At the close of the Middle Ages, tough street dogs roamed the alleys of Brussels, exterminating rats that devoured precious grain. Stablemen also kept these dogs for sport ratting, miners took them underground as company and, some say, sensitive indicators of toxic mine gas. These working-class dogs were the ancestors of the perky Toy breed we know today as the Brussels Griffon.
The breed's history is spotty, but over time these Belgian ratters were crossed with smaller breeds, likely Affenpinscher, Pug and Toy Spaniel. This gave the Griffon its pushed-in face, upswept undershot lower jaw and expressive eyes. Those infusions of "lapdog" also diminished the size and gave Griffons the companionable nature so endearing to fanciers. Their domed forehead, snub nose, dark eyes and eyelashes lend them an almost human look. "They have the ability to make you think they understand everything you say," said Denise Brusseau of Anoka, Minn. "When they cock their head from side to side, it's as if they're saying 'Uh-huh, uh-huh.'"
Each Griffon has a distinctive personality. Bethann Lane, of Lincolnshire, Ill., described her three: "Griffy is happy anywhere with anyone as long as I'm in the room. If I left, he'd come with me. Wyatt loves everyone and everyone loves him. He barks to communicate; he'll tell me when the cat is up on the counter. Joey is my 'little forest creature'; he worries about everything. He's shy, but he's joyous when I come home." Griffs love games and have a sense of humor. One of Brusseau's has made up a game and taught her owner to play each morning. "She hides every day when she gets up and makes me find her. Then she bows in play and wants me to bow and pet her."
Marjorie Simon of Houston, Rescue Chair for both National Griffon clubs (American Brussels Griffon Association & National Brussels Griffon Club), has bred, shown, and lived with Griffies for 38 years. They need to be close to their people to be happy, she said. "They're an in-your-face breed. They need to be devoted to someone. Griffs vegetate and become shy without enough attention." As its flip side, this devotion has dependency upon the owner that not everyone is prepared to handle. "They want to be with you all the time. If they could crawl inside you, they would. I've gotten rid of a lot of people who think they want a Brussels Griffon by asking them, 'Are you ready to have a toddler in your house for the next 15 years?'"
Griffons make excellent pets for empty-nesters who find themselves with a surplus of nurturing energy. "They like to be with you and do what you do," Brusseau said. "They like walks and interesting things, but they're perfectly content to sit with you and watch TV or watch you make a bed. They're happy as long as they're with you. Griffs are like having a baby around — a dependent person that never does grow up. They like to be held and I like to hold them. They like to be right up close and personal on your lap or right next to you in the chair, not on the floor by your feet. Some people underestimate the commitment and time required by this breed."
Janell Copas of Houston shares her home and heart with six Griffies. "This is a 'Velcro' breed. They'll follow you from room to room," she said. "Griffons will not tolerate being ignored."
The breed standard describes the Griffon as full of self-importance. One way they show this is by insisting on lots of attention. Another is attitude. "They're a wonderful combination of lots of affection and lots of bravado," Brusseau said. Lionhearted actions by a 10-pound Griff would be humorous if not for the problem it can create around bigger dogs. "Griffs are good with the dogs they live with, but can be fence fighters that snarl and bark at much bigger dogs," Simon said. "They think they can kill any big dog. One of mine slipped his collar and lit into a German Shepherd. He was lucky; the Shepherd just tossed him."
Early on, commoners owned the breed, but in the mid-1880s they found favor with Queen Astrid of Belgium. Royal interest added prestige to ownership and gained the breed notoriety outside its native Belgium. A few Griffons were imported to England and entered the show ring. Popularity rose, but World War I caused such hardship in Europe that breeding programs were severely affected. Fortunately, enough Griffons survived to re-establish the breed afterward.
Griffons arrived in the United States in the 1890s. The breed entered the AKC stud book in 1899 and exhibited at the Westminster Kennel Club show the same year. They received official AKC recognition in 1900, and the first champion was made in 1908. Griffons have done well in shows in this country. Ch. Wallin Charlie Brown retired in 1984 with the breed record of 24 Best-In-Show wins. Another, Ch. Starbeck Silken Sunshine, amassed more than 80 Toy Group firsts and 16 Best-in-Show wins.
The Griffon was relatively unknown outside the show ring until 1997, when As Good As It Gets brought this gamin-faced breed before millions of moviegoers. The breed's standing in AKC registrations, stable for years, ranked 96th of 145 breeds in 1995 and 1996, but in 1997 (the AKC's most recent tally) popularity rose to number 91 among 146 breeds. It is still too early to tell, but longtime Griffon fanciers worry the breed might be ruined by sudden popularity. (See accompanying article "Recent Popularity Alarms Griffon Breeders")
Bright, sensitive, devoted to their friends, Griffs can be shy with new people. A good way to introduce visitors is to have visitors stay seated until the dog warms up to them. A seated person is less threatening to dogs than one standing up.
Though sturdy for a Toy, Griffons are very sensitive and do not make good pets for families with young children. "Many Griffons do not like small children," said Bethann Lane of Lincolnshire, Ill. Children under 8 tend to be too rough, likely to poke, pull or drop these tiny dogs. Even if the family's children are gentle, they may have friends who are not. "Griffies have a long memory," Simon said. "They are unforgiving if a child hugs too tight or drops them. If cornered, a Griff may bite."
Starting Out Right
Although the breed may be wary of young children, many are fond of gentle, older kids. Lane suggested introducing Griffons to children under close adult supervision. "I trained my 12-year-old nephew how to act around my dogs," she said. "I had him lie flat on his back on the floor and not use his hands except to protect the puppy from falling off his chest. Within three minutes the puppy was licking his face and having a wonderful time. Now that pup loves children."
