The Brussels Griffon is a toy breed native to Belgium, especially the city of Brussels. Few dogs pose as many classification problems as the Brussels Griffon. There are several varieties of this breed, but different kennel clubs recognize a different number of varieties, and some recognize each variety as a distinct breed. Most international kennel clubs recognize three distinct varieties of the Brussels Griffon: the Griffon Bruxellois (Brussels Griffon), the Griffon Belge (Belgian Griffon), and the Petit Brabancon. Some kennel clubs recognize all three as distinct breeds, and others recognize them all as varieties of one breed. However, most American kennel clubs only recognize two varieties of one breed, Smooth and Rough-Coated Brussels Griffons. It is technically accurate to describe all varieties of Brussels Griffon as the Brussels Griffon, Belgian Griffon, or Griffon Bruxellois, but for the purposes of this article the name Brussels Griffon will be used, as it is the official breed name for both major American kennel clubs.
The Brussels Griffon is a native of Belgium, and is named for Brussels, the capital of that nation. This breed has been gradually developed over several centuries with ancestors extending back several hundred years, although the modern form did not appear until the 1800’s. Griffon is a French word describing a number of wiry-coated dog breeds, most of which are either gun dogs or scent hounds. The actual origins of the Griffons has been lost to time, although they are thought to descend from a wiry-coated hunting hound owned by the Celts known as the Canis Segusius. The Brussels Griffon is normally placed in this group because of its name. However, this breed is almost certainly not a true Griffon; rather it was so named because the wiry coat of some Brussels Griffons is reminiscent of such breeds as the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen and the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. It is likely that French-speaking Belgians called this dog a Griffon due to their familiarity with such French breeds. The Brussels Griffon is instead almost certainly a member of the Pinscher/Schnauzer family.
Much like the Griffons, the Pinscher/Schnauzer family is hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years old. These dogs were the working farm dogs of German-speaking peoples for untold centuries. Pinschers were typically used for vermin eradication, and developed into very skilled ratters. These dogs were also farm guardians, with many doing double duty as guard or attack dogs. Some Pinschers were even developed as cattle drovers. Because most Pinschers were used for rat killing and many possessed wiry coats, when these dogs were first introduced into English-speaking countries many assumed that they were members of the terrier family. Many experts will even incorrectly claim that Pinscher or Schnauzer is the German word for terrier. (Pinscher is German for biter or pincher and Schnauzer is German for snouter or mustache.) However, there is no evidence to suggest that these dogs are in any way related to terriers, and any similarities between them are the likely result of being bred for similar purposes. The Miniature Schnauzer, the Standard Schnauzer, the Giant Schnauzer, the Miniature Pinscher, the German Pinscher, the Doberman Pinscher, the Affenpinscher, and the Austrian Pinscher are always included in this family. Most dog experts also place the Dutch Smoushund and the Swedish/Danish Farm Dog in as well. In recent years some experts have begun to believe that the four Swiss Mountain Dog breeds, the extinct Belgische Rekel, and the Dachshund also belong in this category, although these additions are more controversial.
Since the earliest records of Pinschers and Schnauzers, these dogs have been present in two distinct coat types, wire and smooth. (In fact, the Standard Schnauzer and German Pinscher were considered to be the same breed until the beginning of this century.) Eventually, breeders in parts of Germany developed small varieties of Pinscher that were solely wire-coated. There were probably many such dogs at one point, but the only current survivor is the Affenpinscher. It is unclear when this process began, but the earliest records of the Affenpinscher date from the 1600’s. The Affenpinscher or a very similar and closely related breed almost certainly was further developed by breeders in the low-countries. Eventually, the low countries were divided between the Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Belgium and Luxembourg leading to linguistic and cultural differences.
The rat killing dogs developed in these countries were likely split into the Dutch Smoushund, which was recently recreated, and the extinct Belgian Smousje. The wire-coated dog depicted by Jan Van Eyck in his work The Arnolfini Marriage is thought to be a Smousje. The Smousje probably worked primarily as a farm ratter. Belgian carriage men began to keep examples of the Smousje and similar rat killing dogs to clear out their stables of vermin. Carriage men from across Belgium regularly traded dogs for breeding purposes, as well as introducing blood from new breeds which they encountered. Eventually they developed a unique breed, the Griffon d’Ecurie. It is likely that French-speaking Belgians mistook the Pinscher of the German-speaking Belgians for a French Griffon at this time. This breed was well-established across Belgium, although it was likely quite variable in appearance.
