The Bouvier des Flandres (pronounced boo-vee-ay-day-flawn-druh) is a breed of sheepherding dog native to Flanders, a Dutch-speaking region of Europe primarily located within Belgium, but which also extends into France and the Netherlands. The Bouvier des Flandres was primarily used as a cattle driving dog, responsible for bringing herds of cattle from the farm to the market. Although little known prior to World War I, the breed became famous in during that conflict as a result of its service. The Bouvier des Flandres is also known as the Bouvier, Flemish Cattle Dog, Flemish Droving Dog, Belgian Cattle Dog, Belgian Droving Dog, Vuilbaard, Koehund, Vlaamse Koehund, Pic, and Toucheur de Boeuf.
The history of the Bouvier des Flandres is among the most disputed of all dogs. There are dozens of different theories as to its origin, and there is very little evidence to support them. All that is known for sure is that the breed was present in Flanders in the late 1800’s, and that it was used as a cattle drover. However, some things can be said with relative certainty based on what is known of the history of Flanders and other similar breeds.
Flanders first appeared as a distinct region during the Middle Ages when it was a major trading center, specializing in wool and textiles. A coastal region situated directly across the North Sea from England, Flanders was favorably located immediately between the Holy Roman Empire (a conglomeration of primarily German-speaking states) and France. During the Middle Ages, the Flemings were considered Germans, but gradually several West German dialects (including Flemish) became so distinct that they became a different language altogether, known as Dutch. Because of its location and importance in European trade, Flanders has had a great deal of French, English, German, and Dutch influence throughout the centuries. Over the past 1000 years, Flanders has been controlled by a number of different nations, including Spain, France, and Austria. Today, Flanders is primarily located within the nation of Belgium, where Flemish speakers are the largest ethnic group, although small pieces of Flanders are also included in the territories of France and The Netherlands. The division of Flanders is one of the reasons that there is so much dispute as to the Bouvier des Flandres’s country of origin. Different sources claim that the breed was developed in Belgium, the Netherlands, and/or France, but it was in fact likely developed in Flemish parts of all three countries.
Prior to the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, there were very few breeds in the modern sense. Instead, there were a number of distinct varieties bred for a specific working purpose. For example, there were scent hounds bred to trail and locate game and sometimes attack it and also sheep herding dogs that kept flocks of sheep from becoming scattered as well as moving them from place to place and protecting them from predators. Although most of these varieties were pure bred, they were regularly crossed with any other variety that had desirable traits that would improve the offspring’s working ability. This began to change in the late 1700’s in England. At that time, English Foxhound breeders began to keep organized studbooks of their dogs and forming organizations to maintain those studbooks and also to improve their breeding stock. They had such great success that breeders of other dog varieties also began to standardize their dogs, and eventually the first kennel clubs were formed. This craze spread throughout Europe in the 1860’s and 1870’s and had a major influence on subsequent dog breeding efforts across the continent. By the 1890’s, many different types of herding dogs had been standardized, including the German Shepherd Dog and the many varieties of Belgian Sheepdog. Starting in the 1890’s, magazine articles and books dedicated to dogs began to mention a distinct variety of cattle driving dog native to Flanders. Cattle driving dogs were used to bring cattle from the farm to the market. They would round up a herd of cattle, making sure that every individual cow stayed on the road. The herd would then be driven to wherever it needed to go by barking and nipping at heels. Droving dogs were an absolute necessity prior to the development of the automobile and train. However, the breed was apparently not well-known to anyone outside of the Flemish cattle industry and most mentions were made only in passing.
In 1872, Marie Louise de la Ramee, and English author of Norman descent published A Dog of Flanders. Since its publication, A Dog of Flanders has become a timeless literary classic, and is especially popular in England, the United States, and Japan. The book has also been adapted for film and television at least 11 times. The novel details the life of a young orphan named Nello who is sent to live with his Grandfather in Flanders when his mother dies. Nello finds a dog that had been so badly beaten that he is almost dead and nursing him back to health. Nello names the dog Patrasche, and the two become inseparable. The two work together on Nello’s grandfather’s farm; Patrasche pulling a milk cart and Nello selling the products in town. The novel turns into a great tragedy, with Nello falling in love with a girl he cannot possibly hope to marry, failing to win an art contest despite his great talent, and being accused of starting a fire. Upon the death of his grandfather, Nello and Patrasche have no place to go, eventually ending up on the doorstep of a monastery. Unfortunately, it was a bitterly cold night and the next morning Nello and Patrasche are found frozen to death, each loyally staying by his one and only true friend till the very end. Since the early 1900’s, most assume that Patrasche was a Bouvier des Flandres. If so, the novel would have been one of the first (if not the first) historical appearances of the breed. Although the name Bouvier des Flandres is never mentioned in the novel, this is unsurprising since that name was probably not applied to the dog for another two decades. There is some controversy as to Patrasche’s identity, because many believe that the Bouvier des Flandres did not even exist at the time the story was written. Because Patrasche was used to pull carts, it is actually more likely that he was either a Belgian Mastiff or Belgische Rekel, two draft dog breeds native to Belgium that went extinct shortly after World War I.
