The Chien Gris was a breed of wire-coated hunting hound native to France. The Chien Gris was one of the most popular scent hounds with the French nobility, and was extensively used by the King of France. The Chien Gris was a type of Griffon, a group of French scent hounds and gun dogs known for their keen noses and wiry coats, and some say that the dog was the ancestor of all subsequent Griffon breeds. The Chien Gris is also known as the Chien Gris de Saint Louis, the Gray Dog, the Gray Dog of Saint Louis, and the Dun Hound.
Very little is known for sure about the Chien Gris. It was developed in an era long before written records were kept of dog breeding, and almost all of the few records which existed were destroyed in the chaos following the French Revolution. Much of what is known about the breed has been extrapolated based on those breeds which are supposedly descended from it. What is clear is that the Chien Gris was native to France, that it was well-established as a unique breed by the 1200’s at the latest, and that it was one of the earliest known breeds of Griffon. The Griffons are a group of scent hounds and gun dogs native to France and neighboring countries, characterized by long ears, keen noses, strong hunting instincts, and wiry coats.
The Griffons are a fairly mysterious group. They are some of the oldest French scent hounds, and perhaps the oldest of all. There are many theories as to how these dogs were developed, but most are little more than speculation. Prior to the conquests of Julius Caesar, most of what is now France and Belgium was inhabited by Gaulish tribes. The Gauls were a Celtic people, closely related to those found in the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, and parts of Central Europe. There are multiple reports that the Gauls possessed a breed of hunting dog known in Latin and the Canis Segusius. The Canis Segusius was highly valued for its sensitive nose, ferocity on the hunt, and its wiry coat. This wiry coat gave the breed extra protection from the elements and animal attacks. The dog was especially popular in areas with large amounts of standing water, especially swampy regions. The most common modern explanation for the origin of Griffons is that they are the descendants of the Canis Segusius. According to this theory, the nobility of Gaul (the Roman name for France and Belgium) continued to keep the Canis Segusius throughout the Roman period and the Franco-Germanic Invasions. The Frankish nobility then co-opted the breed as their own, continuing to develop it to meet their own needs. Those breeds which kept the wiry coat became the Griffons. One of those breeds became associated with either the city or the person of Saint Louis, and it became known as the Chien Gris de Saint Louis.
There are a number of other theories for the origin of the Griffons, although none seem to have the historical evidence to support them as a Canis Segusius ancestry. Some say that the actual ancestor of the Griffons was the Spinone Italiano, an ancient wire-coated breed native to Northern Italy. However, it is just as commonly theorized that that breed is descended from other Griffons, sometimes the Chien Gris specifically. Others suggest that the Griffons were descended from Terriers or Irish Wolfhounds imported into France from Britain during the Roman Empire. There is fairly extensive historical evidence confirming that one of Britain’s major exports during the entire Roman Period was hunting dogs. Many have claimed that these dogs were either Terriers or Irish Wolfhounds. The records are unclear, however, and it is just as commonly suggested that these dogs were actually Spaniels or Beagle-like scent hounds. If these dogs are the ancestors of the Griffons, they would have had to been heavily crossed with other dogs as neither the Terriers nor the Irish Wolfhound are similar to the Griffons. It is also commonly stated that the Griffons are the descendants of dogs brought back to France from the Middle East by Crusaders.
The Chien Gris itself is often said to be descended from dogs brought back to France from either the Maghreb (the North African Coast west of Egypt) or the Holy Land. Some claim that it became associated with Saint Louis because King Louis brought them back from the Holy Land on his Crusades. Records of the breed date back to the 1200’s, which is when King Louis ruled. The Crusades, which the French were heavily involved in, were going on at the time, which may support this theory. However, the breed was apparently already well-established. Most damningly, there are no records of any North African or Middle Eastern breeds modern or ancient which are similar to Griffons. An exotic origin for Griffons is very likely to have been an attempt by the French nobility to make their hounds seem more unusual or valuable.
However the Chien Gris came into existence, it was an extremely popular dog in France. The breed was named after its distinctively colored coat, and its name translates into English as, “Gray Dog.” The Chien Gris was extremely popular with the French nobility, especially the French King. It is quite possible that the Chien Gris became associated with King Louis because he especially favored the breed. The Chien Gris composed the vast majority of the French King’s packs from roughly 1250 until 1470, and may have been so popular that it was used exclusively.
The peak of the Chien Gris’s popularity coincided with peak of hunting’s importance in Europe. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, hunting with packs of scent hounds was the most popular sport with Europe’s nobility. Hunting became more than just a sport; it became a major part of the culture. Countless personal and political relationships were forged on the hunt. Decisions were discussed and made on hunts that would impact the lives of millions. There was perhaps no country where hunting was as important or popular as in France, and perhaps no Kings were as major participants of those of France. Those dogs kept by the King of France were the most prestigious in Europe, meaning that the Chien Gris was once among the world’s most highly regarded breeds.
The Chien Gris was almost certainly heavily crossed with a number of other French breeds. The dog was probably most influenced by the Chien de Saint Hubert, better known in English as Saint Hubert’s Hound or the Bloodhound. This breed was developed at some point between 750 and 900 A.D. as a result of a carefully executed breeding program conducted by the Monks of the Saint Hubert Monastery. It became a tradition for these monks to send a number of their dogs to the King of France every year as a tribute. These dogs would later be used heavily by the nobility across France and England in their own breeding programs. Many descriptions of the Chien Gris mention similarities to the Saint Hubert Hound, such descriptions are probably indicative of regular crosses with that other breed.
The Chien Gris was so popular that it spread across France. The breed was owned by the nobility of many different French regions. Local breeders both developed new breeds directly from the Chien Gris and used that dog to improve their existing packs of Griffons. Due to a paucity of records, it is impossible to determine which breeds were developed from the Chien Gris and which were merely improved by it. However, a full list of breeds that are thought to possess at least some Chien Gris ancestry include the Griffon Nivernais, the Grand Griffon Vendeen, the Petite Griffon Vendeen, the Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen, the Petite Basset Griffon Vendeen, the Petite Griffon Bleu de Gascogne, the Griffon Fauve de Bretagne, the Basset Fauve de Bretagne, the German Wirehaired Pointer, the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, the Weimaraner, and the Otterhound.
It is quite possible that a number of Chien Gris were imported into England. In English, the breed was commonly known as the Dun Hound. This inaccurate name was the result of a translation made by George Tuberville. It is almost certain that Tuberville did not translate the dog’s name as the Gray Dog or Grey Hound to avoid confusion with the Anglo-Scottish Greyhound, whose name ironically does not come from its coat color but rather the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for beautiful. There are a few subsequent mentions of the name Dun Hound, which may imply that the dog was somewhat well known, albeit rare, across England for several centuries.
The popularity of the Chien Gris began to decline towards the end of the 1400’s. This was probably due to the changing tastes of the aristocracy who had come to prefer different breeds. Some of these were breeds such as the Griffon Nivernais which were descended from the Chien Gris. Although the breed did not maintain the status it had once enjoyed, it remained a very popular breed. When Jacques du Fouilloux wrote his treatise on French hunting in 1519, he described the Chien Gris and how common that it was at the time. As time went on the breed became less and less popular and was increasingly replaced by other dogs. The Chien Gris was also increasingly crossed with other hounds diluting its shrinking gene pool. The French Revolution spelled disaster for the Chien Gris. Frustrated by centuries of oppression and poor government, revolting French peasants led by high-minded idealist middle class intellectuals executed a very large percentage of the aristocracy, and drove almost all of the rest out of the country. The huge estates which had once housed packs of Chiens Gris were broken up and redistributed. The Chien Gris had lost its homes and its masters, and had no one to breed it any longer. Perhaps worse, the French peasantry considered the breed a fancy of the nobility, one that had consumed food that they could have eaten themselves. Many Chien Gris were slaughtered in anger.
Experts are divided as to what became of the Chien Gris in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Some believe that the Chien Gris was completely exterminated in the aftermath of the Revolution and that the breed had gone extinct by the year 1800. Others think that a few of these dogs continued to survive in remote regions of France for several more decades. Most of these dogs were not pure Chien Gris, but rather mixes. Since there were so few of these dogs, they were continuously crossed with other breeds. Eventually, the Chien Gris ceased to exist as a unique breed. Those who think that the breed lasted into the 19th Century disagree as to when it finally went extinct, with most estimates ranging from the 1820’s to the 1850’s.
Not many accurate descriptions of the Chien Gris have survived, and even fewer illustrations by those who had seen a live one did. The breed was known to be quite large. It is usually described as being roughly equivalent in size to a Saint Hubert Hound, which means that it probably stood between 20 and 27 inches tall at the shoulder and weighed between 50 and 100 pounds. The Chien Gris was known to have long, straight legs, and a muscular build. It appears that the Chien Gris was substantially more lightly built than most other scent hounds. This dog had the long, drooping ears common among many scent hounds, and also had a long snout. The Chien Gris was most famous for its distinctive coat. The hair itself was short to medium in length and quite wiry. The wire coat on the face may have formed a mustache and goatee. As its name would suggest, the Chien Gris was primarily gray in color. However most of these dogs also had tan or red markings on the feet, legs, underside of the tail, shoulders, chest, and face.