of dog experts have suggested that the original Spaniel breed was the Welsh Springer Spaniel and that all Spaniels are actually of Celtic origin. It is worth noting that almost all Spaniel breeds originated in countries with major Celtic influences, especially the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France. It is quite possible to combine the Spanish and Celtic origins into one theory, as Spain was once inhabited by a people who were closely related to Celts, the Celtiberians. Perhaps Spaniels were particularly favored by the Celtiberian populace of Hispania and took the name of the region. Some experts have come to believe that Spaniels were first developed in the Middle East and then brought back to Europe with returning pilgrims or crusaders. This theory also holds some merit. Arabic speaking peoples have long favored a sighthound known as the Saluki. The coats of many Salukis are very similar to that of Spaniels, particularly the long hair on the ears. Intriguingly, Islamic conquerors controlled most of Spain for a large part of the Middle Ages. It is very possible that these conquerors brought Salukis to Spain which is where they were first seen by the French, earning them the name Spaniel.
Whatever the true origin of the Spaniel family, these breeds became known as some of the finest birddogs of Western Europe. There have been dozens of different breeds and varieties of Spaniel throughout the centuries. Spaniels were traditionally divided into dogs which worked on land and those which worked in the water, and also by size and game species. Hunters developed dogs which were uniquely suited to their own region. One such region was Brittany, a peninsula on the western coast of France. This region was not traditionally French speaking, rather most inhabitants spoke Breton, a Celtic language related to Welsh. Brittany has long been more rural than the rest of France, but has long had a close relationship to the British Isles. Because much of Brittany remained undeveloped until the 20th Century, the conditions there were both more rugged and more varied than in most of the rest of Western Europe.
It is unclear when the first Spaniels arrived in Brittany, but it was likely several centuries ago. Once in Brittany, local hunters began to breed dogs which best suited their needs and tastes. Local conditions required dogs who could withstand cold, windy conditions, as well as inclement weather. Much of the local vegetation was very rough and could injure a dog that did not have a coat sufficient enough to protect it. Because Brittany was a relatively poor region, smaller dogs were favored because they were cheaper to keep, and more versatile dogs were favored because owners could only afford one hunting dog. To increase the versatility of their dogs, Breton breeders highly favored the most trainable and biddable ones. These breeders also bred dogs which were willing and able to work on both land and water. Gradually, a dog more closely resembling the modern breed was developed.
Although the exact date is unknown, by the end of the 1850’s, Breton breeders had begun crossing their local Spaniels with English Setters. It is now unclear why they chose to do so. Perhaps they wanted to increase the size of their dogs, enhance their noses, or increase their trainability. Whatever the original reason, it is thought that this English Setter blood is the reason that the Brittany does not hunt like a Spaniel. Essentially all other Spaniels hunt by flushing birds from their hiding places into the air where sportsmen can shoot them. The Brittany instead hunts by pointing or setting in a manner similar to much larger gundogs. There are two other very distinctive features of the Brittany, a naturally short tail and comparatively short ears. It is not known whether these traits were natural mutations or whether they were introduced by crossing local Spaniels with other breeds. However, both traits were firmly established by the end of the 1800’s, and there is an unverifiable story that a local hunter in the town of Pontou crossed his dog with that of a visiting Englishman resulting in two short-tailed puppies.
There is substantial debate as to which breed or breeds of Spaniel and Setter were used in the development of the Brittany. This is a mystery that will likely never be solved. Not only does the evidence just not exist, but until the 20th Century most of these dogs were not true breeds in the modern sense. For example, the same litter of puppies might have had both Cocker Spaniel and Springer Spaniels in it. A dog would only be classified when it reached full size and working potential. The Welsh Springer Spaniel and the Brittany are quite similar in appearance and many have suggested a close relationship between the two breeds. This is certainly possible, but it is more likely that the Brittany is more closely related to other French Spaniels such as the Epagnuel Francais and the Picardy Spaniel. It is frequently suggested that early Brittanies were crossed with some sort of pointer, and that this is the origin of their pointing behavior. This is certainly possible, and actually very likely, but it is impossible to tell when this was done, who did it, or even what breed of pointer was used. American fanciers typically suggest the English Pointer (often known as simply the Pointer) but this is just as likely to be the result of their familiarity with this breed as anything else, as several pointing dogs are native to continental Europe, such as the German Shorthaired Pointer, the Large Munsterlander, and numerous breeds of French Braque, such as the Braque Francais.
