The first mention of the word “Basset” as applied to a breed of dog appears to have been in an early text on hunting written by Fouilloux in 1585. This book is illustrated with what is considered the first drawing of a Basset, a woodcut showing a sportsman going out in his charette de chasse accompanied by his “badger dogs” and Fouilloux gives advice on training the dogs for the purpose of badger hunting.
It is thought that the friars of the French Abbey of St. Hubert were instrumental in selective breeding from various other strains of French hounds to produce a lower set, hence slower moving dog which could be followed on foot. The word “Basset,” derived from the French adjective bas, means a “dwarf” or “low structure”.
By the 1700’s, Basset Hounds were used extensively throughout France, differing somewhat in appearance from province to province. It is believed that, at about this time, George Washington received a pair of Bassets as a gift from Lafayette, and in the 1800’s Bassets were exported to England and then to the United States.
Since hunting was a classic sport in medieval France, it is not surprising that many of the thoroughly efficient small hounds found their way into the kennels of the aristocracy, only to be dispersed with the changing lifestyle brought on by the Revolution. However, the breed was not lost and we find them mentioned again by M. Blaze in his sporting book Le Chasseur, written in 1850. About the same time, in his book Chiens de Chasse, M. Robert writes: “The Basset will hunt all animals, even boar, and wolf, but he is especially excellent for the chasse a tir (shooting with the aid of hounds) of rabbits and hares.”
By the mid-19th century, the two largest breeders of Bassets in France were producing dogs of slightly different type, especially in head and eye, the two types being identified by the names of their respective breeders. M. Lane’s hounds were a broader skull, shorter ear and with a rounder and more prominent eye. They were generally lemon and white in marking and had a tendency to knuckling. Count Le Couteulx produced hounds that had more narrow heads, more doming in the top skull, a softer, more sunken eye with a prominent jaw and a down-faced look that created more facial expression. The more glamorous tricolors of Le Couteulx hounds made them preferred.
In 1866, Lord Galway imported a pair of French Bassets of the Le Couteulx type to England. The following year a mating of these two produced a litter of five pups, but as there was no public exposure of them, no interest in the breed was stirred. It was not until 1874, when Sir Everett Millais imported from France the hound, “Model,” that real activity with the breed began in England. For his support of the breed and continued drive on a breeding program within his own kennel as well as cooperation with breeding programs established by Lord Onslow and George Krehl, Sir Everett Millais has to be considered the “father of the breed” in England. He first exhibited a Basset at an English dog show in 1875, but it was not until he helped make up a large entry for the Wolverhampton show in 1880 that a great deal of public attention was drawn to the breed. A few years later, further interest was created when Queen Alexandra kept Basset Hounds in the royal kennels.