The dogs that first kindled the fire were the ones I’d read about in books: the Irish setters of Jim Kjelgaard’s heart-warming Big Red series, the pointers of Robert G. Wehle’s magisterial Wing & Shot. But the dogs that made this fire blaze—and bridged the shadowy void dividing imagination from reality—were Brittanys.
That was more than 40 years ago, and in those days, of course, the breed was still known as the Brittany spaniel—the literal translation of the French Epagneul Breton. Although the “spaniel” tag was dropped by the American Kennel Club in 1982 in order to avoid confusion with the various flushing spaniels (not that that had ever been much of a problem), the term “Brittany spaniel” is still very much a part of the vernacular. It’s similar to the way many people use the term “English pointer” to refer to the breed whose official name is, simply, “pointer.”
It was a diamond-bright January day in 1969, the wooded hollows and scruffy farms of western Iowa blanketed by a glittering mantle of new snow. There were quail in them thar’ hills, and at the age of 13 I was lucky enough to be taken under wing by a couple of the comparatively few hunters who had the legs, lungs and dogs to go after them in a serious way. The hunters were Bob Cowan and George Boykin; their dogs, all Brittanys, were Brett, Molly and Peaches.
We’d just gotten out of the truck when I glanced upslope and saw a volley of reddish-brown projectiles blow out of a woodlot. “Look!” I cried. It was an enormous covey of quail, and after we’d scattered the covey and begun following up singles, I witnessed my first miracle. We’d marked several birds in a grassy finger flanked by corn stubble, and as the Brittanys bounded ahead one whirled, torqued 90 degrees in mid-stride and landed on point. The others honored instantly.
“Go ahead and kick up the bird, Tom,” one of my mentors instructed.
As I eased ahead of the quivering, pop-eyed dogs, however, I saw that the shallow draw had drifted in. There were a few stems of tawny grass poking above the snow, but there wasn’t enough cover to hide a sparrow, much less a plump Iowa bob. What the hell? I thought, my youthful, know-it-all skepticism rearing its ugly head.
That’s when the knee-deep powder erupted and a rusty blur roared out that I was able with some difficulty to identify as a quail. I went as slack-jawed as I had the time the ravishing older sister of a friend, thinking no one was home, sashayed out of the bathroom wearing a towel on her head and nothing else.
This scenario repeated itself several times—the Britts pointing intensely, the birds flushing in a halo of snow—and my mental state gradually changed from uncomprehending confusion to delighted wonder. It was mind-boggling that a quail would dive into the snow, but it was doubly mind-boggling that a dog could smell and point it there. It was a revelatory experience, one that changed my life forever.
And I have the noses of a trio of Brittanys to thank for it.
As it happens, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Brittany’s arrival on these shores from its homeland in the French province of the same name. The breed gained recognition from the American Kennel Club in 1934, and it was during the ’30s that it began to have an appreciable presence on this side of the pond. Along with the German short-haired pointer, the Brittany was the first of the “Contintental” sporting breeds—breeds developed on the European mainland as opposed to the British Isles—to gain a foothold here. Today, of course, reflecting their multi-purpose skill set, the term “Contintental breed” is essentially interchangeable with the term “versatile breed.”
The basic Epagneul Breton “type” was pretty well established by the late 19th Century, but pinning down the family tree is a tricky business. There’s certainly some setter in the breed’s background, and it’s equally certain that flushing spaniels of one variety or another contributed to the mix. (It’s probably no coincidence that the Welsh springer spaniel and the Brittany are virtually dead ringers for one another.) The evidence suggests, too, that a bit of French and/or Italian pointer blood crept in along the way.
Then there’s the matter of the Brittany’s tail. Or, more to the point, its lack thereof, which makes it unique among the sporting breeds. Supposedly this characteristic traces back to a single specimen produced in the mid-19th Century when a lemon-and-white setter “brought to Brittany by an English sportsman for the woodcock shooting” was bred to a white-and-mahogany bitch “owned by an old hunter of the region.” The tailless pup, a male, proved to be a superb gundog, and his popularity and prepotency as a stud resulted not only in a lot of tailless descendants running around but also in taillessness being perceived as a virtue by the Breton hunters. The original breed standard, in fact, was prepared in 1908 by an organization known as the Naturally Short-Tailed Brittany Spaniel Club, although the standard has since been relaxed to allow for docked tails provided they’re no more than four inches long.