During the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s, Belgian carriage men continued to introduce new blood to the Griffon d’Ecurie. As these men kept few if any records of their dog breeding, it is impossible to say exactly which breeds that they used. It is almost certain that they mixed the Griffon d’Ecurie with the Pug, a breed which was incredibly popular in neighboring France and the Netherlands. It is thought that the Pug is responsible for both the brachycephalic or pushed-in face of the modern Brussels Griffon and the smooth coat and black coloration of the Petit Brabancon variety. It is also generally believed that the King Charles (black and tan) and Ruby varieties of the English Toy Spaniel were bred with the Griffon d’Ecurie.
These crosses are responsible for the black and tan and red markings found in most modern day Brussels Griffons. It is also believed that Pug and English Toy Spaniel ancestry is responsible for the occasional Brussels Griffon being born with webbed toes, a kink tail, or no tail at all. Eventually, the Griffon de’Ecurie was so different from its original form that it began to go by separate names. Smooth-coated dogs became known as the Petit Brabancon, after the Belgian national anthem, La Brabonconne. Rough-coated dogs which were solid red in color became known as the Griffon Bruxellois, or Brussels Griffon, after the Belgian capital of Brussels. Dogs which were rough coated of any other color variety were simply known as Griffon Belges, or Belgian Griffons.
Introduced across the entire country of Belgium and to people of all socio-economic classes by carriage men, the Brussels Griffon became popular with both workers and the Belgian nobility. By the mid-1800’s, dog shows and kennel clubs had become quite fashionable across Europe. Belgium was no stranger to this craze and standards were developed for a number of native Belgian breeds. The first Brussels Griffon to be registered with a kennel club appeared in the first volume of the Belgian kennel club’s studbook in 1883. The Belgian Queen Marie Henriette greatly increased the popularity of this breed. She was a great dog enthusiast and became a regular attendee of dog shows across Belgium. She regularly attended these events with her daughters.
Queen Marie Henriette became a breeder and promoter of the Brussels Griffon, and was responsible for spreading these dogs across Europe. All Brussels Griffon populations outside of Belgium are probably largely the result of the Queen’s influence. The Brussels Griffon became most popular in England, where the first breed club outside of Belgium was founded in 1897. Although it is unclear exactly how or when the first Brussels Griffons arrived in America, the breed was well-established by 1910, when the American Kennel Club (AKC) first recognized the breed. In continental Europe, the Griffon Bruxellois, the Griffon Belge, and the Petit Brabancon eventually became recognized as three separate breeds, and were no longer interbred. However, in the United Kingdom and the United States all three varieties of the Brussels Griffon have remained one breed, and are regularly interbred.
Belgium was the location of most of the harshest trench warfare of World War I, and Brussels Griffon numbers were reduced dramatically in that country. Many dogs were killed during the fighting, and many more either starved or were not bred when their owners could no longer care for them. Recovery efforts proved slow after the war’s end because breeders were determined to eliminate perceived faults such as web toes. Additionally, the carriage service stables where the breed had distinguished itself as a ratter were made obsolete by the spread of the automobile. As terrible as World War I was for Belgium, World War II proved even more disastrous. Much of urban Belgium was bombed and looted, first in the German Blitzkrieg and then again by Allied Forces attempting to retake the nation from the Germans. In between these two invasions were years of harsh German occupation. The Brussels Griffon was found primarily in urban areas such as Brussels which had seen the worst of the fighting. By the end of World War II, the Brussels Griffon was essentially extinct in its homeland, and most of continental Europe. Luckily, a significant number of this breed had survived the war in the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent the United States, and Belgian and European populations used these dogs to rebound.
Since the Brussels Griffon was first recognized by the AKC in 1910, the breed has slowly grown in popularity in America. The American Brussels Griffon Association (ABGA) was founded in 1945, with Mrs. H.P. Donnel as its first president. The breed was first recognized by the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1956. Although the breed has steadily grown in terms of population numbers in the United States, it has never developed any real popularity in this country. In 1960, Black Smooth Brussels Griffons were disqualified from AKC events, although this ban was subsequently removed in 1990. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Brussels Griffon made a number of appearances in American films and television programs. Most famously, six different Brussels Griffons played the character of Verdell in As Good As It Gets, alongside Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. The breed’s presence in this film is even mentioned on the AKC webpage for the breed. The Brussels Griffon has also appeared in the films Gosford Park and First Wives Club. Perhaps the most notable television appearance of the Brussels Griffon was in Spin City, where a Petit Brabancon named Wesley played Rags, a suicidal dog. Unlike many breeds which see a significant jump in popularity after appearing in such famous films and television shows, the Brussels Griffon achieved only a modest bump at best. Most Brussels Griffon fanciers are very grateful for this.
