Belgian Shepherd Temperament: What's Good About 'Em, What's Bad About 'Em
Temperament, Personality, Behavior, Traits, and Characteristics, by Michele Welton. Copyright © 2000-2018
Belgian Shepherd Dogs come in four varieties:
- the Belgian Groenendael, aka Belgian Sheepdog (longhaired black)
- the Belgian Tervuren (longhaired fawn/mahogany)
- the Belgian Malinois (shorthaired fawn/mahogany)
- the Belgian Laekenois (roughhaired fawn)
Most of the world, including the breed's own native country, consider the four varieties to be one breed called Belgian Shepherd Dog.
Unfortunately the American Kennel Club has decided that the four varieties should be considered separate breeds. The AKC doesn't use the term Belgian Shepherd at all.
You might be wondering why this is so unfortunate. Because when they're considered different breeds, they can't be bred together, which means each "breed" has its own small gene pool instead of one large one. Larger gene pools are best for the greatest genetic diversity, and genetic diversity is important for long-term health and vigor.
To make matters even more confusing, the AKC re-named the Groenendael as Belgian Sheepdog! Which is just silly, since all four varieties are sheepdogs or shepherd dogs – none more so than another.
Now.... on to temperament!
The Belgian Shepherd is an extremely intelligent but challenging breed to live with. Athletic. Agile. Graceful. Elegant. The breed is frequently in motion, often moving in quick, light-footed circles.
Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Ah but.... high energy means a lot of exercise is needed to stay in good 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 that needs ongoing supervision and structured activities.
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 suspiciousness 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. The breed is often 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.
The four varieties of Belgian Shepherd do have some differences in temperament (though these generalities don't apply to every individual).
- The Malinois, for example, is a top-notch competitor in protection dog sports like schutzhund and ring sport, and is frequently used by law enforcement as a police dog. Malinois have the highest energy level (to the point of hyperactivity). Typically they have an intense and "driven" personality, and a pronounced prey/chase drive. Malinois from working lines were never intended to be family pets and should not be kept as such.
- 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
- Heavy shedding (Malinois, Groenendael, Tervuren)
A Belgian Shepherd may not be right for you.
Keep in mind that the inheritance of temperament is less predictable than the inheritance of physical traits such as size or shedding. Temperament and behavior are also shaped by raising and training.
- You can avoid some negative traits by choosing an ADULT dog from an animal shelter or rescue group. With an adult dog, you can easily see what you're getting, and plenty of adult Belgian Shepherds have already proven themselves not to have negative characteristics.
- If you want a puppy, you can avoid some negative traits by choosing the right breeder and the right puppy. Unfortunately, you usually can't tell whether a puppy has inherited temperament or health problems until he grows up.
- Finally, you can avoid some negative traits by training your Belgian Shepherd to respect you and by following the 11-step care program in my book, 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. Bored Belgians can destroy your house and yard.
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.
- Potential animal aggression. Many Belgian Shepherds are dominant or aggressive toward other dogs of the same sex. Some have strong instincts to chase and seize cats and other fleeing creatures.
- Grooming and shedding. Belgian Malinois, Groenendaels, and Tervurens are heavy shedders. You'll find hair all over your clothing and furnishings. In addition, you need to brush and comb Groenendaels and Tervurens to prevent mats. The Laekenois is different. Laekenois have rough wiry-type coats that shed less than the other three – I would call him an average shedder. His coat needs 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. See Belgian Shepherd Training.
Frankly, most Belgian Shepherds (unless you adopt an obviously laid-back adult) are "too much dog" for the average household.
To help you train and care for your dog
Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.
The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.
To learn more about training your dog to be calm and well-behaved, my dog training book is Teach Your Dog 100 English Words. It's a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your dog to listen to you and do whatever you ask.
My dog buying guide, Dog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams, will teach you everything you need to know about finding a good-tempered, healthy dog.
My dog health care book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy, shows you how to help your dog live a longer life while avoiding health problems and unnecessary veterinary expenses.