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Belgian Sheepdog puppies with two women in a rocky landscape.
AKC Library & Archives

Aficionado may not be a strong enough term to describe partisans of the Belgian Sheepdog. It takes the word appassionata to really convey the keen devotion of the breed’s fanciers toward their dogs. The Belgian Sheepdog inspires such intense loyalty because they themselves live and love with such great passion. Their unique combination of intelligence and lighthearted responsiveness is the hallmark of the breed.

Herding judge Linda Franklin observes, “A dumb or uncaring Belgian is an abomination, no matter what his structure or type.” Fortunately, such dogs are quite rare. Belgians are sensitive dogs that do not respond well to isolation or harsh training. A Belgian’s dream home would include a large yard to race around in, and a family to be with as much as possible. In return, this healthy, long-lived breed can provide a family with years of amusement and adoration.

Of course, one has to be able to put up with the facts of everyday life with a Belgian: tennis balls dropped ceaselessly onto your lap while you are reading the newspaper, shining eyes and waving tail outwaiting you until you throw the ball yet again. If you want a living hearth rug, you should choose a different dog. But if you are looking for a flying carpet, the Belgian could be just your style!

Belgian Sheepdog standing in profile circa 1959.
AKC Library & Archives

Splitting the Family Tree

In the history of the Belgian shepherd dogs, it has often been color, not character, that determined a dog’s fate both as a show dog and as a contributor to the breed. In 1891, the herding dogs of Belgium were gathered together to see whether a uniquely Belgian shepherd dog existed. The judges concluded that there was indeed a distinctive race, marked by squareness of build; medium size; high-set, triangular ears; and dark brown eyes.

Differences in coat color, texture, and length among these dogs led veterinary professor Adolphe Reul to recommend grouping them only by coat type (short, long, or rough) in the first Belgian Shepherd dog standard,  issued in 1892. For the usual human reasons (differing perceptions of beauty, politics, and a desire for “progress”), color was soon added to the selection criteria.

The acceptable combinations of coat type and color changed several times during the early years of the breed’s existence, excluding otherwise valuable dogs by virtue of their having a wrong combination of coat characteristics. Eventually, today’s varieties were established: Groenendael (black, long hair), Tervuren (charcoaled fawn, long hair), Malinois (charcoal fawn, short hair), and Laekenois (charcoaled fawn, rough hair).

Groenendaels, Tervuren, and Malinois were all registered as Belgian Sheepdogs in the AKC Stud Book, starting in 1912. The first Belgian Sheepdog Club of America (BSCA) was created in 1924, and the Belgian became very popular, ranking as high as number five in AKC registrations by the end of the 1920s. Dogs from this era still appear in the pedigrees of some of today’s dogs.

Both the club and the breed fell on hard times during the Great Depression. The club disap­peared, and by the mid-1940s, only a handful of Belgians were still being bred and shown. After World War II a new club was launched, and a new generation of enthusi­asts began importing Belgians to rebuild the breed.

Belgian Sheepdog standing for a winner's portrait outdoors with judge and handler.
AKC Library & Archives

In 1959, lightning struck the family tree of the Belgian Sheepdog when the AKC split it into three breeds. The AKC had investigated complaints suggesting that the Tervuren was not the same breed as the Groenendael and concluded that the petitioners were correct. But it was not until Perry and Pagel’s 1981 The Berger Belge Anthology that discussion of the close links among the types of Belgians was widely read by an American audience.

The Tervuren differentiated from the Sheepdog only by its expression of the recessive gene for fawn coloring. Fawn-colored dogs are regularly born to Belgian Sheepdogs that carry this recessive gene, and these offspring are completely indistinguishable from dogs registered as Belgian Tervuren. When the AKC solicited input from BSCA members, the 51 respondents overwhelmingly favored separating the vari­eties.

Thus it was that the Groenendael co-opted the name “Belgian Sheepdog,” while the other breeds took on the names of the varieties: the Belgian Tervuren and the Belgian Malinois.

Becoming the Belgian Sheepdog

Thereafter, relative tranquility reigned until the arrival of several new waves of imports beginning in the 1970s. These were dogs bred in a continuous adherence to a single conformation standard. They were descendants of such dogs as Demon de I’Enfer (b. 1908), Pitou des Barricades (b. 1924), and Tan de ITnfemal (b. 1945), all of which clearly showed the essence of the same breed type sought after today. These same three dogs were the ancestors of the Belgians imported to America in the 1950s.

But because of the difficulty and expense of importing dogs to correct developing faults, the lack of regular contact with breeders in Belgium, and different breeder priorities, Belgians in America diverged from their European cousins.

The influence of imports like Star de la Baraque de Planches and John du Mas de Sevre began to ripple outward in the mid-1970s, laying the groundwork for an explosion of interest in correct type in the years after Belgian import Desiree de la Pouroffe won the 1983 national specialty. Breeders started to nudge the breed back to more closely resemble the European dogs.

This has been a slow process, because most Americans were cautious about using dogs from lines completely unknown to them, and they wanted to safeguard the good qualities of the dogs they already had. But importation continued, and indeed accelerated, and today many breeders maintain contacts with Belgian, French, and Dutch kennels.

As people became better informed about the history of the Belgian Sheepdog in the early 1990s, murmurs began regarding the possibility of recombining the Belgian breeds. HC Rigel de Breez, CDX, OA, became a poster child for the debate. He was a lovely and talented dog, one of the first AKC Belgian Shtscpdog herding champions. He merited the full appreciation of breed fanciers, but was disqualified from the show ring and ultimately marginalized because of his color — charcoaled fawn.

Belgian Sheepdog winning Best Working in a conformation show outdoors.
AKC Library & Archives

While there was substantial support for recombination, there was also substantial resistance. These in favor cited history, genetics, and dogs like Rigel. Those opposed based their position on 40 years of separate existence and hesitation about combining the parent breed clubs. Opponents also worried about the possibility of indiscriminate breeding among varieties, something which is not permitted, even in Belgium.

In 1998, the AKC allowed members of the BSCA to vote on the question of recombination. The proposition failed.

In the aftermath. fanciers are still deeply divided. About half of Belgian-breed enthusiasts favor the present system of separate breeds. The other half still sees an elephant on the table. Alarion Heise, secretary of the BSCA, says that this is a dead issue and will not be addressed again any time soon. Veterans of the conflict can finally appreciate this sentiment. But as long as high-quality Tervuren born in Groenendael litters are deprived of the opportunity to be exhibited in the show ring, there is still a problem awaiting a solution.

The first 100 years of diligent work by breeders have created a talented, elegant, and distinctive dog; today’s breeders cannot demand less of their own tenure.

Related article: Toy Fox Terrier History: The Balance of a Toy and a Terrier
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