The Bouvier des Ardennes is a breed of cattle dog native to Belgium, specifically the forested region of the Ardennes. The breed was developed to herd cattle and drive them from the field to the market. The Bouvier des Ardennes was thought to be extinct as a result of the World Wars, but two small surviving populations were discovered in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Since that time, breeders and fanciers have been working to increase breed numbers and restore the breed to the status it once enjoyed. The Bouvier des Ardennes is known for having naturally erect ears and a wiry coat and for being a talented and dedicated working dog. The Bouvier des Ardennes is also known as the Ardennes Cattle Dog, Ardennes Droving Dog, and the Petit Bouvier.
Very little is known with certainty about the history of the Bouvier des Ardennes. This breed was probably developed prior to the time that written records were kept of dog breeding, and was in any case developed by farmers who cared only about a dog’s working ability, not its pedigree or history. The Bouvier first enters the written records in the 1800’s, and it appears that the breed was already well-established in its homeland at that time. This may mean that the breed was developed somewhat earlier, perhaps the 17th or 18th Centuries, but until new evidence comes to light it is impossible to say for certain. It is almost certain that the breed was developed in the Ardennes, a mountainous and heavily forested region located in the South of Belgium. The first records of the dog all come from the Ardennes, and it does not appear that the breed was known to exist anywhere else prior to the 20th Century.
The Bouvier des Ardennes was originally used almost exclusive for herding and driving cattle. The name of this breed literally translates to either, “Cattle Dog of the Ardennes,” or, “Droving dog of the Ardennes.” The breed rounded up cattle and moved them from place to place. This was necessary for several reasons. It allowed farmers to move cattle to different fields to ensure them fresh grazing. It allowed them to bring their cattle into the barn at night or during the winter. Perhaps most importantly, farmers were able to drive their cattle to the market for sale. In an era where there was no motorized transport and the market might be several miles away from a farm, the use of droving dogs was an absolute necessity.
It is unclear which breeds were used to develop the Bouvier des Ardennes. Many claim that it was developed exclusively from local dogs which over time developed into a distinct local variety. Others claim that it was bred by crossing the Picardy Shepherd with the Belgian Cattle Dog. In the opinion of this author, the breed is most likely the result of crossing Schnauzers and Dutch Shepherds with local Belgian dogs. The breed clearly shares features with other Belgian Bouviers, and is native to the same country. The coat and appearance of many breed members is very similar to that of the Schnauzers, which were used for cattle droving in the neighboring country of Germany. The brindle coat coloration found in the breed is very similar to that common among Dutch Shepherds, which at one time were commonly found in the Belgian territory of Brabant.
Belgian farmers were extremely selective about the dogs that they used to herd their cattle. Only the best and most capable dogs were allowed to do so. This created a surplus of Bouviers des Ardennes. Some of these dogs were almost certainly euthanized, but a number of them were acquired by local hunters. Unlike most herding dogs, the Bouvier des Ardennes proved to be an extremely capable hunting dog. This breed possessed a very keen sense of smell making it an excellent tracker, a high prey drive making it an eager hunter, and immense intelligence, making it capable of following commands while dealing with dangerous prey. By the end of the 19th Century, the Bouvier des Ardennes was known throughout Southern Belgium as an excellent deer and boar hunting dog.
For many years, Belgian farmers exclusively bred their Bouviers for working ability. They initially cared very little for dog shows or breed standardization. As a result, a number of distinct localized varieties developed, and at one point Belgium, a country roughly the size of Maryland, was home to at least 5 distinct breeds of Bouvier. These were the Bouvier des Flandres, Bouvier des Ardennes, Bouvier des Roulers, Bouvier de Moermon, and the Bouvier de Paret. Eventually, the popularity of dog shows and kennel clubs reached Belgium and there was a massive national effort to standardize and recognize the country’s native breeds. Separate classes were set up for droving dogs at Belgian dog shows to encourage their participation. On April 23, 1903, Professor Reul discovered a Bouvier des Ardennes named Tom at the Liege Dog Show. Tom was considered the ideal specimen of a drover’s dog and may have been the example used to create the official breed standard. In 1913, the Liege Society for the Improvement of the Cattle Dog was founded. The Club drew up a proposed standard for both the Bouvier des Ardennes and the Bouvier des Roulers. Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse for the Bouvier des Ardennes, and for the entire nation of Belgium.
