Schipperke

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Schipperke

Sometimes fondly, though tellingly, known as the “little black devil”, the Schipperke is a brash, intelligent, and entertaining small Belgian breed. Although most of the evidence points to it descending from herding dogs, it has traditionally been used as a guard dog and vermin hunter for most of its history, and it still excels in both roles today. A devoted and intensely loyal family member, it is distrustful of strangers, and has a piercing bark that it will use whenever it deems necessary – which, for most Schipperkes, is often! In keeping with its outwardly fox-like appearance, it is a clever and mischievous breed, and its owner needs to be capable of handling, directing, and enjoying its antics. While most are quick to snap at a stranger (or a vet!), this is not the case with their families, and they are gentle and protective around children.

Schipperkes thrive on having a job to do, and are employed by various emergency services around Europe. Unsurprisingly, they need to be kept active and busy when living as pets, and they can be destructive and excessively noisy if under-stimulated. Daily walks should be supplemented with time in a secure garden, where they can use their keen sense of smell and hearing to seek out anything that scuttles and scurries – squirrels beware! Despite their capabilities as hunters, Schipperkes are generally quite reliable around cats once they are familiar with them. This is an especially long-lived breed, for although it has an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years, around one in five live beyond 15 years of age. However, health problems are common, and prospective owners need to research their puppy’s family history thoroughly before buying.

About & History

The Schipperke’s name translates from Flemish to either “little shepherd” or “little captain”, and either would be appropriate. It originated in the St. Gery district of Brussels, and it seems likely to have been selected as a smaller variant of the Leauvenaar, a herding breed from which the much larger Belgian Shepherd is also descended. For hundreds of years, it was a favourite of the city’s shoemakers, who used it to keep their workshops secure and free from rats and mice. There was a long tradition of these tradesmen making ornate hammered brass collars for their dogs and then displaying both the dog and its adornment at competitive shows. It was also popular with people living and trading on canal barges, where its talents were also put to good use.

The Schipperke was first presented for judging at a dog show in the town of Spa in 1882, the same year in which a Belgian author described the breed as the “devil, without the cloven hoof and tail”! Clearly, many of the dog’s modern traits were already well developed at this point in time. Partly due to Queen Marie-Henriette’s influence, the Schipperke received international attention at an early stage, and was exported to the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1880s, becoming one of the earliest breeds to be registered with the majority of the major Kennel Clubs.

Appearance

Schipperke Large Photo

The Schipperke is sometimes erroneously described as a Spitz, and while it may not be closely related to this family, it does share the compact, upright shape, and dense coat seen in the German Spitz, for example. It has a wedge-shaped, fox-like head, with prominent arching above the eyes and in the cheeks. The top-line of its skull and muzzle run in parallel, with a pronounced stop dividing the two. Its lips and eyelids are tight-fitting, and the small nose is always jet-black in colour. A pincer bite is considered acceptable by the breed standard, and many individuals lack several of their premolars as a natural feature. The Schipperke’s dark brown eyes are small, lively, and almond-shaped. Its small triangular ears are held upright, but are always on the move in response to the slightest sound.

The body is sturdy and square, with its bulk slightly exaggerated by the dense ruff of hair that stands out all around the neck, shoulders, and limbs. The chest is reasonably broad and deep, and the abdomen is moderately tucked. Traditionally, the Schipperke’s tail was docked very short, but in most dogs it should be long, and may be curled over the back – another feature it may have in common with the Spitzes. However, some are born tail-less, or may have unusually shaped or rudimentary tails; these are not penalised according to the breed standard.

Despite the compact, broad outline of the body, the limbs are quite fine-boned and dainty, but they should also be well formed, without deviation, and allow a smart, brisk trot as the dog’s preferred pace. The very dense coat is always black, although the undercoat may be a dark grey that is disguised by the longer primary hairs. Schipperkes range in height from 25 to 35 cm at the top of the withers, and in weight from 4 to 8 kg.

Character & Temperament

This is a charismatic little dog, with each Schipperke having a very individual personality. They are highly intelligent, aware of everything going on around them, and have an uncanny ability to understand what their owners are saying. The breed has spent a good portion of its history living in close confines with a small number of people, whether on a barge or within a small workshop, and as one would expect, it prefers the company of those it knows well.

