Groenendael Dog

Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Groenendael Dog

Sometimes referred to as the Belgian Sheepdog, the Groenendael dog is one of four Belgian Shepherd dogs. While similar in many aspects to their ‘cousins’, they are the only ones with a jet black, long coat. Muscular though agile, they are naturally sporty. Coupling this with their versatility, brainpower and desire to please, they perform to a high standard in a large array of activities and jobs.

Originally used as a herding dog, they are now more commonly seen as show dogs and companion animals. Devoted to those they love, they will protect their masters and territory at all costs, never showing fear. Good, early socialisation should be provided to avoid any potential hostility toward strangers.

About & History

One of four recognised Belgian Shepherds, the Groenendael dog is a Belgian herding dog that can be traced back to the Belgian village of Groenendael, where it was first thought to be bred. While undoubtedly in existence for many centuries, the first documented reference to the Belgian shepherding dogs is thought to have been written in the 17th century.

Shepherd dogs have always been a vital part of farming history, leading livestock from pen to field. Never associated with aristocracy, they were true working stock, rarely kept as pets. These dogs later became known as ‘continental shepherding dogs’, and as well as the Belgian Shepherd, would have included the German Shepherd and Dutch Shepherd.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a move towards classifying dogs by their nationality, and in 1981, the Belgian Shepherd dog club, or the ‘Club du Chien de Berger Belge’ was finally developed. Surely one of the most eminent figures in the history of the breed has to be Prof. Reul, a Belgian veterinarian who grouped all of the Belgian shepherding dogs together in order to evaluate their similarities and classify them into a breed. Thus, in 1892, the Belgian Shepherd breed (including all four types: Groenendael, Malinois, Tervuren and Laekenois) was founded.

It was around this time that the general public’s interest in the breed switched from the breed’s herding abilities to their physical appearance in the show ring. Nicholas Rose, a Belgian man, formed a kennel for the black, long-haired Belgian Shepherds, now known as the Groenendael dogs.

While they still competed in herding trials, it was obvious to all that the Groenendael dog was an animal of many talents, and he soon became popular in the show ring, as well as on agility courses and in obedience trials.

With their popularity growing in Europe, in the early 1900s, the first Groenendael dog was exported to America, and not long after, the AKC officially recognised them as a breed in their own right.

During the First World War, the breed really made a name for themselves, gaining international respect for their courage when used as messengers and cart dogs, amongst other roles. Possibly because of how well they proved themselves, they are now used worldwide as police dogs.

Appearance

Groenendael Dog Large Photo

The long-haired, black coat of the Groenendael dog sets it apart from the other Belgian Shepherd dogs. Their coat is thick and lengthy, and while a pure black colour is preferred, as with other Belgian Shepherds, small patches of white fur are accepted. Several breed members will have a ‘frosted’ muzzle, that may become more prominent with age. With a shorter coat on their face, a thick mane of fur is preferred around the neck, which tends to be more obvious on the male dogs.

Their strong body should be lithe and graceful and never cumbersome. Medium in size, with a well-proportioned body, they have distinctively erect and triangular ears with dark brown almond-shaped eyes.

Character & Temperament

Full of character, the Groenendael dog is known for its adaptability and ability to excel in practically anything they do. They thoroughly enjoy their work, whether it be parading gaily in the show ring, showing off their intelligence during obedience trials or controlling their flocks of sheep on the farmyard.

Loyal to their owners, they become devoted from a young age, and with their dedication comes a protective quality. Alert even when resting at home, they make great watch dogs, and will bravely defend their family from any potential threat – though are not instinctively aggressive in their nature. At times high energy, if not properly exercised, the Groenendael dog may potentially become hyper and demanding.

Trainability

Photo of Groenendael Dog puppy

Training must begin early in the life of the Groenendael dog to avoid them becoming suspicious of those they don’t know and to increase their confidence. They should always be keen to please their trainer and will learn new tasks impressively quickly.

Utilised extensively by the police force, it is evident just how highly trainable these dogs are. They suit this strict form of training, doing best with consistent and firm handling.

Health

Sharing the same health complaints as the other three Belgian Shepherds, the Groenendael dog generally enjoys a relatively long life, usually living over the age of ten.

  • Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV) – A Groenendael dog who develops an acute GDV will immediately become anxious, may start to pace and will likely retch unproductively and bloat up in their abdominal region. While most vets will know what the problem is based on the presenting signs, they may perform an X-ray to confirm their suspicions. A stomach tube may be passed to help alleviate the buildup of gas, or if not possible, a catheter (or similar implement) may be used to pierce the stomach. Surgery is often necessary to permanently fix the problem.
  • Hip Dysplasia – The abnormally formed (dysplastic) hips found in Groenendael dogs suffering with hip dysplasia will often result in an abnormal gait, mobility issues and discomfort. Later in the disease process, the inevitable osteoarthritis will cause worsening pain. A variety of treatments can help to alleviate the symptoms, including pain relief, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and massage.
  • Elbow Dysplasia – The first complaint an owner of a Groenendael dog with elbow dysplasia will report is often a ‘head bob’ when walking or trotting. Dogs get progressively lamer as the disease develops. Rapid growth and exercising too much as a young dog can worsen the dysplasia.
  • Epilepsy – It is important to know that not every dog that has a seizure will have epilepsy, as there can be a large number of causes. A Groenendael dog that suffers persistent and unexplained seizures may well have epilepsy. This is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means it can technically only be diagnosed once every other cause of seizures has been ruled out.
  • Atopy – Atopic dermatitis is a chronic allergic response to a number of things including, for example, pollens and house dust mites. The affected Groenendael dog will over-react to these everyday things and will start to excessively rub, scratch and lick their inflamed skin. A variety of treatments have been described, including medications, shampoos and immunotherapy injections.
  • PRA – Puppies and young dogs should be tested for this disease, which will result in eventual blindness. A dog’s DNA can be tested to see if they are carriers, something which all Groenendael dog breeders should strongly consider.
  • Pannus – When the cornea develops a pigmented layer on the outside, the eye will appear coated with a pink, white or brown film. Without treatment, many animals will eventually become blind.
  • Haemangiosarcoma – Highly malignant, this tumour appears more commonly in Groenendael dogs than in the average canine. Unfortunately, this cancer has commonly spread around the body before it has been diagnosed, hence carrying a poor prognosis.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Owners must remember that developing Groenendael dogs should never be over-exercised, in order to protect their joints. Once fully grown, the Groenendael dog will never struggle to keep up with you on a hike or cycle, enjoying being active in the outdoors at any given opportunity.

Not at all suited to a small home, the Groenendael dog needs plenty of space, and really benefits from access to an expansive, securely-fenced garden.

Grooming

Their thick, double coat will go through between one and two large sheds a year, and frequency of brushing should increase at this time to keep up with the fur loss. Otherwise, grooming a few times a week should be sufficient to keep the glossy coat of the Groenendael dog in tiptop shape.

Famous Groenendael Dogs

While a popular breed, there are no notable examples of the Groenendael dog.

Cross-Breeds

While many owners will breed certain dogs, such as the German Shepherd and other Belgian Shepherd varieties with the Groenendael dog, there are no established cross-breeds to date.

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