History of the Boerboel.
History from the viewpoint of a farmer – Many articles have been written about the history of the Boerboel breed. This article is not a duplication of existing history articles, it is history told from the viewpoint of a farmer. It intends to explain some of the processes that shaped the development of the Boerboel, developments that may be unclear to people that had no part in the entire process.
It is generally accepted that about 2700 years ago there were massively sized dogs being bred in the area of the present day middle east. These dogs were reportedly big enough to fight lions and elephants. Apparently some of these dogs found their way to Africa and we know that in the southern part of Ethiopia, dogs known as the Indian dogs were found that met the description of the Albanian or Assyrian dog from which the Canis Molossus were probably bred. In Ethiopia these dogs were even milked, and from there the name Cynomolgi, or dog milkers. The Cynomolgi dogs were also used to hunt game and keep the Wildebeests from their huts during the annual migration. It could be accepted that these Cynomolgi dogs moved south with the people of Africa and that these dogs also played a large role in the foundation stock of the Boerboel.
The Bullenbijter – When Jan van Riebeeck and his entourage arrived in Cape Town in 1652 from Holland they brought with them dogs that were referred to as Bullenbijters. Later they were joined by other Mastiff type dogs from France and Germany. Still later certain working English Mastiffs came to South Africa that also possibly had a role to play in the formation of the Boerboel.
1652 – 1838: Expansion into Africa – In the years between 1652 and 1838 (when the great Trek northwards started) there was a steady expansion of the agricultural activities and contact with the African dog owner increased proportionally. After 1838 the influence of the African ancestors of the Cynomolgi dogs on the Boerboel foundation stock would have been much bigger. This influence of the African dog might be the explanation for the fact that the Boerboel is structurally much better than the other Mastiff type dogs. It is important to note that the African dog owner, especially those that use their dogs with the cattle herds, is a very dedicated master to his dogs. Because he lives in the veld with the dogs and an assegai as protection for the cattle and sheep against predators, he selects his dogs with care. He also knows his dogs very well and knows exactly what to expect from each one when danger looms. Because of this knowledge he could make an informed decision concerning selection for the next generation.
This then was the genes that were available to the Boere to breed their famous Boerboels.
Understanding the impact of frontier life – Early Boerboel selection is very hard to understand for people that did not experience the type of frontier life the Boers, or people that bred the Boerboel, led. The lifestyle of the Boers or farmers in South Africa could be compared to the lifestyle of the pioneers of the Wild West in the United States.
Protection of a pack of dogs – Farmers left the civilization of that time and went into the wilderness with an ox wagon, cattle, horses and their dogs. They took their family members with them and groups of people were travelling together in what they called a trek. When they reached an unpopulated area where they wanted to stay, everybody went to their own farm. Because they found themselves in a harsh and dry land the farms had to be big, to provide enough grazing for the animals. This resulted in a sparsely populated area where gangs of marauding men and various beasts could find adequate shelter to attack anything at any time that suited them. The best solution to this problem was to keep a horde of dogs, strong enough to ward off the dangers by night, and agile enough to do the farm work by day.
Attitude of frontier people – The only people that could tolerate this constant threat of the wilderness were hard, fearless people, willing to take on whatever dangers came their way. It is difficult to describe to modern civilized people what type of person could live under those circumstances, because they differed so totally from the modern concept of what is acceptable. As far as the breeding of Boerboels are concerned it is only necessary to focus on their attitude towards their dogs.
Relationship between dog and master – In the first place the frontiers people of South Africa showed extremely little emotion, whether it is towards dogs or people. Many of the old Boere (farmers) would spend the whole day with his dog, and to an outsider it will seem that no sign of affection passed between dog and man except the occasional touch or words that were mostly orders. Dog and man will seldom be further apart than a few yards, but it will always seem as if they did not plan it that way. When danger looms, the Boerboel will take his place next to his master in an unobtrusive way. He will seldom be noisy except when the situation requires it. The dog will act as calm and collected as the master and although it will seem as if they pay no attention to the other, when one senses something strange the other will know it immediately and react to it in the appropriate way.
Temperament suiting the frontiersman – This very noticeable characteristic of the Boerboel; to be seemingly disinterested in people and occurrences that his master approve of, has been selected into the Boerboel by the Boere that do not want a dog that is a nuisance. More important though is the ability of the Boerboel to react when his master want him to. The dog with his sharper senses will pick up an approaching danger like a leopard or buffalo and react quickly and violently to kill or distract the danger. Word of a Boerboel with a temperament that suits the frontiersman travelled far and wide, and resulted in the widespread use of his progeny or services in the Boerboel gene pool of the time.
