Belgian Shepherd Temperament
Belgian Groenendael (aka Belgian Sheepdog),
the longhaired black variety of Belgian Shepherd
The American Kennel Club considers these varieties to be four separate breeds. Belgium (their country of origin) and and most other countries consider them to be one breed -- but (except for Canada) prohibits interbreeding. Genetically speaking, Canada got this one right and all the other countries got it wrong! Interbreeding is good because it creates the largest gene pool and the greatest genetic diversity, which is always best for long-term health and vigor. Prohibiting interbreeding means each "breed" has a small gene pool, which means increased inbreeding, which means more health problems. Here's hoping more countries change their policies and follow Canada's lead.
The Belgian Shepherd is an extremely intelligent but challenging breed to live with. Athletic, agile, graceful, and elegant, the high-energy Belgian Shepherd is frequently in motion, often moving in quick, light-footed circles.
This working dog needs a lot of exercise (running, hiking, biking, fetching) to stay in hard condition. Even more important than physical exercise is mental exercise (advanced obedience, agility, herding, Schutzhund, or tracking sports). Belgian Shepherds become bored, frustrated, and prone to obsessive behaviors without something to do. This is a demanding breed who needs ongoing supervision.
Sometimes playing the mischievous clown, yet more often serious, the Belgian Shepherd is highly observant with strangers, typically reserved and aloof, and has strong protective instincts. As such, Belgian Shepherds need more extensive socialization than most breeds so that their watchfulness doesn't become suspicion or sharpness. Shyness and spookiness are also present in a good number of Belgian Shepherd lines.
Most Belgian Shepherds are okay with other pets if raised together, but dog-to-dog aggression is not uncommon and many individuals have a high prey drive and will pursue anything that moves. Small animals should be introduced with great care and supervision.
Though extremely attentive and responsive to the direction of a confident owner, Belgian Shepherds can nonetheless prove difficult for an inexperienced owner to train.
- First, this breed is sensitive to correction, so he requires a light hand on the leash . . . BUT he also knows his own mind and can have dominant tendencies, so you must project firmness and leadership at all times.
- Second, Belgian Shepherds have lightning-quick reflexes and reactions, which means your "timing" in giving commands, signals, praise, and corrections must be spot-on, else they will already be off and doing something else.
- Finally, Belgians are so adept at reading your facial expressions and body language that they pick up every subtle movement you make and are constantly anticipating what you're going to do next. It can be disconcerting when your Belgian seems to be reading your mind and staying one step ahead of you. Indeed, this clever dog must be owned and handled by someone who is smarter and more capable than he is and who can stay one step ahead of HIM.
The four varieties do have slight differences in temperament (though these generalities by no means apply to every individual).
- The Malinois, for example, has become a top-notch competitor in protection dog sports like schutzhund and ringsport, and is frequently used by law enforcement as a police dog. Malinois typically have the highest energy level, a much more "driven" personality, and a more pronounced prey/chase drive. Malinois from working lines were never intended to be family pets and can be difficult to live with.
- The Laekenois has also proven himself in protection dog sports and needs a confident owner who can control a dominant dog.
- Some Tervuren are successful in protection dog sports, but this variety more often competes in advanced obedience and agility (obstacle course). Tervurens vary from high energy to more mellow, from happy-go-lucky to nervous and skittish.
- Groenendaels (the black variety) often have a "softer" temperament and a less pronounced working drive, yet plenty of individuals are still top-notch competition dogs.
If you want a dog who...
- Is large and strong -- but also elegant and graceful
- Is exceedingly smart and versatile -- when well-trained, can learn and do almost anything
- Excels in performance activities
- Is observant and watchful, with strong protective instincts
- Comes in several coats and colors
A Belgian Shepherd may be right for you.
If you don't want to deal with...
- High activity level
- Vigorous exercise requirements
- Participating regularly with your dog in challenging canine sports
- Destructiveness when bored or not exercised enough
- Aggression or fearfulness toward strangers in some lines, or when not socialized enough
- Aggression toward other animals
- Strong-willed mind of his own, requiring a confident owner who can take charge
- Chasing and nipping at things that move: children, joggers, other animals, bikes, cars
- Heavy shedding (Malinois, Groenendael, Tervuren)
A Belgian Shepherd may not be right for you.
