The Briard

The Briard: A strong and gentle heart wrapped in fur



Introduction

"A dog of heart, with spirit and initiative, wise and fearless with no trace of timidity," the unique Briard is "intelligent, easily trained, faithful, gentle, and obedient," according to the AKC breed standard--quite a package of virtues wrapped up in this one rare breed.

Also known as the Chien Berger de Brie in France, his native land, the Briard is a natural descendant of the oldest domesticated dogs. The breed evolved through the centuries by natural selection for its herding and guarding abilities. Although most of the early history of the breed is unwritten, tapestries show the Emperor Charlemagne with Briards more than 1200 years ago. Stone chiselings depicted the shaggy dogs and folk songs praised them. Thomas Jefferson, a former ambassador to France, is believed to be the first to bring the Briard to the US; he used them to tend his flocks of Merino sheep at Monticello.

During World War I, the Briard was a valuable war dog used to carry messages the front line, search for wounded soldiers, pull carts and wagons, and to patrol at listening posts. At the end of the war, Briard numbers were so low from war casualties that many feared the breed would disappear. Fortunately, French, English, and American soldiers returned home from the war with stories of the dogs' heroism, and there has been a keen interest in the breed ever since.

The Briard was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1928, and the first AKC registered litter was born that year. After the war, numbers grew very slowly until about the 1970s, then increased more rapidly. Still considered a rare breed, the Briard ranks 109th out of more than 135 AKC breeds. Fewer than 50 litters of puppies were born in 1991, forcing potential buyers to wait for quality puppies. Fortunately, the breed has not suffered the fast increase in popularity of some others and have not shown up in puppy mills and pet stores yet.


Physical characteristics

The Briard is "vigorous and alert, powerful without coarseness, strong in bone and muscle, exhibiting the strength and agility required of the herding dog," according to the AKC standard. The breed also has many unique characteristics, including coat, color, head and ears, tail, and dewclaws.

All solid colors but white are permitted, with black, gray, and various shades of tawny (gold or red-gold) are the ones found in most modern Briards. Many tawny Briards have a dark tail, ears, and face and may have dark hairs -- called an overlay -- in the body coat. Tawny puppies are born very dark red or black that lightens to tawny by three or four months of age and further paling to light tan or white by two years of age. As the adult coat comes in, the color again changes to deep gold or red and may continue to change for another four or five years.

As Briarders say, "If you don't like the color of your tawny Briard, just wait until tomorrow -- it will be another color."

Color is a matter of personal preference. Gray Briards are rare in the US, and tawnies are more popular than blacks. Black is dominant over tawny, so two black parents can produce tawny offspring, but two tawnies can only produce tawnies.

The Briard's proper coat has been described for centuries as a "goat's coat. " It is dry, coarse, and makes a rasping noise when rubbed. Dirt and water do not readily cling to the hair and it is easily brushed out when dry. If kept well-groomed, Briards shed very little, but if left unbrushed, the coat gets heavily matted, sometimes necessitating clipping the hair. A minimum of one-to-two hours per week is needed to maintain an adult coat, and an adolescent changing coats can require much more time. Almost anyone can learn to brush and keep the coat, although some owners elect for regular visits to the grooming shop.

Briard coats continue to grow throughout their lives, falling naturally into long, shiny, slightly waving locks. Well-cared-for coats, like those found on older show dogs, get well over a foot in length and reach halfway to the ground. Regular baths, brushing, and a little trimming around the feet are needed to have a beautiful, comfortable dog.

The Briard head is grand. Forty percent as long as the dog's height at the withers (top of the shoulders), it is large, rectangular, and well-covered with hair and has a large, square black nose. The coat forms a long, full beard and mustache and grows over the eyes in an arch from the brow creating the "fall." Sometimes the hair over the eyes must be thinned or held back with a band or barrette so the dog can see properly. The Briard often uses his large head to help move recalcitrant sheep -- or children and other dogs.

In France and America, the ears of most Briards are surgically cropped at five-to-six weeks of age. Proper care after surgery hat shortens the ears causes the ears to stand erect, emphasizing the parallel lines of the head and the long, proud neck. The ears face forward, attentive to the slightest sound, and long hair falls over the opening. The cropped Briard is the only long-haired breed with erect ears, which gives a unique, alert expression to an already pleasing head. The erect ears may also enhance the dog's hearing ability, prevent ear infections, and inhibit predators from grabbing and damaging the ears of Briards guarding the flock.

The breed standard also allows for a natural ear, which some people prefer. Since cropping is illegal in England and some Scandinavian countries, dogs imported from these countries also have natural ears. Even uncropped, the ears are quite mobile, lifting slightly and giving a square look to the top of the skull.

Whether to crop or not is a personal decision in the US. It can be harder to win in the show ring with uncropped ears because judges are accustomed to seeing erect ears and may even think they are the "natural" look.