Four colors from red to solid black are acceptable, but there must be no white hairs anywhere on a Griff, except for natural age-frosting on the muzzle. A white spot or blaze will disqualify a Griff from the show ring. Other disqualifications are an overshot bite, a tongue that hangs out the side of the mouth and a light or mottled nose.
Griffons may have either a rough or smooth coat. Both are valued equally, although rough is currently more popular. The two coat types are registered as one breed in the United States and are often born in one litter. In Europe smooth and rough Griffons are considered separate breeds although, other than their hair, both have the same conformation.
The smooth coat is short and glossy with a sleek, polished feel. Rough coats are longer and wiry and should feel dense and hard, never woolly or silky. Wiry hair on the head is fringed slightly longer around the eyes, nose, cheeks and chin. Smooths can be kept tidy with weekly brushing and an occasional bath, but roughs look unkempt unless carefully tended. Clipping or scissoring is permitted for pets, but show dogs must be hand stripped, which involves plucking individual dead hairs to even the coat length.
Keep a Griff's teeth clean by brushing or rubbing with gauze. Clean the ears as needed, and trim nails at least once a month. Many Griffons enjoy grooming except for the pedicure. "I can make a whole room full of Griffies disappear just by opening the drawer the nail clippers are in," Simon said.
The American Brussels Griffon Association is studying inherited abnormalities in the breed. There have been anecdotal reports from breeders of cataracts, entropion, patellar luxation (a hereditary disorder where the patella, or kneecap, becomes dislocated), heart murmurs and hip dysplasia, but documentation has just begun. In the careful hands of experienced breeders, this knowledge hopefully will help prevent congenital faults in future generations.
One trait may help prevent overpopulation, even with the jump in popularity: Griffs have small litters and are difficult whelpers, often requiring Cesarean sections. Litters of one or two pups are common and newborn Griffs are more fragile than many other breeds. Once out of puppyhood, Griffons are fairly hardy and may live 15 or more years.
Like other short-faced breeds, Griffons have trouble with temperature extremes. They cannot pant efficiently in hot weather, and their short nasal passages do not warm air efficiently in cold weather. A Griffie may not survive if it gets too hot or cold. It must never be left in an outdoor kennel for even a few hours because the weather might change.
Despite a reputation for stubbornness, Brussels Griffons are extremely quick learners. They balk when forced, however, which may be how that reputation came about. "Fight with them and you'll be the loser," Simon said. "If they think it's their idea, though, they'll do anything." Griffs often fight walking on a leash at first, so early lead training is important. They do not quickly forget a traumatic experience, so keep training upbeat and pleasant. Be calm, use treats and toys, but don't pull or yank or your Griff will be terrified.
To get the best from a Griffon, make the work enjoyable using praise and rewards. "Be creative," Lane said. "Do whatever you need to make the lesson appealing to the dog. But don't hurt their feelings or they won't want to work." She noted the importance of building a Griff's confidence. "They get worried if something doesn't go right. Confidence building is always, always part of working with a Griff; you need to do a lot of that. When a Griff starts to do the right thing, praise and encourage: 'That's right, kid! You're a smart guy!'"
Griffies are often hard to housetrain because of a combination of physical and mental traits. Experienced owners find that even as adults Griffies may urinate as frequently as every two hours. You should not leave a Griff with the run of the house all day. Urine marking is common among intact adult male Griffons, but neutering before puberty prevents this. Griffs of either gender, if not needed in a careful breeding program, should be spayed or neutered while immature as it protects dogs from some serious conditions, like mammary, ovarian or testicular cancer.
Griffs are territorial and leaving one home alone may cause it to develop a barking habit. With nobody there to reassure it, a Griff may figure the only way to keep monsters away is to bark at every sound. If you must leave a Griffie home alone, confine it to a safe, comfortable area in a quiet part of the house and play calm background music to disguise outside noises.
This breed does well in obedience and agility competition if the trainer understands their sensitive nature. Copas, whose dog Dixie was the first Griffon to earn an Obedience Trial Champion (OTCH) title, uses only positive methods. "Find out what the dog likes as a reward," she said. "Get them to want to do (the lesson)." Copas avoids asking for too many repetitions when training. "Some Griffs will repeat an exercise if you want them to, but others worry they've done it wrong if you ask them to."
"Griffs are able to learn absolutely anything; the question is, can you be skilled enough a teacher to help them learn," Lane said. Her first Griff, Griffy, earned his Utility Dog (UD) title in the first three tries, then went on to become the first Griffon to earn a UDX. Lane's second Griff, Wyatt, was the first of his breed ever to attain the Agility Excellent (AX) title. Not only an athlete, Wyatt is working on his UDX. "There is nothing in the world cuter than looking down while you're heeling and seeing that little Griff face looking up at you," Lane said.
Brussels Griffons have sensitive souls and need owners who enjoy their endless devotion. "They sleep at your head or curled next to you and want to be with you from the moment you wake," Brusseau said. "If you have several, you're the Pied Piper. They follow you everywhere. Mine even line up while I take a shower and sometimes they'll peek behind the curtain to see if I'm still there."
The Brussels Griffon is a darling little scamp, sweet and expressive, playful and affectionate. Griffs can be perfect for those with the time and inclination to give them what they need. "They'll win your heart, but you've got to be able to handle a dog that demands that much attention," Copas said. "They really take over your life."
This article was first published by Dog Fancy, February 1999. It is reprinted on the Forum with permission from the author, September B. Morn, and is copyright protected.