- choosing the RIGHT breeder and the RIGHT puppy
- or choosing an ADULT dog from your animal shelter or rescue group – a dog who has already proven that he doesn't have negative traits
- training your dog to respect you
- avoiding health problems by following my daily care program in 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy
More traits and characteristics of the Belgian Shepherd
If I was considering a Belgian Shepherd, I would be most concerned about...
- Providing enough exercise and mental stimulation. Belgian Shepherds MUST have regular opportunities to vent their energy and to use their busy minds to do interesting things. Otherwise they will become rambunctious and bored -- which they usually express by barking and destructive chewing. Bored Belgians can make a shambles of your house and yard.
If you simply want a pet for your family, and don't have the time or inclination to take your dog running or hiking or biking or swimming, or to get involved in herding, or agility (obstacle course), or advanced obedience, or carting, or tracking, or schutzhund (protection), or a similar canine activity, I do not recommend this breed.
Belgian Shepherds were never intended to be simply household pets. Their working behaviors (chasing, nipping, poking) are inappropriate in a normal household setting. Trying to suppress these "hardwired" behaviors, without providing alternate outlets for their high energy level, can be difficult.
- Providing enough socialization. Most Belgian Shepherds have protective instincts toward strangers. They need extensive exposure to friendly people so they learn to recognize the normal behaviors of "good guys." Then they can recognize the difference when someone acts abnormally. Without careful socialization, they may be suspicious of everyone, which is a short step to aggression. Some Belgians go in the opposite direction -- without enough socialization, they become fearful and skittish of strangers, which can lead to defensive aggression.
- Possible animal aggression. Many Belgian Shepherds are dominant or aggressive toward other dogs of the same sex. Many have strong instincts to chase and seize cats and other fleeing creatures. If anything goes wrong in the breeding, socializing, training, handling, or management of this breed, it is capable of seriously injuring or killing other animals.
- Heavy shedding. Belgian Malinois, Groenendaels, and Tervurens shed a LOT. You'll find hair and fur all over your clothing, upholstery, carpeting, and under your furniture. Laekenois, with their roughish wiry-type coat, don't shed nearly as much, but require regular trimming and clipping.
- Mind of their own. Belgian Shepherds are versatile working dogs, capable of learning a great deal. Many individuals excel at the highest levels of competition. However, while some are quick to learn and eager to please, others can be manipulative, willful, and dominant (they want to be the boss) and will make you prove that you can make them do things. You must show them, through absolute consistency, that you mean what you say.
Frankly, most Belgian Shepherds are "too much dog" for the average household. Very few people really have the knowledge or skills necessary to manage this breed, or the time to provide the activities that keep him satisfied.
To learn more about training Belgian Shepherds to be calm and well-behaved, consider my dog training book,
Teach Your Dog 100 English Words.
It's a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will make your Belgian Shepherd the smartest, most well-behaved companion you've ever had.
Teaches your dog to listen to you, to pay attention to you, and to do whatever you ask him to do.
My dog buying guide, Dog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams, will teach you everything you need to know about finding a healthy Belgian Shepherd puppy. Health problems have become so widespread in dogs today that this book is required reading for ANYONE who is thinking of getting a purebred, crossbred, or mixed breed dog.
If you'd like to consult with me personally about whether the Belgian Shepherd might be a good dog breed for your family, I offer a Dog Breed Consulting Service.
Once you have your Belgian Shepherd home, you need to KEEP him healthy -- or if he's having any current health problems, you need to get him back on the road to good health.
My dog health care book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy is the book you need.
Raise your dog the right way and you will be helping him live a longer, healthier life while avoiding health problems and unnecessary veterinary expenses.
Please consider adopting an ADULT Belgian Shepherd...
When you're acquiring a Belgian Shepherd PUPPY, you're acquiring potential -- what he one day will be. So "typical breed characteristics" are very important.
But when you acquire an adult dog, you're acquiring what he already IS and you can decide whether he is the right dog for you based on that reality. There are plenty of adult Belgian Shepherds who have already proven themselves NOT to have negative characteristics that are "typical" for their breed. If you find such an adult dog, don't let "typical breed negatives" worry you. Just be happy that you found an atypical individual -- and enjoy!
Save a life. Adopt a dog.
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