For centuries, Flemish art has been celebrated for its technical skill, precise depiction of everyday life, and a particular aesthetic of fanciful exaggeration for sometimes humorous effect. The inimitable Brussels Griffon fits perfectly into that tradition. It’s no wonder the breed has been a favorite of painters, illustrators, and filmmakers.
The first depiction in fine art of a dog considered to be a Brussels Griffon occurs in the famous painting The Arnolfini Portrait, painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck. Given that the breed was not recognized in Europe until 1880, the dog in the painting is obviously an ancestor: most likely a Smous, a common rough-coated stable dog. Thanks to a single life-sized bronze statue, we know that the Smous was probably somewhat larger (15-18 pounds) than the modem Griff, with a more pronounced muzzle. This was the raw material from which breeders carefully sculpted the Brussels Griffon.
The story of the Brussels Griffon we know today properly begins in Brussels, Belgium’s capital city, in the early 1800s. It was there that the Griff began to rise from rough-and-tumble rat dog to sophisticated laptop companion of the wealthy.
The coachmen of Brussels commonly kept small terrier-type dogs to keep down the rat population in their stables. These were typically Affenpinscher-like dogs known as “griffons d’ecurie,” or “wire-coated stable dogs.” The hack drivers experimented with various crosses to improve their dogs.
An Antiques Roadshow Moment
The BG is not an ancient breed, so it’s not surprising that the other breeds that went into its development are known. What’s incredible is that in many cases the actual dogs that were used can be identified.
Jeff Bazell is a longtime BG fancier and former president of the American Brussels Griffon Association (ABGA), the breed’s AKC parent club. Years ago in England, he came upon an auction of dog memorabilia.
Several items had belonged to Lady Muriel Handley Spicer, among the most influential early English BG breeders. “I bought some bronze lamps she’d had commissioned of her first Brussels Griffon champions. I got a number of old paintings and sketches of her dogs, as well as every book she had on the breed.”
But there was something else, a small steamer trunk full of papers. Bazell bought it and discovered he had purchased something truly remarkable. The papers were Handley Spicer’s original breeding records, not only for her own kennel, but also handwritten copies of all the original breeding charts of the Société Royale Saint-Hubert, the Belgian kennel club.
“There is even the correspondence between Saint-Hubert Society and Handley Spicer about the outcross with this Pug and that Pug,” Bazell says. “A lot of people looked at this as just a trunk of old papers. But it was actually the complete diary of the breed’s creation.” Thanks to Bazell’s Antiques Roadshow moment, we know that.
Today’s Brussels Griffon was developed through three crosses to Pugs and eight crosses to English Toy Spaniels. We even know which specific dogs were used. For instance, Bazell says, “The first X cross was to a black Pug named Mep in 1882.”
Along with modern DNA testing, these records have put to rest the rumors of Affenpinscher and Yorkshire Terrier crosses. “There one farmer in Flanders who crossed his dogs with the Yorkshire Terrier in the early 1900s,” Bazell confirms, “but that entire line became extinct in World War I.”
Griffs Rise in Popularity
The turning point of Griff history came in the 1870s, when the dog-loving Henrietta Maria, Queen of the Belgians, took a liking to the breed. With royal patronage, the Griff’s future was assured. They became all the rage among the queen’s courtiers, and kennel keepers of the upper classes further refined the breed, making the body smaller and the face more humanlike.
The royal boost received by the breed led to international interest, and Griffs were exported to England and America. By 1899, the first Brussels Griffons were listed in the AKC Stud Book and shon at Westminster in the Miscellaneous Class. The first breed champion was recorded in 1908.
The AKC finally recognized the Griff in 1910. As is the case with so many European breeds, the two world wars decimated the Griff population. If not for the dedication of U.S. and British enthusiasts, the breed might not have survived.
A Question of Taste
Because the Brussels Griffon is an uncommon breed with a somewhat limited gene pool, one determined fancier can have an inordinate amount of influence. Such was the case in Belgium just after World War I, when, like a damaged work of art, the breed had to be restored. There were several more crosses to the English Toy Spaniel at that time. “That also changed the heads dramatically, from being the flat, rather Smous- looking dogs,” Bazell explains. “After those crosses were made again, the breed developed much more dome, much heavier bone, and one other thing that goes along with it — feet that have conjoined toes.”