It is a matter of much debate as to how the Bouvier des Flandres was developed. Initially, it was clearly kept by Dutch speakers, as early articles usually mention it with Dutch names such as Vuilbaard (meaning dirty beard) or Koehund (meaning Cow Dog). Because of this, many believe that it was developed from Germano-Dutch dog breeds. It is most commonly said that the breed was developed from the Schnauzer and Pinscher, which were considered to be two varieties of the same breed until the late 1800’s. This is probably the most likely of all theories as the Schnauzer/Pinscher were the most common Germanic farm dogs and were occasionally used for cattle droving. Others have said it was a descendent of the now-extinct German Sheep Poedel. Others have claimed that the Bouvier des Flandres was developed by the Flemings from French breeds acquired through trade and contact. Many believe that the Bouvier des Flandres is the result of crossing the Beauceron with various types of Griffon. Another theory holds that the Bouvier des Flandres is the result of a series of breeding experiments conducted by the Ter Duinen Monastery, one of the earliest known and most important breeders. Supposedly, the monks at Ter Duinen crossed wire-coated British breeds such as the Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhound with local herding dogs. Although any of these theories may be correct, the truth is probably an amalgamation. Flemish cattle workers had access to dozens of European breeds as a result of trade and conquest for many centuries. They likely crossed many of these dogs together to develop what they considered the ultimate droving dog, making the modern Bouvier des Flandres an amalgamation of many different breeds. Some of the breeds that they were most likely to have used include the Standard Schnauzer, Giant Schnauzer, German Pinscher, Bullenbeiser, Boxer, Sheep Poedel, Belgian Sheepdog, Belgian Tervuren, Belgian Malinois, Belgian Laekenois, Belgian Mastiff, Beauceron, Briard, Poodle, Barbet, Griffon-type dogs, Dutch Shepherd Dog, Irish Wolfhound, Scottish Deerhound, Airedale, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, and Collie-type dogs.
Belgium is divided into two distinct regions, the Dutch/Flemish-speaking northwestern region of Flanders and the French-speaking southeastern region of Wallonia. Although the Flemish make up the majority of the Belgian population, they have traditionally been economically and politically disadvantaged compared to the minority Wallonians. In the 1890’s and 1900’s, the Flemish Droving Dog became much more popular in Wallonia and it became known by its French name, Bouvier des Flandres, “The Cow-Herder Dog of Flanders.” Because it was the French speaking Wallonians who popularized the breed outside of Belgium, the French name stuck. In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Bouvier des Flandres began making appearances in Belgian, French, and Dutch dog shows. The first written standard and registry were created in Belgium in 1914. In the pre-war years, there were at least two distinct varieties of Bouvier des Flandres, the Paret and the Roeselare or Moerman. Unfortunately, World War I began just a few months after the registry was opened, and only about 20 dogs were registered before the Germans invaded Belgium. Much of Belgium was devastated by the War, and the tiny country was home to some of the conflicts harshest trench warfare and bloodiest battles. The war saw many different dog breeds serve, but few earned the respect and fame of the Bouvier des Flandres. The Bouvier des Flandres proved itself incredibly versatile and courageous, and served many roles for the Belgian army and resistance movements including: message carrier, draft dog, guard dog, watch dog, and attack dog. The Bouvier des Flandres served with great distinction and achieved international notoriety. Unfortunately, many breed members died as a result of their service and breeding had almost completely ended as a result of the war. Perhaps worse was the damage done to the Flemish economy and farmland, which made the Bouvier relatively obsolete.