Those Breton hunters, by the way, were not the aristocrats, nobles and sundry landed gentry from whose kennels, almost without exception, the other sporting breeds emerged. They were commoners—peasants, if you will—and the game their Brittanys helped put on the table was not something these hard, rough men—men who lived close to the land and close to the bone—took lightly. This game might wear feathers or fur, and if it wasn’t always obtained in strict accordance with the law, well, a man had to feed his family, didn’t he?
Indeed, one of the more romantic aspects of the Brittany’s history is that it apparently enjoyed great favor among French poachers. Obviously it was superb at locating and retrieving game, but more than that it didn’t look like a typical hunting dog. Spotted, smallish, stub-tailed and exuding joie de vivre, it looked more like a slightly overgrown lap dog—and as a result tended not to arouse suspicion the way, say, a blue-blooded pointer or setter might. And if the duke’s gamekeepers did come snooping around, the Britt’s compact size facilitated a quick getaway, even if its owner had to carry it under one arm like an overinflated rugby ball.
In this respect the Brittany has always been the hunting dog of Everyman—and when, in the 1930s, America’s exploding population of ring-necked pheasants made it the gamebird of Everyman, the match was all but made. In the ebullient, eager-to-please little Frenchman, American pheasant hunters found a dog better suited to their needs, by-and-large, than the pointers and setters that until then had been pretty much the only show in town.
Generally speaking, the Britt was a closer-ranging, more cautious worker and a stronger natural retriever, yet it gave nothing away in terms of courage, tenacity or nose. Another advantage was that it needed only minimal formal training to become a useful hunting companion. (In the grand scheme of things the Brittany has always been regarded as one of the more low-maintenance pointing breeds.) Its small size and affectionate personality endeared it as well, especially to sportsmen who needed their dogs to pull double duty and serve as hunters and pets both.
If the Brittany originally made its reputation here as a pheasant dog, it didn’t take long to discover that it’s no one-trick pony. Brittanys make dandy cover dogs, and some of my fondest hunting memories are of gunning woodcock on Wisconsin’s Washington Island over the Britts belonging to my old friend Steve Gordon. Sam was a rugged cover-buster while Didi was petite and as stealthy as a cat, and both were bird finders extraordinaire. The fact that Steve shot an exquisite sliding-breech Darne—a shotgun so quintessentially French it made me want to break out into La Marseillaise—added an extra layer of charm.
While in its early American incarnation the Brittany wasn’t quite enough dog for birds of big, open country—quail, Huns and prairie grouse, for example—that began to change in the 1950s and ’60s as certain breeders made a concerted effort to develop Brittanys with more range, size and drive. Some of this was motivated by a desire to compete in horseback field trials, and it’s worth noting that perhaps the two best-known pointing-dog trainers in America, Delmar and Rick Smith, père et fils, made their reputations running Brittanys in horseback stakes.
The Smiths hail from Oklahoma, and at least partly as a result of their success you see a surprising number of Brittanys in the strings of quail hunters in that part of the world. Some of these lean, squinty-eyed types steeped in the tradition in which “bird” equals “quail” and “bird dog” equals “pointer” haven’t quite come to terms with this, however. As a Texan of my acquaintance lamented upon the occasion of buying his first Brittany (which turned out to be a damn good dog, by the way): “Admitting that you have a Brittany in your string is like admitting that your son’s a drum major.”
Still, the most famous Brittany “line” in the US is undoubtedly the one developed by the legendary Ben O. Williams of Livingston, Montana. For more than a half-century Williams’ aim has not been to win field trials or beat other breeds at their own game but simply to produce dogs with the “right stuff” for the demanding conditions and equally demanding gamebirds of the High Plains. You can tell Ben’s Brittanys at a glance from any other strain; they’re bigger, broader-chested, deeper-muzzled, with more “bone” and substance overall.
They’re equally unmistakable in the field. The word that comes to mind to describe the gait of the typical Brittany is “scamper,” but Ben’s dogs roll. Watching his “pack” in action, with at least four and sometimes six of his dogs roaming far and wide (emphasis on far and wide), will forever redefine your standards of pointing-dog performance.