Less than a year later, Belgium was invaded by Germany and the entire region of the Ardennes was occupied. German occupation and the Franco-British counterstrikes designed to oppose it absolutely devastated the country. Many of the most infamous and bloody battles in world history were fought in Belgium, several in the Ardennes. Bouvier des Ardennes numbers plummeted dramatically. Breeding almost entirely ceased, and many individual dogs perished, either in the fighting or from lack of care. It was probably the breed’s ability to hunt game that saved it, as many Belgians turned to poaching simply to feed their families. World War I left Belgium devastated, and in the years immediately following it poaching became increasingly important. It was at that time that the Bouvier des Ardennes firmly earned a reputation as a poacher’s dog, similar to that held in England by the Lurcher and Long Dog. In 1923, the Belgian Kennel Club officially recognized the Bouvier des Ardennes, but there were very few examples left by that point. The 1920’s and 1930’s saw only a few individual Bouviers des Ardennes registered with the Belgian Kennel Club, and years would pass without any registrations at all. Many of these dogs were owned by Captain G. Binston, Victor Martinage, and L. Colston. It is unclear if any of their lines survived into the modern day, but they were some of the only active breeders in between the World Wars so it is highly likely.
World War II once again saw Belgium occupied by Germany, and even more destruction wrought. The barely recovering Belgian dog populations were once again devastated. The War’s immediate aftermath proved just as damaging. Many Belgian farms were either abandoned or consolidated, meaning that there was little interest in reviving the Belgian Bouviers. Only the Bouvier des Flandres survived into the modern day in sizable numbers, and that breed was extensively used by both the French and Belgian armies. In 1963, the Bouvier des Ardennes was granted formal recognition by the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) but there were almost no registrations for many years. For many decades it was assumed that Belgium’s other four Bouviers, the Ardennes, Roulers, Moermon, and Paret, were all extinct. Then in 1985 the Bouvier des Ardennes’s future dramatically changed.
Animal researchers collecting colostrum (a form of milk rich in antibodies and nutrients) from pregnant cattle in southern Belgium noticed that the dogs owned by local cattle farmers were remarkably similar to the old Bouvier des Ardennes. This discovery rocked the Belgian canine fancy, and by 1990 a group of dedicated breeders were working to re-standardize the breed using the few discovered examples. Their efforts were well on their way when a second surviving population of Bouviers des Ardennes was discovered in northern Belgium in 1996. These dogs had apparently been acquired by local cattle farmers around 1930 and had proved so adept at cattle herding that they had kept them for almost 70 years. This second population was added to breeding efforts already underway with the dogs from southern Belgium. Unfortunately, no surviving examples have been found of the Bouvier des Roulers, Bouvier de Moermon, and Bouvier de Paret, and it is widely thought that these dogs are now completely extinct.
Unlike most modern breeds, the Bouvier des Ardennes remains primarily a working dog. This breed continues to be kept primarily by Belgian cattle farmers to help them herd and drive their animals. In recent years, a growing number of fanciers are keeping the breed primarily as companion animals, but this number remains small. The Bouvier des Ardennes has been making a slow and steady recovery over the past three decades, but its population remains very small. This breed is known almost exclusively from Belgium, although a few individuals have found their way to other countries. It is unclear whether any Bouviers des Ardennes have made their way into the United States, but the breed was granted formal recognition with the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 2006 and is also recognized by the American Rare Breed Association (ARBA). Although the Bouvier des Ardennes’s situation has dramatically improved in recent years, the breed still remains very vulnerable unless its numbers greatly increase and it can become established outside of its homeland.
