Dear readers,

During my recent visit to the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), I was able to see with genuine pleasure how the Mayor of the city of Thuin, Mr Paul Furlan, kept the promise he had made to mark the opening of our new offices, to label the city as “Thuin, the World's Capital of Dogs”.

As a result of this initiative, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), with the aid of Thuin Tourist Office, organised a successful walk through historic medieval part of the city.

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Rafael de Santiago
President of the FCI
The etymology of the word “Schipperke”

If we want to gain a proper understanding of the origin of the word “Schipperke”, we need to start by immersing ourselves in the linguistic environment of the period. French had been chosen as the only official language when Belgium was created in 1830. The country’s administrative and judicial authorities all used French alone, and all commercial business was carried on in that language as well. All of the aristocracy spoke only French, as did the middle classes. One symptomatic example of this can be found in the book entitled Une Jeunesse Gantoise (A Childhood in Ghent) by Suzanne Lilar (1901-1992). She describes growing up in the Flemish city of Ghent ("Gand” in French and “Gent” in Flemish) in the first half of the 20th century. “The city’s lower middle classes”, she wrote, “were bilingual, but they liked speaking French, just as the upper middle classes did. The working classes spoke a Flemish dialect”.

Chromolithographie d’Alexandre Clarys (Chasse et Pêche, août 1895)

Although there was a Flemish language it was actually a series of dialects which covered the whole of the country and there were enormous differences in pronunciation from one town to another. As an inhabitant of the province of East Flanders (the capital of which is Ghent), I find it really hard to understand the dialects spoken among our neighbours in West Flanders (the capital of which is Bruges [Brugge in Flemish]), in Courtrai (Kortrijk) or on the Belgian coast. The same thing is still true today, except that the way Flemish is treated has changed and, over time, the language has been incorporated into the structure of Belgium. Notable progress has been made. Flemish was first introduced into government in 1878 and into primary education in 1883. The currency became bilingual in April 1886 and Flemish was recognised as an “official language” when the Equality Act of 18th April 1898 was passed.

Although Belgium was still a monolingual French-speaking country in the period following the First World War, linguistic questions were gaining momentum. The Flemish movement won agreement in principle to the idea of setting up a Flemish university, although it did not open its doors - in Ghent - until 1930. In the booklet published by the Schipperkes Club in 1924, the following appears on the final page: “Over the last few years, a difference of opinion among dog lovers has arisen about the etymology of the word ‘Schipperke’”. Before the First World War, nobody paid much notice to this, although the fact that the Schipperke was “a Flemish breed” was mentioned even in the first stud book (1883) published by the Société Saint-Hubert.

The most significant etymological research was carried out by Louis Huyghebaert, a breeder, trainer, judge and writer, well-known to Belgian shepherd dog lovers as the “godfather of the Malinois”. The original text, written in Flemish, was published in the Flemish magazine Cultura in 1925 (page 2422) but here we give an English rendition of the French translation which appeared in the Belgian magazine L’Aboi dated 15th March 1947:

“Where French uses only the single expression ‘chien de berger’ (sheepdog) to refer to this canine variety, the Dutch-Flemish language uses three: ‘herdershond’, which is mainly used in Holland at the present time, and the Flemish words ‘schaaps’ and ‘schepershond’. I hope you will forgive this linguistic digression, but I am stopping only to explain the origin of the word ‘Schipperke’ which is all too often incorrectly translated into French as ‘petit batelier’ (little boatman). We should actually write ‘scheperke’ or ‘petit berger’ (little shepherd) that we should write when we wish to refer to this small black dog without a caudal appendage, which is sometimes known as a ‘spitz’ (1) and which, as a result of its shape and character, is indeed a smaller kind of sheepdog.

On this matter Professor Reul is mistaken when he writes: “The schipperke (from the Flemish ‘schipper = batelier’ (boatman) or, to be more exact, its diminutive ‘schipperke = petit batelier’ (little boatman) was the inseparable companion of the boatman sailing his barge along the canals and waterways of the lowlands. This dog only rarely set foot on terra ferma... etc.” (See Les Races de Chiens (Dog Breeds) by Professor Reul, Brussels, 1891-1894).

I spent many years in Louvain, and carried out research into the origin of these little dogs both before and after the 1914-1918 war. I will be coming back to this question later on but, for now, I merely wish to underline the fact that it is certainly for the sake of the cause that Professor Reul tells us the schipperke was born on a boat. Although anyone who knows nothing of Flemish will be unable to find any other explanation or translation for the word ‘schipperke’, for anyone familiar with the Louvain dialect there can be no doubt about it: the ‘i’ in 'schipperke’ is surely a substitution of the letter ‘e’”.

Later on, Georges O’Breen, a writer working for Chasse et Pêche (Hunting and Fishing), wrote: “The confusion between the names ‘scheperke' and ‘schipperke’ can be found among those who, by calling the schipperke a ‘spitz’ in Belgium, have – although with no other evidence – attached the little shepherd dog to the genuine spitz, which is of Nordic origin. The fact is that, in the Flemish-speaking parts of the country, the vox populi often uses this fairly generic name, ‘spitz’, for a number of pets and farm dogs of below average size and without ever referring to a dog in any way related to the spitz”.