The first known written record of a dog which is almost certainly the Brittany comes from the year 1850. In that year an English clergyman by the name of Reverend Davies detailed hunting with, “bob-tailed” hunting dogs in the north of France. By the end of the 19th Century, the Brittany had become well-established across several areas of France and had begun to make occasional appearances at dog shows, notably the Paris Dog Show in 1900. Another early written record of the breed is one made by M. Le Comte Le Conteulx de Canteleu in 1901, in his work Chiens Francais et Chasse Anglais. Le Comte Le Conteulx de Canteleu described a number of French dog breeds, and lists the Chien de Bretagne (Dog of Brittany) as one of them. This is perhaps the first use of that name to describe the breed.
The earliest description and one which most closely resembles that of the modern breed was made by a French cavalry officer and veterinarian named Major P. Grand-Chavin in 1906. Grand-Chavin wrote that small Spaniels with short tails or no tails at all were very numerous across Brittany, and that these dogs were also relatively short-eared. He also mentioned that most of these dogs were either white and orange, white and liver, or white and black in color with some tri-color dogs as well. These are the exact same colors found in modern Brittanies. In 1907, an orange and white male named Boy became the first Brittany to be formally registered with a kennel club. Initially, the breed was officially known as the Epagnuel Breton Queue Courte Naturelle, translated as the Brittany Spaniel with a Short Natural Tail. The first breed standard was written around that time as well.
In 1928, the first known Brittanies to arrive in the Western Hemisphere were imported to Villa Obregon, Mexico by Senor Juan Pugibet. One of the first to import Brittanies into the United States was a Louis A. Thebaud in 1933. The following year, Mr. Thebaud requested the official standard from the French Kennel Club and received it in July of that year. The American Kennel Club (AKC) granted the Brittany recognition in 1934 under the name Brittany Spaniel, but did not accept the standard until the following year when an acceptable translation was made. The AKC placed the breed in the sporting group. The Brittany Spaniel Club of North America was both founded and granted official status with the AKC in 1936. The success of Brittanies as gundogs in America meant that increasing numbers of these dogs were imported to the United States.
World War II put a temporary end to dog exports from France, but also severely disrupted the functioning of the Brittany Spaniel Club of North America. Members lost touch and were unable to contact each other after the war, and a new club was founded, the American Brittany Club (ABC). Because AKC rules only allow for one official breed club, the two clubs officially merged as the ABC in 1944. The ABC was granted official AKC status as the official parent club later that year. In 1948, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also granted full recognition to the Brittany as a member of the gundog group. From a very early date, there was a great deal of lobbying by Brittany fanciers to have Spaniel dropped from the breed’s name. American dog fanciers have long classified dogs more on the basis of use and purpose than appearance or relationship, and the Brittany definitely does not hunt like a Spaniel. In 1982, this desire was formally granted by the AKC, making the United States the only country to not include Spaniel in the breed’s name.
World War II proved devastating for the Brittany population of Europe. Breeding of these animals almost ceased entirely, and many either starved or were euthanized. The gene pool was so limited that changes to standards were made to include as many dogs as possible. Most notably, France began to allow black Brittany Spaniels. These changes were not made in the United States, although ever since there has been substantial dispute as to whether they should be adopted in deference to the breeds country of origin. In the post-war years, there has been a great deal of mixing of European and American bloodlines. However, there is now a dispute as to whether there are now two distinct varieties of Brittany, American Brittanies and French Brittanies. In general, French Brittanies are said to be slightly smaller and to hunt closer to the gun, as well as coming in additional colors. For every breeder who claims there are two distinct Brittany varieties, there is another who claims that no such distinction exists, only exaggerated generalizations. In any case, this distinction has not been accepted by any major kennel club.
