The Grifón Astur-Cántabro is a bit of a ‘mythical beast’, because you won’t find a description of the race anywhere. Yet, they are found all over Spain and especially in the north-west, and every hunter will immediately know what you are talking about. They agree that these dogs are the perfect breed for the trailing of wild boar. Although there is no description of this multicoloured breed, they do have many characteristics in common.
The north-west of Spain, especially in Asturias, Cantabria and the parts of Galicia where the landscape is mountainous, rough and hard to access, and where agricultural and farming land is scarce, is the region where most of the Spanish Griffons can be found. Until the second half of the 20th century, the area was very isolated from the Spanish hinterland because of the high mountain ranges that separated the north-west from the Meseta. The area is characterized by a mild, Atlantic climate with winters that are often short and mild, which can be compared to those of Ireland and the Channel Island. This makes the area a very suitable habitat for wild boar the population of which can multiply at a very fast rate. For the villagers and people who live there, a visit of a group of boar often means the destruction of all the crop for that year and hence there would be nothing to eat for them and their livestock. Hence, the search for the perfect dog to hunt wild boar has been one with a long history.
What was needed was a dog that was ‘all weather’ and ‘all season’ and all terrain’, a breed more suitable for working in the harsh field and weather than the Sabueso Español (Spanish Bloodhound). When in the 50’s of last century the area became better connected to the rest of Spain –and with that, the rest of the world– hunters began to import all sorts of griffons from France, Swiss and other countries in their bid to create the perfect sleuth by cross-breeding them with the Sabueso Español. Amongst them there are many types like the Blue de Gascoigne, Fauve de Bretagne (‘Leonada’, in Spanish), all the varieties of the Griffon Vendéen, Griffon Nivernais, but also a few Swiss Small Jura Hounds (Chien Courant de Jura) or the coarse-haired Small Bernese Hound (Rauhaariger Berner Laufhund) and there even have been persons in Spain who have bred with the Italian Spinone.
The result is a colourful hotchpotch in which you often can see the breed characteristics of other griffon dogs. Yet the griffon Astur-Cántabro usually has a height at the withers of 50-55 cm – which is too low for a Griffon Nivernais and too high for a Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen… Or they have the outward characteristics of one breed but the size of another. What they do have in common, is that they are gentle, smart and very friendly dogs. In Spain they still are seen as unsuitable pets because they are labelled ‘hunting dogs’, while they are not. They are trailing dogs and used to living in a ‘pack’ (that is: in a cage with at least one other dog). Their friendliness makes them extremely suitable to live with families and smaller kids, and with other animals, such as rabbits and cats. And they do great.
His Sabueso blood gives the griffon Astur-Cántabro his tenacity, he can trot after a piece of game for 5 hours non-stop; his size is often reminiscent of a Spanish Bloodhound, with a slightly longer body and somewhat shorter leg. Also his bark often sounds more like the Sabuesos. The long hairs of the strip coat of griffons makes that the griffon Astur-Cántabro easily moves through thicket and bramble bushed – and when the Astur-Cántabro contains some basset blood, he will less easily bleed when he scrapes some sharp thorns and branches on the go. A good griffon Astur-Cántabro will keep following his trail under any circumstances, be there snow, in the fast-running rocky bed of a mountain river, impenetrable forests, thickets and bramble bushes – nothing will stop a Astur-Cántabro…
Use of the Astur-Cantabro in hunting
One griffon accompanies a hunter on a long rope in the initial search for a trail that will lead to a group of sleeping wild boar. Once found, they go back to get the other dogs who will follow the trail and flush out the wild boar – and poof. Usually the Astur-Cántabro is familiarized with wild boar already at a very young age and their training for tracking a trail starts already in their first few months, when they also learn what trail to follow and what to leave alone. Often they are fully-fledged tracking dogs at an age of 6 to 8 months and will be trailing and hunting on their own or in a small pack.
A griffon Astur-Cántabro that has been trained to do this job, learns that he is allowed pull on the line… They also learn that they may only follow the trail of wild boar. Of course, not all griffons are equally suited for the job, so many are dumped or are found wandering. Sometimes they just do not return after a hunt, which would also make them less suitable and not considered worth to buy out again if they end up in a kill station or rescue kennels.
There they will often spend the rest of their lives or, when less lucky and dumped at local pounds, they often are killed because they hardly have any chance to be adopted. This is because griffons in general are not very well known as breeds and because especially in Spain they are considered to be ‘hunting dogs’ which leads to the false belief they would not make great companion dogs – of which the opposite is true, as we have experienced, and increasingly, though very slowly, more people get to know them as perfect companion animals.
There are a few things you need to consider though about these dogs
First of all, many griffons will like to have company, always. Whether it be a human, another dog or even a goat. They often don’t take it well to be on their own (although there are many exceptions). This is because they are hounds in the truest sense, and therefore gregarious. Hounds have always lived in small groups, as far as their history goes back – which may be a far as 6000 years. They are not used to being alone, especially if they have grown up with a hunter in a cage and not in a home with a family where they are crate-trained from a young age. Your griffon may well the the very first in a long line that embarks upon a (successful!) career as a pet instead of being a hunting dog. If left home all alone by their owner, they may bark loudly or take out their boredom and frustration on cushions, shoes and other objects in the house. This will be labelled as ‘separation anxiety’ and in most cases it is easily solved by finding your pooch a companion, and, of course by consequent training starting on day one.
As they were trained as trailing dogs from a very tender age, putting the leash on to them will mean to them that they will lead the way. They can pull on the leash pretty hard. Add to that their nose that always smells interesting things, you have to prepare yourself for zig-zagging walks. Some will have learned to walk on leash while they were at a shelter, but with many it will take some training to unlearn the pulling on the leash. And it can be done! It demands consequent training and will often take some time.
A third thing to keep in mind is that these dogs have noses, and not just that, they are noses. Their whole build, their big nose, the long ears, the saggy eyes, dewlap, their large heads: all are features that contribute to their extraordinary olfactory sense. When off-leash, they may follow their nose that picked up a trail. Train them on call-back, teach them that the pack must be their main concern so they will never lose sight on you, and take them to a trailing/sleuthing course where you will learn how to deal with this aspect. what also helps is to familiarize them with as many types of animals as possible. Once they consider animals as a normal part of their surroundings, the need to track them usually disappears.
A good thing is they were probably already trained to only go after wild boar and to refrain from following any other trail. On the other hand, a Griffón Astur-Cántabro that ends up in a shelter, usually was not the best of trailing dogs. Either they followed the wrong trails, but more often are totally not interested in ‘hunting’. Still, they love to use their keen noses in play: hide their favourite food somewhere or in a toy – they love it.
Spanish griffons, especially the Astur-Cántabro breeds, are still a forgotten group of dogs, for which there are no special rescue groups or organizations. Therefore, we like to promote these fluffy, gentle dogs and provide as much information as we can to make them better known with the general public, which will hopefully result in their adoption. On this site, but most of all in several Facebook groups, we will present adoptable dogs and we can lend a hand in the process of adoption.