The story of the Barbet is long and impressive. References to the breed are sprinkled throughout French history, sometimes in elite company and sometimes in humble, but always with respect and admiration. Yet, after so many centuries of serving his masters in variety of capacities, the Barbet is in need of a helping hand himself. The victim of the vagaries of the history, he helped shape, the Barbet nearly became extinct. Through the efforts of a devoted few, this old breed is slowly being reborn as a dog for the future.
To appreciate the breed, it is helpful to have some understanding of it's development. The Barbet was originally a water dog. There are those who trace it's roots as far back as Charles Martel's victory against the Moors at Pointer in 732, suggesting that the dogs were first introduced into France at that time, but the first certain reference to the breed occurs in the fourteenth century when a gascon count speaks of them in a book written in 1387.
The breed gained ground during the reign of King Henry IV in the sixteenth century. The prevailing philosophy in France at that time regarding dog breeding favored hyper-specialization. The Barbet's natural inclination toward water, and his latent abilities to point (though he is not a true pointer), were selectively bred to create a dog ideally suited for use as a waterfowl gun dog.
References abound as far to the Barbet's intelligence, and his fearlessness of very cold water. The dog was used for water fowl hunting to such a degree that a saying of the day was "Muddy as a Barbet", referring to the dogs appearance after hunting in the marshes. However, from the first this specially bred dog exhibited a loyalty and friendliness that made him a companion dog of choice.
In 1587, Henry IV's mistress, Corisande, was reproached by Monsieur de Bellieure Chancellor to Mari de Nedici, for attending church in the company of "a fool, a monkey and a Barbet". Though his comments had political overtones the mention of the Barbet has it's own significance. We see the Barbet was a hunting dog with a difference. Centuries later Madame Adelaide, King Louis XVI's aunt, wrote about her Barbet in a letter. She says "I have for a friend a large white Barbet, Vizir, extremely intelligent, who accomdaine me on walks". She adds that the dog assumed some packing duties on these walks as well. Her reference to the dog as a friend is touching, coming through the years as it does and linking present day dog lovers with those from so many years ago.
The breed's status as an elite hunting dog changed after the French revolution. Now available to commoners, the natural versatility of the dog came more into play as he was used for herding and guarding as well as for ship work. There is a feeling among some authorities that at this point, careless breeding practices began to compromise the breed. Whether that is in fact the case or not, it is true that the Barbet eventually began to lose ground, especially to the Poodle, a dog with many of the same abilities but a sleeker appearance and more manageable coat. Some of the several breeds descended from the Barbet - the Bichon, Griffon, Otterhound and Newfoundland, for example - also began to supplant their ancestor. After so many years as a faithful hunter and companion, shepherd and guard, the Barbet was on it's way to extinction.
Nevertheless, the Barbet is rated as the number four agility dog in France, just ahead of the Tervueren, one of four varieties of Belgian Shepherd Dogs. Nowadays the barbet is more a companion dog than a gundog, but the adaptable Barbet is ready to rise to that challenge. A friendly dog who loves family, the Barbet is great with children and very open to other dogs. We find that they are very easily trained and eager to learn. We believe that is because the dogs have a passion for human companionship. They make a sensational addition to a family. Prospective Barbetiers (devotees of the breed should note that available information is not always correct. Some sources report the size of the dog as smaller than it is, others refer to an unpleasant odor, which simply is non-existent if the coat is properly maintained.
The Barbet is perhaps coming full circle, changing with the times and ready for new challenges with a little help from friends. Still capable of working the water with a hunter, the barbet could have a bright future in agility and obedience as well. As in other areas of life, sometimes what is old is what is new. The Barbet, a dog with a long history, may just have a long future as well.
Grooming the Barbet
The characteristic woolly coat is high maintenance! The coat becomes matted quite easily, especially if the dog goes into water often. For proper coat growth, it is crucial to shave a puppy completely between the age of four to six months. This ensures the proper coat growth. In fact shaving the dog periodically causes the coat to grow thicker. For showing the Barbet must have a thick woolly coat meeting the standard. No mats or knots should be present in a show coat.