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Antwerp is the world’s capital for diamonds, exquisite gems strong enough to cut glass. But the region is known for another multifaceted jewel, the Bouvier des Flandres, admired the world over for his striking appearance, tremendous strength, and courage.

“Initially we are drawn to the Bouvier by the appearance of rugged hairiness, but what keeps us with them is the character. They are hardworking, honest, blue-collar types of dogs. I consider them to be the John Wayne of the dog world,” observes American Bouvier des Flandres Club (ABdFC) president and breeder-judge Nancy Eilks. “Discriminating in his protectiveness, the Bouvier may challenge a person, but will not bite unless he feels it necessary. Loyal and devoted, the Bouvier has a well-developed sense of responsibility and a lot of common sense. He can be ready for action at any time, but will lay calmly at your feet in the interim.”

Excellent with the very young and the very old, they instinctively know who needs a gentler touch. In the home, the Bouvier’s favorite vantage point is a doorway or stair landing. There they can easily watch over all the family members.

Estella, Bouvier des Flandres. 1935. Belgium

Regional Accents

The breed developed from Berger Picard herders and massive Matin dogs, which were often used to haul carts. These dogs were bred with British rough-coated gray hounds brought as early as the 11th century to a Flemish monastery, the Abbey of Duynen.

The dogs had many jobs — protecting the home, pulling carts, and turning butter chums — but they demonstrated particular aptitude as livestock herders. The French word bouvier means “cowherd.”

Local preferences for size and color gave rise to the Bouvier des Ardennes, Bouvier de Roulers, and Bouvier des Flandres. With a maximum height of 25 1/2 inches and black coat with white hairs or dark brindled color, the Bouvier des Flandres became the favored variety from the Lys River to the coast.

The short-bodied, bobtailed dogs with heads shaped like a Flemish brick, cropped ears, harsher tousled coats, and the perfect guard temperament became the origin of the modern Bouvier des Flandres.

A vice president of Belgium’s Club St. Hubert of the North was responsible for promoting the Bouvier des Flandres to prominence among the regional types in the early part of the 20th century. But it would be many years before a consistent type would emerge.

Efforts to write a standard stalled until the end of World War I, when many Bouviers perished and others were used as messengers and to haul wounded soldiers and supplies. Only six active breeders existed after the war. In 1922, the Club National Belge du Bouvier des Flandres adopted a standard, focusing on correct type, coat texture (but not color), and moral qualities of the “real” Bouvier.

In a translation from an early Belgium description of the ideal Bouvier, F. E. Verbanck wrote: “A square-built dog, massive through the chest development, ennobled by a neck proudly carried, with a strong but well-chiseled head to which the trimmings render even more expression, a tail placed highly and gaily ~ carried to give accent to his fiery char­acter, the body well-posed on four pillarlike well-boned limbs but without heaviness in his gait.”

Bouvier des Flandres. c. 1920s

Slow Start

Bouviers arrived in America as companion dogs shortly after World War I. A breeder in Michigan produced several litters during the 1920s, but these dogs were registered with St. Hubert in Belgium since they preceded AKC recog­nition of the breed, notes James Engel, author of Bouvier des Flandres: The Dogs of Flandres Fields.

Though eligible for AKC registration in 1929, the first Bouviers-imports Hardix de Montreuil and Diane de Montreuil—were registered in 1931. It would be four more years before the third was registered.

Their popularity got a boost later in the decade, after Louis de Rochemont, a documentary filmmaker who would become famous as the creator of the March of Time documentary series, purchased a Bouvier to watch over his diabetic son. The De Rochemonts gave a puppy to Fred and Dorothy Walsh, who would establish the influ­ential Deewal Kennels in the 1950s.

Nazi Menace

World War II brought many large breeds to the brink of extinction in Europe, but it was particularly hard on the Bouvier. The story goes that Hitler had been bitten by one and then declared war on all of them. Whether true or not, German soldiers were known to shoot Bouviers on sight.

