As with many of the older breeds the definitive origin becomes somewhat cloudy with a number of credible versions of how the French Brittany was developed. The one that seems to most fit this bird dog breed based on my experience of over 50 years with this breed follows. I will explain why I believe this to be the most viable of the versions.
This is the version we aspire to. In the 1700’s a small breed was developed in France and loved by the towns folk. This breed was started by crossing black setter/pointer dogs with spaniels. Fresh meat was scarce for all but the folks that were aristocratic land owners, the town folks wanted a dog that would help them obtain fresh game without drawing notice or the ire of the affluent land owners.
The desirable characteristics for this dog included a dog that stayed close, did not flag a tail while on point, was small in size as houses were small, crouched when on point if approached and working slowly as not to push the game. A dog that stayed close to the handler, rather than range as setters would, and was tailless so it could not flag when on point would draw no more attention than a gentlemen would out for a stroll with his dog. If the dog could crouch as the owner approached so a net could be thrown over the dog ensnaring the game so much the better. A dog that worked slowly and slowed upon reaching scent, checking up occasionally, would not push or flush the game. A small hand net was easily concealed by folding and placing in a pocket. Many references to this breed in times gone by referred to them as “the little crouching dog” or “the little poacher”.
The reason we believe this version to have credibility starts with seeing the physical characteristics of this breed. Dogs seem to have, at the extremes, willowy slender bodies and bone structure or heavy broad structure. Many of us as breeders when describing a dog to someone often refer to that particular dog as being Setteresk or Spanielesk by body type. The different body types lend to the dogs having slightly different styles of hunting.
We have produced puppies that crouch when on point and approached. Though fairly rare, we do see that behavior from time to time and when they are not encouraged to crouch they will usually not continue doing so. We also have puppies born “natural” at times, that being tailless or naturally short tailed without need for docking.
The hunting style of this breed certainly does suggest a dog that stays close and slows when finding scent. They are true air scenting dogs and are a pleasure to watch work a scent cone right to the game. We have entered fields to hunt pheasant after seeing other hunters just leaving the field. We do not hesitate to go ahead and work that area with our dogs. As pheasants being pushed by fast working dogs will often double back around behind the hunters and their dogs. The fast working groups leave many birds behind. The French by slowing when hitting scent gives the bird time to find safe cover and hold tight. We score birds consistently in fields hunted previously by others because these dogs work slow enough to not blink by birds, they will allow the bird to find tight cover to hide in and will not push the birds out ahead of us.
A few years ago my wife accidentally left the door ajar to our “Bird Barn” where we house all our training birds. We had pheasants we had just purchased from a fellow that has large flight areas for his pheasant and these are away from all humans so the birds are as wild as any raised naturally by mother nature. They found an open door to be an open invitation to move out. The bird dealer we use is better than a two hour drive away so we try to limit the number of trips needed. My wife keeping a cool head, mine wasn’t so shall we say cool at that very moment, said “you know we talk about the origins of this bird being for poaching and that they used nets to capture the birds all the time, why don’t we turn out our dogs and see if we can net some”. Under normal circumstances I would have not tried this as the area I was sure the birds headed to was a slough with tight cover and it was a hot August day but because I felt so badly for my wife I agreed. She was pretty devastated by her mistake. So off to the boat and garage we go and each grab a fishing net. We turned out two of our dogs and off to the 12 acres slough we head. It wasn’t long before we had our first point. We approached slowly and couldn’t see a bird for the thick cover. We decided to just swing the net down hard in front of the point and see what happened. Fast as fast could be my wife slammed the net through the brush. We were both amazed when a rooster shot up to the extent the net would allow him, I jumped in and secured the net below him and carried him back to the bird barn. We repeated this over and over for the next couple of hours. Occasionally the bird would not be right in the small area the nets could cover but few escaped. One time the net missed the bird and as he took rapid flight my wife swung the net and captured him out of mid air, an amazing event to witness. When all was done, the dogs were beat, we were worn out and 80% of the escapees were wondering how they were so easily returned to the barn I am sure. So a day that began in disappointment and defeat ended in happiness, some laughter at what we would have looked like if any one had observed us walking through the slough with our fishing nets held locked and loaded on high and a feeling of success.
We also find that hunting quail in the southwestern US is remarkably easy with these dogs. Again a slower pace allows the quail the opportunity to run to thicker cover and hold. We have had great success hunting behind the slower working French Brittany for quail also.
So could the poaching with net be true, we have no doubt!
We believe and know the French Brittany to be a loving docile, close working, field manageable pointing gun dog. This breed has a nose second to none when it comes to finding game. A small package is this breed, containing a large portion of love for its master and family, possessing a focused bird hunting determination once a field.
They are a friend riding calmly in the front of the truck on the trip to the field, nothing but business, if you don’t mind, once a field.