The Schipperke

"The little captain" guards his home against vermin and intruders


Alert and curious, the Schipperke has the heart of a terrier in the body of a spitz and may be related to neither. At first glance, he looks something like a coal-black version of the American Eskimo without a tail, but a closer look reveals a dog of unique silhouette: thickset, compact, and tailless with a distinctive coat that makes the body appear to slop from shoulders to rear.

Schipperke — pronounced “sheep-er-ker” with the final "r" almost silent — means “Little Captain” in Flemish — or so some fanciers of the breed contend. Others claim that the name comes from the Flemish word for shepherd. In either case, the breed developed in Belgium in the 1600s as ratters and guards on canal barges. At times, they rode the horses that pulled the barges along the canals. On land, the dog kept rats out of shops and warned of intruders.

Although the Schipperke's foxy face, upright ears, and thick coat are similar to the spitz-type dogs, breed historians claim the dog descended from the Belgian herding dog that also produced today's Belgian Sheepdog. The herding dog of those days weighed about 40 pounds, smaller than today's 24-inch, 70-pound version, and could well have been the ancestor of both breeds.

Whatever it's origin, the Schipperke has an interesting history. Initially owned by shopkeepers and tradesmen, the little dog had its own specialty show in 1690. That show and subsequent competitions featured elaborate copper collars designed for the dogs. The breed didn't catch the attention of the upper classes until the mid-1800s; for most of the rest of the century, the Schipperke was virtually the only house dog in Belgium. In 1885, Queen Marie Henriette, wife of Leopold II of Belgium, saw a Schipperke at a Brussels show ad bought it, and the breed became well-known in royal circles.

The English discovered the Schipperke about the same time and imported many dogs from Belgium. The “Little Captain” came to the US by the end of the century, but found little favor until 1930.

Character and appearance

Basically, the Schipperke is a utilitarian breed. He started as a guard of his owners' homes, shops, and families and maintains the qualities of a guardian in a small package today.

He has also been used to hunt, herd, and track. In common with other guardian breeds, he possesses an inordinate sense of responsibility and unshakable loyalty to his family and a wariness with strangers. The Schipperke is slow to make friends, but once his friendship is won, it's for life.

He is gentle with children, has insatiable curiosity, and is independent, ever-watchful, and always on the move. Intelligent and quick to learn, he is often called the little black devil for his rascally antics. In her book The Perfect Match, Chris Walkowicz describes the Schipperke as “inquisitive and fearless of heights, cars, and strange places” and cautions owners to “protect these impish dogs from their own derring-do and devil-made-me-do-it outlook on life.”

The Schipperke is 10-13 inches tall at the withers, with bitches slightly smaller and finer than dogs. Weight is up to 18 pounds. The body is square, the muzzle pointed, the ears very erect. The little dog has a level or slightly sloping topline from the withers to the rear, and a stand-out ruff of fur around the neck gives the impression of a moderate slope from front to rear. The tail is docked so it does not show.

The coat is short on face, ears, and front of the legs, medium on the body, and longer on the front end and the upper back legs. The coat is slightly harsh to the touch; it should never be silky. The undercoat helps the ruff stand out on the neck and protects the little dog in rain, wind, and cold weather. In the US, Schipperkes must be black. The original Schipperke, however, sometimes came in brown and the British allowed blonde and cream colors.

Care and training

The Schipperke is a relatively healthy breed, often living 14-15 years or longer. However, prospective buyers should ask breeders about hip and eye clearances, hypothyroidism, progressive retinal atrophy, and epilepsy.

Coat care for the breed is minimal. Profuse shedding occurs seasonally, necessitating grooming to keep the home free of puffs of black hair. No trimming or clipping is required.

The Schipperke is a talented obedience and agility dog and pet for an active family. Training must be firm and consistent. If the little guy is given enough exercise, he can do well in an apartment. He is stubborn; he may guard his food and toys and he can be snappish when annoyed or startled if not trained early.

[More on finding the right dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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