Kelley Ridge Kennels

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What makes a Brittany a Brittany? Is it color, or type? Does the piece of paper in your file cabinet that shows his pedigree make him a Brittany? Does history and culture change the breed as we do? Or is a breed a living example of our history? Many answers to these questions will differ depending on who is answering but I’ll enter the fray and see if I can shed some light to the best of my ability.
To start we are going to have to go back about 200 years when our spunky little bird machines first began having recognizable form and function in an area of what is now modern-day France which is not unlike the New England I call home with its historical agricultural areas, fishing and scruffy woods, but a more temperate year-round climate. The first written description was about 1859 so we can surmise that the breed had some recognizable form and was in development at least a few decades before that though it wasn’t identified as a breed until about 1897 during a time when the concept of a purebred and increased interest in dog sports was gaining popularity among the masses.

There is a recent study that maps the evolution of dog breeds and shows common ancestors through DNA markers. It is interesting to note that the DNA evidence suggests the modern Brittany is slightly older in finished genotype than the modern setter breeds to which they are more closely related than to any of the spaniels. That isn’t to imply that the breed wasn’t still in development in the late 1800’s, it certainly was. But such studies do give us insight that perhaps the breed is in fact older than our written records show. Some circumstantial evidence would support this; paintings in the 1700’s from the region often depict dogs resembling ours, and likely the majority of people who would have cultivated this little “poachers dog” would not have kept accurate records and may not in fact have been literate.

In 1907 the first club devoted to the breed was formed and a written standard set down. Just like that our dogs had a blueprint for the ideal version of a small upland bird dog suited to varied terrain and moderate temperatures. The dogs before them were the result of both the culture and circumstance that selected qualities based on need rather than ribbons or bragging rights. In just a few short decades they would be brought to our shores and embraced as the smallest of the pointing dogs with a name that meant 90 years later we are still trying to educate the world that spaniels flush but a Brittany points!

We rely so often on pedigrees when deciding the worth of a dog, and the value you receive from one is wholly dependent on your knowledge of both the dogs you see on it and the dogs you do not. Breeding is a series of educated guesses with multiple factors weighed in according the importance the breeder assigns to each, and the pedigree is a tool to help us. Unfortunately, though we currently have the means to ensure our modern pedigrees are correct through DNA, permanent identification, and enforcement, we still record our lineages in a way subject to error. Errors in pedigrees have always existed, either by mistake or intent. Some of these errors can be caught through the understanding of color genetics, we have found errors 70 years old and I have found errors as recently as a month ago that unfortunately the owner will likely never find resolution to. Honest representation with DNA samples has corrected some errors over the years, many quite notable and I have more than one dog in my home that benefited from the practice. Sadly, it is painfully easy to submit DNA on a dog fraudulently and until we have a system to prevent this it will continue to happen.

DNA can tell us many things that are beneficial when talking about breeding purebred dogs. We can test for some diseases, most color genes (does your dog carry the tri gene?), and parentage. DNA markers can also give us rough relations to other related breeds! It cannot, however, tell anyone with any considerable accuracy what breed a dog is or is not. What this means for the future of our breed or any other that has had either mistaken or intentional crossbreeding occur is that what has already happened cannot be undone but we do have the power if we banded together to force the issue to prevent further errors in our studbook.

Our journey so far has established that part of what makes a Brittany a Brittany is its history and development, pedigree and DNA. This is the pool we have to work with barring introduction of DNA from other breeds. Small variations can happen in a closed stud book over many generations, and it takes many more for these to become wide ranging within a population. As long as it takes for an improvement to breed true in a breeding program (meaning multiple dogs have the genetics to support passing on a desirable trait to most of the resulting offspring) it takes just as long, if not longer, for casual breeding of animals without forethought to show a loss of type. I believe that most of us can pick out a poorly-bred dog in a lineup. We may recognize them as a specific breed but we can also usually tell if they match their breed’s ideal with any accuracy. I have one of these, she is loved and it is not difficult to recognize her as a Brittany but she stands out in a sea of thoughtfully bred dogs despite little relation among them.