The Belgian economy began to recover during the 1920’s, and trucks and trains became the primary means of transporting cattle. Although the Bouvier des Flandres’s original job was now gone, the breed had proved itself so versatile that it many fanciers kept breeding them. Additionally, many soldiers who had served in the Great War had become very fond of the breed that had protected and served them so well. In 1922, Club National Belge du Bouvier des Flandres was formed in Gent, becoming the breed’s national club in Belgium. Shortly thereafter, the Dutch national club was also formed which worked closely with the Belgian club until World War II. A dog named Nic that had served in World War I became a very influential stud dog and is considered the father of the modern breed. Throughout the 1920’s, the breed continued to grow in popularity in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, and in the late pre-war years well-over a thousand were registered annually. American interest was piqued by soldiers who had encountered the breed valiantly serving on the Western Front and the first Bouviers des Flandres were imported into the United States in the 1920’s. In 1931, the American Kennel Club (AKC) granted full recognition to the Bouvier des Flandres. In 1933, Adolf Hitler took full control of Germany after years of agitation and failed attempts. His rapid rearming and the German army and expansionist policies made it clear that another war was inevitable. Bouvier des Flandres breeders remembered how close their breed had come to extinction and began to ship their dogs to America in the hopes that they would be safe there. The most influential of these dogs was Belco. Belco accompanied Edmee Bowles when she fled Belgium, and was the foundation dog of Clos du Cerberes Kennel in Pennsylvania.
There remains a persistent legend about the Bouvier des Flandres from the 1930’s that is quite possibly true. Adolf Hitler had served on the Western Front, and was supposedly greatly impressed with the courage displayed by the Bouvier des Flandres. As the breed had been developed by a Germanic people, he was considering declaring the breed the official war dog of the Third Reich, even though he himself exclusively owned German Shepherds. He ordered that a Bouvier des Flandres be brought to him for examination, but the dog promptly and severely bit the Fuhrer’s hand. Hitler was so enraged that he ordered that all Bouviers des Flandres in Europe be exterminated, making the dog one of the few breeds to be actively targeted for elimination by Nazi forces, along with the Hungarian Kuvasz and a few others.
World War II saw the Bouvier des Flandres again serve the Belgian, Dutch, and French armies with distinction and courage. Many of these dogs gave their lives in the fight against the Nazis, and breeding again virtually ceased. Belgium experienced years of Nazi occupation and was once again the scene of some of the worst fighting. World War II left the Belgian countryside and economy even more devastated than after World War I. The Bouvier des Flandres was even closer to extinction than it had been before, and it is possible that only a few hundred (or possibly less than one hundred) breed members survived in Europe at the end of the War. Luckily, the Bouvier des Flandres’s many years of service and loyalty had inspired similar loyalty in its fanciers and the breed began to recover. Initial recovery was slow and from World War II’s close until the mid-1950’s fewer than 100 new Bouvier des Flandres puppies were registered total in Europe. For several decades, most Bouvier des Flandres breeding took place in America, and American bred dogs were imported to help restore European populations. Working out of Pennsylvania, Edmee Bowles and Clos du Cerberus Kennel were responsible for the production of some of the highest quality post-war Bouviers des Flandres, and were incredibly influential on the modern breed. The United Kennel Club (UKC) granted formal recognition to the breed in 1948, and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) accepted a unified standard for the breed in 1965. In 1963, the American Bouvier des Flandres Club (ABdFC) was founded to promote and protect the breeding of this dog, eventually becoming the official parent club with the AKC.
In the 1980’s, the United States President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy acquired a Bouvier des Flandres which they named lucky. They thought that the regal and elegant looking breed would make for an ideal Presidential pet. Unfortunately, they did not properly research the breed’s exercise needs and training requirements, and Lucky often proved too much for them to handle, famously dragging Nancy across the White House’s lawn. Lucky was sent to the Reagan’s California ranch, where he lived out the rest of his life and is now buried.
The Bouvier des Flandres has never quite experienced the level of popularity in American that it has in continental Europe, and in 2010 ranked 83rd out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. In Europe, the breed is still relatively commonly used as a working dog, now primarily tasked with personal protection, property protection, search-and-rescue, and as a police and military dog. The breed also has a substantial following in Japan, largely as a result of the enduring popularity of A Dog of Flanders in that country. In the United States, the breed is almost exclusively kept as a companion animal and show dog, although many owners participate in essentially every dog sport including obedience competitions and agility trials. Additionally, some Bouvier des Flandres have found work as therapy dogs and assistance dogs for the handicapped. Although the Bouvier des Flandres is not especially popular in the United States, it is now well-established in that country and will likely be quite secure for the foreseeable future.