Since the Brittany first arrived in the United States, it has surged in popularity. The versatility of this breed has made it incredibly popular with American sportsmen, particularly those who only have the ability to go hunting once or twice a month. This breed is able to withstand almost any condition found in the contiguous 48 states, although it is not particularly well-suited to some environments found in the southernmost states. Brittanies are very capable of handling almost any avian quarry commonly hunted in the U.S. although they are known for being especially good with pheasant, quail, and woodcock. When combined with the breed’s extreme trainability, this versatility has made the Brittany one of the most popular and successful entrants in American sporting dog trials. This breed has excelled in AKC, UKC, and ABC events, as well as those held by numerous other organizations. While it is impossible to get an accurate count, the Brittany is surely one of the most commonly used working gundogs in the United States, and very possibly the most commonly used. American Brittany breeders are well-aware of this, and have made determined and concerted efforts to ensure that this breed retains its hunting abilities.
Although dual-champions (dogs which have received titles in conformation and performance events) are the most highly desirable for any breed, perhaps no other parent club has put so much emphasis on this status as the ABC. For their efforts, the club has been awarded with more than 500 AKC dual-champions; easily the most of any breed. In recent years, obedience and agility trials are becoming more and more popular, as well as other canine sports such as flyball and Frisbee. For many years, it has been realized that the Brittany excels at virtually every canine competition, and this breed has been a regular entrant and winner at nearly all of them.
Although this breed increased dramatically in numbers for a number of decades, this growth has largely leveled off. This is due to no fault of the breed’s, quite the contrary. The Brittany has simply completely filled its niche. The Brittany has already achieved a supreme status among working American gundogs, a status it shows essentially no signs of giving up. In 2010, the Brittany ranked 30th out of 167 total AKC breeds in terms of registration numbers, which is very high for a primarily working breed. While this breed makes an excellent companion, it is still definitely a working dog and the average family would not be able to meet its daily exercise and stimulation needs. Although an increasing number of families are keeping Brittanies exclusively as pets, a significantly higher percentage of Brittanies remain working dogs than is the case with most breeds.
While the Brittany is clearly a member of the Spaniel family, it is distinctly less “Spaniel-looking” than most similar breeds. Most of the traditional Spaniel features are present in this breed; they are just substantially less exaggerated. In many ways, the Brittany looks like a cross between a small pointer and a Spaniel. The Brittany is a truly medium-sized dog. This breed should stand between 17½ and 20½ inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 30 and 45 pounds. This is first and foremost a working dog, and should appear as such. Brittanies should be quite muscular, and very sturdily built. However, this breed should never be heavy or thick boned. This breed is perhaps the most squarely proportioned of all Spaniels, and should be roughly as long as it is tall at the shoulders. The Brittany is famed for its naturally short tail, and some dogs are actually born tailless. However, it is acceptable for this breed to have its tail docked, and very few Brittanies have a tail which is longer than 4 inches.
The face of the Brittany is similar to that of other sporting dogs. The head is generally proportionate to body size, although slightly on the small size. This breed’s muzzle is well-rounded and of medium length. The Brittany has eyes which are deeply set into its head and are well-protected when working in the field by heavy eyebrows. Darker eyes are preferable, but darker shades of amber are also acceptable. The nose of a Brittany corresponds to the dog’s darkest body color, and may be deep pink, brown, black, tan, or fawn. AKC standards disqualify dogs with black noses. The ears of a Brittany are of medium length, but are quite short for a Spaniel. These ears have a little fringe of hair, but not the feathering common to other Spaniels.
The coat of a Brittany is sufficiently long to protect the dog from injuries caused by rough vegetation, but not so long as to restrict movement or collect excessive burrs. This breed has a medium-length coat, considerably longer than a Labrador Retriever’s but considerably shorter than the average Spaniel’s. This coat should be either flat or wavy, never curly. The coat is very dense, but the Brittany is considered to be a single-coated breed. This breed exhibits some feathering on the legs, thighs, and ears, but this is not especially long or thick. Almost every major kennel club allows for Brittany’s to be shown in different colors. AKC standards prefer orange and white and liver and white dogs, but also accept tri-color. UKC standards prefer orange and white and liver and white, and black and white, but also accept tricolor.
