Belgian Shepherd

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

The Belgian Shepherd is a large but light and nimble herding dog that is found as often in agricultural and police employment as it is a pet. With a history going back several hundred years, the breed has a very strong instinct to work, with extremely high energy levels and intelligence, and it requires an active and engaging home in order not to suffer boredom. The Belgian Shepherd develops a strong bond with its owners, from whom it will become inseparable, and is very sensitive to criticism or other emotional stresses. However, many individuals can also have a tendency to dominate humans they perceive as being soft or permissive, and, for this reason, the breed is not a suitable choice for a novice dog owner. It is a guardian dog, and displays strong defensive behaviour when it, or its family, is under threat.

Many people are confused by the Belgian Shepherd, as the designation actually covers four different dogs of very different outward appearance. In fact, in many parts of the world, these are recognised as distinct breeds in their own right. However, they all share very similar physical traits under their various coat types and colours, and are of broadly similar temperaments. They require a great deal of exercise, along with regular grooming, and might fairly be considered high-maintenance dogs. In addition, there is a relatively high incidence of inherited health problems in the breed, so it pays to study family history very closely before choosing to buy a puppy. The average life expectancy of the Belgian Shepherd is 10 to 12 years.

About & History

Although the forebears of the modern breed have been working the farms of the European Low Countries since the Middle Ages, it is only relatively recently that concerted efforts were made to protect and standardise the Belgian Shepherd. Concerned by inter-breeding and dilution of the native Belgian dog stock, a group of cynologists under Professor Reul of the Cureghem School of Veterinary Medicine assembled in 1891 to identify ideal examples and to draw up a breed standard. From these meetings, it was determined that four strains of herding dog were native to the area around Brussels:

  • Groenendael
  • Laekenois
  • Mallinois
  • Terveuren

The primary distinguishing characteristics of these four types related to their hair, which ranged from the coarse, tousled hair of the Laekenois to the silky, long hair of the Groenendael and Terveuren. All four also had distinct patterns of colouration. Having established this basis for the breed, official recognition by the various kennel clubs followed in the ensuing decades, and standardisation of both appearance and temperament could be maintained. The Belgian Shepherd was subsequently exported to the United States and other parts of Europe, and has become a breed that is popular for police and army work by virtue of its intelligence, trainability, and protective nature.

Appearance

Belgian Shepherd Large Photo

This is a harmoniously proportioned dog with markedly square lines. Even when relaxed, it has a proud, upright stance and head carriage that conveys its ever-watchful nature. It has a flat, square skull that is equal in length to, and runs parallel to, the muzzle, which it joins through a moderately pronounced stop. The muzzle narrows gradually along its length, and the jaws and teeth are well developed. The Belgian Shepherd’s alertness shines in the almond-shaped, dark brown eyes, and its ears are relatively small, set high on the head, and carried upright and pointing forwards.

The neck is held at a rather vertical angle, and is quite long and well-muscled, and the back is flat and equal in length to the height at the withers. Throughout, the body is strong and lean, but not heavy or bulky. The chest is broader at the top than the bottom, and is let down as far as the point of the elbow, while the abdomen is firm and slightly tucked. The tail is set quite high, and is thick and bushy, usually held below horizontal. Like the trunk, the limbs are not excessively bulky, but strong, and are upright when viewed from all angles.

As discussed above, the coat can be long and silky (as in the Groenendael and Terveuren), short and straight (the Malinois), or of intermediate length and rough (the Laekenois). The colours for the various types are as follows:

  • Groenendael – uniformly black
  • Terveuren – fawn and grey, with black overlay
  • Malinois – grey, with black overlay and mask
  • Laekenois – fawn with traces of black overlay

All four types conform to the same size requirements: males are 60 to 66 cm (24 to 26 in) in height, and weigh 25 to 30 kg (55 to 66 lb), while females measure 56 to 62 cm (22 to 24 in) and weigh 20 to 25 kg (44 to 55 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Belgian Shepherd exemplifies many of the essential traits of a working breed: it is intelligent, extremely energetic, and obedient. It forms a very strong bond with its owners, and develops an uncanny ability to read understand them that can verge on telepathy. However, such levels of intelligence and energy can create a character that is hyperactive and nervy, particularly in dogs that do not receive adequate attention and exercise. Belgian Shepherds must live indoors with their family, and be included in all activities for them to reach their full potential.