The Bouvier des Ardennes has one of the most unique appearances of all European herding dogs. While the breed is generally similar to other continental herding breeds, especially the Belgian and Dutch Shepherd, it would probably not be mistaken for either of those breeds. The Bouvier des Ardennes is a medium to large breed. Males typically stand between 22 and 24½ inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 60 and 75 pounds. Females typically stand between 20½ and 22 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 45 and 60 pounds. This is a squarely proportioned breed that should almost as long from chest to rump as it is tall from floor to shoulder. This breed is very lithe and incredibly muscular, but its coat often makes it look much thicker and less athletic than it actually is. The Bouvier des Ardennes has a very similar body to breeds such as the Belgian Malinois, but is usually somewhat more thickly constructed. As a working dog, the Bouvier des Ardennes should be completely devoid of any exaggerated feature which would impede its working ability. The tail of the Bouvier des Ardennes is thick and high set. The tail of this breed is traditionally docked to a very short length, although this is not necessary. Many breed members exhibit a naturally bobbed tail, although some have a longer tail.
The head and face of the Bouvier des Ardennes are somewhat small for the size of the dog, especially with regards to length. The head is flat and only slightly longer than it is wide. The head and muzzle are clearly distinct but blend in relatively smoothly. The muzzle itself is quite thick, and at least as broad as the skull. The muzzle is also quite short, being clearly shorter than the skull. The muzzle contains close fitting lips and ends in a broad nose that should always be black regardless of the dog’s coat color. The ears of the Bouvier des Ardennes are small in size and triangular in shape. Fully erect ears are preferred and are in fact most common, but semi-prick or rose ears are also acceptable. The eyes of the Bouvier des Ardennes are relatively small in size, oval in shape, and as dark in color as possible. Many breed members have an intense and intelligent expression.
The coat of the Bouvier des Ardennes is dense, double, and completely weatherproof. The coat is dry, coarse, and tousled. The hair is approximately 2½ long over most of the body, but it is shorter and flatter on the head and much of the face. This breed must have a beard and mustache with hair about 2 inches in length that covers the corners of the eyes. The ears are covered in short, straight hair. The breed’s undercoat is very dense over the entire body regardless of the season and is approximately 1 to 1¼ inches in length. Color is not regarded as important to breeders of this working dog, and all colors and patterns except white (a color which has a proven genetic link to deafness) are perfectly acceptable. In practice, the vast majority of breed members are either brindle or a mixture or grey, fawn, and black hairs. A small amount of white is acceptable on the chest or the feet, but should not be present anywhere else.
The Bouvier des Ardennes is primarily bred as a working herding dog and has the temperament one would expect of such a breed. The Bouvier des Ardennes is known for being extremely affectionate and devoted to its family, and these dogs are also famous for their intense loyalty. This breed is said to crave the constant company of those it loves which can be a problem as this breed has a tendency to be underfoot and in the way. The Bouvier des Ardennes is also known to develop severe separation anxiety. The Bouvier des Ardennes usually gets along very well with children that it has been raised alongside, although many breed members may be unsure of children that they do not know well. Although well intentioned, this is a breed that is not necessarily aware that it must play more gently with young children and may bowl over toddlers in an attempt to play with them. As is the case with most herding dogs, many Bouviers des Ardennes may attempt to herd young children and nip at their heels. Such behaviors are problematic but usually correctable.
Bouviers des Ardennes tend to be very protective and are naturally suspicious with strangers. These traits are usually less developed in this breed than they are in such dogs as the Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd, but are definitely still present. Proper socialization is absolutely necessary for this breed to be able to determine a friend from a threat, otherwise aggression issues may develop. This breed is highly alert and quite territorial, making it an excellent watch dog whose bark alone will deter most wrongdoers. The Bouvier des Ardennes also makes a very capable guard dog. This breed has a very strong natural inclination to do everything in its power to deter a threat by growls and displays, but is willing to result to force should the dog deem it necessary. This breed is said to be fearless and completely determined in defense of its family and home, and the average Bouvier des Ardennes will not back down no matter the odds against it.