Over time the mutation of the word “Scheperke” into “Schipperke”, for reasons of dialect, was approved by a number of leading figures, starting with our greatest cynologist Charles Huge (himself a Schipperke breeder) who, in a memorandum published on 16 November 1919, said: “And they probably inherit this from their progenitor, the black shepherd dog, commonly known as the ‘Leuvenaar’. These large schipperkes were small scheeperkes, a name which certainly became twisted. All the evidence points this way”. In the word “Leuvenaar”, you find the name of the city of Louvain or “Leuven” in Flemish. A few months later (21st March 1920), in an article which described the very special character of the Schipperke along with the conformation of the skull and the position of the ears compared to the Pomeranian, Charles Huge confirms that the Schipperke is descended from shepherd dogs”.

The Verbanck brothers, who were incontrovertible Schipperke specialists, were of the same opinion as Charles Huge. At the present time, the judge Robert Pollet said much the same thing when he published the article entitled “The Schipperke… what’s in a name?” In the United States, a vet, Leon Whitney, apparently also reached the conclusion that it is a small sheepdog. Nobody in Belgium has disputed the mutation of the word "Schipperke” for a very long time now, as it is so obvious. However, it is understandable that these things are not easy to grasp for anyone who is not familiar with our country’s historic environment and linguistic background.

After the publication of my own book on the Schipperke in 2011, I discovered the chapter about our little black devil by the Dutch writer L. Seegers in his book entitled “Hondenrassen” (Dog Breeds), published in 1912. There are some interesting passages and I think the following paragraphs are especially relevant:

“The Schipperke is Belgian and, what is more, Flemish Belgian, because for as far back into history as we can go, the dog was found, in the past, only in the two parts of Flanders and further afield in the provinces of Antwerp and Brabant, then sporadically also in the province of Limburg. The Walloon provinces were aware of the dog’s existence only by hearsay. Later on, the breeding centre moved towards the Flemish part of Brabant.

So I still well remember that, when I arrived in Louvain in 1872, I was amazed to see a large number of tailless dogs wandering around. They were larger and stronger than our modern-day Schipperkes and a lot of them were used to hunt rabbits. The larger breweries in Louvain used them to clear rats and mice from the buildings, a job at which the Schipperke was every bit as good as the best terrier. This may be why, at the first great Belgian exhibition held in 1880, it was catalogued among the terriers as follows: “Uniform short-haired terrier, with straight ears and no tail, a Flemish breed known as Schipperkes”.

Although there is no doubt as to the dog’s home country, it is less obvious why the breed which was originally called “Belgian Spitz” was later christened “Schipperke”. People claimed that it was because it was mostly found on small boats or lighters, but where is the proof that it was mainly boatmen who used to use Belgian spitzes? There is none and it would not even be hard to show that Belgian boatmen – like their colleagues from other countries - simply owned genuine spitzes (Keeshonden)”.

As for the expression “Belgian Spitz”, I had come across it before in the book “De Hond” (Dogs) written by the Antwerp-based trainer and cynologist Panési in 1916. Here is an English version of the French translation of the little chapter in question, entitled “De Belgische spits”:

“This is an ancient Belgian breed which seems to be disappearing. People were saying this even as long ago as 1891. The dog had formerly been used as a guard and draught dog - it was especially popular with butchers. On some occasions I have come across it as a herding dog and as a draught dog it was used by people coming to sell poultry at Antwerp market.

The Belgian spitz had a reputation as a very good dog, strong and faithful, and we can also add that the spitz had the same abilities as our sheepdog. When we compare it to the sheepdogs of yore, which had no tails and an expression quite different from today, we can understand how a breed may change over time and the same thing happened with the Belgian spitz.

A few years ago, an association called “De Belgische Spits” was set up and it carried out some research, eventually banning the docking of the tails of spitzes, as was the case with our sheepdogs. The descendants of our old spitzes became our modern-day short-haired black sheepdogs. We have had some ourselves, “Nox” (B.P. 60), amongst others, and, when mating them, we sometimes saw more puppies born without than with tails. Finally, I should add here that anyone breeding with Belgian spitzes knows full well that it is not unusual to find a tawny-coloured puppy in a litter”.

Writing in the Antwerp magazine Cultura in 1919, referring to the short-haired black shepherd dog as an old breed, Panési confirms what he had said in his book, when he wrote: “We have been through so much with our excellent short-haired black dogs whose tails used to be docked and which were known as “Spitz”, “Boomse Spits”, etc.” (Boom is a town to the south of Antwerp).

(1) It was not only among the first Schipperkes that there were dogs known as “spits” or “spitz” but also among the first Belgian and Dutch sheepdogs. The word “spitz” comes from the Flemish expression “oren spitsen” which means “prick up the ears”.

Jean-Marie Vanbutsele