The bubonic plague, or Black Death, was unleashed in 1348 by the humble rat flea. The plague decimated the people of Europe and before the connection was made between the plague and rats, half of all Europeans — by some estimates 40 or 50 million — suffered an unspeakably gruesome death.
In the wake of such horrors, Europe’s long obsession with rat dogs is understandable. Fanciers in Renaissance times bred a generous assortment of ratters that reflected regional differences, but always with the ingenuity of artfulness typical of the age. The British were famous for their terriers, the Germans for the badger dog or Dachshund. In the region now called the Low Countries — Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands — the champion ratter was the tough and tireless ancestor of the modern Schipperke.
The demand for ratting canines has diminished but the instinct has never left the breed. “Mine bring in moles, shrews, things like that from the yard,” says Virginia Larioza, a respected breeder-exhibitor from rural Michigan. “And my children had hamsters that we needed to guard quite vigilantly.”
Bred in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, the Schipperke descended from the black sheepdog known as the Leauvenaar. The Belgian Sheepdog is also a descendant of this now extinct dog breed. While the sheepdog was gradually bred to be larger, the Schipperke was bred down in size to eventually become a different breed entirely. At the time, it was a popular choice among peasants who were restricted in the size of dogs they could keep.
It is probable that the breed began as a farm dog and was discovered by the women and barge captains of Antwerp and Brussels, who sought a compact but formidable watchdog.
In Flemish, the word “schip” means boat, which is where this breed received their name. Because Schipperkes were ratters on the canal barges (a very important function) and often the captain’s dog, they earned the nickname, “Little Captain” and “Little Skipper.” As a result of their history, the breed does very well on boats. They make a great guard dog when the boat anchors for the night, alerting you of anything out of the ordinary. In spite of their size, they possess a healthy bark, which can be a bit surprising and unexpected to a stranger.
An excellent and faithful watchdog, the Schipperke was used as a guard on barges, as well as by shopkeepers for many years. As a protector of homes, shops, and family, the Schipperke possesses a strong sense of loyalty and responsibility to what is his. They are light sleepers and interested in everything around them; this curiosity is what makes for an intelligent and vigilant watchdog.
Ratting, Guarding, & Herding Instincts
Possessing some of its herding ability from its sheepdog ancestor, the breed was used for herding livestock, hunting game, or simply guarding their domain. The Schipperke today possesses the same sharp guarding instincts that endeared it to the shoemakers of Brussels, who in 1690 exhibited their faithful little night watchmen in what might have been history’s first specialty dog show.
The Schipperke’s most distinctive feature is the tailless, all-black silhouette. In the folklore of virtually every region of the world occurs the image of a black, tailless dog, usually symbolizing the devil incarnate.
The medieval Europe of the little watchdog’s birth was rife with such superstitions, and the breed was built along “devilish” lines in order to throw the fear of God into intruders. Maybe it was a luckless burglar, or a drunken sailor reeling through the dockyard after midnight, who coined the old breed nickname “the little black devil” — most likely in fast retreat, and with a sample of the little captain’s pulverizing bite freshly embossed on the seat of his pants.
The Modern Schipperke
The first Schipperke in the U.S. wasn’t imported until 1888. An active and tireless dog, the Schipperke is part of the Non-Sporting Group, and the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized the breed in 1904. A specialty club was formed but died out during World War I. It wasn’t until 1929 that the Schipperke Club of America was founded.