The Bouvier des Flandres has a very distinctive appearance and would probably not be mistaken for any other breed by those who are familiar with it. The breed manages to look both refined and elegant and intimidating and imposing at the same time. The Bouvier des Flandres is a large breed, and some males are very large. The average male stands between 24½ and 27½ inches tall at the shoulders and weighs between 75 and 120 pounds. The average female stands between 23½ and 26½ inches tall at the shoulders and weighs between 60 and 85 pounds. The Bouvier des Flandres is a very well-proportioned breed and the ideal specimen should be almost exactly as long from chest to rump as it is from floor to shoulder. Much of this breed’s body is obscured by hair, but underneath is an incredibly muscular and powerful dog. The Bouvier des Flandres is a working breed and should always appear capable of performing great feats of strength and athleticism. Although the Bouvier des Flandres would never be described as stocky, it is considerably more thickly built than most other herding dogs. The tail of the Bouvier des Flandres is traditionally docked to approximately three to four inches. However, this practice is falling out of favor and is actually banned in some countries. The natural tail of this breed is quite variable, but most have medium length tails with a slight curve. A fair number of Bouviers des Flandres are born completely tailless.
The head and face of the Bouvier des Flandres look vaguely similar to that of a Schnauzer, but with the size and power of a breed such as a Rottweiler. The head is proportional to the size of the body, but because of its great amount of hair looks considerably larger and more intimidating. The skull is quite wide and powerful, being only slightly less wide than it is long. The muzzle is quite broad, providing maximum bite force and area. Not only wide but long, the muzzle is approximately 2/3 the length of the skull. The muzzle possesses dry, tight-fitting lips and ends in a large, black nose. The eyes of breed are often completely obscured by hair, but are oval-shaped and colored a dark nut brown. The ears of the Bouvier des Flandres were traditionally docked into an erect triangular shape. This practice is in even more disfavor than tail docking, and the natural ears of this breed are relatively small, triangular in shape, and fold very closely down to the sides of the head. The overall expression of most breed members is one of alertness, seriousness, and intimidation.
The coat of the Bouvier des Flandres is perhaps the breed’s most important characteristic. According to the AKC breed standard, the Bouvier des Flandres has, “A tousled, double coat capable of withstanding the hardest work in the most inclement weather. The outer hairs are rough and harsh, with the undercoat being fine, soft and dense. The coat may be trimmed slightly only to accent the body line. Over trimming which alters the natural rugged appearance is to be avoided. Topcoat must be harsh to the touch, dry, trimmed, if necessary, to a length of approximately 2½ inches. A coat too long or too short is a fault, as is a silky or woolly coat. It is tousled without being curly. On the skull, it is short, and on the upper part of the back, it is particularly close and harsh always, however, remaining rough. Ears are rough-coated. Undercoat a dense mass of fine, close hair, thicker in winter. Together with the topcoat, it will form a water-resistant covering. A flat coat, denoting lack of undercoat is a serious fault. Mustache and beard very thick, with the hair being shorter and rougher on the upper side of the muzzle. The upper lip with its heavy mustache and the chin with its heavy and rough beard gives that gruff expression so characteristic of the breed. Eyebrows, erect hairs accentuating the shape of the eyes without ever veiling them.”
Bouviers des Flandres are generally solid-coated dogs, meaning that their coats have one color, often with patches of slightly different shades. The breed may be shown in any color from fawn to black, including salt and pepper, grey, and brindle. A small white patch on the chest is acceptable and many of these dogs have them. Occasionally a Bouvier des Flandres will be born in solid white, solid chocolate brown, or with two different colored markings. Such dogs are not allowed in the show ring and should not be bred but otherwise make excellent working dogs and companion animals.
The Bouvier des Flandres has a temperament typical of a working dog, although slightly more relaxed and calm than many others. This breed is very people oriented, and most of these dogs form incredibly close attachments to their family. Bouviers des Flandres do very poorly if kept outside, greatly preferring to be in the constant company of their families. Famed for its loyalty, a Bouvier des Flandres would go anywhere or do anything for a family that it loves and respects. Sometimes these features can be problematic as Bouviers des Flandres have strong tendencies to become needy and develop separation anxiety. Although intensely devoted, this breed is very rarely demonstrative, preferring to show its affection much more subtly. Even with those it loves the best, the Bouvier des Flandres tends to be dominant, and this dog is not recommended for the inexperienced owner.
Bred primarily as protection and military animals since the First World War, Bouviers des Flandres have a very strong protective instinct. Suspicion of strangers is an inherent breed trait, and very few of these dogs warmly welcome new people. This breed is defensive rather than aggressive, and when well-socialized is usually one of the most gentlemanly and accepting of the protection breeds, albeit quite aloof and disinterested. Socialization from a very early age is of the utmost importance for the Bouvier des Flandres, as without it this breed tends to become protective-aggressive or more rarely fearful-aggressive. Highly alert, this breed makes an excellent watchdog that will deter most wrong-doers with a loud and frightening bark. Bouviers des Flandres absolutely excel at personal and property protection work, and this dog will immediately place itself in between its charge and an intruder/attacker. Preferring to use intimidation rather than force, this breed’s natural inclination is to use its body to forcefully move a potential threat away. However, the Bouvier des Flandres is not bite inhibited and will use any amount of force it sees fit, no matter what the potential threat.
