In the days before France became known as the cradle of artists and the center of the fashion world, it was a superb upland hunting destination. The hills of the French countryside were planted with a variety of agricultural crops and the forests and mountains were teeming with wildlife. Grouse, pheasants and partridge were common in the farmlands and wild birds were a staple food for many rural families.
At the same time, pointing dogs were becoming more popular in Europe and a select group of French breeders set out to develop a breed that had the athleticism necessary to hunt hard all day and the instinct to point and retrieve birds. Using Spanish pointers and various European hounds as their root stock, these breeders began to develop dogs that embodied all of the qualities they desired.
The result of their efforts was the Braque Francais. The Braque became known for its keen determination and overwhelming desire to please its master. Careful breeding resulted in a dog that could be relied upon to obey commands in the field and hunt hard all day long, a dog that had intense prey drive and could also serve as a family companion, playing with the children, yet acting as a watchdog in the dark of night.
Among the many sporting dogs to come out of Europe, the Braque Francais has remained a relatively obscure breed. Even though the breed is still common in France, the Braque has never gained the worldwide popularity that many other breeds from that era and region have experienced. However, the Braque continues to have a loyal following of breeders and hunters that appreciate this dog’s intelligence, athleticism, drive and natural ability.
The term “Braque Francais” does not actually refer to a single breed, but rather two distinct breeds that are relatively similar in appearance and function, but differ in size. Originally developed in the 15th century, the emergence of several localized subtypes of the French pointing dogs became known by the region of their origin and included the Braque d’Auvergne, Braque Francais Gascogne, Braque du Puy and others.
This variety of breed types eventually led to the development of the two distinct strains, the Braque Francais Pyrenees and the Braque Francais Gascogne, in the mid-19th century. The Braque Francais Pyrenees, the smaller of the two breeds, is more common. This breed’s history can be traced back to the original breeders in the southwest of France and the Pyrenees Mountains that perfected the breed over hundreds of years.
This smaller French pointing dog was bred to be agile and capable of hunting in the high mountain terrain without tiring. The other larger breed is known as the Braque Francais Gascogne, and is still common in France but is rarely seen outside of its native land. Today, both the Canadian Kennel Club and the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) recognize the Braque Francais Pyrenees, and the United Kennel Club recognizes both breeds, although the UKC refers to the two breeds by their original French names: the Braque Francais, De Petite Taille for the Pyrenean version and the Braque Francais, De Grande Taille for the larger Gascogne version.
The two breeds look very similar except for their size. Both are typically liver and white or cinnamon and white (traces of black are are considered disqualifications for Braque Francais in the major breed registries) and have a sturdy but athletic build and folded, high-set ears.
The Braque Francais Pyrenees stands from 19-23 inches at the shoulder. The Gascogne version ranges from 23-27 inches at the withers. The Pyrenees variety weighs between 38-55 pounds and is generally thinner and more agile than the larger Gascogne. The Pyrenees should also have a thinner, less blocky head than the larger Gascogne, although the muzzle of the Pyrenees should never be snipey. Both breed standards call for the disqualification of overly shy or aggressive dogs.
Only In America
When today’s U.S. breeders refer to the Braque Francais they are generally describing the Pyrenees version, a smaller, sleeker dog with an intense desire to hunt and please. Despite the fact that they superficially resemble small German shorthairs, Braques are very different than their larger cousins (the German shorthair was also derived in part from Spanish pointers and various European hounds) and a new owner who expects a Braque to behave exactly like a small German shorthair is likely to be disappointed with the results.
Despite remaining relatively unknown and uncommon, there are breeders throughout North America who have turned to the Braque and would not consider hunting with anything else. This charming little upland dog has a personality and intelligence all its own, and that is what keeps loyal owners attached to their Braques.
Braque owners Mike and Karen Ercolano have enjoyed great success with the breed and they now operate Jersey Sporting Dogs in Nazareth, Penn. The Ercolanos had hunted with a variety of different breeds, including pointers, English setters, Labs and springers, but had not found the dog that suited their particular style.
Karen was considering a German shorthair but was afraid that such a big, powerful dog might be too much for her. Then in 1999, Mike brought home an issue of Gun Dog that featured the Braque. If everything claimed in the article was true, then it seemed like this French import might be just the dog that the Ercolanos were looking for.
