While walking through a fairground on a sunny Sunday recently, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of two beautiful dogs walking alongside their mistress. Each was covered with long, tawny hair over every inch of its big body, and the considerable length of coat even seemed to obscure the eyes and ears.

The dogs’ presence at the fair drew a crowd, and their response to the scrutiny was somewhat spirited. More precisely, they reacted with plein d’élan, greeting the visitors with “no trace of timidity.” After all, these dogs were Briards!

The handsome and alert Chien Berger de Brie, as the breed is known in France, has been turning heads since the reign of Charlemagne. Tapestries from the eighth century depict the emperor with shaggy dogs that resemble the modern breed.

A true working animal, the Briard was used historically to guard flocks of sheep as well as herd them. Its ample size and vigorous, if somewhat protective, nature make the breed uniquely suited for both tasks.

The breed’s precise origin is undocumented, however the Briard Club of America’s Judges’ Education Booklet, explains its development as a “boundary-oriented herding dog” following the French Revolution of 1789: “The large landholdings were broken up, and rather than functioning as estate and livestock guardians, the breed found its primary role to be that of a herding and general use farm dog. One of those uses was to keep sheep within the confines of largely unfenced but specifically allotted tracts of land.”

Without fences to protect them, sheep in France and elsewhere are subject to predation by wolves, wild boar and poachers. So for centuries, the Briard ensured the flock’s safety by virtue of its superb senses, powerful construction, agile gait and fearless initiative. A coarse outer coat and a dauntless intelligence likewise protected the dog itself.

The Marquis de Lafayette is given credit for bringing the Briard to America, although it is known through his writings that Thomas Jefferson brought specimens to the colonies as well.

The Briard was first exhibited at the Exposition of Paris in 1863, and a French breed club was formed in 1896. The first standard was written the following year and translated into English in 1928, the year the breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club.

In a 1992 AKC Gazette breed column titled, “The Evolution of a Standard—Part II,” Mary Lou Tingley wrote, “Between 1928 and 1965, a few minor corrections were made in the standard; i.e., clarifying the length of the tail and the semi-erect ear.” It should be noted than unlike some other herding breeds, the Briard’s uncommon tail is never docked and, until 2010, its ears were generally cropped in France, as is still permitted in the U.S. today.

Both the original and current AKC breed standards include several disqualifications. The one for size says that a dog or bitch measuring under the minimum height requirement (23 inches for dogs, 22 inches for bitches) is to be eliminated from competition.

The reason for the disqualification attests to this herder’s dual function as a guardian. According to Tingley, “It was believed that Briards under the minimum size guideline would not have the stamina for herding. When one considers the size of the Beardie, Sheltie and Corgi, all excellent herders, this reasoning doesn’t stand up. But if one goes back to the original pastoral dog and his use as a boar hunter and guardian of the flock, the rationale for the disqualification becomes clear.”

In 1922, the first Briard was registered in the U.S. and, by 2011, AKC registrations for the breed placed it 125th among 173 recognized breeds.

The Briard is a handsome French farm dog and a “dog of heart.” Photo by Dan Sayers.

A Dry Coat

The conspicuous coat of the Briard is particularly striking, even when compared with the other beautifully coated herding breeds. Its “long, slightly wavy locks” cover the dog so appealingly that it’s entirely possible to forget about the powerful and agile guardian residing beneath the attractive cloak.

The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, however, describes a commanding and handsome dog underneath the hair: “Vigorous and alert, powerful without coarseness, strong in bone and muscle, exhibiting the strength and agility required of the herding dog. Dogs lacking these qualities, however concealed by the coat, are to be penalized.”

A double-coated breed, the Briard possesses a “fine and tight” undercoat “on all the body,” according to the standard’s section on coat. The eye-catching outer coat is “coarse, hard and dry,” lying flat and “falling naturally.” The parent club’s booklet indicates that the coat “should enhance rather than mask the shape of the head,” and only the feet may be trimmed “for a tidy presentation.”

The adult coat, which may take three to four years to mature, makes “a dry rasping sound between the fingers.” The booklet emphasizes the desired natural presentation of the coat: “The proper Briard coat does not require elaborate grooming.”

Black, gray or tawny, in various shades, the Briard’s coat may be any uniform color “except white.” The standard’s section on color states, “The deeper shades of each color are preferred.” A white spot on the chest “exceeding one inch in diameter,” a spotted coat and a white coat are disqualifications.

Briard babies are dark in color. Gray puppies are born black, and tawny puppies are born “very dark or reddish brown,” according to the booklet. Both colors lighten gradually and symmetrically. A white coat is described as “like that of a Samoyed” and should not be confused with a pale tawny color, while a spotted coat will lack symmetry.

A Crook in the Tail

Set smoothly on a gently sloping croup, the Briard’s tail is a breed hallmark and never docked. In fact, the breed’s long tail is so distinctive, it is shared by only one other breed: its shorter-coated cousin, the Beauceron.

“Well feathered,” according to the breed standard, the tail forms “a crook at the extremity, carried low and not deviating to the right or to the left. The crook is described as “similar to the printed ‘J’ when viewed from the dog’s right side.”

The booklet cautions, “The shape of the crook is sometimes not apparent when the dog is relaxed or in repose, but is usually seen when the animal is in motion.” The crook is not the same thing as a ring found on the end of the Afghan Hound’s tail, nor is it an open, sable or sickle curve like that of the Chinook.

In repose, “the bone of the tail descends to the point of the hock, terminating in the crook,” according to the standard. In action, “the tail is raised in a harmonious curve, never going above the level of the back, except for the terminal crook.” The booklet indicates that an excited Briard “may raise the tail above the back momentarily, but it should neither be carried that way nor should it be rolled over the croup.”

A docked or “non-existent” tail is a disqualification.

Double Dewclaws

Like the Beauceron, each of the Briard’s rear legs is required to have no fewer than two dewclaws “placed low on the leg, giving a wide base to the foot.” The standard’s section on dewclaws indicates that the nail of a dewclaw may be missing, and that the dog should not be penalized “so long as the digit itself is present.”

Although dewclaws on the front legs “may or may not be removed,” rear dewclaws should be fully functioning toes, and are required as described by the standard.

In the parent club’s resource article titled, “Oh Those Damn Dew Claws,” it is noted that one or both hind legs may have three dewclaws. Therefore, the disqualification is carefully worded, allowing dogs to be eliminated from competition only with “anything less than two dewclaws on each rear leg.” Additional digits are not to be faulted.

A Quicksilver Gait

“The well-constructed Briard is a marvel of supple power,” according to the Gait section of the breed standard. Described as “quicksilver,” the French farm dog, used to herd and guard, moves with a gait that is “supple and light” and “almost like that of a large feline.”

Powerfully muscled legs with strong bone permit the dog to shepherd tirelessly and with flexibility. The Briard is capable of making “abrupt turns, springing starts and sudden stops,” according to the standard. “The gait gives the impression that the dog glides along without touching the ground.”

The parent club’s booklet states, “The Briard is above all a trotting dog with rear angulation in balance with the forequarters. The joints must be flexible and the muscles powerful to enable the dog to perform sudden stops and quick turns used in his tasks, providing the near ‘tireless movement’ of a boundary herder.” Clumsy or inelegant movement is to be penalized.

Favored by emperor and president, the faithful and agile Briard is “a dog with heart,” handsome in form and boundless in spirit.