The Belgian is a true Continental Shepherd Dog, not related in any way to the German Shepherd, but a separately evolved shepherd and distinct to Belgium. There are four varieties, Groenendael long haired black, Tervueren long haired other than black (grey, red, fawn mahogany with black mask and overlay), Malinois, short haired fawn or red, with black mask and overlay and the Laekenois, the rough or wire-coated again with the same colour characteristics. Each of the varieties is set apart only by coat length, texture, or colour, the dog beneath the coat is intrinsically the same. The Belgian Shepherd is a complex and unique breed, a very natural dog with no exaggeration.
The breed arrived in the UK with the Groenendael in the 1960's and the Tervueren arrived slightly later in the early 1970's. Whilst they are growing in popularity, mainly due to their versatility and in the case of the long haired variety, their glamorous appearance, they are still comparatively rare in the UK. The Belgian Shepherd was first seen in 1890 and the long haired black or Groenendael was the first recognised variety.
The Belgian Shepherd is a medium sized, dog with medium, with good, but not heavy bone, harmonious proportions and no exaggerations. Hardy and robust, used to the open air life, at the same time, they should convey intelligence and great elegance, proud with high head carriage, arched neck, high-set ears, dark almond eyes which are alert, enquiring and give a soft questioning expression, Head finely chiseled, long with a flat scull, the head giving the impression of being sculptured from marble. Ears are smallish triangular and set high on the head and constantly in use. In the case of the Groenendael and Tervueren the head is framed by a distinctive ruff, similar to a lion's mane which is particularly evident in the males. Wary of strangers, but showing no aggression they are definitely not kennel dogs, they thrive on human companionship. Not a heavy dog; a mature male should not weigh more than 28lbs and should be between 24 and 26 inches at the shoulder, females weighing around 20lbs and being 22 to 24 inches at the shoulder. A Belgian Shepherd should never be fat, they are athletes, light on their feet and should be kept fit, lean and muscular. They appear slightly heavier than they actually are due to the thick undercoat (similar to cotton wool) and the long harsh top coat. They are much lighter framed than the German Shepherd, and have evolved as an adaptation to their natural environment which was the muddy fields of Flanders, they appear to float over the surface rather than sinking into the mud.
The Belgian Shepherd comes in a wonderful array of natural colours, from jet black in some cases with permitted white markings in the chest and feet the Groenendael, to wolf-like grey, and any shades of warm red to hot mahogany in-between. The Tervueren has a black mask and an overlay which is in the form of a veil or fine black dust brushed over his coat. This overlay is not pronounced until the dog reaches maturity at around 4 years of age. In other words each time he moults his coat may come back slightly darker than before, again this is usually pronounced around the mane and shoulder area.
The coat is easily manageable but requires regular once or twice a week grooming, with special emphasis around the ears and the back trousers, where matts can form especially at moulting time. They moult once or twice a year and at that time the ‘cotton wool ‘ undercoat should be stripped out and the dog bathed to loosen the remainder of the dead-coat. Hair between the toes and at the back of the hocks can be carefully trimmed.
When adult a Belgian will protect "his or her family" and their possessions diligently. Belgians are never happier than when they are with you. When at exercise they tend to move around you in a wide circle, making sure that they can see you all times, as if keeping their flock together. They are very fast and when they trot, the favoured gait, they move with speed and great ease. They have great endurance and do not tire easily.
Belgian is a very lively and exuberant dog, willing to please and sensitive to handle, often sensing your mood. Your voice is enough to reprimand for any wrong doing, heavy handling of a Belgian Shepherd is totally unnecessary, to do so will crush the dogs spirit. They respond well to a gentle, kind but firm approach and are extremely trainable, often to a very high level.
Belgians do not suit everyone and great care must be taken in assessing ones suitability for this breed, they are not generally a first time dog. All puppies are cute little fluffy bundles but they turn into large, often bouncy and quite demanding adults, they can be very possessive of their people and have a suspicion of strangers. They do require a good degree of socialisation as puppies which will help prevent excessive wariness. Generally children and Belgian Shepherds get on extremely well, as long as mutual respect is taught, always teach children how to approach and touch dogs, and always supervise any interactions between any dogs and young children. Regardless how well your dog behaves with young children, no dog should ever be left unsupervised with a child.
Generally speaking the Belgian Shepherd is a relatively healthy and long lived breed. We are fortunate to be a comparatively rare breed and as a consequence there are few dedicated breeders who have worked hard to ensure the breed remains as healthy as possible. That said there are a number of conditions which Belgians can and do suffer from. There are one or two conditions which are more common than others and breeders are aware and which we are trying learn more about in an attempt to eradicate.
Because of the square and un-exaggerated structure of the Belgian Shepherd Dog, hip and elbow dysplasia are relatively rare in the breed. Great care must be taken not to over exercise a young puppy, with the exercise regime being gradually developed over the age of six months before that restricted exercise is advised. Breeders are advised to hip-score their dogs and the Belgian Shepherd has a relatively low mean score.
The Belgian Shepherd along with many other breeds can suffer from epilepsy, a disorder that causes mild or in some case severe seizures. Epilepsy can be hereditary; it can be triggered by metabolic disorders, infectious diseases , tumours, exposure to poisons, or severe head injuries; or it can be of unknown cause. Usually the condition can be largely controlled by careful management and drug therapy although it cannot be cured. A dog can live a full and healthy life with the proper management of this disorder.
In recent years stomach cancer has become more prevalent in many breeds and the Belgian Shepherd is no exception, although this is not common place breeders are becoming concerned that this is on the increase and we are monitoring the situation worldwide. If the condition occurs it is usually occurs later in life.
There are many other conditions which individual Belgian Shepherds along with all dogs can suffer from, however relatively speaking Belgian Shepherds are a healthy breed.
Breeders on the Continent have long realized the importance of inter-variety breeding for the continued progress of the breed and keep a healthy gene pool. It is worthwhile noting that majority of the really important dogs and bitches within the breeds history have stemmed, either directly or indirectly, from inter-variety breeding. Experienced breeders always acknowledging this must be done with care and to be a benefit over the long term, rather than just being an instant fix. These matings take place to keep the breed uniform and to increase a much needed diversity in the gene pool. The two long coated varieties can be mated together, whilst the long coat Tervueren and the short coat Malinois can also be mated together, in addition the short coat Malinois and the wire or curly coated Laekenois are also on occasion mated together. The resulting puppies are registered according to which variety they resemble. Although in the UK prior permission from the Kennel Club must be obtained to carry out such matings.
To quote breed expert and author of "Blueprint of the Belgian Shepherd Dog", Dr Pollet, of Belgium: "Although the coats differentiate the varieties, it is well known that the danger exists that the four varieties evaluate the ones in relation to the others in a too divergent way. It would be a very bad thing for the Belgian Shepherd if the four varieties had already evaluated so much that there would be in reality four types and that going back to a unique type would not be possible anymore."
This is a very brief and potted outline of what is a very complex breed with a rich history and is by no means intended to be comprehensive or detailed.