Breeders and fanciers generally use the term “balance” to describe a dog’s physical proportions. The Australian Shepherd breed standard, for example, specifies that a perfect Aussie is “well balanced, slightly longer than tall, of medium size and bone.” Similarly, the standard for the Cardigan Welsh Corgi extols the importance of balance, meaning the ratio of length to height.
Devotees of the Belgian Tervuren define balance very differently. The motto of the American Belgian Tervuren Club (ABTC) says it all: “A well-balanced Tervuren has a Ch. on one end and a UDT on the other.” It’s a motto Tervuren fanciers take very seriously, according to former ABTC president and longtime breeder Edeltraud Laurin, of Ashford, Connecticut.
“Ninety-eight percent of our champions have multiple titles at the ends of their names, be it obedience, herding, tracking, Schutzhund training, service dogs-I could go on and on,” Laurin says. “You name it and the Belgian Tervuren will do it for you.”
Moreover, the Tervuren will look good doing whatever you ask him to do. The breed standard specifies that the Terv is an elegant, medium-sized dog that stands squarely on all fours, with a proud head and neck carriage. The medium-hard, abundant coat varies in color from fawn to mahogany, giving the dog a kind of all-over tortoise-shell look. The effect is one of resplendence.
As historian Jacqueline Aubrey explains in her classic work on the Belgian breeds, Le Berger Beige, the Belgian Malinois’s coat is akin to “a casual outfit, plain and sober but full of class”; the Belgian Sheepdog, or Groenendael, sports “classic afternoon attire” with his long, dense black mane, while the Tervuren dons the “splendor of evening clothes … in addition to the beauty of his long coat, [he] has [a] magnificent warm color with shades of fire, or the delicacy of grey with its clever shadows.”
Single Breed in Europe
The history of these three herding breeds starts in the late 19th century, when the Belgian Shepherd Dog Club formed to resolve the question of whether an authentic Belgian shepherd existed.
In 1891, veterinary professor Adolphe Reul coordinated a gathering near Brussels of shepherd-type dogs. Reul and his fellow judges concluded that such a dog-squarely built and medium-sized, with brown eyes and high-set, triangular ears-did indeed exist. Within that breed were several varieties differentiated by coat texture, length, and color.
In the following year, the first breed standard for the Belgian Shepherd Dog was issued. It described three varieties within the breed: long-, short-, and rough-coated dogs. Not long after, coat color was added to the variety-differentiation criteria, and over the years definitions of acceptable coat color and type changed a number of times. Ultimately, three varieties emerged: the long-haired, black Groenendael; the short-haired, fawn-to-charcoal Malinois; and the long haired, fawn-to-charcoal Tervuren.
According to Belgian-breed historian and enthusiast Mara Lee Jiles, today’s Belgian breeds have descended from three foundation couples. One of those couples were two long-haired, fawn-colored dogs named Tom and Poes, who lived in the Belgian village of Tervuren and were owned by a local brewer. They were the grandparents of Milsart, whelped in 1896, who became the first Belgian Tervuren champion.
Standing Alone in America
By 1912, the AKC registered all three varieties as Belgian Sheepdogs, but following the Great Depression, the breed nearly disappeared. The American Belgian Sheepdog Club dissolved, and the AKC shifted the breed to the Miscellaneous class.
After World War II, interest in Belgian Sheepdogs revived, a new club was established, and American enthusiasts began to import dogs from Belgium to re-establish the breed. In the 1950s some breeders in America began to advocate separating the three Belgian Sheepdog varieties into distinct breeds. The AKC acceded to this request in 1959 when it established three Belgian herding breeds: the Belgian Sheepdog; the Belgian Malinois; and the Belgian Tervuren.
Today many Tervs work on farms, participate as search-and-rescue dogs, and participate in dog sports from Conformation to Agility to Obedience. There’s no question that the Belgian Tervuren has it both ways: beauty and brains. The resulting balance between form and function results in a magnificent animal—a true Renaissance dog.