Deep bond between dog and master – Although it might have seemed that the Boer did not give his dog a lot of love or affection, in reality there was a very deep bond between them. Naturally the Boerboel will give his life for his master; and that happened frequently. From the masters side the same could be said. That self same hard and non affectionate Boer, will walk for miles with an injured or killed Boerboel in his arms, just to make sure he is protected from predators in his helpless state or spare the dog the agony of walking with a painful leg. Man and dog shared their water and food on a regular basis. For the Boer only the best was good enough for his dog, although on the surface it would appear not to be the case. He knew if the Boerboel was allowed to sleep in the house it would be unaccustomed to the wild and when he had to negotiate the dangers of the night, he would not be able to cope. He would also not protect his Boerboel from dangers such as snakes and lion, so that the dog can become acquainted to those dangers and learn how to handle them. It was not uncommon to hear the remark that this or that Boerboel was too brave and he died because he was not cautious. Even in the selection for braveness there are checks and balances that the Boerboel was subjected to.
Training of the dog by the farmer – The Boer also gave his dog the best preparation for his life. He taught him how to track, how to hunt, how to avoid the weapons of men, etc. He also exposed him to the dangerous hunts (lion, leopard, porcupine, wild boar, etc.) in the company of experienced hunting dogs. That taught him to react with caution at the appropriate times.
Large numbers of dog – Something that must be remembered is that the pioneers kept large numbers of dogs. Reports could be found where tales are told of a single farmer with ten to fifteen watch dogs (or more) to keep vermin like Hyena from their sheep. A large hyena with its strong jaw (stronger than a lion) is a formidable opponent and could kill a few dogs before he himself is killed. The reports states that the Boerboel is very well adapted to this task and add “it would be difficult to find more resolute and courageous dogs than this breed.”
Brutal culling used – A fact that reflects not very positively on the writers’ own people (Boere) is the culling they used. The children usually herded the cattle, and they started this from a very young age. The Boerboels that accompanied the children to the veld was to a very large extent their main protection. If one of those Boerboels showed an inclination to growl at a child, he was shot. If he was unreliable and strayed from the children, he got shot as well. If he ran away from danger he was also shot. Today, 200 years later, it is very difficult to understand those very harsh actions, but it must be remembered that the Boer did not dare keep a Boerboel that will react wrongly in a crisis situation and lead to the death of his family or himself. One of the biggest assets in the development of the Boerboel breed was the deep rooted belief of the Boere that there was only one cure for a bad dog and that was culling. I only understood this better when I realized that in cattle, sheep and pig farming, there was a great tolerance of bad animals, because their faults could be corrected by breeding while the animal still had a commercial value. Dogs at that time had no monetary value. There was a saying amongst the Afrikaner Boere that you do not buy women, dogs or (“groenmielies”) corn on the cob. Because the unwanted dogs could not be sold they were culled. This strict culling resulted in a very quick improvement of the overall quality of the Boerboel breed.
Selection for farmer’s needs – As the reader will note, all of the traits mentioned so far concerned the dog’s temperament or character. The Boerboel was therefore selected for function, mainly on the basis of his temperament. The Boerboel breed as such was built on a wide basis of dogs with the ability to satisfy the farmer’s needs for a dog that could live and work in close cooperation with the whole family. The most important traits that decided the inclusion of a dog in the early Boerboel gene pool was reliability, intelligence, faithfulness, fearlessness, devotion to his master, calmness, self assuredness, alertness, protectiveness, prey drive (?) and carefulness. In fact, without anybody knowing it, the dogs that would play a role in the formation of the breed was selected on the strength of their temperament without any thought to breed conformation, uniformity or breed standards of any kind. The binding factor or common denominator was their temperament.
Regional differences – Early photos and remaining specimens give an indication that, included in this Boerboel gene pool, were some poor examples of the modern Boerboel. What is clear however is that the Boere has reached their main aim and that was to get a moderately large dog with the desired psyche. Farmers (Boere) in different areas had different physical requirements of their dogs. Dogs in the grassy plains of the high veld differed in physical appearances from dogs in the low veld that is mainly bush veldt. The Boerboels developed in the high veld were more agile, taller and leaner muscled than those in the bush veldt. Because the Boerboel played such an important role in the farming operations of that time, the Boere was willing to go to great lengths to improve the quality of their dogs. When they heard of an outstanding dog, it was not too much trouble to take his bitch to such a dog for mating. The resulting progeny were spread far and wide and in this way the different bloodlines were formed.