Dedicated breeders smuggled some of the dogs underground. One of them, Edmee Bowles, of Antwerp, landed in America, where she had a tremendous influence on the breed’s survival and development.

When the Nazis invaded Belgium, Bowles had become involved in the Resistance. Betrayed by their tenant farmer, Bowles and her mother were forced to flee, taking a bicycle, the family silver (later exchanged for a supply of eggs), and Belco, a large black male Bouvier, namesake of Belco Farm and the foundation of Bowles’s du Clos des Cerberes kennel. Bowles had to leave the rest of her dogs behind. Elaine Petrov lived at Belco Farms in 1976 and recalls that Belco was chosen for his ability to protect rather than his conformation.

For almost two years, Belco watched over the two women, protecting them from plunderers and once pulling Bowles to safety when a truck pushed her bicycle off a mountain road.

In America, Bowles and Belco gave training exhibi­tions for Dogs for Defense. Belco and the first Bouvier bitch to become an AKC champion, Ch. Lisa, pulled carts with collection boxes for dona­tions to the program.

Despite this publicity, the breed did not catch on, with an average of three Bouviers registered a year between 1943 and 1948, Engel noted in his book.

Ch. Job de la Thudinie

Taking Root

After the war, European breeders worked together to save the Bouvier. Justin Chastel (de la Thudinie) and Felix Grulois (du Posty Arlequin), among others, sent breeding stock to America. Their efforts, along with those of Bowles and U.S. and Canadian breeders who had imported earlier dogs, helped establish the North American kennels of today.

In 1955, Jack and Susan Van Vliet left Holland to work on a New Jersey dairy farm. A visitor to the farm, knowing that the newly estab­lished Deewal kennel needed a manager, said, “…You’re from Holland so you should know Bouviers.” Jack remembered from childhood that the intimidating look of Dutch policemen’s Bouviers was enough to encourage good behavior. Susan knew Bouviers firsthand on her father’s farm, where they sent their powerful dogs to “go get the cows.”

So the Van Vliets gave their notice to the owner of the farm and “went to the dogs,” first with Deewal and later with their own du Plateau kennel.

Ch. Argus de la Thudinie and his grandson, Ch. Job de la Thudinie, known for his good bone, correctly proportioned head, and steady tempera­ment, were imported from Chastel’s kennel in Belgium to Deewal. Walsh asked Van Vliet to show Job at the 1966 national specialty. The Bouvier’s “limitless fondness for his master” makes him a one-man dog and Job showed his best for Van Vliet, winning under breeder-judge Carl May.

Etiquette Lesson

When Dorothy Walsh died she left her Bouviers, including Job, to the Van Vliets. Admiring Europeans for requiring working certificates for champions, Jack made proper temperament a priority in his own breeding program. When a stranger lightly touched Susan’s shoulder at the Trenton Kennel Club show in the mid-1970s, Buddy (Ch. Algernon du Plateau) appropriately warned “hands off’ by grabbing the man’s jacket.

Television producer Ray Hubbard and his wife, Marion, who estab­lished the Madrone Ledge Kennel, met their first Bouvier— Ch.  Ciscoldo — perched atop a Calo food display at a show. Also known as Calo, the large dog was the company’s mascot.

“Calo sat there in regal splendor, not barking or offering any mischief,” Marion recalls. “We decided we needed a Bouvier.”

Bred by a Dutchman transplanted to California, Everet van de Pol, Calo was whelped in 1947 and became one of the earliest celebrity Bouviers. Another was Caprice, a Bouvier bred by Julius Bliss and presented to another well-known Bouvier, Jacqueline, who entered the puppy at the 1942 Westminster Kennel Club show.

During 50 years the Hubbards imported Ch. Odelette du Posty Arlequin, the first Bouvier bitch to win the national specialty in 1969 (handled by Marion), and Odelette’s daughter Ch. Picolette du Posty Arlequin (1970 national specialty winner), the first Bouvier bitch to win Best in Show at the Great Barrington Kennel Club show, in August 1971 under judge Alva Rosenberg.

