The famous XIXth century Alpine hunter, Alpinus (real name Henry-Frédéric Faige-Blanc) used to say that dogs are “man’s better half“. It’s difficult to argue otherwise, especially when you’re a hunter! Hence, in our continuing look at our dear four-legged helpers in this blog, we have decided to talk about one of the most common breeds in this part of the world: the Brittany spaniel.
The Brittany spaniel, an origin not very certain.
An excellent pointer, capable flusher, and accomplished retriever, the Brittany is said to descend from the famous German spaniels beloved of Gaston Phébus (XIVth century), Count of Foix, Vicount of Béarn, and author of the indispensable Livre de la Chasse that for centuries was an authoritative work among the rich corpus of hunting literature.
That said, the dog’s origins are still open to question: some suggest it was bred from the English Setter, or maybe it was another breed… No matter! As the French central canine society says: “It is well known that this dog far predates the breed’s official creation in 1907“.
The Brittany spaniel and the game
A dog that favors birds
The Brittany is medium sized with a silky coat that turns rougher with age. The coat is white usually mixed with patches of chestnut, brown, orange or tending to liver, even black occasionally. Some fringes are visible on the neck and all down the front and back legs.
This is a lively and affectionate dog (especially the female; I speak from experience) that loves to hunt solo with its master and has a jealous streak (less than the fox terrier – the benchmark in this field for me).
With a Brittany by your side, you can quite confidently focus on hunting birds, especially woodcock, which it will search out anywhere, even though it is little inclined to go flushing in the scrubby undergrowth (unlike the fox terrier!), as long as this bird inspires it to do so.
It’s also amazing how spontaneously, instinctively, this dog takes to the woodcock. I remember an inappropriately named stubborn and playful bitch called Misère with a keen nose and at times difficult character, but who, as a very young pup, coped as if to the manner born and pointed to woodcock in the thorniest of bramble bushes before she even knew what one looked like!
Big game is not its cup of tea
They can be wilfully nervous, pigheaded even, especially in later years, but the Brittany is (speaking from experience, again) just as determinedly faint-hearted if, for example, they come across an imposing animal on an informal rough shoot.
Like most dogs, they’ll cope easily when trailing roe deer (something to be avoided at all costs!), but behave quite differently when faced with a boar that has taken cover in an enclosure or brambles… Something I’ve witnessed many times. Now it’s a different story; his confidence is shot to pieces, demonstrating the hereditary characteristic of the breed, and thankfully so.
Spaniels are pointers; they are in no way designed for big game!
However, he also likes small game
Having said that, and on a completely different note, this dog is definitely not associated exclusively with birds, as is often said, either naturally or by selection: it is also happy with rabbits and hares.
Rabbits? Nothing could be more obvious, you say. And, in fact, it is a rare hunting dog that isn’t tempted by a rabbit – or a roe deer for that matter.
Hares? That’s a different kettle of fish. Hares have a very subtle “feel”, and they use it. As any hunter who pays a little attention knows, they use different leaps and “improvise” multiple dummy forms, before choosing a real form to settle in, especially in their favoured wetland environment.
The upshot is that man and dog can easily pass them by, and on the way back find that they have gone… Except some Brittanies (like some other good dogs) can avoid being duped. Not only are they able to point an old hare that is skilled in the art of hiding; some readily retrieve like the best retrievers.
Better still: one day, I saw a spaniel bitch, daughter of the one I mentioned earlier, go after a hare doe that I genuinely believed I had missed, catch it on the run, snatch it in its mouth and drop it at my feet. I reckon the chase went on for some 300 metres at full pelt. Without that bitch, the hare, no lightweight, was gone. And I know that isn’t the only example.
Brittany spaniel, a dog that is better alone
I am not an “expert” on this admirable dog, which like many pointers is an object lesson in loyal companionship away from the hunt. Yet I never fail to be charmed by its unaffected but delicate character, its elegance, fine nose and skill at retrieving.
I’ll end with a piece of advice, which probably applies to all pointers: you should avoid teaming your Brittany up with other dogs on a hunt, at least to begin with, and never combine them with flushing dogs, retrievers, or other dogs! Types should not be mixed in this case.
How can a pointer hunt as its nature dictates when it can feel its fellow kind searching… differently? Pointing is a difficult pose that requires your helper to expend effort to maintain, like a ballet dancer: as soon as it is disturbed, it will lose its pose… And the Brittany is first and foremost a pointer.
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