Selection for physical ability.
Physical ability – Although the personality of the dog was always the most important criterion for selection, physical ability would also have played a role in the selection that shaped the Boerboel breed. The main functions of the Boerboel was guarding, working cattle and sheep (mostly accompanying the herds as a guard) and hunting.
Physically imposing characteristics of the Boerboel – The Boerboel had to guard people, animals and property. In order to do that he had to be physically imposing with the ability to fight. Of cause he had to have all the psychological attributes already discussed as well. In order to ward off large predators like hyena, leopard and lion, the Boerboel must be big with a big head. He must also be extremely strong to take on those animals in a stand up fight. The old Boere set great store by the ability of their dogs to fight other dogs, because that is an indication of their ability to fight predators. In an open range type of farming like they had then, there were no fences or kennels, and fights amongst dogs were very common in order to determine the rank of all the dogs in the area. Large predators were mostly tackled by a group of dogs, although certain dogs were able to kill something like a leopard on his own. Dogs bred for guard duty was bigger, better muscled and with heavier bone than the other dogs.
Working dogs – During the day, most of the Boerboels were used as working dogs on the farm. Only a few stayed at home as watch and guard dogs, and then it were mainly the old, sick or pregnant ones, with the young dogs. Some of the dogs went with the herds of cattle or sheep to guard them, while another group each had its own team of working oxen that he stayed with. On the larger farms the ‘preferred one’ usually accompanied the master on his day to day tasks, like visiting all the activities on the farm. The herd guards and general farm dog was usually heavier built dogs.
Working with oxen – What people often find interesting is the work for the dogs accompanying the ox teams. When it was time to plough the lands, the oxen was rounded up in the morning at about 3am and then they were hitched to the yoke. The dog sometimes helped with the rounding up of the oxen and then when they were ordered to stand in a row, side by side, with the word ‘Hoi’, he would intimidate the oxen, so that they stand still and present their heads to be fastened. If an ox decided to run, the dog would round him up immediately and would in the extreme cases grab him by the nose, and bring him in. Sometimes he will just give the ox a nip to remind him of his wicked ways. A few oxen together were loosely tied by rawhide to the yoke or chain, to keep them controlled, while the other oxen are handled. The Boerboel then comes and sit or stand just in front of the oxen’s eyes and keep them quiet by either growling or just by his presence. Some handlers used to put the rawhides by which the oxen were tied in the mouth of the dog in order to control the oxen.
Boerboels standing their ground – Boerboels capable of intimidating a whole team of world wise oxen, was usually big, self assured and intimidating to the degree that a small boy could watch them perform for hours. The team usually tries out a new dog by snorting, throwing the horns in the air and mock charging. Very few dogs could stand that, but the “King of dogs”, the Boerboel, calmly stand his ground, growl a deep menacing growl, bite one or two lips just slightly, and restore order without losing his cool. Most other dogs in that situation either panic or become so agitated that they lose the plot completely and the oxen would scatter.
Dogs walking with a team of oxen – Most of the dogs will walk with the team until they are put out to pasture at about 10 am, and the Boerboel will then stay with the implement and yoke’s until about 3.30 pm when the whole process starts again.
Boerboels used in hunting – About 50 years ago, when farming was much easier than in the pioneer days, young boys usually used this idle time and slipped away between 10 am and 3 pm to do some hunting with the dogs. It is generally believed that in the Boerboel breed the dogs that developed as the hunting dogs were later registered as the Rhodesian Ridge back. The heavier Boerboel with the shorter wider muzzle and heavier bone with more muscle is not the traditional hunting dog, but more the fighter in the hunting process. It sometimes happens that the fast greyhound type of dog overrun a jackal and then the jackal stops to make a fight of it. A jackal can put up a show that convinces the greyhounds he is able to kill a lion. Often the fast dogs sit down to discuss the whole matter with the jackal, and the slower Boerboel comes storming into the circle, scoops up the jackal and by the time he comes to a halt, the jackal can do no more talking.