We talk about type often and though this has different meaning for each individual as a general idea type is what makes a dog recognizable as one breed or another. There’s variation within that generalization but even the average pet owner can pick out dogs of a certain breed with relative accuracy. It is the same thing that allows me to see my thoughtlessly bred dog as the same breed as my show champions and tell that the Brittany and the Epangeul Breton are no longer one in the same. Type is the silhouette of the dog, and is not dependent on superficial adornments such as color or tail length.

The term “form follows function” is a common phrase I often hear used as argument to why a "field" bred dog verses a "show" bred dog is or is not correct over the other. The truth is the phase can go either way, as function also follows form. As stewards of the Brittany breed we pride ourselves on keeping the dogs dual, but there are deviations on both sides. It is very difficult for the majority of people to spend time and money in both venues but generally those who primarily show their dogs enjoy the time in the field with them and I have yet to see someone who exclusively trials to not have pride when someone tells them their dog could do well in the show ring. Though most of us cannot do it all it is important that our dogs could if given the opportunity.

Ask yourself this question: why did I get my first Brittany? Were you looking for a bird dog? What about the Brittany appeals to you as a bird dog that is lacking in the other hunting breeds? Was it their size or their intelligence? Were you looking for a dog that would be good with children? Did you just want an energetic pet and later got sucked into the wider world of dog sports? This breed can do anything and everything you ask them to and more, but at their core they are a bird dog.

There is a wide range of type in bird dogs and the Brittany being a small pointer that wags its tail too much and goes through every kind of brush in their enthusiasm has qualities unlike any other pointer. Because they go for hours and push themselves to the limit they need a wide deep chest cavity to allow their lungs to expand, bringing additional oxygen to their bloodstream and providing the dog with more sustainable energy. Because the Brittany never saw an insurmountable piece of terrain or brush they need a coat that isn't too tight to the skin to help protect from puncture and scratches which may become infected or irritated, lacking an undercoat so they can be brushed out easily even though hitch-hikers love to ride in that protective fur and to allow air to flow under the hairs keeping them cool and safe from the sun. The soft look of their faces is from the heavier brow and looser skin that helps prevent damage to their eyes and features as they go headlong into God knows what. The short floppy ear helps corral scent towards their nose. Their tail is naturally bobbed or docked shorter than other pointers due to their hunting style to prevent tail damage. They should have a strong wide thigh giving them strength to, once again, propel them through anything and everything between them and their prey. A short back allows this traditionally cobby dog to reach his rear end further under him during a sprint or trot providing more propulsion (drive) than in the longer-backed dog, saving energy. To balance the short back the Brittany should have both good layback of shoulder and a long upper arm that places the elbow firmly under the shoulder for good center of balance and gives the dog more efficient reach with less strain on the muscle and skeletal systems. These traits for our breed developed over centuries by people who selected dogs based on how well they fit the needs for the job at hand. This is the dog we were given named Brittany and entrusted to preserve for the future.

The smallest of the pointers, scrappy and cobby, designed for hours of foot hunting on varied terrain was never intended to have the size and speed of the larger breeds bred for more open landscapes. Though in modern times we often compete on horseback (of which my back is eternally grateful) losing sight of what the Brittany is for the sake of ribbons and bragging rights goes against the trust that was given to us by those who came before. It is not our job to make a "new" Brittany that functions differently than the one we all first fell in love with. Intentional cross-breeding is not new in any sport but the difference often is that in other venues than ours it is openly acknowledged and these dogs are not purebreds. If you feel the qualities of the Brittany mixed with one of the larger pointers gives you a bird dog best suited to your needs, that is entirely your right and your vision! Unfortunately, that also means being honest and not knowingly misrepresenting your dogs for the sake of a few ribbons. By doing so you force your ideals onto a population, forever changing it and watering down the living history passed down to those who love them.