|Other names||Belgian Sheepdog|
Chien de Berger Belge
|Domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris)|
The Belgian Shepherd (also known as the Belgian Sheepdog or Chien de Berger Belge) is a breed of medium- to large-sized herding dogs. It originated in Belgium and is similar to other sheep-herding dogs from that region, including the Dutch Shepherd, the German Shepherd, the Briard, and others. Four types have been identified by various registries as separate breeds or varieties: Groenendael, Laekenois, Tervuren, and Malinois.
Breed creation and recognition
In the late 1800s, a group of concerned dog fanciers under the guidance of Professor A. Reul of the Cureghem Veterinary Medical School gathered foundation stock from the areas around Tervuren, Groenendael, Mechelen, and Laeken in Belgium. Official breed creation occurred around 1891, when the Club du Chien de Berger Belge (Belgian Shepherd Dog Club) was formed in Brussels. The first breed standard was written in 1892, but official recognition did not happen until 1901, when the Royal Saint-Hubert Society Stud Book began registering Belgium Shepherd Dogs.
By 1910, fanciers managed to eliminate the most glaring faults and standardize type and temperament. Debate has continued about acceptable colours and coat types. Structure, temperament, and working ability have never been debated in regards to the standard.
Breeds versus varieties controversy
In Belgium (the country of origin), all four types are considered to be varieties of a single breed, differentiated by hair colour and texture.:8 In some non-FCI countries and other regions, they are considered separate breeds. For instance, the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes only the Groenendael under the name "Belgian Sheepdog", but also recognizes the Tervuren and the Malinois as individual breeds (Belgian Tervuren and Belgian Malinois respectively). The Laekenois can be registered as part of the AKC Foundation Stock Service and should eventually be recognised fully by the AKC. In years gone past, the Groenendael and Tervuren were one breed with coat variations until the Belgian Sheepdog Club of America decided to petition the AKC to separate the two.
The New Zealand Kennel Club recognises all four as separate breeds. The Australian National Kennel Council, Canadian Kennel Club, Kennel Union of South Africa, United Kennel Club, and Kennel Club (UK) follow the FCI classification scheme and recognise all four as varieties of the same breed.
The Belgian Shepherd is a medium- to large-sized dog. Breed standards expect specimens to be athletic and balanced in appearance. They have a squarish build.
The four varieties of Belgian Shepherd are distinguished by their coats and colours:
- The Groenendael (registered as Belgian Sheepdog by the American Kennel Club) is fairly long-haired, having a double coat of coarse, long guard hairs over softer, shorter down hairs. The overall coat texture is stiff, tight, and thick, developed to withstand the elements. Colouration is generally solid black, though sometimes with small white markings on the chest and toes.
- The Laekenois has wiry, overall fawn-colored hair, but with intermingled white hairs. It lacks the black mask and ears of the Malinois, which is often also a light brown; however, most breed standards permit some darker shading on the muzzle and tail.
- The Malinois is short-haired, tan to brown (usually mahogany), with hairs agouti-ticked with black to varying degrees. It has a black mask and ears, and sometimes has white markings on the toes and chest.
- The Tervuren is found in the same colour range as the Malinois, but may lean toward grey or sable (not permitted in all standards), and has long hair, forming a double coat like that of the Groenendael. It also sometimes has white markings on the toes and chest.
All varieties share a similar underlying musculoskeletal structure. The Belgian's height from the ground to top of the withers is roughly equal to its length (not counting the tail). It, thus, has a square build in comparison to the German Shepherd, which has shorter hind legs, but is otherwise similar. All variants also share close cranial features, having a domed forehead, a long, square-cut muzzle, and a black nose, with their ears pointed and fully erect.
Belgian Shepherd Dogs are described as highly intelligent, alert, and sensitive to everything going on around them, and form very strong relationship bonds. They are said to be loyal, intelligent, fun, highly trainable and well suited to family life. They should receive plenty of socializing as puppies and benefit from regular activity and close interaction with people throughout their lives. Their herding heritage gives them a comparatively high energy level, and mental as well as physical exercise is necessary to keep a Belgian happy and healthy. In 2012, the North Wales Police force harnessed a Belgian Shepherd herding behavior, headbutting, in a novel approach to subduing criminals. The dogs are muzzled to prevent bites, and trained to forcefully headbutt targets at the midriff on command, knocking them off balance.
Although a generally healthy variety of dog, Belgian Shepherds can have a susceptibility to hip dysplasia, epilepsy, gastric problems (including bloats and torsions), and some eye and skin problems. Notable health problems prevalent to the Malinois include cataracts, epilepsy, thyroid disease, progressive retinal atrophy, hip dysplasia, and pannus, although these problems have been minimised through selective breeding.
Few health surveys of the individual Belgian Shepherd varieties have been conducted. The UK Kennel Club conducted a 2004 health survey of all Belgian Shepherd varieties combined. The Belgian Sheepdog (=Groenendael) Club of America Health Committee has a health registry questionnaire, but whether or when results will be reported is not clear. The American Belgian Tervuren Club conducted health surveys in 1998 and 2003. Only the 2003 report included longevity information.
Median longevity of Belgian Shepherds (all varieties combined) in the 2004 UK survey was 12.5 years, which is on the high side, both for purebred dogs in general and for breeds similar in size. The longest-lived of 113 deceased Belgians in the UK survey was 18.2 years. Leading causes of death were cancer (23%), cerebral vascular, i.e., stroke (13%), and old age (13%).
Average longevity of Belgian Tervurens in the 2003 American Belgian Tervuren Club survey was lower, at 10.6 years, than in the UK survey. The difference in surveys does not necessarily mean Belgian Tervurens live shorter lives than other varieties of Belgian Shepherds. Breed longevities in USA/Canada surveys are usually shorter than those in UK surveys. Leading causes of death in the 2003 American Belgian Tervuren Club survey were cancer (35%), old age (23%), and organ failure (heart, kidney, liver) (13%).
Belgian Shepherds are afflicted with the most common dog health issues (reproductive, musculoskeletal, and dermatological) at rates similar to breeds in general. They differ most notably from other breeds in the high incidence of seizures and/or epilepsy. In the UK survey of Belgian Shepherds and both the 1998 and 2003 ABTC survey of Belgian Tervurens, about 9% of dogs had seizures or epilepsy. Other studies have reported rates of epilepsy in Belgian Tervurens as high as seventeen per cent, or about one in six dogs. For comparison, the incidence of epilepsy/seizures in the general dog population is estimated at between 0.5 and 5.7%. See Epilepsy in animals for more information on symptoms and treatments.
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