This breed has a generally good reputation with children. Bouviers des Flandres that have been raised with children are usually quite gentle and tolerant of them, and often form very close friendships. As is the case with all breeds, Bouviers des Flandres that have not been exposed to children have somewhat unpredictable reactions with them. All Bouviers des Flandres have a strong urge to chase other animals and nip at their heels, which is often triggered by running and screaming children. This tendency can be corrected with training, but this can sometimes be challenging.
Bouviers des Flandres have a number of issues with other animals, and this is perhaps the area of greatest concern for many owners. Almost all breed members are highly dominant with other dogs, and most will not back down from any challenge. Same-sex aggression can be quite severe with both male and female Bouviers des Flandres, and this breed also has issues with territorial aggression and possessiveness aggression. Most Bouvier des Flandres are ideally either the only dog or share a home with one submissive member of the opposite sex. Socialization can greatly reduce issues, but often does not eliminate them entirely. Although a herding dog, Bouviers were bred to nip at the heels of cattle to drive them forwards. This left the breed with a very high prey drive, which it still possesses. Most Bouviers exhibit substantial levels of aggression towards other animals, to the point where they may attack and kill them. Most breed members can be socialized to accept the family cat if the process is initiated at a very young age, but some are never entirely trustworthy around them.
Highly intelligent and generally willing to please, the Bouvier des Flandres is a very trainable dog. This breed excels at virtually every canine competition such as obedience and agility and is probably capable of learning anything that any breed is. It is said that once a Bouvier des Flandres has learned a command it will never forget it. However, this breed poses substantial training difficulties for many owners. Bouviers des Flandres are incredibly dominant and do not follow orders blindly. If this dog does not view someone as a leader, it will absolutely not obey them. This means that Bouvier des Flandres owners must maintain a constant position of dominance over their dogs. This breed also tends to want to do its own thing, and some can be incredibly stubborn when they choose to be. Training should ideally begin as early as possible as Bouvier des Flandres puppies are typically more receptive to learning than adults.
As with most members of the herding group, Bouviers des Flandres have substantial exercise needs. This breed needs vigorous daily exercise to keep it happy. Bouviers des Flandres are very likely to develop behavioral issues if they are not provided with an appropriate outlet for their energy, including destructiveness, over excitability, nervousness, and snappiness. That being said, Bouviers des Flandres tend to be much less energetic than most herding breeds. Most breed members are very even-tempered, and very few are quick to get excited. Although capable of much more, most of these dogs will be satisfied with a long daily walk, and most families would be able to meet a Bouvier des Flandres’s needs with the proper dedication. When a Bouvier des Flandres is indoors, it tends to be very relaxed and calm, and many of these dogs are couch potatoes, lounging around for hours at a time. Although not extremely energetic, this breed is extremely intelligent and does best when provided mental stimulation. Bouviers des Flandres greatly enjoy having a job such as running through an agility course or herding sheep.
As one might expect from its coat, the Bouvier des Flandres has substantial grooming requirements. This breed needs to be thoroughly brushed every day or two, and also needs a regular bath. Bouviers des Flandres need to have their coats trimmed at least three times a year, and sometimes more. Owners can learn to do so on their own, but most find it far easier to have their dogs professionally groomed. In between trimmings, excess hair must be removed and the fur on the feet must be trimmed on occasion. Bouviers des Flandres do shed, but the amount varies from dog to dog. Some of these dogs shed comparatively less than most breeds, and some allergy sufferers are less bothered by them. Other Bouviers des Flandres shed an average amount.
Bouviers des Flandres are considered to be of average health. Certain genetically inherited health defects are quite common in Bouviers des Flandres, but this breed doesn’t seem to suffer from more problems than is the case with most purebred dogs. The average life expectancy for the Bouvier des Flandres is between 9 and 12 years, roughly average for a breed of this size.
Perhaps the most serious common problem in Bouviers des Flandres is hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is caused by a malformed hip joint. This malformation results in the leg bone connecting improperly to the hip. Over time, a variety of symptoms develop including discomfort, pain, arthritis, difficulty moving, and in extreme cases, lameness. Hip dysplasia is genetically inherited, but the timing and severity of its onset can be influenced by environmental factors. There is no universally accepted cure for hip dysplasia (although some appear promising), but there are a number of treatments, most of which are long term and expensive.
A full list of health problems experienced by the Bouvier des Flandres would have to include: