The origins of the Barbet, or French Water Dog, are believed to trace back to ancient times, and according to the Barbet Club of Great Britain, “The generally accepted theory is that the Barbet is descended from corded herding dogs originating in North Africa, which were brought to Europe with the Moors as they occupied the Iberian Peninsula during the 7th and 8th centuries.”
Henry IV of France, who reigned from 1553 until 1610, is said to have enjoyed hunting waterfowl with his Barbets, and Napoléon Bonaparte is reported to have owned the breed. The breed is believed to be in the background of many of today’s purebred dogs, including the Poodle, Bichon Frisé, Newfoundland, Briard, Otterhound and perhaps others.
The breed’s more modern evolution occurred in France beginning in about 1930. Its heritage cannot be traced precisely, but it is a breed similar in many ways to the other water dogs, such as the Poodle, Portuguese Water Dog, Spanish Water Dog and Irish Water Spaniel, all willing water retrievers with curly coats and long, pendulous ears.
The Barbet’s name, pronounced “bar-bay,” derives from its signature chin whiskers, as ”barbé” is the French word for beard. Today the breed is a medium-sized water dog of moderate proportions, found in colors ranging from solid black to solid white and a variety of colors in between, including fawns, browns, reds and greys. He’ll carry a wooly, curly coat that offers protection against the elements, in particular the frigid waters that may be found during a winter hunt.
In spite of its ancient heritage, the Barbet today is a relatively rare breed around the world. Recognized by the FCI and the kennel clubs in Finland, Canada and France, the breed is not officially on the books at the Kennel Club in Great Britain or the American Kennel Club. Although the United Kennel Club in the U.S. has recognized them for more than a decade, even today there are fewer than 90 Barbets in America.
Michelle Steffen of Wisconsin founded the original breed club in America in the 1990s. As with many developing breeds, fanciers have formed numerous Barbet clubs over the years. Today the AKC-affiliated club has only a few members who are interested in actively breeding and showing. Judy Descutner, who belonged to the original club and is now secretary of both the AKC-affiliated parent club and that of the UKC, worked with the health committee of Club Barbet Canada to get the breed enrolled in the Canine Health Information Center. CHIC is the canine health database that is jointly sponsored by the AKC Canine Health Foundation and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.
One of the breed’s most ardent supporters, Judy recognizes that, with so few Barbets worldwide and such a small gene pool, interest in the breed must expand for it to flourish, but it’s crucial that it be in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.
“More than anything, the breed needs to be discovered by experienced dog people,” says Judy. “The breeding decisions that are made with such a small population have far-reaching consequences, and, in the hands of novices, will be devastating to the future of the breed.” Of course, owners who are interested in Barbets as companions only are also important to the breed’s future, but finding responsible breeders is a pressing concern. “Low inbreeding coefficients, health clearances, balanced conformation, correct gait, excellent temperament – all of these take on even greater importance with such a small population.”
The breed is fairly well-established in Canada. American exhibitors often travel north to find competition for their stock. “We travel to Canada to show because a Canadian championship is the most meaningful of our current venues,” Judy says. “The breed is definitely further advanced in Canada, with many established breeders and, of course, full recognition at CKC shows.”
Those breeding Barbets in North America today are all breeding from stock imported from Europe. “The people who originally imported the dogs are no longer active with the breed, “ explains Judy. “In Canada, the breed was originally imported primarily from France, with other dogs brought in from Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland, although most of these dogs also came from the original French dogs.” Barbets in the U.S. are either from Canadian breeding programs or were imported directly from Europe.
One Barbet who has made friends for the breed in the U.S. is the Canadian-bred Tolouse Biscay’s Sapphire, owned by Tracey Schnabel of Hoboken, N.J. Tracey and ‘Tug’ have devoted countless hours to therapy work, and Tug became the first Barbet ever to earn an AKC Therapy Dog title, which requires at least 50 therapy visits. Tracey also tried out Tug’s retrieving instincts last year at a Sporting breeds seminar in Michigan, where, she says, “Tug’s lack of technique for the retrieves was made up for by instinct. When he heard the shotgun, he was focused and looking for his mark.” As an FSS dog recorded with AKC, Tug has also tried his “paw” at lure coursing.
Praised for its intelligence, versatility and zest for life, the Barbet is perhaps a gem of a purebred dog that is as yet undiscovered by many. To learn more about the breed, visit the Barbet Club of America website.