What is a Bouvier ?

Jim Engel 2001

On the surface this is a simple question.  A Bouvier is a canine member of the race known as the "Bouvier des Flandres"  formalized in Belgium, the Netherlands and France in the 1920s. 

In the works of the original Belgian club leaders:

"The breeders do not forget that the Bouvier is first of all a working dog, and although they try to standardize its type, they do not want it to lose the early qualities which first called attention to its desirability.  For that reason, in Belgium a Bouvier cannot win the title of Champion unless he has also won a prize in a working competition as a police dog, as a defense dog or as an army dog."

Some will say, "But the Bouvier is a herding dog…."   This is not true.  The Bouvier certainly is drawn from herding stock, and the modern applications are based on the characteristics and attributes molded and formed by the age old herding service. But in the homelands herding as it was practiced over the centuries disappeared in the 1800's because the industrial revolution and rapid increases in population eliminated the open field or range mode of agriculture.  The progenitors of the Bouvier, and the Malinois as well, were unemployed. 

The police and protection roles evolved as retraining and redirection of the age old instincts and propensities, a way of saving the heritage in a changing world.  And remember that "police dog" does not just mean "protection dog" because the olfactory capability is every bit as important for search and tracking.  An IPO or Schutzhund dog achieves just as many points with his nose through tracking as with his teeth through biting.   Furthermore, such a breed can produce extraordinary personal and family companions for those desiring a little more than a passive "pet."

Some will say, "But the Bouvier is a carting dog….".  Again, basically not true.  No doubt some of the founding stock was put in harness from time to time, and we believe that the larger Belgian draft dogs, now essentially a lost race, played a part.  But fundamentally the agility and aggressiveness of the herding and defense dog on the primitive Flemish farm was not compatible with the full time draft functionality.  Several widely published letters of DuMont quote Chastel to this effect, and, born about 1910 into a family with a strong dog training tradition he was there to see for himself.  ( The "Dog of Flandres" of the book was described as yellow with a short coat and uncropped ears, clearly of the native draft stock rather than of the working farm prototypes.)

Some will say "But that was long ago, and today the Bouvier is a companion dog, and we must breed a softer version for this role…"   This is of course the crux of the argument, and every indication is that this point of view, the mantra of the "show breeders", will prevail, to our everlasting shame..

But these bred for the show ring dogs are not working dogs, and thus they are not, and can not be made to be, "Bouviers des Flandres."  The AKC may call them Bouviers, the Dutch club may call them Bouviers, even the Belgians may call them Bouviers.  But it is a lie, because the Bouvier of the founders is a working dog and when you cease to propagate him according to his functionality then you have a new, degenerate race which in all honesty requires a new name.

This lie is the big lie.  This is the lie of the Americans and the Dutch. But in many ways, the smaller, subtler, lies are the more damaging.  These small, pernicious lies are the specialty of the Belgians and the French.  They spout the words.  They have the passionate speech. Individuals such as LeLann from time to time rise above the mediocrity and, going back to the sounder, harder stock, produce real Bouviers, echoes of the heritage. LeLann's winning dogs came not from France, but from Chastel in Belgium, were the fruit of Chastel's own efforts to go back to the hard stock of Moreaux and reclaim the heritage. But those in control in France, the "show breeders" always kill off such initiatives.  We have seen a strong Bouvier in France achieve prominence in the Ring, making it to the finals as the best of the alternative breeds.  This dog did not beat the Malinois on his own field, but he made them take notice.  If the French show breeders truly believed their own tiresome speeches, they would line up to breed to this dog.  But they will not, because he is out of the Dutch police lines and they will find excuses in his structure and background.

The French show breeders do not want to pay the price to produce working dogs, they want to go on pretending that their "temperament test" is a valid criteria, that they can pay homage to the founders with empty gestures without ever making the effort to breed and train dogs that truly embody this heritage.  After forty years this is a hollow charade.