“Catching rabbits and killing lions” – It is sometimes said that a Boerboel must be able to catch a rabbit and kill a lion. Under normal circumstances the Boerboel can do neither. Rabbits are usually too agile for one Boerboel to catch on his own. A pack of Boerboels might succeed and many rabbits were caught by Boerboels under circumstances that favoured the dog, but Boerboels were not bred to catch rabbits. The Boerboel capable of catching a rabbit will also differ greatly from a Boerboel ‘able’ to kill a lion. The first one will be a sprinter and the second one will be a fighter. The sprinter will be a lean, sparingly muscled, agile dog with a narrow, long face, while the fighter will be the “body builder” with a wide body, lots of muscle and a wide short face. It is told by a reliable source, that years ago a particular zoo obtained stray dogs that they put into the lion camp as prey for the lions, to keep up their hunting skills. An unfortunate Boerboel bitch that ended up in the lions cage, felt that her time had not come yet, and she somehow got hold of the lion’s throat and killed him. It was probably great news at the time and she was used for breeding after that.
Killing leopard – The biggest hunting function of the Boerboel lies in fighting predators. Stories of Boerboels killing leopard in South Africa are very common. If the Boerboel survives he seldom does so without serious wounds. Up to this day there are still farmers that hunt leopard with only one Boerboel, and that dog regularly kills the leopard with very little harm done to himself. The type of dog favoured by farmers is the more agile Boerboel. This one story, heard from a reliable source, will illustrate the seriousness of the Boer’s views towards cowardness:
“A young boy went hunting with his father’s Boerboel and a .22 gun. In his inexperience he shot at a leopard and wounded him, probably only a light flesh wound. The dog followed the leopard to his den and refused to fight when the child ordered him to. The boy then ordered the dog to keep the Leopard in his den and he went back home where he found his father and a neighbour. The neighbour offered to bring his two big dogs of a different breed to get the leopard out because they were ‘trained’ leopard dogs. When they reached the den, the father called back his Boerboel and the other two dogs were sent in. When they met the leopard he gave the front dog a smack with his paw and the dog fled the scene with his tail between his legs. The father then ordered his Boerboel to attack the leopard, which he did, because his own master ordered him to do it, and he killed the leopard. When they got back to the pick-up that was parked nearby, the frightened dog was hiding under it. The owner shot his cowardly dog there and then.”
Killing porcupines – Porcupine are very dangerous animals in that they run into their attacker and the quills are impossible for the dog to get out, it is extremely painful and without exception, the wound becomes septic. Lions that knows porcupine will never tackle them. Porcupine however is a very destructive animal in the maize fields and does a lot of harm to a crop, and therefore farmers hunt them to keep their numbers down. Dogs could do nothing to them unless they are able to come in under the quills and reach the soft head of the porcupine. Boerboels have proven themselves time and time again as excellent hunters of porcupine because they stay calm in the most tense moments and wait for the appropriate time to attack. They also have that inborn sense of awareness to stay away from the most dangerous situations, or postpone their attack until circumstances favours them. Boerboels are often used as protection against snakes such as the formidable hunter, the black mamba. When a Boerboel knows how to kill a mamba, he abides his time, and just as the snake starts to get up the tree, the Boerboel attacks.
Important factors in the genetic progress of the Boerboel.
Rapid breed improvement – The rapid breed improvement that the Boerboel breed experienced could be ascribed to a few factors:
- Selection for function alone.
- Large numbers of breeding stock in the hands of
- Experienced breeders (Boere) that were used to breed improvement in other species.
- Selection under sub-optimum feeding conditions.
- Strict culling of all unwanted individuals.
These 5 points could now be discussed in little more detail.
1) Selection for function alone
Under bite – The Boere selected for function alone and breed improvement were not hampered by fancy points such as ears, colour, or something like an under bite. A few words on the under bit might be appropriate. A dog with a short muzzle has got a strong bite, just as is the case with the lion. That usually leads to an under bite, where the lower jaw is slightly longer than the upper jaw. As the photo illustrates, this is sometimes seen in lions as well. Off course a normal scissor bite will be preferred to an under bite, but an occasional slight under bite will have no negative effect apart from the fact that the mother is sometimes not able to bite the umbilical cord off, and therefore she pulls it out of the puppy and that might lead to a hernia that heals with time. Over-selection against under bite might lead to long, narrow muzzles in the Boerboel breed. That could already be seen in some of the kennels where there is strong discrimination against under bite.
2) Large numbers of breeding stock
Selection for the right dogs – Large numbers of dogs were always necessary on the farms to perform the necessary tasks. That supplied the necessary numbers for the selection that is the cornerstone of breed improvement. The Boer knew what he was aiming at in his breeding, it was very important to him to get the right dogs, for his life depended on the quality of the dogs, and he had a lot of puppies each year to select the best individuals from, to form his breeding team for the next generation.
