During the 1800s, European sheepherders perfected several breeds of dogs to gather, drive, and protect their flocks. The development of breeds in each country reflected a strong sense of nationalism as farmers tried to outdo each other with dogs of great prowess and skill.
Germany had its German Shepherd; France its Briard and Beauceron; Portugal its ancient Castro Laboreiro; Hungary its Puli; Poland its Tatra and Owczarek Nizinny; and Belgium its Bouvier des Flandres and four types of sheepdogs known collectively as Belgian sheepherding breeds.
The four Belgians developed from the same basic stock brought together for periodic judging by a veterinarian devoted to proper development of breed and type. Eventually, four distinct types emerged from the pack: the jet-black, long-coated Groenendael; the smooth-coated charcoaled fawn with dark mask known as Malinois; long-coated fawn dogs with black overlay known as Tervuren; and rough-coated fawn dogs with traces of black known as Lakenois.
Initially, breedings produced dogs of the different coat types in the same litters, so the types share common ancestors. As breeders selected coat types, they founded the base stock for the modern Belgian sheepherding dogs. Three types took names from the area in which they developed. Thus the Parc du Laeken section of Brussels gave rise to the Laekenois; and the Malines region was home to the Malinois; and the town of Tervueren perfected the Tervuren. The Groenendael got its name from Chateau Groenendael, a restaurant owned by breeder Nicolas Rose.
The Groenendael was the first of the type to reach the US, and it underwent a name change to Belgian Sheepdog when it was accepted by the American Kennel Club in 1912. The Malinois and Terverun were registered as Belgian Sheepdogs until 1959, when they were given breed status as Belgian Malinois and Belgian Tervuren. The Laekenois is rare in the US and is not recognized by the AKC. However, all remain types or varieties of one breed in Europe and Canada.
The breeds are relatively rare in the US. In 1993, the Sheepdog ranked 91st of the AKC's 137 breeds with 601 dogs and 120 litters registered; the Tervuren was 97th with 498 dogs and 97 litters; and the Malinois was 100th with 491 dogs and 118 litters
Breed standards for the four are virtually identical except for coat type and color. The dogs are well-balanced, elegant, strong, alert, agile, and well-muscled. The male is more impressive than the female; the latter must have a distinctly feminine look.
Although they bear a superficial resemblance to the German Shepherd, the Belgian dogs are square, not rectangular, when viewed from the side, and they lack the extreme angulation of the German dogs. Measurement from the breastbone to the point of the rump should approximately equal measurement from the ground to the top of the withers.
Males stand 24-26 inches at the shoulder, and females 22-24 inches. Malinois deviating from these sizes by more than an inch are disqualified from the show ring, as are Sheepdogs straying by more than an inch and a half. Tervuren breeders are held more tightly to these sizes; dogs have an inch leeway on the minimum height but only a half inch on the maximum.
Weight ranges from 60-75 pounds with dogs weighing more than bitches.
Dark brown eyes set in a clean-cut head, moderately pointed muzzle, and flattened skull are characteristic of these dogs, but the Laekenois' rough coat may obscure these lines. All four types have triangular, upright ears and natural tails.
The appearance is one of power without bulk, of balance and moderation, of grace and natural beauty. Temperament is critical; these are working dogs and should be confident, reserved with strangers, and naturally protective of family possessions. They should be responsive to training and never shy or aggressive. Expression should meld temperament and appearance; eyes should show alertness, trust, and intelligence.
Movement is as moderate as the dog's appearance indicates. It is free and easy rather than hard-driving, graceful rather than powerful, steady rather than forceful.
The Malinois double coat is short, straight, and hard enough to be weather resistant on top and dense underneath. It is very short on head, ears, and lower legs and a bit longer around the neck, the tail, and the thighs. It follows the contour of the body without standing out of hanging down.
The Malinois coat is always fawn with black hair tips that give the appearance of an overlay. The color can range from rich fawn to mahogany, with lighter fawn allowed on legs and underbody. The Mal always has a black mask and ears. Toe tips may be white and a small spot of white is allowed on the breastbone, but other white markings are prohibited.
This is the black variety of Belgian sheepherding dogs. Although minimal white markings are allowed on chest, muzzle, and the tips of the toes, no other color is acceptable.
The Belgian coat is somewhat like that of a rough-coated Collie with its long, fairly harsh guard hairs and dense soft undercoat. The outercoat must not be silky or wiry and must lay with the contours of the body. Described as "abundant," the coat is longer around the collar, has a fringe of long hair down the back of the forearm, and a generous garnish on the breeches and tail. It is shorter on the head, the outside of the ears, and the lower legs.
The Tervuren combines the fawn-coat-with-black-overlay of the Malinois with the abundant coat of the Sheepdog to present a picture of uncommon beauty. Males have more copious coats than females, which must be considered in judging.
The body coat of the Tervuren is rich fawn to russet mahogany. Each hair is tipped with black that becomes more prominent as the dogs age; mature males appear as if washed in black over the chest, shoulders, and ribs. The underparts of the body and the breeches are lighter in color; the tail is also lighter with a black tip. The face wears a black mask, and the ears are mostly black. White is allowed as in the Sheepdog.
The Belgian Sheepdog and the Tervuren require a moderate amount of grooming, and all three of the AKC Belgians shed their undercoats each year.
If the Belgian dogs were placed side-by-side, few would link the Laekenois with his cousins. His harsh, tangled, moderately long coat features feathering on the head and muzzle, giving him a resemblance to the Otterhound or Bouvier des Flandres.
The Laekenois is always fawn with traces of black, particularly in the muzzle and tail.
The three AKC Belgian sheepherding dogs have similar character as family pets. Unlike many working breeds, they have successfully adapted to modern jobs as the need for shepherd dogs faded. Today they serve as police dogs, search and rescue aides, sentries, guardians, and leader dogs for the blind, and they excel in schutzhund, agility, obedience, and flyball competition. They have also retained the herding instinct and compete in herding tests and trials. Therefore, they must be respected as intelligent working dogs and given a job; to do otherwise is to cheat both the dog and the family and lead to problems.
Like most other guardian breeds, the Belgians can be suspicious of strangers and unfamiliar situations and aggressive to small animals, including cats. They should be accustomed to small animals, to children, and to a variety of environments as puppies in order to moderate these tendencies. Like most highly intelligent breeds, they also need consistent training and firm handling to establish leadership. Firm handling is not the same as harsh correction or punishment; Belgians treated to tough training methods may become fear-biters.
"This breed is not for everyone," said Phyllis Davis, a Belgian Sheepdog breeder in Ohio. "They are active, highly intelligent, have a unique sense of humor, and are totally devoted to their family. Early obedience training is a must; they require a gentle voice and hand in training and are always eager to please their humans."
Some breeders have touted European-bred Belgian dogs, particularly Malinois, as being smarter and healthier than American-bred dogs. Although the Europeans tend to use dogs more than Americans do and many Belgian sheepherding dogs are employed as police dogs or compete in schutzhund competitions, the fact that a dog is imported is not necessarily an indication of brains or health.
Generally long-lived, the Belgians are nonetheless subject to several diseases, including seizures, hip dysplasia, skin problems, thyroid conditions, cancer, and some eye problems. The national club recommends that all breeders x-ray breeding stock for hip dysplasia and test for eye problems, thyroid abnormalities, and von Willibrand's Disease, a bleeding disorder. The Belgian Sheepdog Club of America and the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, are working on a screening project to define a seizure disease that seems to be prevalent in some breed families. The club is donating $5 of member dues to the project.
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