Extremely loyal to its family, it is outright suspicious of strangers, and is an excellent watch dog. If it feels the situation demands it, it will also administer a bite, and will guard its owners and their property against all-comers. Not all Schipperkes socialise well with other dogs, for they can be headstrong and assertive, and will clash if they meet another with a similar personality, but they generally take well to cats, especially if they are introduced when young.

Trainability

Photo of Schipperke puppy

Most owners will agree that training a Schipperke requires a great deal of patience, and an equal amount of assertiveness. These dogs do not lack intelligence, but often prefer to determine their own actions rather than be directed by a human. These traits are part of the reason they excel in search and rescue and detection work, but they need to be overcome by a consistent, firm-but-fair approach.

Health

Although the Schipperke’s breed clubs around the world are working hard on eliminating hereditary health problems, some notable issues persist in the breed:

  • Diabetes mellitus – The Schipperke is one of the breeds at increased risk of becoming dependent on injected insulin to regulate its blood glucose levels. Signs of diabetes in middle-aged dogs include excess thirst, increased appetite, and dramatic weight loss.
  • Epilepsy – A brain disorder causing intermittent seizures. First signs generally emerge between six months and five years of age. These seizures range in severity and frequency, and many dogs can live a full life without treatment; however, veterinary advice should be sought in every case.
  • Hypothyroidism – The most common hormone disorder in many breeds. Subnormal thyroid function arises following an autoimmune attack on the paired thyroid glands in the neck, and results in reduced energy levels, obesity, and hair and skin changes.
  • Legg–Calves Perthes disease – Seen occasionally in young Schipperkes in whom the ball formed by the top of the thigh bone outgrows its blood supply, causing it to weaken and fracture. This causes intense pain and marked hindlimb lameness. Surgery is necessary to allow normal limb function.
  • Mucopolysaccharidosis Type IIIB – This is the most significant inherited disease seen in the breed. Genetically affected individuals gradually accumulate waste substances in their nerve cells in the first few years of life, and begin to develop signs of incoordination and muscular weakness in young adulthood. There is no effective treatment, and as many as one in seven Schipperkes are affected. A genetic test is available, and this should be used to screen all adults before breeding.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Schipperke is a very energetic dog, and will always react instantly to anything going on around it – it is definitely not a couch potato. However, it does not need a huge amount of structured exercise, and will cope with as little as half an hour every day so long as it also has access to a secure garden. As a vermin hunter, having untethered access to the outdoors allows it to exercise its instincts to root around in search of rodents and insects, and will help prevent any behavioural problems arising from boredom.

Grooming

Although the coat is dense and sheds reasonably heavily, it is very easy to care for, needing only weekly brushing for most of the year. During the heavy moults of the spring and autumn, this frequency may need to be increased, but the Schipperke rarely needs to be washed, and should never be clipped. Its nails are likely to need clipping every few weeks, with the sound of them clicking on hard surfaces indicating that they are too long.

This is a simple task, but because of the dog’s black nails, it can be difficult to tell how much is a safe amount to remove without drawing blood. Owners may find it helpful to have a groomer or veterinary nurse demonstrate a safe technique for the first few attempts at clipping.

Famous Schipperkes

The breed usually keeps a low profile, but the actor Mark Ruffalo credits his female Schipperke, named Frieda, with saving his 18-month-old son from drowning in the family’s pond, after seeing the dog use her front paws to push the child backwards away from the pond's edge.

Cross-Breeds

While they may not be the cuddly, people-loving designer dog for everyone, there are a few Schipperke cross-breeds that are sometimes seen for sale:

  • Corgi Schip – Cross between a Schipperke and a Welsh Corgi
  • Schipapom – Cross between a Schipperke and a Pomeranian
  • Schipese – Cross between a Schipperke and a Maltese
  • Schipperpoo – Cross between a Schipperke and a Poodle
  • Skip Tzu – Cross between a Schipperke and a Shih Tzu
  • Westeke – Cross between a Schipperke and a West Highland White Terrier

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