Although numbers of the Brussels Griffon have recently risen in the United States as a result of its film appearances and the general increase in interest in toy breeds as a whole, the breed remains somewhat rare. In 2010, the Brussels Griffon ranked 80th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. Although the Brussels Griffon was developed as a ratter and breed members are still likely quite capable of rat killing, few if any of these dogs remain employed at that task. Recently, some owners are discovering that this energetic and athletic breed can compete quite successfully at agility and obedience competitions, but this breed has yet to become well-known for canine competitions yet. Rather, virtually every Brussels Griffon alive today is either a companion animal or a show dog.
While most of the world recognizes three distinct varieties of the Brussels Griffon, the AKC and UKC recognize only two. However, virtually all kennel clubs have identical standards for all varieties, with the only differences being coat type and color. The common features of all five varieties will be discussed first, and then the differences between them highlighted.
The Brussels Griffon is a very small dog. Most animals weigh between 8 and 10 pounds, and breed standards strongly disfavor dogs which weight more than 12 pounds. While standards do not specify an ideal height for the breed, most examples are between 7 and 8 inches tall at the shoulder. Unlike most larger breeds which exhibit a great deal of size difference between the sexes, the Brussels Griffon shows little difference in size between males and females. This breed is general square in proportion, and is roughly as long as it is tall. The Brussels Griffon is a generally well-proportioned dog, although its legs are somewhat tall for its body. One would not look at a Brussels Griffon as a robust breed, and in fact these dogs are not thick. However, this breed is certainly not frail or fragile either. It is traditional to dock the tail of the Brussels Griffon to roughly two-thirds of its natural length. However, this practice is falling into disfavor and is already illegal in many countries. The natural tail of the Brussels Griffon is short and typically carried upright.
Perhaps the most charming feature of the Brussels Griffon is the breed’s face. The Brussels Griffon is known for its distinctive brachycephalic (pushed-in) face. The Brussels Griffon has a large, round head. The muzzle is very short, and pushed in and upwards. Most Brussels Griffons have a pronounced under bite. The Brussels Griffon does have some face wrinkles, but they are not as pronounced as those of most short faced breeds. The face of the Brussels Griffon is quite refined and no teeth or inside of the mouth should be visible when the breed’s mouth is closed. The eyes of the Brussels Griffon are large, round, and set far apart, although they should never be bulging. The Brussels Griffon has an intense, curious, and mischievous expression. The ears of the Brussels Griffon are held high on its head and are traditionally cropped. Dogs with cropped ears hold them erect. This practice is falling into even greater disfavor than tail docking and many Brussels Griffons now have natural, semi-erect ears.
The Coat and Color of the Griffon Bruxellois
The Griffon Bruxellois is the most common of the many varieties of the Brussels Griffon. This variety has a thick double coat. The undercoat is soft and dense, while the outer coat is very wiry and quite harsh. The Griffon Bruxellois has a medium-length coat; long enough to clearly feel its coarse texture, but not so long that it obscures the outline of the dog. Some standards call for the Griffon Bruxellois to have slightly longer hair than the Griffon Belge, but this is more aspirational that anything else. The Griffon Bruxellois is primarily distinguished from the Griffon Belge by color. Only those dogs with solid reddish-brown coats are true Griffon Bruxellois, although some black around the whiskers and chin is allowed by most kennel clubs.
The Coat and Color of the Griffon Belge
The Griffon Belge is virtually identical to the Griffon Bruxellois. It shares the same two-layered coat. The Griffon Belge also has a medium-length coat, although some standards call for coats that are slightly shorter than that of the Griffon Bruxellois. The Griffon Belge comes in a greater variety of colors than the Brussels Griffon, but not to many. Most kennel clubs allow Griffon Belges to appear in three color varieties. Some dogs are reddish-brown and black mixed, typically having a black mask and whiskers. Other dogs are black with uniform reddish brown markings, normally under the chin, on the legs, above the eyes, around the edges of the ears, and around the vent. Finally, solid black is acceptable in some kennel clubs.