Although the feature is common to many French sheepdog breeds, the Briard and the Great Pyrenees are the only two AKC breeds that have double dewclaws on the hind legs. Dewclaws are extra toes -- vestigial remnants of the ancient ancestors of dogs that had six toes instead of four. The best dewclaws are real toes, placed low on the leg near the other toes to give the dog a wider foot for turning quickly. The dewclaws on the rear legs should never be removed; it is a disqualifying fault in the show ring to have fewer than two dewclaws on each hind foot.

Long enough to reach the hock, the Briard's unique tail is covered in long hair, and forms a crook or "J" at the end.

Briards are large dogs. Males should be 23-27 inches tall at the withers and weigh 65-100 pounds at maturity. Females are smaller at 22-25.5 inches and 50-75 pounds. American Briards are often somewhat larger than French Briards, but it is generally accepted that the smaller dog is quicker, has more stamina, and is lighter on its feet when herding.


Health

This is a generally healthy, long-lived breed, often living to 13 or 14 years. As with most breeds, Briards used for breeding should have their hips x-rayed for hip dysplasia, a sometimes crippling disease of one or both hips. Breeders should provide registration numbers from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals to prove them free of the disease even though dogs with clear x-rays can produce dysplastic offspring.

Both parents should also have their eyes checked each year or should have their eyes cleared for life. Eye problems in American Briards are not common, but there have been some cases of disease in English Briards.

Probably the most serious and most common health problem in Briards is bloat or gastric torsion. This is a life-threatening condition in which the stomach fills with gas and flips over, strangling the blood supply to the lungs, heart, and digestive system. Many Briards die from bloat if the condition is not diagnosed and treated quickly. All owners of large, deep-chested dogs should practice proper feeding and exercise management to prevent bloat. Extensive research has been unable to pinpoint the cause of bloat, but experience indicates it is a result of heredity and environmental influences.

Veterinarians and human doctors alike are baffled by the rapidly escalating increase in immune-mediated diseases in people and dogs. Hypothyroidism and von Willebrand's Disease (vWD -- a type of canine hemophilia) are two of these diseases that are found in more and more dogs each year. Puppies can now be tested for vWD at seven-to-eight weeks old, but low thyroid levels rarely show up before adulthood. Many breeders now regularly check for hypothyroidism in their breeding stock.


Training the Briard

In spite of its appealing appearance, charming personality, and trainability, the Briard is not for everyone. The same characteristics that make the breed a loyal guard dog and an excellent herding dog can be more than a first-time dog owner or an easy-going person can manage. From an early age, a Briard puppy will begin to assert his dominance over his human "littermates" if he's permitted to do so. All puppies should be purchased from a reliable breeder who has given the puppy a good start and should be enrolled in a puppy kindergarten class to continue the training under a competent teacher. Each person in the household must be sure to assume the role of "alpha dog" -- the head of the pack. In addition to formal training at home and in class, Briard puppies must have intensive socialization until at least one year of age. Socialization is the process of exposing the puppy to as many different people, places, and situations as possible to prevent him from forming fearful reactions to new people and events. All puppies of any breed need training and socialization to develop their personality and self-confidence to the fullest, but the Briard takes more time, effort, and firmness than some other breeds to counteract their natural instincts and temperament. People who are remiss in socializing their puppy or who don't want to be tough enough should be reminded that prospects for these dogs has changed. Today Briards should be well-adjusted, obedient, loving members of the householdhardly the same expectations that the French shepherd had when he left his dog alone on a hillside with a large flock of sheep and potential predators.

Although training and socialization is of paramount importance in raising a Briard, potential puppy buyers should choose a puppy from a breeder who places good temperament at the top of the list of priorities. Some breeders value the tough, dominant side of the breed (sometimes a problem with breeders from France); some breeders lack the experience and expertise to evaluate temperament and handle large working breeds; and some breeders consider color, size, structure, coat, etc., more important than temperament. Fortunately, there are responsible breeders who choose breeding animals that are nice pets as well as top show dogs or herding dogs, start the socialization and training process from birth, and place the right puppy with the right new owner. When looking for a puppy, meet the parents if possible, and with the breeder's help, select a puppy that best fits your needs, your lifestyle, and your level of experience.

Briards learn quickly and have an excellent memory. They do well at almost any dog activity, from catching Frisbees to backpacking. Many Briards have earned obedience titles, tracking degrees, and herding titles. They are good candidates for search and rescue work, police training, and protection work such as schutzhund and ring sport. They are often used for television, movie, and stage productions and in various forms of advertising because of their appeal and trainability. One well-know breeder's dogs even appear regularly in traveling production of "Annie".

As a shepherd, the Briard shows a natural ability to keep the flock within the unfenced boundaries of his master's property. The breed can also fetch and drive stock, using its large size and strength to move the animals rather than barking or biting the heels of the sheep like smaller breeds. They'll use body slams and their large heads to keep a stubborn sheep in line. They'll also defend their charges against wolves and other predators.

The breed shows its instinct to herd whatever is around, including owners and their children.

Often described as a "heart wrapped in fur," the Briard will spend his lifetime trying to please his master. It takes a big commitment to handle the grooming, socialization, and training of this breed, but your time and effort will be repaid day after day by your faithful companion.

[More on finding a dog]

Kathryn Lanam

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