And to see them work a running covey of Huns, their choreography like ballet as they stay in touch with the hotfooting birds without making a single misstep—and without getting a single command from Ben, who hardly utters a word once he’s turned them loose . . . well, it tends to make the same impression on your consciousness that a red-hot branding iron would on your skin. It’s not something you’re likely to forget, in other words.
Ben’s Brittanys bear at best a passing resemblance to the original Epagneul Breton both in appearance and action, but that’s not something Ben is inclined to apologize for. In his view he’s taken the breed’s raw material and, while preserving such essential qualities as versatility, trainability and eagerness-to-please, he has shaped and stretched and molded it to fit his vision of the ideal Western bird dog.
“The dogs I started out with in the 1950s were essentially the original French Brittanys,” Ben recently told me. “They were great little dogs, but over time—and especially when I moved to Montana—I began to understand that to hunt as successfully as I wanted to I needed a bigger, stronger, wider-ranging dog. A lot of other American breeders came to the same conclusion.
“What’s evolved into the ‘American’ Brittany is a larger, bigger-running dog. I also think the American Brittany has a somewhat calmer temperament. At the same time, though, it’s retained the qualities that have always distinguished the breed: biddability, eagerness to please, the desire to hunt for you and, in particular, the ability to virtually train itself if given the right exposure and opportunity. I think this makes the Brittany not only the easiest of the pointing breeds to train but also the easiest of the versatile breeds for the average sportsman to work with.
“They tend to be sensitive, though. You can’t put the kind of pressure on a Brittany that you can on, say, a pointer. A correction that a pointer takes in stride will make a Brittany sulk.”
Added Williams, “The vast majority of Brittanys retrieve naturally, too, and they almost all have soft mouths. I’ve had one hard-mouthed Brittany out of the hundred-some I’ve owned. The breed’s just a great choice for the guy who wants a dog as both a hunting partner and a companion.”
In much the same spirit that those old French poachers insouciantly paraded their dogs right under the unsuspecting noses of the authorities, certain contemporary Brittany owners take an almost perverse glee in copping an “aw shucks” attitude about their “fuzzy little dogs” and sandbagging those who make the mistake of underestimating them. More than a few people from the pointer/setter camp, in particular, after watching a Brittany outrun, “outbird” and outlast the dogs with the long tails have eaten more than a little crow.
If anyone’s perfected this art, it’s Nolan Huffman of Valdese, North Carolina. In the mid-1990s Huffman began competing on the National Shoot-to-Retrieve Association (NSTRA) field-trial circuit with a Brittany whose registered name was Nolan’s Last Bullet but who went by the call name Buddy. By the time Buddy retired from competition, in 2004, he held virtually every meaningful NSTRA record—most times a champion, most lifetime championship points, most points in a single season, the list goes on.
More than that, however, Buddy changed attitudes, especially in the traditional pointer/setter stronghold of the Deep South. Huffman recalls actually being laughed at when he phoned in his entry and told the field-trial secretary the breed of his dog—but no one was laughing when the trophies were handed out. Buddy didn’t simply open eyes to what the Brittany is capable of; he opened minds.
Buddy was a phenomenal wild-bird dog as well. Best of all, he transmitted his sterling qualities to his progeny, enabling Huffman to create what amounts to a Brittany dynasty at his Beeline Kennels (www.beelinebrittanys.com). A couple of years ago in Montana I had the pleasure of hunting over a son of Buddy’s named Rusty (Beeline Bullet’s Oxidation), who, for pure bird-finding ability, I’d match up against any dog of any breed I’ve ever seen. He’s just uncanny. Nolan ran him with a Garmin Astro, and at regular intervals he’d get a “page,” pull the Astro out of his vest and say, “It says he’s pointed 240 yards due east.” We’d troop over, find him standing with all of the intensity, resoluteness and confidence you could ever want, and flush the Huns, or the sharptails, or the sage grouse right where he told us they’d be. The other dogs we were running, even Nolan’s, didn’t have a chance.
Rusty’s just a little guy—he might weigh 30 pounds soaking wet—but no instrument known to science could measure the size of his heart. Somewhere, a poacher is smiling.
Author’s Note: For more information on Brittanys, contact The American Brittany Club, www.theamericanbrittanyclub.org.
Tom Davis is an Editor-at-Large for Shooting Sportsman.
- By: Tom Davis