Tete de chien courant (1880)
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec
Musee Toulouse Lautrec
How did this unique looking dog come about?
Why does it look as it does? What is its purpose?
These questions are quite naturally asked by anyone seeing this large hound on short legs. So, what are the answers?
Well, the Basset Hound is no modern invention. Certainly, it is not one of these questionable designer dogs one sadly reads about.
It is the result of careful selective breeding over many centuries.
As with any history which spans such a long period, assessing the true facts is not always clear and rarely straightforward. The very early period especially, is obscure and subject to some debate. What follows is what I consider to be the most compelling consensus of the various accounts.
I hope that for those not already familiar with the history of the breed they will be intrigued enough to read more comprehensive versions of this breed’s fascinating story.
The name Basset derives from the French bas meaning low-set or dwarfed and was applied to numerous types of short-legged hounds - chiens bassets - that were bred in mediaeval France.
They are described in print and called basset for the first time in Jacques Du Fouilloux’s La Venerie (The Art of Hunting), published in 1562.
However, this was not the first appearance of these strange dogs, as
they can be seen depicted in wall paintings of several ancient
Egyptian tombs as long ago
Both the ancient Greeks and Romans were also familiar with dwarf hunting dogs. The Spartan Hound, in particular, was described as ‘short-legged and deep mouthed’
However, it was in France that the significant development of these short-legged hounds took place. The most accepted theory is that they were descended from an early bloodhound-like dog known as the St. Hubert Hound. These were bred by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St. Hubert in the Ardennes.
Abbey of St. Hubert in the Ardennes
Though there was some variation within the St. Hubert strain -
it seems that many of them were dwarf hounds. Indeed, these
may well have had a numerical supremacy, as the St Hubert is
described in George Turberville’s Art of Venerie or
Huntyng (1576) as being ‘mighty of body, neuerthelesse, their legges are lowe and short,
likewise they are not swift, although they be very good of sent’
This description is echoed in Randle Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary of 1632, which says, ‘Chien de St. Hubert, a kind of strong, short-legged hound, and deep-mouthed’ .
They were highly valued and the abbey supplied these sought after hounds to the hunting kennels of the aristocracy and the French Crown.
Their low stature gave them certain advantages over the taller
hounds in some types of hunting.
Perhaps the most important was that they could be used by hunters on foot, as opposed to on horseback - their shorter gait limiting their speed over the ground. This also meant that they were better matched against their quarry, which was small game - rabbit and hare - though they could equally well track stag, boar and the like. Their sabre-like tails held high when on the move, flagged their position and enabled them to be seen when in cover. It is thought that their long ears were advantageous in helping to curtain and concentrate the scent that they were tracking. All these characteristics are still very evident in the breed today.
They were probably used in pairs to track the game, which was then dispatched by the bow and later, the gun, the chasse a tir. It is unlikely that they were directly used to kill the quarry, but simply to search and track it.
Throughout France, several varieties of hound were bred, each significantly different and specific to a particular geographic area. Because of its hunting prowess, the St. Hubert Hound was incorporated into many of these regional breeds. It seems probable that the inherited dwarf gene which they carried would sometimes emerge to produce achondroplastic (dwarf) offspring. These were then selectively interbred to produce Basset types.
Most of these regional breeds all had Basset versions - the
Basset Ardennais, the Basset Saintongeois, the Basset Griffon-Vendeen,
Basset Fauve de Bretagne, Basset bleu de
Gascogne, the Basset de Normandie and the Basset d’Artois; each
differing from the other in size, colour or coat.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era saw with the virtual elimination of the aristocracy and with the dissolution of many great estates also the end of some of these regional Basset types.
Along with others, the Basset de Normandie and the Basset d’Artois survived and at a later period these two were interbred to produce the Basset Artesien-Normand. It was this that became the foundation for the present-day Basset Hound.
These low hounds were certainly known about in England, probably coming over from France after the Conquest. Several families of Norman descent, such as the Earls of Shrewsbury, have St. Hubert, or the synonymous white Talbot hound, on their coat of arms.
One imaginative alternative theory even has the Basset’s
origins set in England claiming that they were bred by commoners as a way to evade
the Saxon Charter of the Forest and the later Norman
Forest Laws. These draconian laws prohibited everyone
other than the Crown and aristocratic landowners from hunting.
This theory claims that by breeding such a low, bent-legged,
and seemingly ‘deformed’ hound they avoided the cruel
mutilation inflicted on commoners’ dogs in order to prevent
them from being used to hunt.
But as George Johnston writes in his authoritative, and in my opinion never surpassed book about the breed, The Basset Hound (1968), this theory seems very unlikely, as Bassets were recorded in France as early as 700AD, long predating any such laws.
Also, it seems to me extremely fanciful that the forest wardens, or any other law enforcers, would be so gullible as to be fooled for one moment by this comic ruse.
There are written records of exchanges of hounds between
England and France. In 1305, Edward, the first Prince of
sent his cousin, Louis X of France, ‘some of our
low-legged hare-hounds from Wales’
In the fifteenth century there were Cornish Hounds, which were described as ‘heavily built and very short-legged, with long ears and deep voices’ It is very likely that these were introduced from over the Channel by visiting Bretons.
Later in 1598, Shakespeare describes the Basset hound perfectly when he writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
My hounds are bred out of
the Spartan kind
So flew’d, so sanded; and
their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away
the morning dew;
Crook-knee’d, and dew-lapp’d
like Thessalian Bulls;
Slow in persuit, but match’d
in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry
Was never holla’d to nor
cheerd with horn.
It is interesting to note that the Basset’s melodious voice was a distinctive feature even then. The word ‘sanded’ means mottled and the dewlaps are the folds of skin under the hound’s throat. It seems that in England they were used to hunt in packs - the chasse a courre. Later still, Bassets spread to the new colonies in America. We know that President George Washington, a keen huntsman, owned a couple which were given to him by the Marquis de la Fayette.
Dissatisfied with the French stock available at the time and
wishing to increase the gene pool, Millais decided to
out-cross his hound, Nicholas, to a Bloodhound bitch.
Interestingly, he used artificial insemination for this - the
first time this procedure had been used for any mammal of this
size. Progeny from this union were then mated with pure-bred
Basset hounds. Within three generations all offspring were
undistinguishable from pure-bred Bassets, however they had
gained greater substance and possessed more skin wrinkle.
It is thought that it was this out-crossing that led to the present day Basset Hound being significantly larger than its French counterpart. Interestingly, the Basset Hound has the greatest bone to weight ratio than any other breed of dog.
The newly formed Kennel Club officially recognised this increasing breed in 1880.
Alexandra with her rough coated
& smooth coated Bassets
As the popularity of the breed grew it acquired a dedicated following, including amongst others, Princess (later Queen) Alexandra, wife of the future Edward VII, who kept both rough and smooth-coated types at the Sandringham kennels.
All this enthusiasm for the breed resulted in the formation of
the Basset Hound
Club in 1884.
In 1886, Millais judged Basset Hounds at a dog show at the Royal Aquarium, Westminster with 120 entries.
Several hunting packs of Basset Hounds were established, the
Walhampton belonging to the brothers Heseltine and Miss
Peggy Keevil’s Grims being two of the most renowned.
Sadly, the breed’s ever increasing growth came to a halt and then went into dramatic decline with the Great War. Between 1914 and 1918 only nine Basset Hound’s appear in the Kennel Club’s registry.
Its decline continued after the war, not helped by outbreaks of the virus, Distemper, which devastated the canine population. This resulted in the BHC being wound up in 1921.
Stalwart enthusiasts, like the brothers, Heseltine and some very determined and quite formidable women - Edith Grew, Nina Elms and Peggy Keevil - kept the breed going through some very difficult times. The Second World War was a particularly fallow period for the breed. We who love this breed should all applaud the perseverance of these pioneers.
In time, however, attention in the Basset Hound began to flourish again and in 1954 the Basset Hound Club was reformed with Lionel Woolner as its chairman.
For a time the BHC had its own pack, the Albany, though ownership of this was later relinquished by the club and, sadly, the existing pack are no longer pure-bred Basset Hounds.
The 1960’s saw an unprecedented revival of popular interest in
In fact, in 1964 there were 1,529 Basset Hounds registered
with The Kennel Club, compared with only 237 in 1959.
They became very fashionable - being owned by film stars of the time such as Bridget Bardot, Dirk Bogarde and Rex Harrison and even appearing with Elvis Presley on American television
You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog .
The advertising industry recognised in this cute, distinctive looking hound, a strong brand icon. His insouciant demeanour was utilised in comic strips. He became the side-kick of a quirky American television detective.
Perhaps, this is the result of the Basset Hound being more photogenic than any other breed of dog
The Basset Hound which we now see is the result of work done by some conscientious and dedicated modern breeders. Their understanding of the science, or perhaps art, of genetics and nutrition has played a part in producing this unique hound. Health and soundness have become paramount considerations in their breeding programs. Sadly, this is not the case of hounds that are cynically mass produced by ‘puppy farms’ .
We have in the modern Basset an intelligent, affectionate
hound that is sound in body and stable in temperament.
In 2005 the Basset Hound Club celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Michael Errey, the highly respected, then Chairman of the Basset Hound Club and Hon. Treasurer of the South East Branch of the BHC, wrote about the breed in Dogs Monthly in 2006. In the article he listed certain criteria which he felt should be met before a Basset Hound is acquired - after which he touchingly added the stricture, ‘because you must not let the little blighter down’.
There can be no better guiding principle for all of us who care about this wonderful breed.
Ancient Roman Basset - by Tony Roberts
Sir Everett Millais - by Tony Roberts
Hare Hunting and Harriers - Sport with Basset Hounds - 1903
The Basset Hound
- British Dogs, Their Points, Selection & Show Preparation - 1903
The New Book of the Dog - The Basset Hound - 1907
Hounds - The Basset Hound - 1913
The Basset Hound Breed Standard - October 2009
A History of the Branch - by Tony Roberts
The Conception - by Michael Errey
Yearbook Number One - by Tony Roberts
The Albany Pack’s First Sussex New Year - by Michael Errey
Dusty Miller - by Tony Roberts
Some Branch Traditions Explained - by Tony Roberts
© 2008 Tony Roberts.
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