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Get to Know the Boerboel: A South African Pioneer

You had to be tough to survive in South Africa in the 1800s; the Boerboel was the dog of choice for protection from animals and other humans.

Caroline Coile  |  Dec 8th 2014


He may look like a Mastiff or Bullmastiff at first glance, and he is in fact a member of the Mastiff family, but the Boerboel is more like the African adventurer of the family when compared to his estate-dwelling kinsmen.

Read more interesting things about the Boerboel:

  • Though they may be confused with many of the Mastiff breeds, Boerboels are the only ones with docked tails. Of course, some Boerboels have undocked tails, which complicates things. They are smaller than Mastiffs, and compared to Bullmastiffs their heads are much less wrinkled and massive.
  • The breed has its roots in the Dutch East India Company. When the company sent Jan van Riebeeck to South Africa in 1652 to establish a trading post (which became Cape Town), van Riebeeck brought his Bullenbijter with him for protection. Subsequent colonists also brought large protective dogs.

  • More Bulldog and Mastiff breeds arrived with British settlers in the 1800s. These dogs all interbred and were further dispersed northward during the Great Trek beginning in 1838, and were likely also crossed with native African dogs. The Rhodesian Ridgeback may even have played a role.
  • The name Boerboel (pronounced BUR-bul) means “farmer’s dog.”
  • The Boers (Dutch/Afrikaans for “farmers”) used the dogs for protection from dangerous animals and humans in the sparsely populated land, often keeping large numbers of them around the farm. During the day the dogs would disperse to different duties, guarding different groups of livestock, controlling oxen, or accompanying the farmer.

  • A single Boerboel could kill a leopard. The dog could not kill a lion alone, however, as is sometimes claimed.
  • Tail docking is said to have originated to prevent baboons from grabbing the dog by the tail.
  • In 1938, the diamond mining company De Beers imported Bullmastiffs to guard their South African mines, and these dogs were subsequently integrated into the Boerboel gene pool.

  • In the early 1980s, two fanciers searched Africa for authentic Boerboel dogs, eventually locating 250 and selecting 72 for registration.
  • The breed has since spread throughout the world, but it has been banned in at least one country as a fighting dog.
  • The breed will join the AKC Working group in 2015.

  • The Boerboel is a quiet, confident, courageous dog, extremely protective and capable. It is not a breed for a novice owner, as the dog tends to be headstrong and domineering, and can be aggressive to other dogs and pets and suspicious toward strangers.
  • The Boerboel is the most agile of the Mastiff breeds.
  • At present, no celebrities are known to own Boerboels. They’re not exactly a Hollywood dog, but we expect some celebrity who values canine protection to show up with one soon.

Do you own a Boerboel? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.