, author of one of the greatest books on hunting ever written, le Livre de la Chasse
, ruled over a region which is now part of southern France. Once known as Foix and Béarn, his lands were renamed during the French revolution, parts of them becoming the modern French département of Ariège
The Braque de l’Ariège is a fairly modern variant of the classic continental pointing dog. According to a history compiled by Bernard Senac-Lagrange in 1940, and echoed in the FCI standard
, the breed came from...
...the old French braques, which in the 19th century were crossed with braques of Meridional (southern) stock of white and orange coat, to give them more lightness and activity.
Jean Castaing, in a detailed analysis of all available records including first person accounts, disputes Senac-legrange’s story and argues that the Ariège was actually created by crossing old style Braques Français
with Braques Saint Germain
. No matter what its true origins, everyone seems to agree that large white and orange pointing dogs were being bred in the Ariège region of southern France as early as the mid-1800s.
On June 9th, 1905 at a dog show sponsored by the Société Canine du Sud-Ouest, a number of eminent dog experts met to write a standard for the breed which by then had been named the Braque de l’Ariège. Interestingly, they also employed the services of the well-known sculptor Henry Villard, who created a life-sized model of the ideal Braque de l’Ariège. The sculpture apparently still exists, stored somewhere at the School of Veterinary Medicine in Toulouse.
The breed’s popularity rose steadily in the first two decades of the 20th century, but not without controversy. Some breeders, intent on competing with British breeds, began to infuse large quantities of English Pointer blood into their lines of Braque de l’Ariège. Others began to select for an all-white coat. The results eventually proved disastrous. Cases of albinism
began to appear and, as the breed took on a more English Pointer-like working style, it began to lose many of the qualities that hunters in the South of France wanted in their dogs; namely a more moderate pace and range.
It soon became obvious that breeders had gone too far and that something had to be done in order to return the breed to a more classic braque style. So the club decided to allow cross-breeding to a related breed. But before they did, they sought advice from Paul Mégnin, one of the most respected authorities on hunting dogs of the day.
The club did me the honor of asking for my opinion. I left aside the Braque Saint Germain, and even the Braque Français, and I suggested the Bracco Italiano that, to me, seemed to be quite similar to the Braque de l’Ariège: very braque in type, white and orange or white and brown coat, and the samehunting style.1
Mégnin even went so far as to help make arrangements for Ariège club members and breeders to visit Italy in order to select possible stud dogs. Unfortunately, the plan never got of the ground. One or two dissenting club members succeeding in eventually stifling the entire project, basing their objections on the fact that the Bracco Italiano has dewclaws on its hind legs and the Braque de l’Ariège should not. Mégnin was outraged.
What can be simpler than removing the rear dew claws at birth? ... The removal of rear dew claws is legal, easy and safe, and after two or three or four generations [of selection], the rear dew claw can disappear and never come back. But all was abandoned, and today where is the Braque de l’Ariège and what has become of it?2
By 1937 Senac-Lagrange could only find a small handful of dogs that fit the breed standard and declared in a pamphlet that the Braque de l’Ariège had all but died out. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, registrations with the Société Centrale Canine declined until they stopped completely. Castaing wrote in 1960 that the breed:
...has completely disappeared...a victim of the two great scourges that always threaten our native breeds: on the one hand excessive inbreeding to maintain a secondary characteristic [i.e., an all-white coat]...and on the other hand an abusive level of foreign blood that altered its essential characteristics.3
For almost three decades the Braque de l’Ariège remained in a sort of limbo. No one seemed to be breeding them, let alone registering pups. But the SCC did not officially declare the breed extinct or remove its standard from the list of French breeds eligible to compete in shows and trials. Then, in 1987 a small group of hunters met in Toulouse, a city just outside of Ariège. They had come together to launch an effort to find out if the Braque de l’Ariège was truly extinct or if there were still a few remaining dogs living in the remote hills of southern France.
After months of searching, they managed to find several dogs that matched the breed description very closely. It turned out that a few hunters in Ariège and the neighboring département of Haute Garonne had continued to breed the orange and white braques after all! From these dogs, the best ones were selected to serve as foundation stock for an ambitious project designed to resurrect the Braque de l’Ariège.
A new club for the breed
was established in 1989 and a breeding program was put in motion. The first litters produced dogs with many of the qualities that the Braque de l’Ariège was originally known for: tremendous desire, a good nose, lots of point, a resistance to heat and sure footing in the mountains, but it took a few more generations to regain the classic look of the breed.
Today, the Braque de l’Ariège is well on its way to a complete revival, but is not quite out of the woods just yet. The population is still very low and almost exclusively in France. Nevertheless, it continues to gain converts among French hunters and has earned the respect of field trailers and judges. A few have even made their way outside of France and as of this writing one is now in the hands of an enthusiastic hunter in the US.
My interest in the Braque de l’Ariège was piqued when I read an article about the breed in a French hunting magazine. Intrigued, I searched the Internet for people i could contact in the hopes of one day seeing one of these rare dogs for myself. I was pleasantly surprised when the president of the club immediately replied to my request for information.
￼Jean-François Berho lives in southwestern France among the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. In 2002, with typical Basque hospitality, he invited Lisa and me to stay with him for a few days. We happily accepted, and I’m glad we did. Not only did we get to see his dogs in action in some of the most beautiful countryside I had ever seen, we also became very good friends.
My first impression of Jean-François’ dogs was that they resembled the Bracco Italiano, but with a sleeker, less hound-like appearance. In the field, they were surprisingly agile. Lutin, a male from one of the earliest litters produced by the revival program absolutely plowed through the cover. His daughter Ohry, was just as intense in her search, but faster. I took a lot of photos that day and formed the impression that the Braque de l’Ariège is something very special.
But, then again, we were in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, watching a couple of experienced dogs run on their home turf under ideal conditions. The wine we were drinking—an absolutely sublime Jurançon—also added to the ambiance. Under those circumstances I would have probably found anything with four legs and a tail to be an awesome gundog!
Fortunately, 18 months later I got the chance to spend some more time with Jean-François and his dogs, but this time in Canada. For 14 days straight we worked stubble fields, pastures and forests of central Manitoba, hunting snipe and grouse. What I saw in that time confirmed my initial impressions of the breed: they can be damn good gundogs. One, in fact, turned out to be exceptional.
Ohry, the daughter of Lutin, who we first met in France, arrived in Canada after a nine-hour transatlantic flight and hit the field the very next morning. Within minutes of being cast off into a type of terrain she had never worked before, to find a species of game bird she had never smelled before, she absolutely nailed a point that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Before moving in to flush, Jean-François and I paused to admire the unique scene before our eyes: a Braque de l’Ariège backed by my Weimaraner on the prairies of Manitoba. Suddenly, a bird flushed. We shot. It tumbled. I don’t recall which dog made the retrieve, but it was the first bird of many that we shot over Ohry in the two weeks she was here.
During her stay I saw enough of Ohry to conclude that she was one of the best, maybe the
best gundog I have even had the privilege to hunt over. Her ability to find birds astonished me. Her desire was off the charts. Her run was the most amazing combination of strength and grace that I have ever seen. If I could clone her, I would.
In the years since then, I hunted over another half dozen Braques de l’Ariège and saw a few more in field trials in France. While none ever measured up to Ohry—few dogs could— they did prove to me that a good Braque de l’Ariège can hold its own against any other Continental breed. And in case you haven’t guessed it by now, I am a fan of the breed. I may even own a Braque de l’Ariège someday, and if I do I think I will name him Gaston Phébus.
1 Quoted in Jean Castaing, Les Chiens d’Arrêt, 144