The Coat and Color of the Petit Brabancon
The Petit Brabancon is a smooth-coated breed. In addition to being smooth, the hair is also harsh and straight. The Petit Brabancon has short hair, roughly equivalent to that of the Pug. Different kennel clubs allow the Petit Brabancon to come in different colors. Some allow for the four color patterns found in the Griffon Bruxellois and the Griffon Belge, while others exclusively allow solid black dogs.
The Coat and Color of the Rough-Coated Brussels Griffon
The AKC and UKC consider the Griffon Bruxellois and the Griffon Belge to be one variety. These dogs have the rough, double coat common to both European Griffons, but may come in reddish-brown, reddish-brown and black mixed, black with uniform reddish-brown markings, and solid black.
The Coat and Color of the Smooth Coated Brussels Griffon
The AKC and UKC consider the Petit Brabancon to be the Smooth Coated Brussels Griffon. These dogs have the smooth, short coat of the Petit Brabancon. Unlike many European kennel clubs, the Smooth Coated Brussels Griffon may come in reddish-brown, reddish-brown and black mixed, black with uniform reddish brown markings, and solid black.
The Brussels Griffon is not a typical toy breed, and is much closer to the terriers when it comes to temperament. These are energetic and entertaining little dogs, and it is frequently said that they take themselves too seriously. Although given to occasional moments of silliness, the Brussels Griffon is typically a very serious dog. The Brussels Griffon can and does make an excellent companion, but only if it is in the right home. This breed is indisputably a companion animal, and often forms an incredibly intense bond with its owner. However, the Brussels Griffon is known for only forming a bond with one person, and is generally considered a one person dog. It will take a great deal of time and effort for a second person, even a spouse, to earn the trust and affection of a Brussels Griffon, and even then such trust and affection will be limited. Although this breed is confident and engaging, the Brussels Griffon is most comfortable when around its owner.
This breed does not adapt particularly well when its owner must leave for hours on end. The Brussels Griffon needs proper socialization from a very young age to be polite with strangers, although even the most polite members of this breed tend to remain suspicious of new people. Brussels Griffons which have not been properly socialized tend to be one the fearful or aggressive side, although they are usually more bark than bite. Most experts do not recommend the Brussels Griffon as a family dog, some strongly so. The Brussels Griffon has very little patience with children, and will not stand for any rough play. This breed will bite if it feels it needs to defend itself from a child. This breed makes a peerless watchdog, and will alert its owner to whatever is going on. The Brussels Griffon would also likely make a tolerable guard dog if it were not so small. The Brussels Griffon tends to be dominant and manipulative; as a result this breed is probably better suited to an experienced dog owner.
Although generally similar to terriers in temperament, the Brussels Griffon is most different from that group when it comes to the level of aggression which it shows other animals. Most Brussels Griffons are relatively accepting of other dogs, and many very much enjoy their company. However, this breed probably prefers the company of humans and definitely does suffer from dominance issues. Brussels Griffons like to be in charge, and may get into altercations to achieve the standing in the pack which they feel that they deserve. Additionally, this breed has a tendency to loudly and strongly posture when in the presence of strange dogs. While the Brussels Griffon is more talk than action in such situations, it can draw the ire of larger and more powerful dogs. Many Brussels Griffons also become extremely possessive of their food and toys. Although the Brussels Griffon was an accomplished ratter until the turn of the century, this breed now has a very low prey drive. While any dog which has not been socialized will pursue small animals, the Brussels Griffon is more tolerant than most after such socialization work has been done. In particular, these dogs are less likely to bother cats than most similar breeds.
The Brussels Griffon is quite intelligent, and has been a successful competitor at agility and obedience trials. Many owners have delighted in teaching these dogs tricks. However, the Brussels Griffon is not an easy dog to train. This breed is stubborn, and will often refuse to obey commands. This breed also tends to be dominant and will regularly challenge its owner. Any owner of a Brussels Griffon must make sure that they are always the pack leader. While a Brussels Griffon is trainable, it takes additional time and effort. It is particularly challenging to socialize this breed and teach it proper manners. The Brussels Griffon tends to be quite responsive to one person, or perhaps two, and will likely ignore the commands of those it does not know well or respect. All that being said, the Brussels Griffon is more easily trained than most terriers, and is more intelligent and capable of learning than many of the other toy breeds. Perhaps the area in which the Brussels Griffon provides the most difficulties is with housebreaking. The small bladders of these dogs take extra time to develop, and they simply are not able to hold it in for very long. As a result, Brussels Griffons should be crated for a longer period of time, and should be carefully supervised whenever in a house.
