There are many mysteries in the world of dogs. From the entire species beginnings to the development of each breed. The origins of few dogs are known with exact certainty. Others can be pieced together by ancient writings or archaeological finds. And some are wrapped in the mists of legends.
One of the more fascinating locations for dog history lies in the Mediterranean. Two of the oldest groupings developed there. However, no one knows where their ancestors came from. These dogs are the small bichons and the primitive Mediterranean sighthounds. Neither is related, but both trace their roots throughout the islands in the region.
I have been updating the site and after researching both groups I thought I would compile my findings here. None of this information can be stated as fact, but it is the closest I have been able to come to a logical answer. Due to length I have split them into two posts, with today’s covering the bichons. The sighthounds will be covered next week.
The bichon family includes seven modern breeds of dogs that are recognized, the Bichon Frisé, Bolognese, Coton de Tuléar, Havanese, Löwchen, Maltese, and Russian Tsvetnaya Bolonka. There is disagreement in some additions to this grouping, mainly the Löwchen and the Russian Tsvetnaya Bolonka. Some experts believe the Löwchen is not part of the bichon family and many others (including most kennel clubs) do not yet recognize the Russian Tsvetnaya Bolonka as a breed.
Since several of these breeds are not well known, let’s introduce each of them before further diving into their history as a whole.
As we begin this winding journey, it is important to remember that until a few hundred years ago none of the bichons were a breed as we know today. Historically few dogs have been isolated enough to breed true without direct human intervention. Geographically, the Mediterranean has been a trade route for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations have risen and fallen in this region. While in later centuries European explorers would traverse the islands. Therefore, it is probable most, if not all, of the bichons interbred throughout their early beginnings.
On June 15th the American Kennel Club (AKC) announced that it had recognized 3 ‘new’ breeds – two of which aren’t new at all, and the third was developed from an already existing breed.
First up we have the Berger Picard, also known as the Picardy Shepherd, which hails from France. Traditionally the Berger Picard is used to herd livestock (and was accepted in the Herding Group), and is closely related to the other French herders, the Briard and Beauceron. The only thing new about the Berger Picard is its appearance on the American stage, as they are believed to be the oldest of these three breeds.
Next is the Lagotto Romagnolo, or Romagana Water Dog, an Italian breed. Like the other water dogs this dog has a tight, curly coat, reminiscent of the Poodle, Portuguese Water Dog, or Barbet. Classified in the Sporting Group, this breed’s specialty is to ‘hunt’ something that doesn’t move at all – truffles! Like the Berger Picard this is an old breed, known since at least the 16th century. Some experts have even boasted it is the oldest of the water dogs, although more often this title is given to the Barbet.
Last we have the Miniature American Shepherd, a miniaturized version of the Australian Shepherd. This breed originated in the United States in the 1960s from Aussies that were on the smaller side of their standards. Despite being a miniaturized version their fanciers have shied from tying ‘Australia’ to the breeds name, perhaps because their ‘parent’ is also from the United States. Like the Berger Picard the Miniature American Shepherd was designated to the Herding Group.
Our last spaniel entry will be the most controversial, as the category of water spaniel is not as clear as the land spaniels we reviewed in our first post. When spaniels were first categorized they were divided into three types: Land (flushing), Gentle (companions), and Water. Those in the water category over time became more specialized as retrievers, rather than flushing breeds, but still come from the same root stock.
Some water dogs are easy to classify in the spaniel category, such as the American Water Spaniel and Boykin Spaniel, while others become much more difficult, like the Irish Water Spaniel. To simplify we will start by reviewing the easier breeds.
It seems ironic that those that are clearly spaniels are the ones that are ‘newer’ creations, both from the United States, the American Water Spaniel and Boykin Spaniel. They have a clear resemblance to their ‘land’ cousins, just with tightly curled coats rather than feathered ones. Both can flush, track, and retrieve and are closely related, the American Water Spaniel being used in the Boykin Spaniel’s development.
From The Netherlands we have the Wetterhoun, which was once interbred with one of the spaniels from our last post, the Stabyhoun. Both dogs were bred in the same region and were known to exist in one anothers' litters until formally separated. The Wetterhoun can be used to both flush and retrieve and held a secondary status as a farm dog.
Like the other French spaniels, the Pont-Audemer Spaniel is classified by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) as continental pointing dog, meaning that it can flush, point, and retrieve. This water spaniel does not have the traditional tight curls of the other breeds, save on it’s ears.
This leaves only the Irish Water Spaniel, which also works more as a retriever than a spaniel. However, it does descend from the extinct English Water Spaniel, so it is likely there is some common ancestry with the other spaniels. Adding the Irish Water Spaniel does leave one to ponder the true water dogs, after all, the Irish Water Spaniels other ancestor is almost certainly the Barbet. While it cannot be said that the Poodle, Lagotto Romagnolo, Portuguese Water Dog, or Spanish Water Dog are spaniels, it is true that somewhere the lines crossed and either the water dogs or the water spaniels are the ancestors of the other.
In closing we’ve returned back to our first question – how many spaniels are there? It still depends on which ones you want to count.