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Proposal to Revise The Schipperke FCI Standard

Proposal to Revise The Schipperke FCI Standard | Pictured above: An antique dog medal from the Belgium/France area, that shows three breeds: a Papillion, a Brussels Griffon, and a Schipperke, which are found close to the Schipperke on the Dog Genome wheel.

Recently, an international judge wrote about facing some issues, saying, “Conformation judges are subject to Standards’ confusion every time they judge. Sometimes this comes from poorly worded or poorly translated standards; sometimes it comes after standards are changed, in those cases, often for not so easily understood reasoning. However, in this international age of conformation judges adjudicating across multiple jurisdictions, we judges are now confronted with differences between standards for the one breed, and differences in where dogs are allocated in their groups, again sometimes without logic.” He goes on to say, “The AKC, KC (UK), NZKC, SAKC, ANKC and CKC all classify dogs into 7 groups. The FCI classify into 10. Between these classifications there are major differences and even within jurisdictions there are differences of opinion about classification. Personally, I think the best existing Classification is the FCI and I think this could be tweaked and revised with input from the other jurisdictions. I have suggested this and many say there is no appetite for it. However, we have seen recently where the efforts of the Chair of the Whippet Breed Council of the UK and the President of the FCI agreed for the FCI to revert to the UK Standard as a Country of Origin of the breed. An Old English Sheepdog is an OES no matter where it is exhibited yet we have 4 versions of the breed Standard: UK, FCI, ANKC and Canada is proposing a change. Why? We also need to consider the entire classification of Dogs.”

This entire idea is of interest to the Schipperke breed, as the question of the origin and the Group to which they would best fit has often been in contention. In Belgium, they were originally classed as a Terrier, in the US they were placed in Non-Sporting, but in modern FCI, they are considered a herding dog. Others have noted that they best belong, by type, to a group entitled, “Northern Breeds.” Recently, some breeders in Europe wrote an article quoting the history of the breed and genetic discoveries, and how they feel it should impact the breed and the Group to which they belong.

Schipperke FCI Standard
Drawn and signed by Louis Vander Snickt, a leading early Schipperke fancier in Belgium, and dating to 1888, it shows Schipperkes hunting rats with other Terriers.

We would like to call your attention to the need to correct the Schipperke FCI Standard in accordance with recent scientific findings of genomic analyses, which matches the historical data recently published about the breed. Recent genomic research has revealed that the Schipperke is genetically related most closely to the Pug, Brussels Griffon, Papillon, and then to the Pomeranian and Schnauzer; but is only distantly related to the Belgian herding dogs. This supports historical observations, and makes it necessary to clarify the breed characteristics in order to correctly reflect and represent the true history and character of the Schipperke.

Schipperke FCI Standard
Dating to the 1870s, this Flemish painting depicted a horse fair. To the far right, a little Schipperke is walking on to the scene. Its little stub tail is very like the natural bob tails seen on many Schipperkes today. The original painting is in color, the dog’s tongue is out and he is wearing a collar.

With deep roots back to the 17th, and possibly even the 15th century, the Schipperke is a stable breed of its own merit, that has been genetically distinct for a long time. Yet, its relations with other breeds offer key clues to its inherent and contemporary character. The currently most comprehensive study of genetic relations among dog breeds has been offered by Heidi G. Parker, Dayna L. Dreger, Maud Rimbault, Brian W. Davis, Alexandra B. Mullen, Gretchen Carpintero-Ramirez, and Elaine A. Ostrander (2017): Genomic Analyses Reveal the Influence of Geographic Origin, Migration, and Hybridization on Modern Dog Breed Development, in Cell Reports 19, pp. 697-708. As shown in the diagram on page 698 in that article, the Schipperke is most closely related to the Papillon, Brussels Griffon, and Pug, and then the Pomeranian, Volpino, American Eskimo Dog, and Schnauzer. There is a great genetic distance to the French Briard or Belgian herding dogs like Bouvier des Flandres, Malinois, and Tervuren (found directly opposite in the diagram, indicating that they are not at all closely related to the Schipperke).

Schipperke FCI Standard
This is a drawing by a famous early Belgian artist of “Spitz,” a Schipperke which was said to show the proper early type of the breed. Shown on a barge in Belgium, the drawing dates to the mid-1880s and appeared in the leading Belgian dog magazine, Chasse et Pêche.