The Braque was described as a breed with a high prey drive coupled with an intense desire to please the owner and a very high level of trainability. The Ercolanos began trying to find a breeder.
“At the time there was very little out there about them. It took a while, but soon I found a planned litter in Missouri and the waiting began,” Karen recalls. “Nine months later I had my first Braque Francais, a female named Angie. At 11, she is still with us and doing well. While she didn’t prove to be our best hunting dog (my fault, not hers), she started the fascination for both Mike and myself with the breed.”
Angie may not have been the best hunting dog the Ercolanos ever raised, but she won their hearts. Because of the breed’s French heritage and its recognition by the CKC, the Braque Francais has remained a popular hunting dog in eastern Canada. The Club Braque Francais Quebec (CBFQ) has a large number of members that hunt and selectively breed Braque Francais.
Mike and Karen traveled to Quebec and attended a Braque-only field trial and met with CBFQ members, discussing the breed, its temperament, effective training methods and how to raise Braques properly.
That trip to Quebec was the first step toward developing their own breeding program. The Ercolanos returned from Canada with a great deal of knowledge and inspiration and a Braque puppy named Chase, their first stud dog. Soon afterwards, they raised their first litter of Braques and were pleasantly surprised by the results of their very first breeding. Since that time, Mike and Karen have dedicated themselves to promoting and improving the breed.
“Our philosophy comes from breeding for health, temperament, hunting ability and conformation,” Karen says. “Nothing is too good for our dogs or our pups. We raise them in our home, not a kennel, garage, barn or basement.
“All our adults live in the house and sleep on the furniture. Believe it or not, they are well behaved. Our yard has an invisible fence and they do great with that. They know how to ‘turn it on’ in the woods or field and chill in the house.”
Since beginning their breeding and training program, the Ercolanos have enjoyed a great deal of success with their dogs and have proven that their dogs can succeed in rigorous testing as well as in field hunting wild birds. In 2009, Jersey Sporting Dogs received the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association’s Natural Ability Breeders Award. The Ercolanos have successfully hunted their dogs on Michigan grouse, Georgia quail and woodcock and pheasant in New Jersey.
Karen credits some of the success she and Mike have enjoyed to the breed’s relative obscurity. Unlike other better-known breeds, the Braque has remained largely what it was originally bred to be, a superior hunting dog that had the natural instinct and desire necessary to succeed in the field.
“Braque Francais have an above average ability to accept training,” Karen notes. “They are born with all the natural ability it takes to make a fine bird dog. They are a real people pleaser, and mature faster than many others. Being bred as hunting dogs only has kept that instinct strong, unlike many of the other breeds today bred for show or pet as well as hunters.”
Despite its success in the field, the Braque is not the perfect dog for every hunter. Before considering this breed (or any other, for that matter), it is important to understand the nature of the Braque Francais and to determine whether or not the breed is suitable for your life and hunting style.
“While much of what you read says they are calm, I say busy paws are happy paws,” says Karen. “They are energetic, sensitive, well mannered, affectionate and intelligent.”
Braque Francais do not respond well to heavy-handed training. Strong handling and aggression can cause the Braque to become shy and timid and may seriously delay the dog’s progression in the field. If you are considering this breed, plan to use minimal but effective correction and abundant praise in your efforts to reach your training goals.
Like many other hunting breeds, Braque Francais can suffer from hip and joint problems. Most breeders, including the Ercolanos, have their dogs routinely examined to insure poor genetics are not passed on to future generations, although joint problems do not occur as frequently in smaller sporting dogs like the Braque as they do in larger, heavier breeds.
Overall, the Braque is a robust, healthy dog with relatively few health issues. Braques are good retrievers on land and in the water, but Ercolano warns that if you plan to hunt over water in cold climates it is best to purchase a breed that was bred specifically for cold water retrieving. The fact that the breed was not lost to obscurity makes an important statement about its value as a gun dog. Like the original French wingshooters who learned to value the qualities of this rare European breed, modern breeders like the Ercolanos are working to insure that the Braque remains one of Europe’s best, if not best-known, pointing breeds.