The Brussels Griffon is one of the most athletic and energetic of all toy breeds. This is not a dog which will be satisfied with a short daily walk. Brussels Griffon owners must take the extra time to provide this breed with more exercise than they would other toy breeds. The Brussels Griffon enjoys relatively long walks and an opportunity to run around off-leash in a secure area. The Brussels Griffon is also very active indoors, and will spend hours running around your home. If you are looking for a couch potato, look elsewhere. However, this breed certainly does not need hours of rigorous physical exercise. While the Brussels Griffon does not crave a job, this breed does enjoy having a purpose to its exercise. These dogs are quite happy running through an agility course, or having another outlet for their inquisitive minds. A Brussels Griffon which has not been properly exercised can become a nightmare, as this breed tends to become nervous, overly excitable, aggressive, destructive, and extremely vocal if bored.
The Brussels Griffon is known for being mischievous. These dogs are skilled climbers and often get themselves into a place where they have trouble getting down from without injuring themselves. This breed also has a penchant for getting into trouble, as it constantly wants to satisfy its curiosity. Extra care must be taken to prevent these dogs from putting themselves into a dangerous situation.
Although the Brussels Griffon generally makes an excellent apartment or suburban dog, there is one aspect of the breed’s personality which owners must take into account. This breed is known for being vocal. Brussels Griffons tend to bark a great deal, and their bark is generally perceived as shrill and unpleasant. If you do not want a “yappy” dog, the Brussels Griffon is not for you. Proper training and exercise will significantly reduce the barking of a Brussels Griffon, but they will not eliminate the breed’s natural tendencies. A Brussels Griffon which is kept indoors all day and not properly stimulated will almost certainly result in noise complaints.
As is the case with many small breeds, the Brussels Griffon is susceptible to developing a behavioral issue known as Small Dog Syndrome. This condition is the result of owners treating a small dog differently than they would a large dog. There are many reasons for this difference in treatment. Some owners begin to think of their little companion as a person rather than a dog. Some find their negative behaviors funny or cute. Some simply don’t see a small dog as being as threatening as a large dog. These dogs are generally undisciplined by their owners, and eventually believe that they are the top dog in the world. Such dogs tend to be vocal, aggressive, dominant, unmannered, and generally out of control. Luckily, this condition is easily preventable with proper training.
The two different coat varieties of the Brussels Griffon require significantly different care requirements. The Rough-Coated Brussels Griffon (The Griffon Bruxellois and the Griffon Belge) requires a significant amount of coat care. In order to keep a breed member in show condition, several hours of work must be done on the coat every week. These dogs need regular (often daily), and thorough brushings to prevent matting. These dogs also will occasionally need their coats stripped. While owners can learn to do these tasks themselves, most choose to have their dogs professionally groomed every two or three months. Many owners choose to have their dogs regularly trimmed to make their hair care more manageable. The reward for this extra coat care is a dog that sheds little to no hair.
The Smooth-Coated Brussels Griffon (The Petite Brabancon) requires comparatively little coat care. A regular brushing is all that this variety will require. However, this breed does shed. Smooth-Coated Brussels Griffons are considered moderate shedders who will definitely leave dog hair on your furniture, carpets, and clothes, but will not necessarily cover them with hair.
The Brussels Griffon is a generally healthy breed. These dogs tend to be quite long-lived, with an average life expectancy of between 12 and 15 years. It is far from unheard of to find a Brussels Griffon which lives well-beyond 15 years. This breed has also been spared the worst commercial breeding practices, and has a number of devoted breeders who are determined to protect this breed’s health. However, the Brussels Griffon does suffer from a number of hereditary health defects, even though these are generally present at lower percentages than found in other breeds.
The unique head and face of the Brussels Griffon are the cause of most of the breed’s health problems. Some females may have difficulties while whelping and a Caesarian Section may be required. However, this is much rarer than in other Brachycephalic breeds. The pushed-in face of the Brussels Griffon means that this breed tends to have respiratory difficulties. These dogs tend to wheeze and snort, and many snore. Some Brussels Griffons also tend to be overly gassy. The Brussels Griffon has difficulty getting enough air to cool itself off, and is therefore somewhat sensitive to the heat. However, these problems tend to be considerably less pronounced in the Brussels Griffon than in a breed such as the French Bulldog.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
A full list of health problems that the Brussels Griffon is susceptible would have to include: