Belgium is home to several native breeds, including a number that were developed as loyal shepherds, the Chiens de Berger Belg. Municipalities favored various types of these dogs, including the Flemish province of Brabant where solid black dogs of different sizes were employed as sheepdogs, watchdogs and ratters. Called Leuvernaar, the largest of these eventually became known as the Groenendael, or Belgian Sheepdog, whereas dogs of medium proportion were reduced in size to become the Schipperke.
The ancestors of the modern Schipperke are said to have appeared in the Low Countries by the 17th century. Speculation, however, persists in some circles as to whether the breed is a miniature sheepdog or a small variety of spitz.
According to the Schipperke Club of America, “The Schipperke is not derived from the Spitz or Pomeranian, but is really a diminutive of the black sheepdog commonly called the Leauvenaar, which used to follow the wagons along the old highways in the provinces of Belgium. In the mid-19th century, some of these 40-pound sheepdogs were still herding sheep in the neighborhood of Louvain, and from these both the Schipperke and the Groenendael have descended. The Schipperke was bred down to become that ‘excellent and faithful’ little watchdog that we know.”
The Schipperke’s ancestry remains a source of controversy for some, owing perhaps to the translation of its name into English. The word “scheperke” means little shepherd in Flemish (Belgian Dutch), whereas the Dutch word “schipper” translates to skipper or sailor. Its familiar nickname, “Little Captain,” is a reference to the breed’s occasional employment on canal boats.
Although the breed did work on the canals by the 19th century, it’s traditionally docked tail suggests that its original purpose was likely that of a working herder.
The historic record indicates that shows for Schipperke were held by some of the guilds in Brussels as early as 1690. They were exhibited in the town of Spa in 1882, and the breed became a recognized purebred in its homeland six years later. It maintained its role as ratter and watchdog in shops and on barges, but its distinctive appearance and unabashed enthusiasm eventually caught the attention of many royals, including Belgium’s Queen Marie Henriette whose support transformed the breed from a working man’s dog to a very desirable companion among people of every class.
In 1887, the breed was introduced to both British and North American fanciers. The British Schipperke Club was formed in 1890, and recognition by the American Kennel Club came in 1904. The breed flourished for a time in the U.S. and Canada, but careless crosses and World War I greatly compromised the breed’s integrity on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the 1920s, Canadian fancier Isabel Ormiston made several trips to Belgium in search of “the more attractive type.” She found several Schipperkes that pleased her, including Flore de Veeweyde, who became a successful producer for Ormiston’s Kelso Kennels.
The current Schipperke Club of America was formed in 1929 with an approved breed standard modeled on the original Belgian. Ever since, the breed’s popularity has remained steady among dog lovers who enjoy a watchful and active companion with a stylish, easy-to-keep appearance. Registrations in 2012 position the breed comfortably at 98th of the 175 recognized breeds.
A Real Square
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the Schipperke, in part, as “a small, thickset, cobby, black, tailless dog.” It is “square in profile,” and although it may be small in stature, this active watchdog and vermin hunter is anything but delicate.
Though it measures only 11 to 13 inches at the withers for dogs and 10 to 12 inches for bitches, the Schipperke is a dog of substantial substance for its size. Described by the standard as being “thickset,” the breed’s broad and deep chest, well-sprung ribs, and short, muscular loins are indicative of a dog that has the muscle to back up its bark.
The “level or sloping” topline, balanced front and rear assembly, and absence of a tail reinforce the square proportions of the Schipperke. As directed by the standard’s section on size, proportion and substance, the breed’s characteristic construction is not dependent on bulk. “Quality,” it states, “always takes precedence over size.”
“Males are decidedly masculine without coarseness,” according to the standard. “Bitches are decidedly feminine without over refinement.”
A Ruff, Cape, Jabot and Culottes
The Schipperke’s coat creates a unique silhouette that also demonstrates quality in the breed. Every aspect of the coat’s pattern, texture and color come together to create a very distinctive profile. No other breed of dog dons outerwear quite as stylish.
The coat is a breed hallmark with several distinguishing features that complete the Schipperke’s ensemble. Most notable are the ruff, cape, jabot and culottes. Each feature is identified by an adult coat that is clothed in hair of differing lengths on specific parts of the head, neck, body and legs. The result is a silhouette with an exaggerated slope from shoulders to croup.
“The coat is short on the face, ears, front of the forelegs and on the hocks; it is medium length on the body, and longer in the ruff, cape, jabot and culottes,” as described by the Coat section of the standard. The ruff is typical of many shepherding and spitz breeds, beginning behind the ears and extending “completely around the neck.” The cape is described as “an additional distinct layer extending beyond the ruff,” and the jabot as extending “across the chest and down between the front legs.”
Hair along the spine from just behind the cape and continuing over the rump lies flat and is “slightly shorter than the cape, but longer than the hairs on the sides of the body and sides of the legs.” The culottes are formed by hair on the rear of the thighs that is “as long as the ruff.” So essential are these coat characteristics that their absence is to be “heavily penalized” in the show ring.
In an AKC Gazette breed column titled, “Coat: Unique, Intense, Frustrating,” Jane Silvernail addresses the coat’s importance in the breed. “A good natural pattern can be ruined by a lack of the undercoat that’s so essential to help the ruff stand out,” she says. “An overly long or a soft, silky outercoat ruins a pattern by hanging limply. Hard, coarse hair spoils the texture of the coat, which should be only slightly harsh and crisp to the touch; too soft a coat feels wooly.”
Color also defines breed type in the Schipperke and must always be black. “Any color other than a natural black is a disqualification,” per the standard. The undercoat may be “slightly lighter,” and the topcoat may take on “a transitory reddish cast” during the shedding season. The occasional white hair or graying in dogs and bitches over seven years of age is not to be penalized.
The coat is a breed hallmark and must demonstrate the characteristic natural patterning, texture and color without any artificial enhancements whatsoever exclusive of optional trimming of the whiskers and the hair between the pads of the feet.
A Fox-Like Face
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the Schipperke, in part, as having a “fox-like face.” One look into the little dog’s eyes and it’s easy to see the similarities between this breed and its wild and wily distant cousin.
The characteristically “foxy” expression of the breed, sometimes referred to as the “little black devil,” gives the Schipperke a “questioning, mischievous, impudent and alert” look, although the devilish little dictator never appears “mean or wild.” Correct expression is greatly achieved by a “well-proportioned head, accompanied by the correct eyes and ears,” according to the standard.
“Well-proportioned” describes a “slightly rounded” skull that is of medium width, narrowing toward the muzzle. Viewed from above, the head presents a wedge shape that tapers “smoothly from the back of the skull to the tip of the nose.”
According to the breed standard, the ideal eyes are “small, oval rather than round, dark brown, and placed forward on the head.” It is the size, shape, color and placement that combine to create the breed’s signature “fox-like” face.
As for the breed’s ears, they, perhaps more than any other feature, give the devil-may-care Schipperke its designation as a little demon. The ears are small, triangular, placed high on the head and are very erect when the dog is at attention. A drop ear or ears disqualifies. Correct ears, on the other hand, give the appearance of a little pair of horns. Afterall, what better crown is there for a tiny tyrant to wear?