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Remember Benji, the impossibly cute dog from the 1970s who spawned a movie franchise spanning three decades?

Reportedly a mix of Miniature Poodle, Cocker Spaniel, and Schnauzer, Benji was a fortuitous roll of the genetic dice, and in later movies, casting calls were needed to find a canine contender who most resembled the scruffy-looking star.

The producers of the 2005 tear-jerker “Because of Winn-Dixie” – which also had a canine headliner in the title – weren’t taking any such chances. And, in order to keep to the production schedule, they needed multiple dogs for filming.

The solution was to find a purebred dog that looked so casually tousled it wouldn’t be immediately identifiable as a particular breed, and yet was consistent enough in appearance to provide a good number of understudies.

They found everything they could wish for in the Berger Picard.

Berger Picard Hits the Big Screen

If you’ve never heard of this French sheepdog (which is pronounced bare ZHAY pee CARR – say it with a twirl to your moustache), you’re not alone: Even in its home country, the Berger Picard is a rare breed. But “Because of Winn-Dixie” brought this casually rumpled breed into the spotlight – precisely because of its unpretentious, unpolished appearance.

Based on the 2000 book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, “Because of Winn-Dixie” tells the story of 10-year-old India Opal Buloni, who moves to a small Florida town and encounters a gregarious if rambunctious mutt in the local Winn-Dixie supermarket. To avoid the dog being sent to the pound, quick-thinking Opal pretends he is hers, names him after the store where they met, and then accompanies him through a plot studded with eccentric Southerners and plenty of old-fashioned heartstring tugs.

When casting for “Because of Winn-Dixie” began, the starting point for its eponymous canine star was the cover of the book. In the charming illustration, Opal is accompanied by a large dog who looks for all the world like a Scottish Deerhound crossed with a Borzoi. But neither of those two nobly refined Sighthounds would have looked rustic enough. Nor did they match the book’s description of a dog who mostly “looked like a big piece of old brown carpet that had been left out in the rain.”

Five Picards were imported from France to work on the movie, and three ended up in it. Thanks to the film’s popularity, and the proliferation of the internet, some Americans fell in love with “that Winn-Dixie dog,” connected with breeders overseas, formed a club for their imported dogs, and eventually spurred the breed’s AKC recognition.

But while the Berger Picard hit the big screen less than a generation ago, its roots go far deeper.

A French Sheepdog

Also called the Picardy Shepherd, the Berger Picard has been associated with that northernmost region of France for centuries, where it has tended sheep and cows. It’s not a new job description: The breed has been depicted in medieval tapestries and woodcuts, right down to its wiry coat, prick ears, and the slight crook in the shape of the letter “J” near the tip of its tail.

In the past, some fanciers theorized that the Berger Picard was closely related to other French sheepdogs such as the Briard and Beauceron, predating them all. Still, others speculated a close link to Belgian herders such as the Tervuren and Malinois, a logical deduction give the proximity of the Netherlands to the north of France.

But a 2018 genetic study provided them all wrong: It found that the Berger Picard is very closely linked to the German Shepherd Dog as well as a number of Italian herding breeds including the Bergamasco Sheepdog. While all those breeds vary significantly in appearance, temperament, and function, the research suggested that they all likely had a common ancestor that was broadly distributed across Western Europe.

The Drawbacks and Benefits of a Casual Appearance

No matter who its kissing cousins are, the Berger Picard almost saw its branch of the family tree wither away. While the first Berger Picard was exhibited at a dog show in 1863, it wasn’t considered a bona-fide breed of its own and was judged along with the Beaucerons and Briards. Its harsh, crisp coat and overall rusticity didn’t make for a very high glamour quotient, and so this sturdy, reliable sheepdog shone where it was needed most – in the fields and pastures of its native France.

The Berger Picard’s casual appearance also made it an optimal choice for smugglers, who used the dogs to hide their contraband in plain sight. Reportedly, tobacco and matches were tucked into hairy goatskin pouches, which were then attached to a dog’s shaved back. From afar, the pouches blended into the coarse coat, rendering them almost undetectable. Some sources say Picards also smuggled yards of precious hand-tatted lace using the same kind of camouflage, carrying up to 25 pounds on any given trip. It wasn’t that the items themselves were illegal, but rather that farmers and cottage workers were trying to dodge tax levied on goods that crossed the French-Belgian border.

Two Berger Picards sitting in a pasture.

Still Relatively Unknown

Like many European breeds, the Berger Picard was nearly extinguished during the two world wars. In particular, during the Great War, four battles raged over as many years along Picardy’s Somme River, devastating the farmland and its livestock. As France settled back into postwar normalcy in the early 1950s, fanciers scoured the countryside for suitable breeding prospects, and slowly the breed began to recover.

It has, however, been a slow go: It wasn’t until 1959 that the Berger Picard club was recognized by the French Kennel Club, with an official standard getting the green light five years later. The first Berger Picard litter in the United States was whelped in 1978, and in July 2015 the breed finally stepped into the Herding Group ring for the first time.

In the 15 years since “Because of Winn-Dixie” put it in the spotlight, the Berger Picard has starred in commercials for Geico, J. Crew, and Verizon. Despite the publicity, it is still relatively unknown, which is likely a good thing, as not every home is the right one for this independent-minded breed.

Still, on-screen or off, the ruggedly handsome Berger Picard can’t help but turn heads – even if some folks still have no idea what to call it.

Find personalized Berger Picard products on the AKC Shop.

Related article: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel History: Behind the Breed
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