Ch. Madrone Ledge Socrates was the breed’s first American-bred national specialty and BIS winner.

Marion believes, “Once you have owned a Bouvier it is unlikely that you will ever change breeds.”

De Rochemont’s film career introduced Bouviers to both coasts and later Hubbard’s television career introduced Merv Griffin and Chet Collier to the breed. During the 1960s and 1970s, Collier imported Bouviers from the du Posty Arlequin kennel, including Raby, Naris, and Taquin, for Roy Holloway to campaign. Taquin won 40 Bests in Show and 105 Working Groups.

They Mean Business

These pioneers chose Bouviers for character. Though some breeders, such as Bowles, emphasized the breed’s protectiveness, others believed that no single attribute should overpower but that Bouviers should react purposely as needed. Watchful and resolute, Bouviers should always display sensible judgment and a dependably appro­priate temperament.

“Fanciers precisely know their breed has the essence of many breeds rolled into one: intelli­gence, loyalty, steadfastness, resoluteness, formidableness, spon­taneity, mischievousness, and most of all, depend­ability,” says Walsh’s niece Claire McLean, who inher­ited the Deewal prefix when her aunt died.

A Dog World ad in 1961 introduced Gladys May to the breed and soon after she was coaxing two du Clos des Cerberes puppies from her car with steaks. May’s third Bouvier, Banquo du Clos des Cerberes, was large and businesslike. When an earthquake demolished May’s California home, Banquo pulled her son to safety without leaving a mark. As neighbor­hood parents salvaged necessities, Banquo kept their children safe under a tree.

“Banquo was never trained beyond conformation training, no obedience training whatever. He acted on pure instinct,” she says. “I never thought he would do what he did, protecting those strange children. His job was watching those kids to the point that he completely ignored the male dog that lived next door who was his arch-rival.” By the mid-’70s, Gladys moved east, where she and husband Carl, involved in Bouviers since 1954 and one of the earliest breeder-judges, established the successfully linebred Maijeune Bouviers, well represented by nationally ranked Ch. Maneune’s D’Artagnan.

“They know who belongs and who doesn’t. They know when to act and when to accept,” says Loryce Heisel. Tim and Loryce Heisel’s Barney (Ch. Timlor’s Bairgnhomme) made Loryce the breed’s first notable breeder-ow ner-handler by twice winning all­ breed Bests in Show and national specialties. Loryce planned the breeding that produced Barney based on his grandsire Int. Ch. Tapin de la Thudinie and great-grandsire, the Job son, Ch. Marc de la Thudinie.

Another Marc son, Nic (Ch. Prudhon des Preux Vuilbaards), commanded attention at the shows. Owner Lil Mees remembers Nic as easygoing, but watchful over her sons. When a visitor put an arm around one boy’s shoulders, Nic pulled down the man’s trousers as the man paled. Nic sired 25 champions and multiple obedience-titled dogs, including two-time national specialty winner Ch. Tamara Bras-De-Fer.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan were gifted a Bouvier puppy named Lucky at a White House ceremony on December 6, 1984. Above, Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan walk Lucky, on February 20, 1985.

Cow Catchers

In the 1980s, the breed got a boost of popularity when it was gifted to the Reagans in the White House. In 2020, the breed ranked 94 of 195 breeds.

True beauty is apparent when the Bouvier works in the field and obedience rings, and on agility and rally courses. There are champion Bouviers with multiple performance and working titles. “Bouviers are working dogs and, as such, quickly and enthusiastically absorb any training offered them,” says Carl May. “He never quite loses his mischievous sparkle, and even an elderly and sedate Bouvier takes a little coaxing to entice into a rough-and-tumble or gentle tug of war.” It is by keeping the balance of form and function, farm and home, that fanciers will maintain the multifaceted gem we know as the Bouvier des Flandres.

Related article: Scottish Terrier History: From Rugged Hunter to 1930s Fad
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