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The French Brittany
The gun dog that hunts with a French accent

Jipsie, a five-year-old orange and white French Brittany, leaps from the dog trailer and hits the ground in four-wheel drive with her engine roaring. She immediately dives into the chin-high South Dakota prairie grass--and disappears.

Bruce Mooney, Jipsie's owner, yells Jipsie's name and blasts on his whistle. But this dog, for the time, is gone in 240 acres of tall, dense bluestem with a thick understory of alfalfa.

A little more than 100 yards away, a surprised hen pheasant flushes--as if bumped up by a rambunctious 35-pound bundle of released energy that any dog might be after a four-hour trip from central Minnesota to east-central South Dakota. "Well, so much for my claims about French Brittanys being close-working, cooperative gun dogs dedicated to pleasing their owners," Mooney says as he calls Jipsie's name and blows his whistle one more time.

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"She has gun dog writer's syndrome," I tell Mooney. "I see this all the time when someone wants to showcase a gun dog in an actual hunting situation. . .give her another minute and she'll be back here," I suggest.

French Brittanys, bred for over 100 years in France and several other European countries, have been genetically designed as versatile gun dogs that will find, point, and retrieve all types of gamebirds.

Sure enough, in 30 seconds Jipsie's back, panting hard with her tongue hanging--but looking straight into Mooney's eyes with a "That's out of my system; now let's go hunting" expression. Walking into the prairie grass, we meet up with Ivee; another French Brittany trained and handled by John Mooney, Bruce's brother. Ivee is a tri-colored nine-year-old whose parents were born in France, bought there in person by the Mooney brothers, and brought to their L'Escarbot Kennels in Hampton, Minnesota. There, Ivee was born and raised to become a main force in the Mooney's French Brittany breeding program. In addition, she has become one of their main hunting dogs for pheasant, ruffed grouse, prairie grouse, quail and partridge.

Ivee has another major distinction: She is the first French Brittany to be born in the United States then entered in a major "Shoot to Retrieve" competition in France. Hunted and handled by Bruce Mooney, Ivee placed second in the contest that featured more than 100 of the best French Brittanys in Europe. Now, however, she was hunting South Dakota pheasants.

"In France, the French Brittany has been bred for over 100 years as a gun dog genetically programmed to hunt every kind of upland gamebird in the field or woods, as well as ducks and geese on land and in water," Bruce Mooney had assured me in a phone conversation last August. "And, though we hunt all species of gamebirds with our Brits, our overall favorite is pheasant," he added.

"So, let's have a 'mini hunt test'," I told Mooney then. "Bring your dogs to South Dakota and we'll look for wild ringneck roosters in some big tracts of Conservation Reserve Program land I have permission to use."

Consequently, on this day in late October and with camera in hand, I follow the Mooneys and two of their French Brits through a jungle of shoulder high prairie grass interspersed with cattail sloughs and patches of 10-foot phrangnites. The first quarter-mile of our walk, however, is birdless.

"Point," Bruce Mooney finally hollers and I quickstep my way to where Jipsie is dead still and staring into the cover. Bruce motions for John to bring in Ivee, who backs Jipsie the second she sees her. A hen pheasant (of course) flushes while both dogs stay steady to wing, then take off again as soon as they're released from their pointing postures. "So far, so good," I'm thinking. "These dogs can find birds, point them, and don't chase them across the field when they fly."

A solid and reliable pointing instinct is one of the major traits of the French Brittany.

A few minutes later and a few hundred yards into a quarter-mile strip of standing corn filled with year-old stalks and tall pigeon grass, both Brits are again on solid points with one backing the other. This time six hens erupt all around the dogs and again they hold their positions.

Then a single rooster finally flushes, takes a flight path, wings 25 yards and finally crumples to the boom of Bruce Mooney's 12-gauge. Both Brits race to the bird. Ivee scoops it up, and holding it high in the grass, marches over to Bruce where she drops it in his hand. "Any concerns about these 'little' dogs retrieving 'big' rooster pheasants are pretty much over," I remember thinking.

"Keep on hunting. I'm out of film and need to get more from my truck," I tell the Mooney brothers. Halfway back to the vehicle and from up on top of a small hill, I watch the Mooneys as their two Brits neatly quarter in front of them. A few whistle blasts and some verbal commands keep the two dogs on course as they sort of porpoise through the dense vegetation.

Then the two Brittanys disappear. The Mooneys both move in to where the dogs must be pointing. A rooster flies up and a shot is fired. Then another. And another. The third round clips a bird wing and the rooster flutters down with its head up and its legs already in motion.

From the hilltop, I watch the dogs bound across and through the prairie grass then disappear again into the thick vegetation. A minute or so goes by. Then five minutes, then 10 more as the Mooney brothers follow their dogs, obviously on the trail of a fast-moving wounded ringneck.

One of the Mooneys finally stops and reaches down into the grass, takes the rooster from one of the dogs, then stuffs the bird in his game vest. Elapsed time: nearly 20 minutes.

"A pretty good hunt test for a couple of gun dogs," I say to myself as I reload my camera for some "grip and grin" photos a few hours and four roosters later. Quartering in the field, pointing a couple dozen pheasants, steadiness to wing, responsive to whoa commands and hand signals, solid retrieving, good tracking skills, and all demonstrated in heavy cover where wild pheasants can easily hide or run forever--yes, a very complete package.

"Are French Brittanys big enough to hunt pheasants in heavy cover and to retrieve full-size roosters from thick vegetation?" John Mooney is sometimes asked this question by prospective buyers. "Let me show you," is his answer.

"According to legend in France, and eventually several other European countries more than a century ago, the French Brittany was originally developed by working class hunters who wanted a dog that could be used to poach small game on the estates of upper class aristocracy," John Mooney says.

"These poachers wanted a small and very close-working dog that could slip in and out of the aristocrats' estates where gamebirds could be efficiently found, pointed, then netted. The birds would be caught and bagged and the hunters and their Brittanys would head for home," says Mooney.

"A small but powerful and efficient hunting dog with natural pointing instinct and a high degree of cooperation was what came from these early breeding objectives. As time went on, European breeders further developed these traits into the dogs we know today as the French Brittany."

"Several decades ago, the French Brittany was brought to this country where the breed was "Americanized" to create the orange and white, longer-legged, big-running, field-trial-type dog known today as the American Brittany," says Bruce Mooney. "As kids growing up in Minnesota, my brother and I had and hunted with this line of gun dog. And, though we loved our American Brits, we were often frustrated by their tendencies to be naturally wide ranging. Many times they would have no contact with us when hunting ruffed grouse in the Northwood's brambles of Minnesota or the cattail sloughs of South Dakota," Mooney recalls.

"Ten years ago we discovered French Brittanys, saw them as gun dogs more inclined to hunt up close and to be more cooperative. The more we hunted with the French version of the Brittanys, the more we liked them. And well, the rest is history. We now have a dozen of these dogs in our kennel where we breed and train them for the 'on-foot' gamebird hunter," Mooney says.

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