Bred to work both alone and in groups, the Bouvier des Ardennes is quite average in its relationship to other dogs. Most breed members will be accepting of other dogs with proper training and socialization, although many are reserved and not particularly friendly with them. Dog aggression issues are not especially common with this breed, although territorial, dominance, and same sex problems are definitely not unheard of.
Although primarily used as a herding dog, the Bouvier des Ardennes has a long history as a hunting dog as well. Many breed members display very high levels of aggression towards non-canine animals, and many will attack and kill them if provided the opportunity. This breed can be socialized to accept other animals if raised with them from a young age, but is much better suited to working with large animals such as cattle and pigs than small ones. Most Bouvier des Ardennes will get along with cats that they know well although some are never entirely trustworthy around them.
The Bouvier des Ardennes is considered a highly intelligent and trainable breed. This dog is very capable of learning very advanced herding behaviors and there is probably no task that any breed is capable of learning that a Bouvier des Ardennes is not. When well trained, this breed is extremely obedient and will obey even complex commands without delay. Although this breed is primarily used for hunting and herding, it is almost certain that it would excel at virtually any canine sport such as competitive obedience, agility, and fly ball. That being said, the Bouvier des Ardennes may provide training difficulties to inexperienced handlers. Although not an especially dominant or challenging breed, the Bouvier des Ardennes is more than intelligent enough to realize when its master is not in complete control and will willingly assume a leadership position. Because of this it is important for owners of these dogs to maintain a constant position of leadership.
The Bouvier des Ardennes is a tireless and dedicated worker that is willing and able to engage in vigorous physical activity for hours upon hours. As a result, this breed requires a substantial amount of vigorous daily activity. A Bouvier des Ardennes should receive at least an hour of exercise every day, and would preferably receive more. This breed makes an excellent jogging companion, but greatly prefers a regular opportunity to run around off-leash in a safely enclosed area. Because of this breed’s needs, it adapts poorly to apartment life and does much better when provided a large yard. If not provided proper exercise, the Bouvier des Ardennes is very likely to develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, excessive barking, hyper activity, over excitability, and aggression. The high activity levels of this breed make it highly desirable to active families and this is a dog that will eagerly accompany its owners on any adventure no matter how extreme.
In Belgium, the Bouvier des Ardennes is most famous for its adaptability. This breed is very capable of working in a wide arrange of environments, from mountains to swamps. This dog is also capable of adapting to any task presented it, whether that is guard dog work, herding, hunting, or anything else. This adaptability is a characteristic of both the breed in general and of individual breed members.
The coat of the Bouvier des Ardennes requires a significant commitment to maintenance. Unless this breed is regularly brushed, its hair may form mats and tangles. Ideally this breed would be brushed every day, but will do fine if thoroughly groomed 3 times a week. The Bouvier des Ardennes should not require professional grooming, but some owners choose to have their dogs shaved when the temperature rises. The Bouvier des Ardennes does shed. Normally this breed is a light to average shedder, but once or twice a year when the seasons change it will become a very heavy shedder.
It does not appear that any health studies have been conducted on the Bouvier des Ardennes which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements about the breed’s health. The breed would seem to be at risk of a number of genetically inherited health conditions because it has such a small gene pool, but has also likely benefitted from decades of breeding entirely for working ability. Some sources claim that the breed’s life expectancy is between 11 and 12 years, but it is unclear where this estimate comes from.
Although the breed’s health status is unclear, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
Although health studies have not been conducted on the Bouvier des Ardennes, they have been for a number of closely related and similar breeds. Some of the problems of greatest concern included: