A brief breed history.
To track this down seems a little like shadow boxing - very few people agree. What follows is a far from academically rigorous review of some of the literature. Most authority should at this time perhaps be given to Pouchain1 - after all he was president of the Club Epagneul Breton for about 25 years so should have been on a position to know.
Pisano2 points out that there are those who have cited a poem by Oppien who lived 150 AD; this poem translated by Ballu and discovered in 1787 within a manuscript in the Strasbourg Academic Library reads "among the animals who track- hunt there is an excellent kind,small, that is bred by the savage people of Brittany and named Agasses. It is mostly by the sensitiveness of its scent that the Agasses takes preference over other dogs." Following the narrative of his travels it is Britanny as in France to where he referred not Britain as in England. Is this the breton?
Pouchain1 and others introduce us to the «Livre de Chasse» of 1387 by Gaston Phoebus who talks of «chiens d'Oysel» perhaps a mis spelling of d'Espagnol. Bear in mind the French hold a distinction between Epagneul - a pointing dog and Spaniel a flushing dog; this distinction being lost by translating epagneul as spaniel. Epangeul it is suggested by Pouchain coming from s'espagnir - to lie down and not a derivation as the name spaniel - from Spain
Pouchain goes on to suggest there are some who have Henri IV hunting with bretons - but this he feels is without foundation as Henri IV hunted on horseback and with a pack whereas the breton is in French a 'chien d'arret' a pointing dog - this name coming from «chien de rets» - a 'rets' being the name for a net used by hunters that was thrown over the 'catch'. A dog to be useful for this style of hunting would need to sit or lie (set) down on finding a quarry to be out of the way of the net. Yet others have them as a cross with the coursing dogs of the east created during the crusades but without a real explanation being given as to how a long legged long tailed short coated dog became a small dog, often tailless, feather coated and with a unique rolling gallop.
Limouzy3 talks about different types of dog in the Brittany peninsular. Their style depending upon the type of terrain and the quarry being sought. In Finistère there was a small dog with a round head and an abundent coat called the «choupille», this dog looked not dissimilar to the English Cocker Spaniel; in the Cotes du Nord there was a dog looking very similar to the Springer and the third type found in the pays d'Amour a dog looking just like the French Spaniel. Dehasse4 also talks of three types, the first the choupille, for the second he has the cotes du Nord dog looking much like a pointer and the third a light weight French Spaniel with a white face and colour splashed coat. These regional typifications seem to extend through other animals, sheep, goats and even, Pouchain suggests, the men who were stocky and tight built; as were the draught horses of which the 'cob' became the most famous. This horse celebrated with a statue in the town square of Callac now sums up the essence of the epagneul breton - 'cob'. Although Pouchain would have 'cob' as in swan rather than 'cob' as lumpen building material as the guide. Thus a dog with an inate elegance. Callac has become the spiritual home of the Epagneul Breton with one in ten of the puppies being born coming from the area.(Limouzy p13)
A canvas by the 17th century artist Rembrandt depicts along with coursing dogs a short tailed liver orange and white dog with a pointed nose - could this be a breton? At the Palace of Fontainbleau is a painting by Decamps a painter of the Barbizon School dated 1849 'gamekeeper and dogs' that definitely shows a dog of the breton type.
In the 19th century in Brittany there is mention of a small spaniel type dog the «Fougères» a liver and white or black and white dog with a short tail. Several authors tell of the custom for English gentry to visit this part of France to hunt during the early second half of the 19th century; British quarantine regulations already being in force the easy option was to leave their hunting dogs behind - in the capable hands of local farmers and gamekeepers. It can be safely assumed several matings took place accidentally or otherwise and when the resulting pups showed enhanced hunting and game finding abilities repeated matings happened. This was fine until this influence of the English dogs increased the size of the dogs and started to change their overall character. The popularisation of hunting influenced by the invention of the Lafourchaux gun with its pellet filled cartridges no doubt added to the need to produce puppies. Pisano however has the modern Epagneul Breton as a descendant of a single mating in the valley of Douron between a 'native dog and a lemon and white dog of an English hunter'. Limouzy also has a singular start - this time created by the vicomte du Pontavice a breeder of setters; he even gives the Comte de Kermadec (the author of the 1938 standard) as the authority for this. Pouchain's explanation seems more realistic.
By the early 1900's there were thus a number of hybrids, reflecting the influence of the English or Irish setter (bright coloured coats), the Pointer (short hair) and of the Springer spaniel (large ears and strong stops) as well as possibly the Welsh Springer. Some even were being born without tails - however Pouchain points out you select a hunting dog for its ability not its tail length. The dominant colour at the time was liver and white.
A major step forward for the breed was the foundation in 1907 of the 'Club Epagneul Breton with natural short tail'. A standard was published in 1908 and had the size as 0,56m reflecting perhaps the influence of the setter. In 1908 the CEB became affiliated to the Club Epagneul and at the same time the standard was brought further up to date. The CEB was and still is an energetic and passionate club, it was alarmed by the variety being displayed by the breed and set about returning the Epaneul Breton to type. This was achieved by careful breeding and application of the 'english formula' for in-breeding - here grand-parent is mated to grand-child a mating that 'locks' the traits - both desirable and undesirable into the gene pool. The bad points can then be carefully selected out
Pouchain notes that by the end of the Great War the orange and white dog was the most sought after whereas before it had been liver and white. By the early 1920's the breed was still to a degree eclectic in appearence, but sufficient progress had been made by the 48 club members for the size to be reduced in the standard to 45 - 50 with a 2cm tolerence for exceptionally well typed males. (from the 45 -56 of the original standard) at the same time the 'short tailled' part of the club name was dropped. By mid 1930's the club membership had risen to about 250 with some of the most famous kennels now well established. The modern Epaneul was well on the way to becoming France's favourite hunting dog.
1. Gaston Pouchain L'Epagneul Breton Collections Races de Chiens 2000
2. Beverly Pisano Brittany Spaniels TFH Publications 1980
3.Christian Limouzy. L'Epagneul Breton. Editions Vecchi 1998
4 Joël Dehasse. Epagneuls Bretons. Le Jour 1997