Dog experts disagree on the history of the Bouvier des Flandres. All we know for certain is that, from time immemorial, sturdy cattle dogs lived and worked in the Flanders region of Belgium and on the northern plains of France. What types of dogs went into the gene pool is mostly unknown. Some monks at Ter Duinen were early breeders, and we do know that they imported Irish Wolfhounds and Scottish Deerhounds to cross with local farm dogs. Where the local farm dogs came from, however, is uncertain. Some experts suggest they were descendants of herding dogs from the rest of Continental Europe, perhaps various types of schnauzers, but this is mostly speculation.
In any case, the Bouvier des Flandres was strictly utilitarian. It was quite versatile, pulling carts for butchers and driving and guarding herds of cattle for merchants. It also found a place on the family farm, completing any work necessary, from working grist mills to defending property from intruders.
Every region had its own preferred type of Bouvier. Differences in size, shape, and color abounded for many years. Even when the first breed standard was drawn up in 1912, great variation was permitted.
The face of the breed changed quickly when World War I struck. In war-torn France, all suitable working dogs were pressed into military service. The Bouvier des Flandres again proved its worth and versatility. It could deliver messages, haul guns, and search battlefields for wounded soldiers in need of help. These were dangerous jobs, however. The breed paid a heavy toll during the war.
One of the survivors was a dog named Nic de Sottegem. He was saved by a veterinarian with the Belgian army. After the fighting was over, dog show judges examined both Nic de Sottegem and his progeny. His structural quality was so excellent that he and his offspring became the basis of a new, more uniform standard. Breeders not only sought to replicate Nic de Sottegem’s good points, they relied heavily on his descendants to rebuild the numbers of the breed.
Much of the rebuilding process occurred in the 1920s. It was also at this time that the Bouvier des Flandres was taken to America. The AKC recognized the breed in 1931. The Bouvier quickly caught on, not as a working dog, but as a show dog.
Today, the Bouvier des Flandres enjoys a moderate but dedicated group of fans across the United States, coming in at 101st in AKC registration statistics. While not one of the more common farm dogs, it still appears at most herding trials.
Many Bouviers today are kept as companions or show dogs, but they are still quite able to work. They make good therapy dogs and guide dogs.
On the farm, the Bouvier des Flandres is a trustworthy general-purpose worker. He is best known for herding cattle, but he is quite suitable for working sheep and poultry. He is a dutiful guardian of family, livestock, and territory, and he can even pull a cart of firewood or garden produce.
But the fortitude of the Bouvier is perhaps at its best in the dangerous, trying duties of police and military work. He can do anything from sniffing out drugs to apprehending a fleeing criminal. Likewise, he can be absolutely depended on in search-and-rescue work.
The Bouvier des Flandres combines a bold presence with quiet manners. There is little he fears, and there is absolutely nothing that can rattle him out of his calm self-possession. He is a thoughtful dog, used to making his own decisions and relying on his own judgment. Fortunately, his judgment is extremely sound. He can readily size up a situation and respond with the precise action necessary. Even around strangers, he is never aggressive unless he feels that danger is in the air, preferring to awe intruders with his cool scrutiny.
But with members of his own household, there are few dogs more loyal and deeply affectionate than a Bouvier des Flandres. He is happiest within sight of his family, and if they scatter he will do his best to nudge them back together. He loves children, but is far less patient with other dogs. Caution is needed with cats and other pets, but most Bouviers will accept these animals if raised with them.
Even though the Bouvier is a willing worker, he must first be taught to respect human authority. During adolescence, he can be somewhat difficult to live with, as he will push the limits whenever possible. He can be very rowdy during play at this time, as well, so be careful about leaving a young Bouvier alone with small children. Training must balance kindness and firmness. The Bouvier can learn quite quickly and has a keen memory, so don’t bore him with needless repetition. Just remember that he needs to think before he can react. If he has learned to respect your authority, he will obey you—just give him time to process what you are telling him.
The Bouvier is a well-behaved housedog when his activity needs are met. A daily job will help him feel like a useful member of the family. When he does spend time outdoors, he needs to be contained in a physical fence at least five feet high. An underground fence is not a sufficient barrier, as he is nearly impervious to the slight tingle of most electronic collars.
As a herding dog, the Bouvier des Flandres is a quiet worker. He mostly relies on his imposing size to influence his charges to move. He has a strong instinct to gather stock, using a physical body block to prevent escapes. The Bouvier can also drive animals from behind.
The Bouvier des Flandres matures very slowly. During his first two to three years of life, exercise him gently to avoid damaging soft bones and joints. Running and jumping should be avoided at this time.
His digestive system is something to be reckoned with. He tends to suffer from embarrassing flatulence. More seriously, he is prone to bloat. All Bouvier owners should become familiar with the symptoms of bloat, as it is a life-threatening condition. Avoid this problem by feeding your dog two or three small meals daily instead of one large meal, and avoid undue excitement and activity within an hour of meal time.
Some autoimmune disorders exist in this breed, including cancer and hypothyroidism. Fortunately, the latter is still not terribly common.
Otherwise, the most common health problems in the Bouvier des Flandres include:
- Hip dysplasia.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Subaortic stenosis, a birth defect that narrows the left ventricle at the point where it joins the aorta.
- Minimal shedding.
- Partially hypoallergenic coat.
- Adaptability to most conditions, particularly cold.
- Unsuitability for homes with other dogs.
- Need for plenty of human companionship.
- Need for firm training.
- Rowdiness when young.
- Coat that tends to collect debris and saliva, particularly around the beard.
- Special grooming requirements to maintain wiry coat.
- Exercise requirements.