Bouvier des Flandres: A Farmer’s Dog

Let’s take a trip back in time. Let’s go back well over a hundred years to the country of Belgium, prior to the industrial revolution. The land is lush and level in the lowlands, but the climate, while temperate, is frequently damp. Up in the mountains to the North, the climate gets much colder and the land is rocky and poor. It is here that you own a small farm; no more than twenty acres. It is here that you scrabble to house and feed your growing family. You own very little; a few heads of dairy cattle. The days are long and you need help to complete all the chores. There is no money to pay for a helper, and a horse is expensive to buy and feed. For the farmers of Belgium, a dog was the answer. A Bouvier, the Belgian word for a drover’s dog. Not a breed yet; merely a farmer’s dog.

But what kind of dog to help with all the work around the farm? You needed a dog capable of moving the cows into the field in the morning and bringing them back to the barn at night. Or driving them to market down tight country lanes. Once you had milked, you needed a dog to pull a cart—laden with the heavy milk jugs—to market. (And, perhaps, to pull you home if you had spent some of your money at the local pub.) You wanted a dog to help churn the butter and work the gristmill stone. At night, the dog that you required would remain outdoors to guard the farmyard from intruders… not only humans but the large gray wolves of the European continent. And he needed to be an easy keeper, living off table scraps. You did not need a specialist, but a combination of a herding dog and a cart dog… a dog with no exaggerations. A dog that was willing and physically able to do what you asked of him.
First, the dog needed to be powerfully built with an imposing presence. (Cows will challenge a dog, and they are capable of a kick to the side, backed by a thousand pounds.) a dog with well-sprung ribs and strong bone to absorb the kick should he find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time! A compact, short-coupled dog capable of quick turns and short bursts of speed to head off the stock if they decided to wander from the path. A dog with an easy, balanced, ground-covering gait, so he would not tire.

A dog with a thick double coat because he was asked to work in all weather conditions; a coat that kept him warm and shed water. A dog well-muscled, especially in the rear quarters, and broad across the chest and back to push into the harness to move a heavy cart to market—often miles away. But a dog not too large, for he needed to be agile as well, to dodge the cow kick, to jump the fence, and to chase off an intruder. He needed to be spirited, bold, and fearless. He was loyal and resolute; a sensible dog that took his rest when he could, for he worked all day and all night. A high-strung dog would not do. He needed to be even-tempered, for he controlled a good part of the world he lived in.
This is the dog that fanciers were thinking of when they gathered in 1912 to come up with a standard of perfection that would forever change the Bouvier of Belgium into the Bouvier des Flandres. When describing the body of the Bouvier, they used the term “well-muscled” seven times, and “wide” and “broad” five times. This is the blue-collar working dog they admired and wished to advance. While a Bouvier in proper coat and trim can be quite striking, he is never an elegant dog. Underneath the trappings of the dog show, the Bouvier must still possess the qualities that made him indispensable to a poor Belgian farmer. A Bouvier des Flandres must always remind you, in body and mind, that he is still a farmer’s dog; the Dog of Flanders.

A Final Thought
During several recent televised dog shows, the announcers have stated that a Bouvier moves cattle with his head. I believe they are conflating the herding term “to head” stock (which simply means moving to the front of the animals to turn them) and using Bouvier’s broad, flat skull as a battering ram to move a cow. A nanosecond of thought should tell you that this is never going to happen! A Bouvier moves cattle by working off its flank, driving them forward using the full power of his presence and an occasional, well-timed heel nip.

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    My relationship with the Bouvier des Flandres started in the early 1970’s as the owner of a large boarding and training facility in southern California. My trainer-in-residence, Dan La Master, did protection training and police work, specializing in the Bouvier. This is when my admiration and attraction to the breed began. I obtained my AKC Professional Handler’s license in 1976 and joined the Professional Handlers’ Association shortly thereafter. I was also a charter member of the AKC Registered Handler Program. After my marriage to Corky in 1981, we were fortunate to have campaigned a number of Bouviers; nine ranked #1 in the nation. Some career highlights for Corky and I include being awarded the last Best in Show on a Bouvier from the Working Group in December 1983, before the formation of the Herding Group, with Ch. Galbraith’s Faire La Roux. A few years later came to the Top Dog All-Breeds award for Ch. Galbraith’s Iron Eyes with 101 Bests in Show, making him the top-winning Bouvier in breed history, a record that stands to date. We handled both Iron Eyes and his son, Ch. Ariste’s Hematite Dragon, to Herding Group Ones at the Westminster KC, then a first for the breed at the Garden. Bouviers have played a huge role in my life—191 all-breed Bests in Show and four National Specialty wins. I have enjoyed close relationships with many of the top breeders of the breed. It is due to their dedication that Bouviers have been beloved family members for 40+ years. I served as show chairman for the Southern California Bouvier des Flandres Club for eight years, American Bouvier des Flandres Club JEC from 2009 until 2013, and have been a member of the SCBdFC and the ABdFC since 1993. Having bred 100+ champions of several other breeds, I am currently a member of AKC’s Breeder of Merit program. Since my retirement as an all-breed handler in February 2005, I have been employed by the American Kennel Club as an Executive Field Representative.

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