The History of the Belgian Shepherd Dog

Herding Dog, Police/Protection Dog, or Both?

It is generally understood that the BSD was originally a herding dog. It's in the herding group, it's called a "shepherd dog", and there are many historical references to it as a herding dog. What is contested by many though is whether the BSD was also originally used as a police/protection dog, or if that is a newer, and not "true to the breed", use for the BSD.

Over the years I have done a lot of research regarding the origins of the BSD, and more specifically the Malinois variety. I have also researched the origins of the Ringsports, specifically Belgian Ring and French Ring. It is my opinion that there is plenty of historical data to back up the assertions that the BSD has origins as both a herding, and police/protection dog. This is especially true if you consider the BSD as the breed, and not the collection of unnamed farm dogs who existed prior to a breed standard being created.

The following table contains a time line of information derived from various sources, which are listed at the end of this article. Since there is no argument that herding was an original function of the BSD, I have focused more on the protection/police side.

1700's Historical documentation shows Belgium began using dogs to help the city guards, as a “policemans companion”.
1847 First dog show in the world took place (Belgians were not yet a breed at this time)
1880 Edmond Moecheron and others began giving “police dog” demonstrations throughout France, Belgium and Holland. These demonstrations usually took place in a fenced off area, ie a “ring” and included obedience, agility and bitework. Edmond is the most famous of these people, with his BSDs Dax, Nic & Miss. He is considered by many to be the "Father of Ringsport"
1880 Societe Royale Saint-Hubert registry was founded
1890 Photos and writings exist showing the BSD was used as a moveable fence for sheep and cattle
1891 Adolphe Reul organized a gathering of local shepherd dogs to identify various breeds, and the various varieties of Belgian herding dogs were noted.
1892 The first Belgian Shepherd Dog standard was created
1892 Club du Chien Berger Belge petitioned the Societe Royale Saint-Hubert for breed status in 1892, but was denied
1897 Louis Huyghebaert, disturbed by the Club du Chien Berger Belge’s plans for conducting herding trials, noted that there were very few sheep left in Belgium at the time. He recommended that different trials be started to “bring forward the three fundamental characteristics that a shepherd dog should possess: intelligence, obedience and loyalty.” This recommendation led to the development of dressage trials, with individual exercises testing a dog’s ability to leap over high and long obstacles, perform swimming exercises, and protection work.
1898 Tomy, LOB 138, one of the foundation dogs of the BSD, wins multiple first prizes at the dog shows, and is known as an “extraordinary guard dog”. Tomy was a grandson of Vos I and Lise
1899 After watching the demonstrations of people such as Edmond Moecheron, and spending time learning about the dogs and their training, E. Van Wezemael, head-commissar of the police of the city of Ghent, created the first police dog school, and wrote a book about about the use of police dogs. Van Wezemael chose BSD's for his school.
1899 Tjop, LOSH 6132, is born, sired by Tomy and Cora van’t Optewel. Cora later became the winner of the first official Ringsport trial held in 1903. Tjop became the first Malinois Champion in Belgium, as well as the most influential Malinois sire of the early twentieth century
1901 Saint-Hubert recognizes the Belgian Shepherd Dog as a breed
1903 First official Ringsport trial takes place in Mechelen (Malines) Belgium
1908 The first official rules for Ringsport trials were adopted
1908-1911 The Groenendael, Jules du Moulin, and his trainer, M. Tedesco, won the World Champion title at the Ringsport trials. The majority of competitors in 1908 and 1909 were Groendaels, and they continued to place high or win for a number of years.
1908-1914 Jules du Moulin wins the International Competition of Paris 5 consecutive times
1911 FCI was created by Belgium, Germany, France, Holland and Austria
1913 First National Ringsport Championship was held, won by the Groenendael Jules du Moulin
1914 Jules wins the National Ringsport Championship again
1926-2000 A BSD always wins the Grand Prix of Belgium (Ring championship), most are won by Malinois, but some are also won by Groenendael and Tervuren
1926-2000 A BSD always wins the National Ringsport Championship, most are won by Malinois, but some are also won by Tervuren

It is clear from the timeline that the dogs who eventually became known as BSD's were used as police/protection dogs, long before the breed was created. There are historical records indicating that as early as the 1700's they were being used to help the city guards. In 1880 they were being used to give demonstrations of police/protection dog abilities throughout Belgium and France. These demonstrations were done as a money making venture for the owners, but the BSD would not have been chosen for these demonstrations if they weren't already filling that role. Instead, whatever dog was filling the role would have been used. Before the BSD was accepted as a breed by Saint-Hubert, their use as a herding dog had already declined enough in their native country that instead of using herding competitions to test the dogs, it was suggested that dressage (ie Ringsport) competitions be held. Herding competitions continued to be held, but so did the Ringsport competitions. Although some of the foundation couples of the breed were prized for their herding abilities, others were specifically known for their abilities as guard dogs, not herders.

This history is not specific to the Malinois variety, many of the initial police dogs and competitors and winners of the Ringsport trials were Groenendael and Tervuren. It was only later that the Malinois began to dominate these trials.

A few historical photos of BSDs:

A vintage postcard of a group of Belgian smugglers and their dogs about to cross the Franco-Belgian border.
The three dogs are of the long-coat shepherd type (Vresse-sur-Semois, Belgium, c. 1910). 
The sacks around the dogs necks are called a "blat" and are filled with items being smuggled, in this case tobacco.


Ghent Belgium – "dog squad" AKA K9 Unit circa 1900


French police dog handlers Camille Brouhin and Roger Boucherie of Lille France with brigadier De Meyer of Ghent,
and two dogs trained in Ghent before returning to France. Photo from the Ghent City Archive.


The Police Dog Pioneers
Police dogs in Paris
Collection of historical photos

© 2007 Kadi Thingvall

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