Commonly referred to as “webbed feet,” this trait is actually just a joining of the two center toes of the front feet (and sometimes the two center toes of the back feet). Not even mentioned in the AKC breed standard, webbed feet are generally accepted by modem Griffon breeders as being associated with particularly good heads. Yet in the early 1900s, one Belgian breeder decided that conjoined toes were undesirable. Breeding from webbed-footed dogs was no longer permitted and web-footed puppies were culled. The result was a serious depletion of breeding stock, as one person’s prejudice decimated the breed in its homeland.
Luckily, by that time some English and American breeders had become BG connoisseurs.
Bruxellois, Brabançon, Belge
In the U.S., two varieties of BG are recognized: the rough-coated Bruxellois and the smooth-coated Brabançon. But in Europe, these toy Griffons are considered to be three distinct breeds: the red rough Griffon Bruxellois, the rough black or black and tan Griffon Beige, and the smooth-coated Petit Brabançon, which may be any of the colors found in the roughs. Interbreeding is allowed through written request from Belgium’s Société Royale Saint- Hubert; permission is routinely granted. In the United States, roughs and smooths are routinely red to each other. But this was not the case before 1959, when the ABGA’s breed standard as first accepted by the AKC—which leads to another tale of early connoisseurs: the disagreement over the black Brabançon.
According to ABGA historian Dawn Vick Hansen, the Brussels Griffon began to be imported into the U.S. around 1900, and the breed’s first parent club, the Brussels Griffon Club of America (BGCA), was recognized by the AKC in 1913. The original American standards were translations of the breed standards from Belgium, and gave the allowable colors for smooth-coated dogs as “red, black and tan, and beige.”
“Whether the translators did not know that black should be included, or whether it was left out by mistake, the American standard made no provision for the black smooth Griffon,” Hansen explains.
Even so, the smooth-coated black dogs were routinely shown in the U.S. until 1937, when a fancier known to have strong objections to the black Brabançon lodged a protest against a specific dog.
The dog’s owner and the protesting fancier were called before the AKC trial board in New York. The owner came armed with a scrapbook about her dog, a champion who had done some respectable winning. The story is that the discussion became so heated that the Brabançon’s owner stood up and whacked the other fancier with her album.
The protest against the dog was overturned, but the BGCA was fined $25, which they declined to pay. Bad feelings lingered, and the club was dropped from AKC membership later that year.
In 1945, a new club, the American Brussels Griffon Association, was formed. Although the ABGA did not become an AKC member club until 1982, in 1959 the AKC requested that the club reformat their two standards into one all-inclusive Brussels Griffon breed standard. The unified standard incorporated major changes in several areas, including the addition of a specific disqualification of the black smooth. It wasn’t until the standard was revised in 1990 that the black smooth disqualification was removed and the black Brabançon, at last, made his way back into the American show ring.
Rough and Ruddy
When the general public thinks of the Brussels Griffon, most almost certainly think of the red, rough-coated dog. This is the Griff featured prominently in popular culture. In fine art, the black and tan roughs were favored, appear ing in several of Mary Cassatt’s portraits of young women and in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting La Baigneuse au Griffon of 1870, 10 years before the breed’s official recognition in Belgium.
For a time, it seemed that the rough was also preferred by judges, but this is no longer the case. One example is Ch. Cilleine Masquerade (Lincoln), the red smooth who took a Group II at the 2008 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
In the U.S., the Brussels Griffon can be shown with either natural or cropped ears. This turned out to be a big advantage for Lincoln, who was bred in England. As a puppy, his dam chewed off a bit of his ear and he could not be shown in his native land. But his ears were cropped, he was sent to America, and the rest is BG history.
The modern Brussels Griffon won millions of new fans in 1997, when a spicy Griff named Jill upstaged Jack Nicholson in the hit movie “As Good As It Gets.” Today, more and more smooth-coated Brussels Griffons are popular in pop culture and on social media, known for their “grumpy” expressions.