Working with the BELGIAN SHEPHERD


The Belgian Shepherds first task was to, all by himself, guard huge live stocks on pasture against wild animals and cattle thieves. Back then he was more aggressive with a substantial body. When it was time to bring the herd home, he also worked as a driver and made sure that the cattle did not steal wheat from the neighbours on the way. When the wild animals decreased in number the Belgians work changed and he became a light, alert and helpful herder.

Belgian Shepherd is the assembly name of a colourful, four-leaf clover consisting of: Tervueren which has long red, grey or beige fur with a dark mask, and every hair is black at the tip. Groenendael also has a long fur, but it is black. Malinois is the shorthaired one, it is also red with black hair tips and finally we have the rough coated, red Laekenois.

All the qualities that make a good working dog can be found in a good Belgian Shepherd. He can be found in both tracking, search and rescue, rapport, obedience, sleigh dog, agility and so on. There are even Belgians who have passed the watertest (the same as for the New Foundland)! Some have also entered herding trials and passed.

The Belgian is a clever and fit for use herding dog, but he works in a completely different way than the Border Collie. He uses little or no eye, he keeps his eyes in constant movement and drives the herd using his body language. He herds upright, not creeping. Since the Belgian was bred for working close to the handler, and not for detailed herding, distance, to go out and fetch the herd, may cause trouble. The Belgian does not show equal prediction and feeling for the stock as the Border Collie does. The Belgian often push too much, causing the flock to run away, or too little, so that nothing happens.

The Belgian Shepherd gladly moves back and forth behind the herd (over flanking), which you might want to do something about. He does not like to be stopped, laid down and led all the time. To lie down is not a natural behavior for the Belgian while working the herd, he would rather do it the way he thinks is the best. Then you must be able to motivate your dog to listen and do it the way you decide. But you should always strive to use as few cues as possible, it is the dog who shall solve the task, not the owner. If you want a Belgian Shepherd for herding, you should look for one that has a little softer mind, with not too much "killer"-instinct.

During the last 100 years the breeding has gone from herding to completely different working qualities. The Belgians are popular for police-, protection-, military- and search & rescue work and has really found his way to the working dog elite. He is very weather resistent and that together with his explosive personality, his loyalty and his fast reactions makes him fit for everything you as owner would like to do with your dog. He is for instance the only breed that can give the Border Collie a proper match in agility.

A few Tervueren have become successful in the discipline schutzhund, but the Malinois is the most common breed in that sport. The Malinois has a higher energy level than the other three and is considered the best working dog. He is more addicted to work, he has a lot of drive and does not give up until a problem is solved, but afterwards he knows how to relax. He needs proper and continous training with an experienced handler. The Tervueren is the one that, after the Malinois, is the most work demanding, but his mentality is very close to the Groenendael.

The Laekenois is also active in IPO and schutzhund. His original work was to guard the flax that was lying to dry, and he is not of much a herder. Back then, he had a harder mentality, and he was even used by smugglers! Still today, he has the reputation to bite hard, and it might happen that he locks himself up in the bite moments, you might want to work a little extra with that part. He is also more of an one-mans-dog than his "brothers". The Belgian Shepherd in general, but the Laekenois especially, needs an evident leadership.

The Belgian Shepherd radiates vitality, will to work and energy and has a great appetite for life. Everything he does is done at a high pace, and even though he is very focused on his master, it is easy to teach him to obey at a distance. The herder in the Belgian can show when you send him away from you. If you teach him that wrong, he likes to circle, a way to keep an eye on you ("his herd"). He has a lot of drive, and if the owner can not stimulate him enough, he will point his energy in other unpleasant directions. In that case there are no limits to what he might end up doing. The time before the sexual maturity is very important, the Belgian needs quite a bit of social training, but you shall never force him into contact with strangers. He can be reserved to strangers, but in order to avoid making it a problem in future training, where the dog must accept being handled by strangers, you ought to work with the socialization more or less purposeful for his entire life.

Most Belgians are going through a difficult puberty with tremendous hormone storms and moodswings that he needs to be guided through. Many times you, as his leader, must show the Belgian a correct behavior, otherwise he might invent a less successful way to handle a situation. Mostly the storm will pass if you just divert, ignore or give him an obvious guiding. If you succeed with the socializing you will end up with a good, stable grown-up dog. The guarding instinct is profound from the birth of the breed and the Belgian Shepherd does not hesitate to defend his owner, the house or the car.

The Belgian is very quick-minded, the breed enthusiasts describe him as "thought and action is one". That is why you have to prepare the training carefully, the timing with the handler is of highest importance for the final results. Preferably you are one step ahead of the dog all the time, and do not forget to be consistent. You can with advantage train the little puppy to relax, stay down and other passive exercises, that will counteract stress. It is also important that he really comes when you call his name before you let him loose in the wood. A Belgian that tastes the thrill in hunting is almost impossible to convert.

The Belgian Shepherd is incredibly fun to work with. He is fast moving, full of action, prank and folic and with a twinkle in his eye! He matures pretty late and many are those who enters the competing career a little to soon, which often ends in a total clowns act. The Belgian is truly a show off! If you can take these temporary misfortunes with a laughter, you will get a dog that thinks working is never boring. Since the Belgian learns so fast, he quickly gets bored. You will have to vary your training a lot and also do it right from the beginning.

