The Briard is thought to have arrived in France during the Middle Ages, perhaps even earlier. It originally was developed to control and protect its owners’ charges (usually sheep) against poachers and wolves. Over time, following the French Revolution with the subsequent land parceling and population increase, the breed became used for more peaceful tasks such as keeping sheep within unfenced pastures and guarding its masters’ flocks and property. The French shepherds who originally developed this breed were frugal and practical, only keeping dogs with superior abilities irrespective of appearance. Because of their sharp hearing, Briards were used extensively as sentries and on watches during times of war, and were the official French army dog during World War I. The ancestors of the Briard are not entirely known, but apparently they were cross-bred in the 1800’s with the Beauceron and the Barbet to standardize their appearance.
Briards were first entered in formal dog shows towards the end of the nineteenth century, with an appearance at the very first French dog show held in Paris in 1863. The original Briard standard was written in 1897 by a club of French sheepdog breeders, and in 1909 the Les Amis du Briard (Friends of the Briard) kennel club was formed in France. This breed club was disbanded during World War I. The Briard’s eagerness to please causes them to overwork without regard to their physical or emotional limitations. As such, war service (including seeking out wounded soldiers and carrying food, supplies and munitions to the front) threatened the breed’s existence. A number of devoted breeders saved the breed from extinction. The French breed club was reformed in 1923 and adopted a more precise Briard standard in 1925. The Briard Club of America adopted this standard with minor modifications in 1928 and was recognized as the AKC parent club. The breed standard has remained essentially unchanged except for slight elaboration in 1975. Briards did not reach Britain until the 1960s, but thereafter they have attained and retained an enthusiastic following.
Thankfully, the strong genetic characteristics of the Briard have helped the breed withstand the uncertainties of time and the idiosyncrasies of mankind. The traditional attributes of the Briard include keen intelligence, loyalty, obedience and instinctive herding talent. Today’s Briards retain their herding instincts, often nudging their owners to direct them or alert them to anything unusual within their realm. They are versatile and continue to serve as tracking, disaster, search-and-rescue, police, guide and avalanche dogs. They also compete successfully in the performance and conformation ring. As few as two or three Briards can still successfully manage a flock of up to 700 sheep and cover upwards of 50 miles daily. Perhaps their best talent is as a loved and trusted companion.
The life expectancy of the Briard is about 10 to 12 years. Breed health concerns may include conditions associated with large breeds such as hip dysplasia and bloat. They also may be predisposed to cataracts, central progressive retinal atrophy, hereditary retinal dystrophy of Briards, congenital stationary night blindness, hypothyroidism and lymphoma. Their long coarse coat should be brushed regularly, but fortunately it is naturally repellant to dirt and debris.