The calm, self-assured disposition of the working Belgian Shepherd is often not seen in pet dogs of the breed that have been taken into homes without the time and enthusiasm to devote to them. As well as herding duties, Belgian Shepherds were required to protect their flock from predators and thieves, and the modern breed still shows strong protective instincts that may be seen when a stranger calls to the home. This is not the most suitable dog for families with other pets, as inter-dog aggression is a reasonably common problem, and smaller pets are likely to be seen as prey, especially in the owner’s absence.

Trainability

Photo of Belgian Shepherd puppy

While part of the reason the breed is so popular with security services around the world is its protective nature, its easy trainability is another significant factor. With an enthusiastic approach, and by breaking training sessions into short chunks of time, a Belgian Shepherd owner can accomplish just about anything with this willing and capable pupil. Early socialisation is crucial, with both humans and other dogs, to prevent problems with fearfulness and aggression in later life.

Health

Unfortunately, joint problems and other health disorders are quite prevalent in the Belgian Shepherd, and at a minimum, anyone buying a pup must insist on seeing hip and elbow scores for both parents:

  • Atopic dermatitis – Allergic skin disease causing itch and irritation, with signs usually obvious by one year of age. Management may involve a combination of lifestyle changes and medication
  • Cataract – The breed is prone to posterior cataract development that may affect vision in young adulthood.
  • Elbow dysplasia – A developmental deformity of the elbows causing pain and lameness. Best prevented by screening breeding adults through x-ray evaluation.
  • Epilepsy – A common cause of seizures in the Belgian Shepherd, with signs appearing in young adults. As this may be a familial problem, affected adults should not be used for breeding.
  • Gastric carcinoma – A form of stomach cancer to which older dogs are prone. Symptoms include vomiting, inappetence, and weight loss.
  • Hip dysplasia – Like other large-breed dogs, the Belgian Shepherd has a high incidence of hip dysplasia, an inherited cause of hindlimb lameness. The British Veterinary Association’s hip scoring scheme should be applied to all adults being considered for breeding.
  • Muscular dystrophy – A devastating, inherited cause of progressive muscle weakness that often results in premature death or euthanasia.
  • Pannus – Development of a whitish-pink covering over the eyes as a result of chronic inflammation of the corneal surface. Although this can severely impair vision, the condition usually responds very well to topical steroid drops.
  • Progressive retinal atrophy – A genetic condition in which deterioration in the health of the retina – the light-sensing part of the eye – leads to progressive sight loss in dogs from around five years of age.

Exercise and Activity Levels

This is an extremely high-energy breed, and those dogs not getting enough exercise are likely to become highly strung and hyperactive. At least one hour of vigorous walking or running should be provided every day. In addition, a securely fenced garden is essential to allow this restless, busy dog to stretch its legs at intervals during the day.

Grooming

No matter which variety of Belgian Shepherd coat an individual has, it consists of two dense layers that shed quite heavily year-round. Although it is reasonably dirt- and weather resistant, it does need an intense brushing session at least once a week to remove the dead hair, which tends to tangle if not tackled. Baths are generally required every six to eight weeks, but clipping is not practised in this breed.

Famous Belgian Shepherds

Some of the more notable Belgian Shepherd owners of recent years have included:

  • Eva Mendes – Acquired her dog, Hugo, as protection from a stalker
  • Jean-Claude van Damme – It’s only natural the world’s most famous Belgian would gravitate to this breed!

Cross-Breeds

Belgian Shepherds can introduce their intelligence and enthusiasm into hybrid lines, as seen in the following:

  • Afghan Shepherd – Cross between a Belgian Shepherd and an Afghan Hound
  • Belgian Shepadoodle – Cross between a Belgian Shepherd and Poodle
  • German Malinois – Cross between a Belgian Shepherd and a German Shepherd

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