The Schipperke has a history filled with many stories, some based on historical facts, others with mythical origins. An example is the breed’s name of Schipperke, which has been a matter of great debate. While there is a long-standing tradition that it means “little boatman” or perhaps “little captain,” in Belgium, the most popular view is that it is a corruption of the term “scheperke” and was always intended to mean “little shepherd.” This idea may have been fueled by temptations to construct a rather romantic heritage where Schipperkes traced their ancestry to rural herding dogs. However, there is little evidence that the Schipperke was ever used for guarding sheep on a large scale. Instead, historical sources indicate that early Schipperkes were linked to guarding canal boats and urban craft shops of shoemakers and butchers. The Schipperke was, up until the 1880s, always described as a city-based “dog of the boatmen” or “small boat dog.” An article in Chasse et Péche (March 13, 1892) mentions that the name was invented in 1880 for an international dog exhibition in Brussels. There are many more historical articles that support this theory, as follows:

1. Chasse et Péche, May 24, 1885 was titled, Le petit chien de batelier ou Schipperke, and begins the article by saying, “A little black devil, but without forked feet and without a tail, such is the dog of the boatmen.” And it goes on to say, “They are found much on the boats of the canals and rivers of Flanders; they do not dirty the bridge and do not knock objects down by means of their tail, since they do not (have one).”

2. Chasse et Péche, June 28, 1885, begins by saying “Since the Brussels show, and also since we published a portrait of that lively little guardian called the boatman’s dog…”

3. Chasse et Péche, February 19 1888, states, “We had convened last Sunday in Brussels with all the experts who can give information on the Schipperkes or small dogs of boatmen.” (This was a meeting of 50 experts of the breed from this era, and no mention of Schipperkes being little shepherds was made.)

4. Chasse et Péche, November 5, 1888, “In his country he lives more in the open air than in the kitchen. He is the guardian of the boats and, as such, he stands on the bridge and the path where the boats are hauled in an atmosphere charged with humidity; in the street one sees him perched on the back of the horse or the trunk of the truck; everywhere, in the boat, around the boat, in the stable, the cellar or the attic, he makes war on mice, moles, rats and even pole cats.”

5. Chasse et Péche, March 24, 1889, “These little dogs had nothing to do with the trade of butcher or cobbler; but at one time they were the dog of a boatman, they rendered services on the boat, in a word, they were part of the crew.”

6. Chasse et Péche, March 9, 1890, “…the only way to judge dogs, especially schipperkes, because they step so lively (“steppent”). Our impression was that English amateurs do not remember enough that the Belgian dog is the boatman’s dog, living in the open air, coat hard and abundant, resistant, ears always raised, pointing in all directions, straight legs, a cat’s foot, tireless and leaping about. He must also be able to defend himself, and even kill a pole cat. We want the old dog of the boats…”

7. Chasse et Péche, February 7, 1892, “We made our first description of the boatman’s dog after a model example born around 1842, on the farm of M. Remy DeVulder, of Marialierde, where the breed had existed for a long time.”

8. Chasse et Péche, January 29, 1893, “…fully agrees with the founders of the Belgian Club and all those who have been invited to provide information. The schipperke is above all an outdoor dog, his place is day and night on the deck of the boat of which he is the guardian; he must be strong enough and biting (willing enough to bite) to be respected; he must be able to resist the weather. He has the innate passion for hunting moles, which he approaches cautiously under the wind, then, at the right moment, after a leap, falls exactly with the two front paws into the gallery and cuts off any retreat of the mole.”

Schipperke FCI Standard

Finally, in the Chasse et Péche, September 30, 1894, we read the first mention of the idea that Schipperkes may be connected in any way to shepherds, “…if the little dog had not always been and was not still currently the watchdog of the boats from which he gets his name of “schipperke” (little boatman), you could have written “scheperke” (little shepherd).”

Schipperke FCI Standard
General Charles Lee and his dog: This sketch dates back to 1770, and the dog in question was said to be from “Pomerania” but could easily have been purchased from people who traveled from the Belgium region. The sketch is a “caricature,” meaning certain characteristics were exaggerated. Yes, this dog contains many classic Schipperke breed traits: the ruff, the culottes, square body, head type, upright, prick ears, and body type. It shows a tail type found on the majority of undocked Schipperkes today.

Two important points can be read into this last comment. First, that the Schipperke was “still currently” a boat dog, which can be considered a personal testimony, and second, that the idea of the word “scheperke” was an invention, created in 1894, and it was distinguished from Schipperke—and Schipperke was still clearly defined as “little boatman.”

The Chasse et Péche article that speaks of the origin of the name was published March 13, 1892, and says, “The honor to have given a name to the Schipperke and to have highlighted it belongs to Mr. Le compte of Beauffort, which alone in 1880 on the occasion of the great exhibition canine international de Bruxelles, created the class…” Before this time, the breed was known by many names (skupperke, Chasse et Péche, February 7, 1892; spits; Lysen, The American Journal, February 23, 1889; Old Flemish Spitz, Edwin H. Morris, Popular Monthly, 1890).

After speculations of a shepherd lineage turned up in the 1890s, these competed with the boat dog theme. This theory was primarily supported by the linguistic similarity of the Flemish words for “little boatman” (schipperke) and “little shepherd” (scheperke). Different authors chose either interpretation, and in the FCI Standard of 2009, the latter won and eradicated all traces of the former. Even though this pastoral idea contradicts factual evidence—including the recently discovered genetic relations—it gained support for multiple reasons:

1. One input was the coincidental linguistic similarity between the Flemish words for skippers and shepherds, which made it possible to construct an imaginary identification of the Schipperke as a herding breed, though, in fact, it never did, and still does not, possess the typical characteristics of such a breed.

2. There was evidently a misguided desire to create a rural origin of the breed, as this may, for some, have been seen as more noble than the practical urban contexts in which it actually had thrived. One of the first historical sources to suggest a shepherd lineage typically had a rather Romantic argument that the Schipperke “…descended directly from the shepherd, miniaturized, made smaller […] as a result of long residence in the unhealthy towns” (a letter from Th. Delame, published in Chasse et Péche, September 30, 1894). What then started as a hypothetical and rather wishful idea (“if the little dog had not always been and was not still currently the watchdog of the boats from which he gets his name of ‘schipperke’ (little boatman), you could have written ‘scheperke’ (little shepherd)”) soon became a dogma for some, though with meager empirical support. Inventing a pastoral origin was a highly ideological way to purify the breed, in line with the ideals of National Romanticism.

3. There was a wish to link the Schipperke more closely to other Belgian breeds, including the Belgian Shepherd dogs (BSD), in a nation-centered spirit, according to which all Belgian breeds should be closely interrelated. One can fully understand the national pride of identifying the Schipperke as a true Belgian breed, but that pride should not allow anyone to misrepresent the well-documented genetic and ethological character and the social and cultural history of this wonderful breed.

Against such Romanticist temptations, we must consider the genetic and historical evidence; it is important to accept the mainly urban heritage of the Schipperke, as well as its close transnational interrelations with Dutch and German breeds like the Pomeranian and the Spitz, in accordance with the recently reconstructed genomic indicators. Today, DNA research offers a welcome way to finally decide which genealogical heritage should be given most credence.

To conclude, these cultural and historical considerations are thus clearly supported by the scientific evidence from current genomic research. Today’s Schipperke dogs have generic traits that reflect this combined genomic basis and cultural history. These observations make necessary for the Belgian Kennel Club and the FCI to correct the Schipperke FCI Standard, so as not to contradict undeniable genetic facts and correctly represent the true characteristics, history, and behavior of this wonderful Belgian dog breed.

Schipperke FCI Standard

Schipperke FCI Standard
Dog Genome Wheel created at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health.

The current Schipperke FCI Standard, formulated in 2009 by Dr. Robert Pollet et al. (, should be revised to a standard that more closely resembles the 1988 FCI Standard, leaning on a tradition dating back to 1888 when the original points of the breed were recorded. Several 2009 formulations mistakenly link the Schipperke to Belgian Shepherds, and this should be corrected:

1. The etymological roots of the name should be changed to “little boatman” or left open, as “small skipper” or “small boat captain” are well in line with historical evidence, and hence, are more plausible than “little shepherd.” There can be no doubt from the earliest articles on the breed that the name was chosen to mean “little boat dog.” With its deep genetic roots, the Schipperke cannot be described as originating from sheep dogs, and the idea of the Leuvenaar as a shared ancestor is highly contested and must be deleted from the Standard. It may well be worth mentioning that the breed has deep genetic roots, possibly even back to the 15th century, and that it was exhibited not just in Spa in 1882, but also existed as a distinct breed in Brussels by 1880.

2. Concerning the basic identity of the Schipperke, it should not be stated that it is “a sheepdog” with “sheepdog characteristics and temperament” and related to Belgian Shepherds, as all such formulations blatantly contradict genomic findings. Instead, its historical connections to boat life and urban workshops should be mentioned and not concealed. The original 1888 Standard correctly described this little dog as “a faithful guard, whom we meet with so often on our canal boats,” whereas the 2009 version repeatedly defines it as a sheepdog without even once mentioning the historically crucial role as boat guard. The character of the breed was defined many times in the original Chasse et Péche articles, and this is the temperament and character that breeders should still strive for.

3. Further changes required (back to the pre-2009 standards) concern the shape and look of the Schipperke. Let us just mention three examples:

a.) The shape of the head, which is more fox- than wolf-like. The Standard from 1888 to 1988 correctly stated that the head “approaches in type that of the fox,” whereas the 2009 revision uses the term “lupoid.”

b.) The croup should be no “Guinea pig rump,” as the 2009 Standard claims.

c.) The tail is normally “high and proud” (an article in Chasse et Péche, June 10, 1894), curled over the back rather than “preferably hanging down,” as the 2009 Standard wrongly suggests.

With such changes, the FCI Standard would again conform with both the scientific facts and the unique history of the Schipperke.

Thanks to Per Jensen, Professor of Ethology at Linköping University, for providing the genetic information; and to Dawn Bannister, author of The Historical Schipperke, for priceless feedback and encouragement.

Chasse et Péche articles can be found in the book, The Historical Schipperke, by Craig and Dawn Bannister, Copyright 2017. Historical Schipperke pictures used with permission.