The Massif Central
is a mountainous region in south central France where Gallic tribes battled Roman invaders in the 3rd century and heroes of the French Resistance
fought Nazi occupiers and their Vichy collaborators in World War two. It is among the least populated areas in all of Western Europe and is home to one of France’s best-loved gundog breeds, the Braque d’Auvergne.
The history of The Braque d’Auvergne has all the elements of a great adventure novel. It goes something like this: On June 12th, 1798 Napoleon tricked his way
onto the island fortress of Malta turned his troops against the ruling Knights of St. John
and forced their leaders to capitulate. He then banished the knights from the island and dissolved their order. According to legend, some of the knights returned to their native France and brought with them a type of black and white pointing dog They had discovered on the island. Those dogs eventually developed into the modern Braque d’Auvergne. It is a great story, but there is a problem: it is not true.
In 1944, dog expert Paul Mégnin published the results of his enquiry into the origins of the breed. Among the holes he poked in the Maltese Knight story is the fact that their order was never actually disbanded. The Knights did indeed disperse after the battles of 1798, but the order survived in Russia and Italy and was eventually restored, even in France. Mégnin also discovered that, despite a thorough search conducted by the order’s own archivist M. Chauvelot, no mention of any kind of hunting dogs is to be found in the records. Even the incredibly detailed tome Histoire des Chevaliers de Malte
, written in 1726 by the Abbot René Aubert de Vertot, is completely devoid of any reference to hunting dogs on the island. Mégnin even interviewed the ancestors of Commander de Fargues, a Maltese Knight originally from the Auvergne region. None of them had ever heard of their forefather bringing back black and white dogs from Malta. And, despite Mégnin’s myth busting, the Knights of Malta story is still repeated today, although serious scholars simply discount it as nothing more than a charming fairy tale.
Most experts now believe that the Braque d’Auvergne is another regional variant of the classic old braque found throughout much of France. The black and white coat, they contend, comes from either scent hounds and/or pointing breeds. Even the breed’s FCI standard sort of sidesteps the Maltese origin, saying: Descending from a multi-pointer common source, derivation has been made by a selection to which the Knights of Malta might have participated.
Whatever the origin, a type of black and white pointing dog had been known in the Auvergne and Cantal regions for generations. It was generally referred to as the Braque d’Auvergne, or the Braque Bleu d’Auvergne due to its blue-black coat. In 1913 a club
was formed and the breed’s standard accepted by the Société Central Canine (SCC
, the French kennel club). In the 1920s and ’30s growth was slow but steady as the breed gained a reputation as a tough, hard-working gundog.
But like all the other gundog breeds, the Braque d’Auvergne fell on hard times during the Second World War and by the 1950s was in serious trouble. There were very few breeders left and some of them had taken to crossing English Pointers into their lines in an effort to develop a lighter, faster version of the breed. Fortunately the breed’s parent club was able to restore order and the situation had improved in the 1970s as a new generation of breeders began to make their mark in field trials and interest in the breed increased among the public. By the 1980s and ’90s an average of 300 Braque d’Auvergne pups were being whelped every year. That number remains more or less constant today.
Prior To 2005 I had only seen Two Braques D’Auvergne in the flesh. They were nice dogs, but one was a very young pup and the other was a 14-year-old female, long retired from the hunting field. It was not until I travelled to France and met with one of the country’s leading breeders that I had the opportunity to see how they work in the field.
When we arrived at the home of Bernard Fuertes
in the South of France, we already knew he was a serious dog breeder. But when we actually went inside his house we realized just how serious he really was. Bernard’s spacious living room looked like a trophy store showroom. Every square inch of wall space was covered with awards, plaques, medals and ribbons. Every table held its limit of trophies and cups. And yet, the majority of the collection was still in storage in the basement! Clearly this was a man who had dedicated much of his life to breeding great dogs and proving them in competition. And after seeing some of his dogs in the field, we could only agree with the judges who awarded him all those trophies. Bernard has some very good dogs!
I’ve always liked the look of the Braque d’Auvergne. They are sleek, strong and muscular with a unique head shape and deep, rich coloring. The males are especially handsome; their heads have even more character than the females. Compared to some of the other Braques, the Auvergne seems ton be stronger, more solidly built, and a more down-to-earth kind of dog. In action, they were faster than I expected. I had always read about their methodical pace and relaxed way of working. But all of the Auvergnes I saw ran at a medium gallop and covered about 75 meters on either side. Their points surprised me as well; more stylish and intense than I had anticipated and, needless to say, rock-solid.
I did not get a chance to see any of Bernard’s dogs work in the water, but I was told that Braques d’Auvergne are excellent swimmers and take to the water easily as pups. Overall, I found the dogs to be solid, dependable workers that showed a lot of desire. I can see why many hunters in France really like the breed. They are a sort of “out of the box” gundog that doesn’t take a lot of effort to train or handle. There are now a few breeders of Auvergnes in the US and Canada, and I could easily see the breed gaining a certain amount of popularity, particularly among pheasant, grouse and woodcock hunters, and even guys like me who hunt a bit of everything and can appreciate a hard-hunting but cooperative gundog.
Read more about the breed, and all the other pointing breeds from Continental Europe, in my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals