Boerboel

Pippa Elliott
Dr Pippa Elliott (BVMS MRCVS, University of Glasgow)
 
Photo of adult Boerboel

The word ‘Boerboel’ is an Afrikaans term meaning ‘farmer’s dog’. The name reflects how he was bred in 17th century South Africa to protect farmsteads from fearsome predators, such as lions, leopards, and hyenas.

If the Boerboel was a vehicle, he’d be a tank: Built for power rather than speed and a formidable advisory. This massive dog makes for an intimidating guard dog that is confident and assertive, and prepared to take on anyone who invades his territory. But the other side of the Boerboel is that he’s also a gentle giant with those he welcomes into his pack. This makes him a surprisingly loving dog with children – although this carries some provisos.

For example, the size and power of the Boerboel means that good socialisation in puppyhood is essential. He needs to be raised with a broad experience of people and situations, since an anxious or fearful Boerboel would be exceptionally dangerous. He also needs an experienced, skilled handler well-versed in reward-based training methods. Anyone who attempts to control the Boerboel using brute strength is going to lose out.

About & History

Also known as the South African Mastiff, Borbull or Bole, the Boerboel breed has its roots in dogs brought to South Africa by Dutch settlers in the 1600s. These dogs were bred with native South African dogs, and also Bulldogs and Bull mastiffs brought over by the British, to produce a particularly tough strain of farm dog.

Those early Boerboels experienced a type of ‘natural selection’ process, with only the strongest dogs surviving fights with South Africa’s native wildlife, such as big cats and hyenas. In addition to protecting farms, the Boerboel was also enlisted as guard dogs to protect Da Beers’ diamond mines. Originally developed as a working breed, in the first half of the 20th century, combined with progressive urbanisation, the need fell for such an intimidating guard dog. With a drop in popularity, their numbers dwindled and, with no positive action being taken to retain the breed’s purity, a purebred Boerboel dog became a rare thing.

In the 1980s, aware of the predicament faced by the breed, enthusiasts revived and preserved the Boerboel. Still considered a rarity amongst dog breeds, they remain best known in their native South Africa.

Appearance

Boerboel Large Photo

The Boerboel is a stocky, powerful dog that can be summed up in the word: 'massive'. Weights of around 200 lb (90 kg) are common, which means their weight is comparable to a Great Dane, but contained in a shorter, stockier frame. That said, he also has a reputation for being the most agile of the mastiff-type breeds.

The Boerboel has a short coat consisting of dense outer hairs and a soft undercoat. The most common coat colour is fawn with a black mask around the eyes, mouth, and nose. Other coat colours include black, brindle, brown, fawn, or red. Some white on the coat is acceptable, but must make up less than 30% of the overall coat and be largely restricted to the face, neck, and paws.

Character & Temperament

The Boerboel is a dog with a purpose in life: Guarding! He is not a dog that is good with strangers or other dogs, and indeed he is highly protective in keeping with the role of guard dog. That said, he is often good-natured and loving with those he knows well, such as children and his family.

The Boerboel requires regular exercise and mental exertion, or he risks becoming bored. The consequences include chewing and pulling on the lead, which for such a massive dog makes for a big headache all round.

Trainability

Photo of Boerboel puppy

The Boerboel is intelligent, but like so many dogs from working origins, he thinks independently and likes to figure things out for himself. He can be inclined to be bossy, which requires skilled handling in order to reinforce acceptable boundaries but without the handler resorting to physical domination.

It is never appropriate to bully a dog into submission, but even more so for the Boerboel, given his superior strength. Instead, he needs a knowledgeable trainer who knows how to motivate the dog to please. When the dog is taught using the correct methods, he will be both willing and obedient.

Health

The Boerboel was bred to hold his own against some of the fiercest predators on the planet. When his daily work meant facing up to lions and leopards it is evident to see how only the healthiest specimens survived to produce the next generation. Therefore, the Boerboel is in the happy position of being relatively free from health problems.

Those problems most often encountered by the breed are listed below:

Bloat

Bloat is a life-threatening condition caused by the stomach distending with gas and then flipping over on itself. Also known as gastric-dilatation and volvulus (GDV), this causes shock, severe electrolyte disturbances, toxaemia, circulatory collapse, and ultimately death. Treatment is most effective when instated early, and involves aggressive intravenous fluid therapy and surgical correction of the stomach’s twisted position.

GDV is always a risk for deep-chested breeds, such as the Boerboel, Great Dane, German Shepherd, Doberman, and Labrador. Risk factors include a dry diet high in grain and exercising after eating. Therefore, the wise Boerboel owner feeds a moist, meat-rich diet and waits at least 90-minutes after each meal before walking their dog.

Cervical Spondylopathy

Also known as Wobbler Syndrome, cervical spondylopathy refers to the physical narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck, resulting in pressure on the spinal cord and its nerve roots. Typically this affects the dog’s gait, often causing a peculiar goose-step motion with the front legs and wobbliness of the back legs.

Cervical spondylopathy is most common in large breed dogs, such as the Great Dane or Mastiff, making it most likely that the Boerboel acquired this trait for distant ancestors.

Juvenile Epilepsy

Epilepsy refers to seizures or fits for which no physical or metabolic cause is found. Unfortunately, epilepsy if often associated with dogs as young as six months of age, which is distressing for both dog and owner.

Given the young age at onset, thorough screening is advisable to rule out problems that mimic epilepsy but that do have a specific treatment or cure. Once epilepsy is confirmed, then depending on how severe and frequent the fits are, an anti-convulsant medication may be prescribed.

Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia refers to an anatomical problem with the way the elbow joint hinges together. Without a perfectly fitting joint, each time the dog takes a step this causes inflammation of the joint lining and pain. Unfortunately, this is a condition which also occurs in young dogs, causing lameness and discomfort.

The symptoms can range from mild to disabling, and treatment varies from measured exercise and pain relief, through to radical joint surgery.

Exercise and Activity Levels

It is essential to give the Boerboel plenty of both mental and physical exercise. The latter should take the form of regular walks, several times a day. His physique is built for guarding and endurance, rather than athleticism and speed, and this should be reflected in steady sustained exercise.

The Boerboel’s bulk means he is ill-suited to living in a confined space, such as an apartment, and even when living in a house with an extensive garden, regular walks are still required.

Mental stimulation is also vital in order to prevent boredom. The Boerboel will enjoy the challenge of meals presented in puzzle feeders or even something as simple as scattering kibble in grass so that he has to sniff it out to eat. Also, obedience training using reward-based methods provides a great outlet for the dog to think through and solve problems, to build both self-confidence and self-control.

Grooming

The short-coated Boerboel is a low maintenance dog with regards to grooming. He doesn’t need professional grooming, with a weekly brushing and monthly bath generally being all that’s needed to maintain his coat in a healthy condition and stay on top of shedding.

Famous Boerboels

These stunning dogs are working animals and their heroics tend to go unrecognised, except by the families they protect. If you have fallen even a little bit under the spell of these massive dogs, then a safe way to welcome one into your life is by following #Boerboel on Instagram.

Cross-Breeds

Given the severe dip in numbers during the 20th century, the main focus has been on maintaining the purity of the breed, rather than outcrossing to form hybrids. However, some outcrossing has occurred in order to produce specific coat colours. This includes breeding the Boerboel with black Labradors or black Cane Corso, to produce pups with a predominately black coat.

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