Breed of the Week: The French Spaniel
I am a “form follows function” kind of guy. I'll take ability over looks any day. So when I want to photograph a breed of gundog, I look for individuals that have proved their talents in the field. As long as they are fairly representative of their breed type, I don’t really care how many blue ribbons they’ve won in the show ring.
On the other hand, I am not immune to a dog’s good looks. I’ve photographed a few that were quite beautiful, and on one occasion, Lisa and I were absolutely stunned when a half dozen of the prettiest dogs we had ever seen came to greet us on the front lawn of their owner’s home. We were there to photograph them in action, but before we could even get to the field, their beauty stopped us in our tracks. We actually stood around for a few moments admiring their elegant form and complimenting their breeder, Pierre Vanier, on his drop-dead gorgeous French Spaniels.
HISTORY: By the middle of the 19th century long-haired pointing dogs could be found across much of western Europe. In France, they came in a wide variety of sizes and coat colors: brown and white, orange and white, black and white and even tricolored. Unlike the Braques, which began to form definite regional identities well before 1800, the long-haired descendants of the chiens d’oysel mentioned by Gaston Phébus were lumped into a single group: les épagneuls de France (the spaniels of France). But with a growing interest in breeding, breed clubs and written standards in the late 1800s came a movement to classify the different varieties into independent breeds. One of the first to be established was the French Spaniel. Its standard was written in 1891.
Jean Castaing wrote that: Since it was found in every region, it could claim no regional identity, and since everyone had always known it to be brown and white with an ancient reputation for a calm and friendly nature, it was considered one of the oldest dogs of France. With the exception of the Braque Français, and probably for the same reasons, it inherited the national patronym, and if its varieties in their separatism claimed colors that probably belonged to it before, we would not contest the fact that under its more narrow flag it remained the French Spaniel par excellence.
Dividing the spaniels of France into separate, regional breeds sounded like a good idea at the time, but doing so nearly wiped them all out. Instead of forming a united front to face the challenge presented by growing numbers of Pointers and Setters imported from the British Isles, the French breeds ended up in small, localized populations barely able to fend for themselves. In addition, crossbreeding was rampant in all the breeds as hunters tried to “modernize” them. Adolphe de la Rue wrote that the épagneuls had been crossed with so many other breeds that finding one “of pure breeding” was extremely difficult.
James de Coninck also wrote about the issue. The spaniel was, in effect, the quintessential bird dog...white with brown patches and ticking on the legs...the wide forehead magnificently framed by long ears covered with wavy hair, the body is big, the legs a little short, the hair is wavy but not curly. That dog of 1592 is the same dog we had at the beginning of the (19th) century and even 20 years ago. I knew several of that type which, unfortunately I’m afraid, is more or less lost. There is no breed, in fact, that has been subjected to as many crosses.
Fortunately, in 1906 a French priest by the name of Abbé Fournier decided to dedicate much of the rest of his life to the revival of the classic French Spaniel. He gathered all the more or less pure individuals he could find and established a breeding program that would eventually save the breed from extinction. In 1921, a club was formed with Abbé Fournier as president and, with stricter breeding practices in place, progress was made, at least for a while. Unfortunately, like all French breeds, two world wars had a devastating effect on the French Spaniel, reducing its numbers to very low levels.
After the Second World War, efforts were renewed to revive the breed by using the few dogs that had survived. By the 1960s, the population had grown and French Spaniels were once again being presented in shows and in field trials. In 1975 hunters in Québec, who had begun to breed French Spaniels from imported stock, formed the Club de l’Épagneul Français, and in 1985 obtained recognition for the breed from the Canadian Kennel Club. Since then, the French Spaniel has become a fairly popular breed in Québec with over a dozen breeders producing, on average, about 100 pups per year. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s the breed continued to grow and improve in France, and in the ’90s a number of French Spaniels began to make their mark on the field trial circuit. Today, the French Spaniel is one of the most popular native pointing breeds in France and is gaining the admiration of hunters in other countries.
MY VIEW: I am not sure what it is about the French Spaniel, but every time I try to capture that “special something” about the way they look and the way they move, I feel that I come up short. I can’t honestly say that I have a single image that really reflects the uniquely kind look in the eyes of a French Spaniel. I am not even sure how to describe it in writing. The only appropriate term seems to be “elegant”. French Spaniels just have a certain elegance in the way they are put together and in the way they move.
Of course all the good looks in the world count for nothing if a dog cannot perform in the field. Happily, all of the French Spaniels I’ve seen in action have convinced me that the vast majority of the breed is quite capable of putting in a good day’s work. I have also seen the two tendencies among breeders of French Spaniels. Some are focused on producing dogs that display a traditional style of search. Their dogs tend to work methodically, within shotgun range. Other breeders have opted to select for a more dynamic, galloping search that reaches out to cover more ground.
The dogs I photographed in field trials in France certainly ran with a great deal of passion at a strong gallop. The biggest running among them ranged out to well over 150 meters on either side. Other dogs, particularly those I saw in Québec, tended to work somewhat closer at a more moderate pace. No matter where I saw them though, I noted a certain feline quality to their movements.
If my admiration for the breed has not be obvious enough in other sections of this chapter, let me just come right out and say it here: I like French Spaniels, and I have a great deal of admiration for the breeders and breed clubs entrusted with the safe keeping of the ancient Espaignolz from France.
UPDATE: In recent years I've developed a classic case of middle-aged eyes. The deer grey Weimaraners I currently hunt with are getting harder to see at a distance. So there is a distinct possibility that I add a dog with an easy-to-see-at-a-distance white coat to the herd. And since I am working on Volume Two of my book, photographing lots of great Pointers and Setters I will probably end up saying "yes" to a "Britannic" pup at some point. But then again, I keep coming back to the photos I've taken of French Spaniels and the memories I have of their great looks, affectionate character and outstanding gundog qualities ... hmmmm decisions, decisions
Click here to see more photos of French Spaniels.