In the 1997 film, “As Good as It Gets,” a little dog, named Verdell, manages to steal the show from his Academy Award-winning co-star. The tiny Toy is a Brussels Griffon, and the movie’s box office success introduced audiences to the charms of the delightfully energetic Belgian breed – very much at Jack Nicholson’s expense.

The alert and intelligent Brussels Griffon sprang from the streets of the capital city where it was originally developed to rid stables of vermin. According to the American Brussels Griffon Association, 19th-century coachmen kept small Terrier-type dogs, “known as Griffons d’Ecurie (wire-coated stable dogs.)” Some accounts indicate these dogs were not unlike Fox Terriers, though heavier in build.

The city’s ubiquitous ratters were eventually crossed with several breeds, according to the ABGA’s breed history. “Just when or why other breeds were introduced can only be conjecture as the Brussels’ stablemen who initiated these crosses apparently kept no records.”

The Affenspincher was part of the breed’s original foundation and, later, the Pug was introduced from neighboring Holland. Ruby and King Charles (English Toy) Spaniels were also brought into the mix. According to the breed history, the Pug gave rise to “a smooth-coated Griffon designated ‘Brabançon’ after the Belgian national anthem, ‘La Brabonçonne.’” The Spaniel’s influence can be found “in an occasional (and completely acceptable) web-footed, kink-tailed, or tailless Griffon puppy, often the one with the most desirable head properties,” according to the ABGA.

These introductions forever altered the stable dog’s appearance. No longer expected to work for a living, the Brussels Griffon became an animated companion and watchdog, beloved for its especially intriguing head and expression.

The first registrations of Brussels Griffons (Griffons Bruxellois) were made in 1883 in Belgium. The Griffons Bruxellois Club (Great Britain) was founded in 1898 and by the turn of the last that century, the breed’s popularity spread internationally. Recognition by the American Kennel Club came two years later, and the breed’s original parent club remained active until 1939. In 1945, the American Brussels Griffon Association was formed to encourage and promote correct type and interest in the breed.

Recognized as a single breed by both the AKC and the Kennel Club (England), the Brussels Griffon is considered three distinct breeds by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, based in Thuin, Belgium. The Griffon Bruxellois (rough-coated red), Griffon Belge (rough-coated red and black mixed, black, or black and tan) and the Petit Brabançon (smooth-coated in all colors) have individual FCI breed standards.

The first U.S. specialty for the breed is recorded as the 1918 entry of 53 Griffons. Since that time, the breed has enjoyed support from admirers and moviegoers and, in 2011, AKC registrations placed the breed 77th of the 173 recognized breeds.

The Brussels Griffon is an alert and sturdy Toy with an almost human expression. Photo © Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova/Dreamstime.

An ‘Almost Human’ Expression

Just one look at the Brussels Griffon’s face and it’s easy to see why the General Appearance and Head sections of the AKC breed standard describe an “almost human” expression.

“The very essence of breed type is found in the unique head of the Brussels Griffon,” according to the ABGA’s Illustrated Breed Standard Guide. The correctly made skull and properly positioned eyes, nose, lips and lower jaw form a relationship that creates the desired look which gets attention.

The skull is “large and round, with a domed forehead,” according to the breed standard, with a “deep” stop. The illustrated guide emphasizes that “correct layback will tilt the extremely short nose up and back, high between the eyes, forming a deep stop which can be felt but is not visible.”

It is the eyes, perhaps, and their relationship with the laid-back nosepad that most suggest the human-like aspect of the Brussels Griffon’s head. Set “well apart, very large, black, prominent, and well open,” according to the breed standard, the wide positioning of the eyes allows for the nose to fit in between. This alignment helps to create the desired expression.

An “upward sweep” of the broad lower jaw and short upper lips that are “well brought together” also contribute to correct expression. The guide emphasizes that the prominent chin produced by the correctly made lower jaw gives the breed its signature “pout.” The lower jaw allows the lips to meet correctly, giving a “clean finish to the mouth,” according to the guide.

The lower jaw “must be undershot,” according to the breed standard. A wry mouth is a serious fault, and an overshot bite or a hanging tongue disqualifies.

“A good natural ear can do much to enhance the skull by giving it the illusion of added width and size,” according to the guide. The small ears, set rather high on the head, may be cropped or natural, and carried semi-erect. Natural ears have some “lift,” according to the guide, and “should break slightly above the level of the top of the skull.”

A Thickset Body

A sturdy little dog, the Brussels Griffon possesses a “thickset, short body” with “a smart carriage and set-up,” according to the General Appearance section of the breed standard. This is a compact Toy dog, with a solid, short-coupled framework that embodies its stalwart sense of self-importance.

The breed’s back is “level and short” with the tail “set and held high, docked to about one-third,” according to the breed standard. As directed by the guide, “The topline should be level from the withers to tail set with no dipping at the shoulders or roaching over the loin.”

The illustrated guide emphasizes the Brussels Griffon is slow to mature. The “broad and deep” brisket and “well-sprung” ribs that are requirements of the standard “may not be fully developed in a young dog,” it says.

Broad and square, the Brussels Griffon’s thickset body should impress with its “look of substance,” according to the guide. A narrow front, barrel chest, slab sides, sloping croup, a dip at the withers or an obvious tuck-up are all “undesirable” in the breed.

Rough and Smooth

Typical of the rough-coated Terriers, the Brussels Griffon’s rough coat is also “wiry and dense, the harder and more wiry the better,” according to the breed standard. “On no account should the dog look or feel woolly, and there should be no silky hair anywhere.” This declaration provides clear instruction as to the importance of correct coat texture.

As directed by the standard, the body coat should be “of sufficient length to determine texture,” although “not so long as to give a shaggy appearance.” The coat on the head is likewise wiry, and “slightly longer around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and chin, thus forming a fringe.”

The illustrated guide cautions against being deceived by excessive hair. “The wiry fringe formed by the slightly longer facial hair should not flow into a long beard,” it says, and leg furnishings are likewise minimal when the coat has correct texture.

Additionally, the guide indicates that superfluous head furnishings “should not be left to camouflage many head faults, i.e., narrow head, long nose, flat forehead, etc.” Long, soft furnishings indicate a softer coat texture overall. “A correct hard wire coat will seldom, if ever, produce long profuse furnishings,” according to the guide.

The correct rough coat is hand-stripped to create a neat appearance. A coat that has been scissored or clippered is to be severely penalized.

The coat of the smooth Griffon is “straight, short, tight and glossy, with no trace of wiry hair,” according to the standard. The guide suggests the coat’s texture is like that of the Boston Terrier, “with no long hair anywhere.”

Brussels Griffons of both coat types may be either red, belge, black and tan, or black. Red ranges from “a deep mahogany through the fiery red,” according to the guide. Belge refers to a banded hair shaft “mixed with rich red and black” that results in a “smutty overall appearance,” often with a black mask and ears. Tan markings are rich and distinct in black and tans, and should appear on all the “conventional” areas. In blacks, and black and tans, the color should be “jet black,” and any rust or silver undercoat should be removed.

The presence of white hairs, other than “frost” on an older dog’s muzzle, is a serious fault, according to the breed standard, and a “white spot or blaze anywhere on coat” is cause for disqualification.

For those looking for a smart and sensitive, but sturdy, Toy with a remarkable face and a devoted nature, the Brussels Griffon really is “As Good as It Gets.”