The Brussels Griffon dog breed

A cute example of the Brussels Griffon dog breed

Gazing into the big, expressive eyes of the moustachioed toy dog known as the Brussels Griffon will likely evoke a pang of recognition: based either on the remarkable humanness of this petite breed’s face or perhaps the spitting-image resemblance to those furry Ewoks from the Star Wars universe. (In point of fact, the story goes that Star Wars creator George Lucas’s own “Griff” inspired the design of those characters so prominently featured in The Return of the Jedi.)

The Brussels Griffon has a personality to match its irresistible squashed-in face, and its big-screen credentials don’t end with the Ewok connection: Its popularity took a clear leap after the 1997 film As Good As It Gets, which saw Jack Nicholson dog-sitting a charismatic Griff. These aren’t especially common dogs, nonetheless, but certainly inspire obsessive love among their owners.

The Brussels Griffon

Breed history

When we speak of a Brussels Griffon, we may, depending on our perspective, be lumping together three varieties of the same basic breed, or referring to a specific one of them. In Europe, the Griff is commonly thought of as a trio of forms: the reddish, rough-coated Brussels Griffon itself; the smooth-coated Petit Brabancon; and the black (or black-and-tan) Belgian Griffon. These are all the same toy breed, and for the purposes of this profile we’ll follow the American convention and treat them together as the Brussels Griffon.

As the name implies, this Griff traces its origins to Belgium, where 19th-century coachmen crossed the Affenpinscher with various other pint-sized breeds – perhaps such as the Pug, the English Toy Spaniel, and the Yorkshire Terrier–to refine the scrappy little dogs they used as stable ratters. These griffons d’ecurie – “wire-coated stable dogs” – eventually attracted the attention of high society, earning a very prominent admirer in the form of the Queen of the Belgians, Henrietta Maria. Adoption by the elites led to further tinkering of the Brussels Griffon, which through breeding became yet smaller and flatter-faced.

By the 1880s the Griff had spread to the British Isles, and before long it had hopped the pond as well; Brussels Griffons premiered at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in 1899. According to the American Kennel Club, English and American breeders were instrumental in maintaining the Brussels Griffon during the devastations of the First and Second World Wars.

Appearance

We’ve already emphasized the defining feature of the proportionately big-headed Brussels Griffon: its flat, human-like face, characterized by large and wide-set eyes, a stubby black nose positioned nearly in between them, and the extravagant moustache and beard. (“Bearded dog” has been among the Griff’s nicknames.) The American Kennel Club memorably compares the dog’s countenance to that “of a worldly, French-speaking philosopher.” (We’re also partial to Chewy’s loving description of the dog as a “snub-nosed imp.”)

The ears may be cropped to an erect point or stand semi-erect in natural, uncropped position. The Griff boasts a compact, sturdy body and a ramrod tail docked short.

Rough-coated Griffs have longer, wiry hair while smooth-coated dogs have short, glossy fur that gives them the general appearance of a Pug. Color ranges from brownish red and rufous to black-and-tan to full black.

A typical Brussels Griffon stands perhaps eight or 10 inches tall and weighs eight to 12 pounds

Personality & temperament

The ever-quotable American Kennel Club description of the Brussels Griffon suggests this little toy “has enough personality for 10 dogs,” and that’s about right. The Griff is a confident, peppy pup with a sassy bearing out of proportion with its minute dimensions. They’re also extremely sensitive, bonding closely with their owners; not uncommonly they reserve their fullest affection and interest for one particular member of the household. These toys need plenty of attention and TLC: They’re prone to loneliness, malaise, and sulking mischief if ignored.

Griffs can get potentially along well with children as long as both dog and kids are conditioned to one another; obviously too much roughhousing can be dangerous for a toy this size. Very young or volatile children can have difficulty handling a Griff with the delicacy it requires, and may also be on the receiving end of some annoyed nips from a dog feeling harassed and harried. So consider the demeanor of your children first and foremost. All things considered, the Brussels Griffon works best with older, more responsible kids.

Brussels Griffons can also harmonize well with other house pets, if socialized properly. On walks or at the dog park, keep in mind that Griffs can let their bluster get them into confrontations with much bigger pooches. Needless to say, they don’t necessarily have the bite to back up their bark, so keep them under close supervision and head potentially violent encounters off at the pass.

Shedding / grooming

Rough-coated Griffs don’t shed substantially; they should be brushed and combed weekly and professionally clipped every few months. Some owners have them hand-stripped–sifting out loose hairs–a couple of times a year. Smooth-coated Griffons shed seasonally, typically for a couple of weeks in the spring and in the fall. They should be brushed daily during the shedding season and weekly otherwise.

Health & lifespan

Choose and administer your Brussels Griffon’s food carefully to ward off obesity, which can be an issue for the breed. Like any flat-faced dog, Griffs sometimes have breathing difficulties, particularly in torrid or humid conditions, and they may snore as well.

In terms of major health concerns, the hereditary syringomyelia is something to test for. The American Brussels Griffon Association also recommends eye exams to identify any ocular problems and screenings for both patellar luxation–also called “slipped stifles,” a dislocation of the kneecap, which can, unsurprisingly, cause pain and mobility issues–and hip dysplasia.

As we alluded to above, the Griff’s bold bluffing of other dogs holds the potential for injury if it invites rough play or even aggressive squabbles.

Birthing issues aren’t uncommon with Griffs, which often require C-sections to bear their litters.

A healthy Brussels Griffon can be expected to live an average of 12 to 15 years.

Exercise needs

The active and peppy Griff belies any stereotype of the lazy, lethargic lapdog. Give yours at least a half-hour of exercise each day. A Brussels Griffon wants to play and go on walks, both to get some energy out and to bond with its human companions.

Training / intelligence

The Brussels Griffon is a whipsmart toy dog that can respond very well to training if you start early and stay dedicated, resisting the breed’s occasional stubbornness. Stress positive reinforcement in housetraining, leash-training, and other discipline: These strong-willed little guys will respond much better to judiciously and appropriately given praise and food rewards than too much sternness.