Brittany lore holds to the captivating view that the breed originally was a poacher’s dog. As Tom Davis writes in To the Poin
t, “The Brittany has always been the gun dog of Everyman, the unpretentious, hail-fellow-well-met hunter who wants a reliable, easily handled, day in, day out companion in the field. Indeed, the Brittany was originally developed by just such men as this, not the sundry nobles, aristocrats, and landed gentry from whose kennels the other pointing breeds emerged. It was, in short, a peasant’s dog – and according to some sources, a poacher’s dog.”
Davis goes on to say that the Brittany didn’t look like hunting dogs were supposed to look back then. Their legs were shorter, their tails were shorter and their coat long and silky instead of tight. The Brittany “...aroused little suspicion among authorities,” Davis writes. “Plus, its small size helped facilitate a quick and stealthy getaway when, for example, the count’s gamekeeper showed up unexpectedly.”
The first Brittany I met knocked me over. Literally. I was walking with a trainer who’d put several pen-raised pheasants out to work the Britt on steadiness. Ten minutes into the field, that dog spun around and tore at me full force. No game of chicken, he nailed me with a mid-thigh high speed collision. One second later he was 75 yards out on point. Had I been the gamekeeper and that Britt the poacher’s accomplice, the last thing on my mind as I rubbed my sore leg would be what was in his owner’s game bag.
I’ve never figured out why that dog ran into me. Nonetheless, every time I’ve hunted pheasants or quail over a Brittany in the years since, their speed and sense of purpose has reminded me of that first encounter. Pair their remarkable drive with a great nose and love of retrieving, and it’s easy to understand why Brittany fans get hooked on the breed.
The earliest Brittany spaniels can be traced back to the 1500s in Europe with the breed’s development focused in the early late 1800s and early 1900s. Brittanys appeared in the United States a few decades later with the name changing from the original Epagneul Breton
in Europe to “Brittany spaniel” in the U.S. The “spaniel” was dropped in 1982. Twenty years after that, the Brittany breed as it is known today officially split in two—American and French.
Despite common ancestry, the two types emerged as the result of breeding programs with divergent objectives. The breed’s U.S. following grew in the 1960s field-trial circuit when many American kennels began breeding to achieve big-running Brittanys. With the development of these longer legged, more athletic runners, the Brittany breed standards changed. Finally they separated into two registered breeds, the distinction becoming official in 2002 by the United Kennel Club (UKC) based on the recommendation of the French Brittany Gun Dog Association of America.
The popular American Brittany, now just known as “Brittany,” has an orange and white or liver and white coat. The nose is always a brownish tone. The French Brittany can have black in its coat and usually has black pigment in its nose, lips, and pads. French Brittanys’ coats can be orange and white, brown and white, black roan or black tricolor.
According to the American Brittany Club’s standard, the coat should be dense, flat or wavy, never curly. “Texture neither wiry nor silky. Ears should carry little fringe. The front and hind legs should have some feathering, but too little is definitely preferable to too much.” Their tails should be tailless up to four inches long, naturally or docked. American Brittanys are lankier and leaner in body style than the French Britts. Their longer legs give them greater ground speed and the ability to hunt a wider range.
Brittanys are frequently described as “fun-loving, energetic and biddable.” Like other versatile breeds, they are adept in the field and happy family members at home.
Rick Affuso, who has had American Brittanys for over 40 years (including NAVHDA Versatile Champions) says, “Mine range between 45 and 50 lbs. in size. I find them to be great family house pets and companions. They crate and transport easily and are just an overall pleasure.”
Jim Hynson started his bird dog career with a pointer hunting quail on the family farm in Virginia. He converted to Brittanys after moving to Maine and discovering that a versatile dog would come in handy when water retrieves played into the day’s hunt. “I once shot a woodcock down by the river that borders my land, and the best my pointer could do was point dead at the bird floating in the water. That was a cold wade,” Jim recollects.
Jim’s mentor back in Maryland where he had worked for a time was a Brittany man. “He’d chosen Britts, the Celtic poachers’ dogs, and got them all as rescues,” Jim says. “Back in the days of 45-day seasons on woodcock and five bird limits, he’d routinely shoot 175-200 birds a season over his rescues. Less than 150 birds and he’d be ticked. That made me think that this is one good breed. And when I found I would not have to go wade for the bird, it sold me.”
Sometimes referred to as “pocket pointers,” Brittanys deliver the search, point, nose and skills of a German or English pointing breed but in a smaller package. This appeals to many hunters simply for their portability – think trucks, kennels and boats – and their presence in the house. While some Brittany folks will argue that the breed’s shorter stature means they won’t range as far as a long legged German shorthair or pointer, don’t be fooled. Depending on the lineage (think: field trial lines), some American Brittanys have the speed and stamina to match the bigger dogs’ range.
Rick says, “My Britts have been dogs with strong drive, wanting to please and willing to work. As a fact, the more you work them, the more cooperative and wanting to please you they are. They have a stylish point, are steady and retrieve to hand. Whether it be the pheasant fields, grouse woods or duck swamps, I never see the switch turn off.”
Asked to explain why he’s devoted to Brittanys Jim concludes, “After a long history of exposure to Britts, my short answer is this. They are meat dogs. Not fancy, not showy. But they can and do put meat on the table in fine fashion. The book on them is they are the clowns of the sporting dog world, and it’s true. There’s no more fun in this world to be in a house full or Britts. Finally, there’s no more loyal a dog on the face of the earth. When I’m home, my dogs are consistently as close as they can possibly be. A Britt is as devoted as anyone can imagine.”
Story and photos by Nancy Anisfield. Nancy is an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter who serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.