You will not get far with harsh methods, when corrected he will throw himself down to the ground with frisky gestures, wave his tail humbly and as soon as the owner thinks he has understood, he will rise, shake and do the same thing again behind his masters back. You can say that he is soft on the outside but hard on the inside. To jerk his neck only makes the Belgian confused. He prefers logic in his training, he needs to know what he makes right and wrong and why. The most success will be reached with training methods where the Belgian all by himself gets to figure out which action that will give him the reward. With the right guiding, you can make him do almost anything.

The Belgian Shepherd also possesses a great ability to feel what is going on around him. Many of them has been taught to be therapy dogs, whose assignments are to register and warn their owners about coming blood-pressure falls, epileptic attacks and so on. The therapy dog is a great safety for the sick, who can get his medicine on time and stop a coming attack. Therefore, the Belgian is also very sensitive to his handler's tiniest change in mood, which can effect the training negatively. No training when you are not in the mood!

The Belgian Shepherd always does his best to please, his distinct body language is a great help in the training. You can never demand or bribe your way to achieve the Belgians respect, that you must earn. The Belgian can be very questioning and patience trying. That is why it is good to be stubborn. As a leader you must be strong and stable, you can never give up a conflict. The Belgian Shepherd is very attentive to your reactions even if it looks as if he is watching something else. Fears are therefore easy to apply if you are not careful. Mentality tests have shown that the Belgian Shepherd is more insecure than the German Shepherd when it comes to the shooting part.

The Belgian possesses a tremendous ability to concentrate, but he tends to draw his attention to several things at the same time, which was necessary earlier when he should both keep the herd together and at the same time keep an eye on possible menace in the surroundings. Still he has a tendency to choose what will be priorited, which not always is the same thing that the owner wants. A Belgian trained the right way is a delight to the eye, he has learned to sort out what is important without missing a thing that happens around him.

The text is written by Karin Olsson. I want to thank my brother Henrik Olsson, who helped me with the translation, and the following persons (in alphabetical order), who gave me all the facts:

Pål Annerström Tracking and obedience on the highest level, search on a high level with Tervueren.
Frederik M. Balster-Philips van Buren Has trained both Tervueren and Groenendael for epileptic work.
Madeleine Gamble Educated dog psychologist. Has herding as the main thing, but also does tracking, article scenting, a little agility and service (help at home).
Margaretha Geveld Highest level in tracking and obedience, has passed the herding test with Tervueren, working dog for the civil military defence, tested for blood track, and conformation.
Leif och Åsa Granlund kennel Hexen House. Has competed on a high level in obedience and search, and on the highest level (Elite) tracking with Tervueren.
Bo Gustavsson och Titti Karlsson Tiboz kennel. Has trained rapport and schutzhund, competing in Elite tracking and in search & rescue on Championship level. Instructor and judge.
Liselott Hansson Somollis kennel. Is herding mostly with Border Collie but also with Malinois.
Anders Håkansson Swedish Master in rapport 97 & 98 with Tervueren.
Carina Holström IPO with Laekenois.
Janne och Sanna Lagerman Obedience and tracking with Groenendael.
Gun Karlsson Salltorps kennel. Tervueren.
Maggan Lilja kennel Team Draco's. Schutzhund, tracking and search on a high level, now competing in obedience (III) with Tervueren which is also tested to become rescue dog. Competing in Elite obedience with another Tervueren, which is also tested for police work, mentality tested and working dog. Trial secretary (SBK), raised with German Shepherds. Also shows with her three dogs at exhibitions.
Mikael Magnerholt Competing in obedience class II with Tervueren and is help-handler in rapport with a Laekenois.
Maria Magnusson Tracking, obedience, agility, conformation and sleigh dog with Groenendael. Competition secretary within the Swedish Working Dog Club (SBK). Also experience in Alaskan Malamute (sleigh dog and obedience).
Carl Erik Meier & Charlotte Stewart kennel Chacami, Denmark. Obedience, tracking, search, agility, conformation and breeding of Tervueren. Also experience in German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador and Rottweiler. Synnöve Rask Rapport on Championship level, also Elite tracking. Experience in all four Belgians.
Linnéa Sekobon kennel Vajert. Tracking, search and obedience. Working dog for the civil military defence and agility with Laekenois, but also experience of the other Belgian Shepherds.
Åsa Sjöberg Obedience class III and tracking on a high level with Groenendael. Also experience of Sheltie (Elite obedience).
Kenth Svartberg Etolog, herding with Tervueren and Border Collie, competing in obedience, working and agility.
Mary Theriot USA. Herding, obedience, agility, tracking, search and rescue. Is training Belgians for film- and TV-productions.
Mona Thorsen Nightrunner's kennel. Tracking and obedience on the highest level with Tervueren and Groenendael.
Carina Tolge-Bergkvist kennel Mahagonny. Has competed in obedience class III, tracking and rapport with Tervueren. Has bred both conformation and performance Champions.
Sten Åhlstad Search, tracking and obedience on the highest level (Elite), schutzhund, rescue and working dog for the civil military defence with Tervueren and Groenendael. Also experience with German Shepherd.

Some facts has also been gathered from the swedish breed organizations homepage (AfBV), the breed standard, from the book "Vallhunden från valp till vallning" by Ami Andersson, Kenth Svartbergs article about the Belgian Shepherd as herder (Swedish Belgian Yearbook 96) and from HundSports breed special by Åsa Lindholm.

EPIX Belgian Sheepdogs thanks Karin Olsson for permission to post her article on our web site. Please respect copyright and do not reproduce this article or its contents without express permission from Karin Olsson.