3) Experienced breeders
Breeding for necessity – Boere were breeders for their livelihood. They knew what breeding was about, they did it every day with cattle, horses and sheep, and they knew what could be achieved and what must be avoided. They have learned their lessons well and paid their school fees with the mistakes they made with other species, and as breeders they were professionals. They also knew their dogs very intimately for they worked with them under various circumstances. It was very clear to the breeder what were the shortcomings of each dog. Compare that with the backyard breeder of today: The dogs never work, so they could not be evaluated; they have never bred any other animals commercially; they have never worked with the product of their breeding for a long time in close proximity; they have three or four breeding dogs; they keep on breeding from the same individuals and do not shorten the generation interval; dogs are overfed to the extent that some dogs show a super physique, but is useless as a protector or companion; etc.
4) Selection through sub-optimum feeding conditions
Sub-optimum feeding – The dogs were mainly fed maize porridge and milk with sometimes the entrails of the slaughtered sheep or buck. Selection under sub-optimum feeding conditions quickly identified the dog that must be selected, for it led to the situation where a feeble individual were not protected by good feeding, but the poor feeding brought about a large and very discernible difference between the strong, healthy, powerful and virile dog, and the weakling. The result was a Boerboel breed that is very healthy, well adapted to harsh conditions, robust and able to thrive under different climatic conditions.
5) Strict Culling
Natural selection – Strict selection (culling of unwanted individuals as opposed to selling them) was already mentioned, but it must be emphasized that the role that natural selection played could not be ignored. Scores of dogs died in fights with snakes, porcupine, lion, leopard, hyena, etc. Those Boerboels that survived sired the next generation.
The Lion; an example of the product of natural selection.
Comparison with the lion – The Boere lived close to nature and they were very quick to pick up the lessons of nature. In the wild the lion is what the Boerboels is in civilization: The lion, as the king of the animals, is awe inspiring in appearance. He intimidates with his size, large head that is enhanced by mane and is physically extremely strong. Although the lion is from the cat family, the Boere used him as the blueprint for the Boerboel conformation in later years. The idea was always expressed that ‘nature does not tolerate extremes’. When looking at the lion (in South Africa there is ample opportunity to do that on the lion farms) the wisdom of that saying is clearly seen. Although the lion has a large head, it is still in proportion to the body. Although he is well muscled it could still be said that he is lean, agile and fast. Although he is strong, his chest is only moderately wide and his legs are only moderately heavy in comparison to his body. The heaviest part of the lion is his head, neck, shoulders and chest. While his hindquarters are strong, well muscled and formed, it is rather light in comparison with the front quarters. The most obvious difference with the majority of modern Boerboels is the fact that his rump is not as droopy as that of some modern dogs. The old working dogs resembled the lion to a large extent. Some of the modern dogs tend to have less head and more backside, and be so wide in the chest that agility and endurance is lost. In the old Boerboels and the lion, the extreme muscling, that resembles a body builder on steroids, was also absent.
Avoiding the extremes – In conclusion, a word of warning might be appropriate. When looking at the photo of the working bull mastiff one realizes that a lot could be lost by over-selection for muscularity. We all want the well muscled Boerboels that is impressive and looks strong and imposing. Mother nature and the history of other breeds have taught us that we must avoid the extremes. Every sincere breeder of Boerboels must now decide for himself what is the optimum thickness or muscularity for the breed and stick to that regardless of the opinions of uninformed people. Breeders like to show the animals they have bred. History has taught us that there are very few things more detrimental to the well being of a breed than too much emphasis on show results. If we want to retain the soundness of the Boerboel, we must make our selection decisions on the working ability of the dog and not on show results or conformational scores. Show results and scores are good tools to be used in the selection process, but they are not as important as the functionality of the dog. Let us always remember what brought about the greatness of the Boerboel. Only by applying the self same principles will we be able to maintain breed improvement in our dogs.
Breed created in hardship – We inherited the wonderful Boerboel breed, that was created in a difficult process of hardship and survival of the fittest, to present us with a breed that surpass all else in the fields it was meant for. It is our responsibility to determine how we must guide this breed towards the future, in order to ensure that we will be able to pass on the Boerboel as a functionally efficient breed, when our time comes to bow out. When a similar history is written in the year 2100, what will the verdict be?