Brittany breeders have been very careful to maintain the hunting instincts and abilities of this breed. As a result, this dog retains the temperament of a working gundog. However, this breed is also renowned for its good nature, and the vast majority of working Brittanies are also much beloved family companions when they get back from a day in the fields. The average Brittany is extremely affectionate and submissive towards its owner. This is a breed that craves the constant companionship and approval of those it loves best. These dogs will want to be around their people all of the time, but not necessarily right next to them. Most Brittanies are known for being very sweet and good-natured with new people, and are often quite welcoming towards them. However, this breed was bred to be one of the most naturally submissive of all breeds, which can turn to shyness or even fearfulness of new people if proper and thorough socialization does not begin at a young age. The Brittany is a breed whose fear is much more likely to lead to extreme distress and fleeing than aggression. However, it can still be very challenging and frustrating to deal with.
This breed would be an incredibly poor guard dog as the vast majority of breed members would either lick a stranger or run from one than challenge their entrance. When properly socialized, the Brittany is very highly regarded around children with whom it often becomes best friends. Even in a group with such breeds as the Labrador Retriever and the Cocker Spaniel, the Brittany is considered to be one of the best family companions of all sporting dogs. This breed is both small enough so that it is unlikely to accidentally injure children during rough play and large enough that it is unlikely to be injured by them. This breed is extremely submissive and easily trained for hunting, agility, obedience, and many other canine activities. For these reasons, if you are looking for your first hunting dog, first obedience dog, etcetera, this is one of the best breeds. This breed is also an excellent choice if you are looking for a dog that will be both a sporting dog and a family companion. However, this breed should not be left alone for long periods as severe separation anxiety is common among these dogs.
The Brittany generally gets along very well with other animals. Although this breed typically works alone in the field, it is more than capable of working with other dogs, and in fact greatly enjoys their company. This breed is not known for having dominance, territorial, or possessiveness issues. Very few Brittanies will immediately challenge other dogs; the majority will quickly submit. The average Brittany likely prefers the company of people and would gladly accept life as an only dog provided that it is given sufficient attention. However, this breed’s life is greatly enhanced by the presence of another dog, especially one with a similar level of activity. Although a hunting dog, the Brittany has surprisingly low predatory instincts. This dog was bred to locate birds for their masters and retrieve them after a shooting, never to attack other animals. As a result, when socialized most Brittany’s are very gentle with other animals whom they get along with quite well. This breed may have some issues with cats, not out of ill-will on the part of the dog, but rather on too strong of a desire to play.
The Brittany is one of the most trainable of all breeds, and consistently performs extremely well in essentially all canine competitions, from agility to gun dog trials. This breed is consistently placed very highly in all canine intelligence rankings, regularly appearing in the top 20 most intelligent breeds. With the possible exception of some extreme herding behaviors and tasks that require immense strength, ferocity, or weather adaptations, a Brittany can learn essentially any task that any other breed is capable of. Not only is this breed very capable, but it is very willing. This breed should provide very few training difficulties as it is regarded as one of the most biddable of all dogs. These animals absolutely live to please, and it should show in their training.
The Brittany would make an excellent dog for almost all families were it not for the breed’s very high exercise and stimulation requirements. For a dog of this size, the Brittany is incredibly poorly suited for apartment life, or even life in most closely packed in suburbs. This is a dog that needs to exercise, and needs to exercise a great deal. With the exception of some herding dogs, and perhaps a few working terriers almost no breed has as demanding an exercise requirement as the Brittany. This is not a breed which will be happy with even a long daily walk. Brittany’s are more than capable of hunting for eight or ten hours straight in all weather conditions, while highly motivated to solve complex problems. A daily stroll simply is not going to cut it for them. These dogs need at least a solid hour of walking/jogging every single day, and prefer to be allowed to run in an enclosed space for at least that long as well. This breed is almost never out of energy and can and will keep going long after the most dedicated human athlete has called it quits. It is absolutely imperative that owners ensure that their Brittanies get the exercise they need, as almost all of this breed’s behavioral problems stem from a lack of exercise. This breed will very quickly become extremely destructive, and possible nervous, shy, neurotic, and even manic without it. Keeping a Brittany without exercise is very near animal cruelty as this dog craves activity almost as much as it does food or air. This is also a breed that needs a job. Brittanies continue to be bred primarily to have a purpose, and do very poorly without one. This dog needs to focus its energy and work its mind. While hunting is probably the Brittany’s favorite task, this breed is extremely willing to run through an agility course, play flyball, or learn any number of Frisbee tricks.