In order to breed real Bouviers, dogs who are truly working stock, we must follow the examples of the successful breeds.  There are two primary examples, "business models" if you like the term.  One is the Malinois.  In Belgium and the Netherlands, a Malinois is a dog who succeeds on the Ring or KNPV field.  These people have little concern with pedigrees, and a grandsire who is a German Shepherd, unknown dog or even a Great Dane is of no concern if the dog is correct, strong and dramatic on the trial field.

This of course goes against the modern concept of the closed gene pool.  But not everything "modern" is good, and we would do well to contemplate this philosophy and relate it to our current dilemma.  From time immemorial dogs were bred according to their function, and bringing in outside stock to revitalize a line has been man's process since the wolf was domesticated.  Perhaps our simplistic concept of a "breed" predestines us to failure, perhaps we need to take a fresh approach.

The other "business model" is that of the German Shepherd.  The Shepherd success is based on the simple principle that a young dog is not a German Shepherd until he has proven his working willingness and capability on the Schutzhund field.  Many people would like to deny the validity of  this fundamental principle of the working test, but the fact is that it has been the driving force making the Shepherd the best over all protective heritage working dog in the world.

A fundamental feature of the Shepherd program of breeding according to the result of the working trial is that most of the offspring find places as personal or companion dogs rather than service, that the German Shepherd as a whole produces dogs a broad spectrum of people can live with and love.  Thus the concept that we should breed some Bouviers for "competition" and some for "companionship" is the product of a faulty plan, a plan to seek out and pander to companion owners at too a level.

"Temperament Tests" are no substitute.  They do not lead to a higher standard.  The Belgians and French have been spouting about this for forty years or more, and the only dogs which work are, with a very few exceptions, drawn from the Dutch KNPV lines.

The only way to breed real Bouviers is to establish goals.  I am not especially enamored of the IPO or Schutzhund test, but it is the most widely known and successful working breeding dog test in the world.  We should certainly accept a KNPV or advanced Belgian or French Ring title.  We should not even think about inventing anything of our own, for that would make us the complete laughingstocks of the working dog world, if the current NAWBA leadership has not done that already.

It is true that we can not title every dog today, and it may be true that we will never get to the point where every dog selected to procreate has a working title.  But if our standard is less then we are doomed to failure.

Some will say "We must have an easy test for the show breeders to get them interested, later we will of course raise the standard."  But later never comes, the show breeders become entrenched and standards spiral downward, with speeches about  the special elements of the Bouvier character which only a "true Bouvier person" ( read "show breeder") can understand and account for.

Some will say "We must have an easier test to encourage the young or uncommitted trainer."  But the young or uncommitted trainers will go to the IPO or Ring club and see for themselves that the Malinois and the Shepherd prosper while the other breeds languish and make excuses. 

It is true that some, seeking what they are led to perceive as "glory," will purchase an accomplished Shepherd or Malinois, and find a place on the podium.  For some men the trophy or prize is an end in itself, and they will do whatever it takes to stand among the winners, even if they only have a rented place in the sun because they have the financial resources to pay for it.  Why else would rich men buy football teams ?

But other men and women can look deeper, and see that by contributing to breeds such as the Bouvier there is an opportunity to make a long term commitment, to do something of value rather than just purchasing a moment on the podium.  Such men are not easily fooled, and when they see a breed whose "working dog" leadership is not truly committed to the working trial as the goal for the breeding test then they tend to look elsewhere.  The way to attract the young people who can carry on the heritage is to demonstrate the commitment to the heritage by striving for the working titles.  When we fall short, as we must often do, others will be inspired to pick up the banner and move forward.  But when we lower our expectations, substitute a false test instead of struggling to overcome adversity, others see that we have surrendered and move on, seek out other causes to undertake where there is the possibility of success, contribution and personal satisfaction.

Jim Engel, Marengo    © Copyright 2001