The Schipperke … what’s in a name?
By Dr. Robert POLLET
International FCI Judge
Member of the Belgian Standards Commission
The name of a breed is extremely important. The name identifies the breed and is normally given to the breed by the canine authorities of the country of origin. Every name has a meaning. So, let us find out the true meaning or interpretation of the name ‘Schipperke’. Apparently, this breed name has always given rise to continuing discussions and misunderstandings. In any case, the name is Flemish. This refers (in a narrow sense) to the local dialects as well (in a broader sense) as to the official language of northern Belgium. Flemish is not a separate or independent language. In fact, the official and standard language of northern Belgium is Dutch (12). Perhaps the term ‘Netherlandish’ (used in scientific writings) should be used more generally in English, instead of ‘Flemish’ (for northern Belgium) and ‘Dutch’ (for the Netherlands). There has always been so much confusion between the terms Flemish and Dutch, that in the past the Schipperke has even been designated in some books and articles, of course completely erroneously, as a Dutch breed.
What exactly is the true meaning of the name Schipperke (1,3,7,10,11)? In Dutch, ‘Schipper’ (can be translated as ‘skipper’) is the master or captain of a ship, but only a small vessel, i.e. a fishing, small trading or pleasure boat, especially a canal boat or a barge for inland waters or canals. The affix ‘-ke’ makes the name a diminutive. So, it is not surprising that the breed name has been translated literally as ‘little skipper’, ‘little barge dog’, ‘little bargeman’ or ‘little boatman’, and later, in the United States, also as ‘little captain’. In Spanish, German and French it became ‘pequeño capitán’ or ‘pequeño marinero’, ‘Belgischer Schifferhund’ or ‘Schifferspitz’ and ‘Chien de Batelier belge’ or ‘Petit Chien de Batelier’. There is no proof at all that boatmen created the breed and they certainly didn’t possess the largest number of Schipperkes. As a matter of fact the little black dogs were much more found in the homes of the middle class people in various towns of Belgium, especially in and around Brussels, Louvain and Antwerp.
The most acceptable meaning of the name of the breed is ‘little shepherd’. As already mentioned, ‘little’ is the translation of the diminutive ‘-ke’. ‘Schipper’, in the dialect around and in the towns of Leuven (Louvain) and Brussels (the regions where the Schipperke originated) meant ‘scheper’, which translates as ‘shepherd’. ‘Scheper’, just as ‘shepherd’ in English, means ‘a guardian or keeper of a herd or flock’, and also ‘shepherd dog’. The meaning of ‘little shepherd’ has always been defended by Mr. Felix Verbanck (1885-1973), a great promoter and the best breed expert of the Schipperke.
In dictionaries or encyclopaedia’s we can read that Schipperkes ‘are often used by bargemen as a little guard dog’, a statement which cannot be denied, or we find the definition ‘a little black shepherd dog used by skippers as a guardian’. Of course these descriptions each time suggest that the name of the breed is related to ships, but at the same time the breed is done justice by naming it a guardian. By the way, many authors argue that the so-called Schipperkes on canal boats were in fact mostly mongrel or mixed-breed little Spitz type dogs. Although for the most part Schipperkes were not watchdogs on boats, there is no denying that Schipperkes were found aboard barges. Some reports say they had three jobs as barge dogs: watching (by barking vigorously), keeping the barges free of vermin and even, in former days, nipping at the heels of towing horses to get them moving. Anyway, the presence onboard of barges of Schipperkes, doesn’t explain the meaning of the breed name.
Already in1883, inthe first volume of the Belgian Stud Book, entitled ‘Livre des Origines Saint-Hubert (LOSH), the Schipperke has been registered under its actual name, which reflected its real nature of being a little shepherd dog. As a matter of fact Schipperkes exhibit natural herding ability and in the past they were used for herding sheep and gooses. The precise wording under which in the very first Belgian Stud Book the breed was registered, was the surprisingly long and rather strange breed description or breed name ‘short-coated terriers, with erect ears, tailless, a Flemish breed, Schipperkes’.
The fact that the Schipperke is known, defined or described as a little watch or guard dog, also makes clear that it belongs to the FCI-group I, the group of the sheep dogs, which are used for watching or guarding. Some decades ago, the Schipperke still belonged to the FCI-group IX, the group of the companion dogs. Quite some time ago, a much higher number of breeds belonged to that group than at the present time, because many fanciers and breeders of ‘companion dog breeds’ where not happy at all with this group classification. That’s the reason why some breeds, among them the Schipperke, moved to another canine group. The Schipperke moved to the Group I, where it could join its real mates, namely the full-sized shepherd dogs. In this Group I the Schipperke is part of the subgroup or section of the Belgian Sheepdogs, together with the Belgian Shepherd and its four varieties (Malinois + Groenendael or Belgian Sheepdog + Tervueren + Laekenois). Furthermore, it should be mentioned here that a now extinct, middle-sized, lupoid (lupine), mostly all black dog, weighing between 10 to12 kilograms(22 and26,5 pounds) and called ‘Leuvenaar’ (meaning ‘inhabitant of Louvain’), is the real ancestor of both the Schipperke and the Belgian Shepherd. The smaller specimens of the Leuvenaar, used as household guardians, rat-catchers and watchdogs for property, became the ancestors of the early Schipperkes (which were less compactly built than they are now). The larger specimens of the Leuvenaar, selected for herding and guarding livestock, became the ancestors of the early Belgian Shepherd Dogs. The founding fathers of the Belgian Schipperkes Club all accepted and believed as most logical that the Schipperke is a little Shepherd and that it derived from a small native black Belgian sheepdog (the Leuvenaar). It is really important to emphasize here, that the Belgian canine authorities or the FCI (the International Canine Federation) never had in mind or took into consideration to classify the Schipperke in the FCI breed Group III, the group of the Terriers, or in Group V, the group of the Nordic, Spitz or primitive types.
As to the general appearance of the Schipperke it is very important to know that this little dog is not a miniature Belgian Shepherd Dog, because of the in proportion more robust and sturdy construction of the Schipperke (1,3,8,9). In the earlier days, three varieties of Schipperkes have been described, the Antwerp, Louvain and Brussels types (10). The Antwerp type was the most sturdy of the three and also had a distinct ruff, mane and jabot and long hairs on the rear of the thighs (the culottes). It was this breed type which was described in the standard, thus as the ideal dog or breeding goal. This of course explains why, morphologically, the Schipperke is not a miniature Groenendael (Belgian Sheepdog) (8, 9). However, this difference in anatomical structure is no proof or argument at all that the Schipperke would be a Spitz breed and is no reason for claiming a Spitz origin. The present-day robust anatomical structure and the shape or silhouette of the Schipperke must be seen as the result of long-term breeding programmes bearing this unique appearance in mind as a goal.
It may seem surprising that we also mentioned (see above) that the Belgian canine authorities never played with the idea to consider Schipperkes as terriers. We did mention it because a long time ago, in the first Belgian Stud Book, the term ‘terrier’ was used in a rather long breed name description, which ended however with the official name ‘Schipperkes’ (see also above). Also important to know is that the Schipperke was already allowed registration in this very first Belgian Stud Book (1883), for it was considered as a pure breed. On the contrary, the Belgian Shepherds were not granted registration until 1901.
Finally, let us examine now more closely the questions ‘is the Schipperke a Spitz breed’ and ‘has the name Spitz also been used to designate the breed’? We have already emphasized, but very shortly, the morphological differences which exist between a Schipperke and a Spitz. For the sake of completeness we have to mention in this article on the name of the breed, that in Belgium, in former days, the breed was in fact also known colloquially as ‘Spits’ or ‘Spitske’. This once again gives rise to a lot of confusion, because this name automatically refers to the breed group ‘Spitz’. However, in Belgium, a ‘Spitz’ was rather called ‘Keesje’ (in Dutch) or ‘Loulou’ (in French). The name ‘Spits’ given to Schipperkes referred to the well pointed, very erect ears of these little dogs and to the pointed (without snippiness) nose or muzzle. As a matter of fact, the Dutch term ‘spits’ (in German ‘spitz’) means ‘pointed, sharp, tapering’. Besides the name Spits or Spitske, the Schipperke has had, over the years, still other ‘popular’ names, such as ‘Moorke’ (means ‘little black animal’). Anyway, just like the morphological arguments (see above: the Schipperke is not a miniature Groenendael), the colloquial name ‘Spits’ which was used in the past, is or has never been a reason to classify the Schipperke as a Spitz breed or a Nordic breed in Group V of the FCI ‘Nomenclature of Dog Breeds’ (the official list or grouping of breeds of the FCI).
Our conclusion can be clear, short and simple: the meaning of Schipperke is ‘little shepherd’. The Schipperke breed is a shepherd breed and certainly not a Spitz or Nordic breed. Schipperke, the official name of the breed (in Standards, etc.), is not and has never been translated into other languages. The Schipperke is the smallest shepherd dog in the world (7,8). To describe its mischievous personality, it is lovingly called ‘the little black devil’. The very first reference to the breed was found in a chronicle of the 15th century, written by Wenceslas, a monk from Brussels. When encountering for the first time ‘a small, black, tailless dog’, Wenceslas really believed that he was seeing the devil in canine form. So, the Schipperke has been branded for more than 500 years! The breed was also mentioned in a sixteenth century English legend concerning William of Orange, surnamed William the Silent (1533-1584). William’s life would have been saved during an assassination attempt by two jet black dogs without tails, believed to have been Schipperkes. These two black devils sprang upon William’s would-be assassin, while screaming curses and breathing fire! We have to admit, the wonderful myths, tales, legends and old stories about Schipperkes really abound. Aren’t they amazing and beautiful?
Further reading. Books and articles by the same author:
Breed books (Schipperke and Belgian Shepherd Dog) in English:
A. Interpet Publishing:
1. ‘Schipperke’, 157p., 2001.
2. ‘Belgian Shepherd Dog’, 157 p., 2000.
B. Kennel Club Books (USA):
3. ‘Schipperke’, 157 p., 2005.
4. ‘Belgian Malinois’, 157 p., 2005.
5. ‘Belgian Sheepdog’, 157 p., 2007.
6. ‘Belgian Tervuren’, 157 p. 2007.
Articles: see www.schipperke.be
7. ‘Welcome to the land of Schipperkes’.
8. ‘Weight, height and measurements of the Schipperke’
9. ‘Summary of the Breed Standard of the Schipperke’.
FCI-Standard of the Schipperke, text revised by Dr. R. Pollet:
The Belgian Dog Breeds (in Dutch and French):
11a. Edition in French : ‘Encyclopédie des Chiens de races Belges’, Aniwa Publishing, 2006.
11b. Edition in Dutch : ‘Encyclopedie van de Belgische Hondenrassen’, Aniwa Publishing, 2006.
Cynology in Belgium:
12. ‘The organised Cynology in Belgium’: see www.schipperke.be