While many owners would consider this intense need for exercise a burden, for many active families, it is quite the opposite. The Brittany is always ready for an adventure outdoors, in any weather and on any terrain. Whether you are going for a long hiking trip through the mountains or going water skiing on a lake, a Brittany would absolutely love to be right by your side. The versatility that makes the Brittany so valued as a hunting dog also makes it able to go virtually anywhere, at any time, and do almost anything once there. Some owners who train for marathons or other long distance running events use their Brittanies to help them train. Some surfers have trained their Brittanies to ride the waves with them. The friendliness of this breed also makes it able to go places where there will be other people without a high likelihood of issues developing. One reason that so many active owners choose the Brittany rather than a larger dog is the breed’s portable size. It is very easy to bring a 40 pound Brittany along for the ride. If you lead an active lifestyle, and are looking for a dog that you can easily take with you and can adapt to a variety of social situations, this may be the most ideal breed.
There are three behavioral problems that are known to occur with some frequency in this breed, and all are attributable to this dog’s submissiveness and desire to please. Some Brittany’s may become excitable or nervous urinators. Sometimes Brittanies become either so excited or nervous that they cannot control their bladders, and may sprinkle. This can result in embarrassment and is very difficult to correct as the dog is not doing so voluntarily. Some Brittanies also become very insistent whiners. This is done either because the dog is constantly trying to get its owner’s attention or because it is nervous. This problem is more annoying than anything else, but is highly indicative of an overly stressed or bored dog. Finally, Brittanies can be overly sensitive. This breed is so in tune with the emotions and moods of its family that it is greatly impacted by them. Frequent fighting and loud yelling may so upset a Brittany that it develops emotional and behavioral issues, and it is far from unheard of for a Brittany to become so distraught by tension in a home that the dog becomes physically ill.
The Brittany was bred to have a low maintenance coat, and that is exactly what this breed has. This breed should never need professional grooming, and only needs a regular thorough brushing. Some trimming is required for show dogs, and this is a breed which needs to be bathed regularly for health and odor reasons. The drooping ears of this dog may collect dirt, grime, and other debris and must be regularly cleaned to prevent irritation and infection. Other than that, only those needs which every breed has such as tooth brushing and nail clipping will be necessary. Owners do have to pay special attention to the Brittany’s ears.
The Brittany is regarded as a healthy breed. These dogs have a life expectancy of between 12 and 14 years, on the long end of average for a breed of their size. The Brittany has been bred with a premium on working ability, and dogs which show signs of medical conditions would not be bred. Additionally, the ABC has taken steps to isolate and eradicate those problems identified in the breed to the greatest extent possible, and will continue to do so in the future. This does not mean that the Brittany is immune to genetically inherited conditions, just that it suffers from fewer than many other pure bred dogs, and at substantially lower rates.
By far the most common serious health problem among Brittanies is hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is one of the most common ailments found in purebred dogs and is caused by a malformation of the hip joint. Hip dysplasia is genetic but its onset and severity can be impacted by environmental factors. This condition causes pain and discomfort, which may increase over time. Severe cases may even result in lameness. While there is currently no cure for hip dysplasia there are a number of treatments available and veterinarians are developing more all the time. Studies conducted by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) indicated that almost 15% of Brittanies tested between 1974 and 2009 were dysplastic. However, breeders have begun to use greater knowledge of medical conditions, and these rates have begun to drop to more in the range of 10%.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the OFA and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
A full list of health issues identified in relatively high percentages of Brittanies would have to include: