Dog Fancy June 2013

What's that adorable, shaggy-haired dog walking down the street? No, it's not a designer Poodle mix -- it's a Barbet, a French sporting dog with a long history.

Truly "the original" water retriever, the Barbet has been around since the 14th century. This versatile gun dog worked alongside hunters to flush, point at, and retrieve birds. 

The Barbet is part of the family tree of many well-known breeds, including the Bichon Frise, Poodle, and Newfoundland. The breed's name -- pronounced bar-bay -- comes from the word barbe, which is French for "beard."

Popular for centuries, Barbet numbers in Europe waned in the years following World War II. The breed was saved from extinction by a few dedicated fanciers, but it remains rare. Today about 120 Barbets live in the United States, and a few hundred in Canada.

Barbets stand 19 to 24 inches tall at the shoulder. Females weigh about 40-45 pounds, and males can top off at about 60 pounds. Although black and brown are the most common colors, Barbets also may be grey, fawn, or white. The long, wooly, curly coat ranges from soft waves to tight curls. The hair grows continuously, so the Barbet requires trimming on a regular basis. The coat does not shed, but must be thoroughly combed and checked for mats weekly. On the plus side, many people with dog allergies find they can live with Barbets.

Barbets are relatively healthy, with an average life span of 12 to 15 years. Health concerns include hip dysplasia, eye disease, and epilepsy.

When Judy Descutner of Hickory, PA was looking for a fun water breed, she nearly found herself with a Labrador Retriever, but she couldn't shake the memory of a different breed, one she had seen only in pictures. "I had seen the Barbet in a book in the early '90s, and was immediately drawn to the messy yet stylish look of the dog," says Descutner, who is secretary of the Barbet Club of America.

Instead of a Lab, Descutner ended up with Claire, who went on to become the first United Kennel Club Champion-titled Barbet. "The Barbet is a straightforward, uncomplicated, and slightly sensitive breed," Descutner says. "They love all people but are really attached to their families."

Barbets are eligible to compete in American Kennel Club hunting tests, and agility comes naturally to this breed, which is light on its feet and athletic. Obedience and rally put the Barbet's intelligence to work, and the breed's love of water and swimming makes it a great candidate for dock jumping. "They are happy to do anything you want to do, just as long as they get to come along," Descutner says. With enough daily exercise, Barbets are typically calm in the house.

Great with kids and social with other dogs, Barbets are ideal pets for active families. Early socialization and kind but firm training are key with puppies. "Like many breeds, if they can get away with something they will," Descutner says. "Structured training during their early months will pay off later with a relaxed, pleasant dog."