The history of the Boerboel – South Africa’s own dog breed


The Boerboel is South Africa’s very own dog breed. The history of its origins is complex, and can be traced to ancient times. It may be concluded that genetically the breed developed out of the Bullenbijter – brought to South Africa from Europe by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 – and the Africa dog of the indigenous people.

In dictionaries you will find the following definition of a Boerboel: a big farm dog of uncertain origins. Thankfully, this is now something of the past. South Africa’s own dog, the Boerboel, is now a full-fledged breed.

Long research has revealed that the ancestry of the Boerboel can be traced as far back as the time of Herodotus and to Tibet, Assiria and Babylon. In Assiria dogs were used as soldiers, even covered with reinforced material to protect them. When Assurbanipal conquered Egypt these dogs were also taken along and thus they were spread further into the known world.

Later Alexander the Great was responsible for spreading them to Europe. Apparently in 326bc he received a present of 156 of these large dogs who had been specially trained to fight lions and elephants. Through the ages these dogs developed into two definite strains: the mastiff which was mainly used for protection and as soldiers, and the hound which was used for hunting purposes. Both these dogs were large and strong and typical working dogs, with only slight differences in appearance and build. It is reputed that all dogs of the western world are descended from these two dog types.

About 600 years ago the Europeans started specialized breeding from these two basic dogs and through fine-selection and cross-breeding the different breeds evolved. Some dogs were bred especially for hunting. Others had to retrieve the prey, guard and herd the livestock and for many other uses they could be put to, but the basis of all these dogs was still the original strong breed of the past.

When Jan Van Riebeeck came to the Cape (modern day South Africa) in 1652 he brought his own dog along to protect him and his family in this wild and unknown country. This dog was known as a “bullenbijter”, a large, heavy mastiff-type dog. At this time the original dog had been much diversified and many of the western world countries had its own distinctive, specialized breed of dog.

The settlers who came after Jan Van Riebeeck also brought along their strongest dogs to protect them against all the unknown dangers of this strange land. Thus dogs arrived here from many different countries. As the pioneers moved further and further inland and settled on remote farms, the dogs were forcibly isolated and a lot of inbreeding took place which had the result that the characteristics of the original Assirian dog started to reappear. Survival was of the utmost importance and it was here that the hardiness of today’s Boerboel was perforce bred into the dog. There was no veterinary surgeon or medicines available for dogs and they had to look out for themselves to a large extent.

During the Great Trek the Boerboel had most of the features that it has today and is clearly recognizable from old drawings. In the period after the trek, on the distant farms, the Boerboel interbred further and only the biggest and strongest dogs survived. His pioneer owners required him to be a friend of the family, a worker, provide protection and also to be a fighter. They could not afford to have a disobedient, moody, finicky, sickly dog they had to be able to rely on him to protect the family, work, kill and fight.

At the turn of the century the characteristics of the old, original dog were clearly visible and the dog was generally known as the “bole”. The years that followed almost brought tragedy to the Boerboel. Urbanization caused cross breeding with anything that could bark and the typical “bole” started to disappear. It was only in the eighties that a serious search started again for the original farm dog.

The Boerboel is the only breed in the world specifically bred to guard and protect and as watchdog. A cranky, temperamental dog that stays surly after being reprimanded, is not a Boerboel. You should purchase a Boerboel for his even character. This was and always should be his main quality. Your Boerboel should qualify himself as your best friend. He should know what you are thinking, when you feel threatened, he should know when you approve or disapprove of a stranger and share your feeling. He should be able to recognize your fear. Any Boerboel owner should be able to confirm this. These traits should be recognizable from puppyhood. He should, with a growl, be able to tell you: “I’m here, always. I will guard you with my life.” If you allow him to attack, he will growl like a lion and fight ferociously without taking his own safety into account.

No wonder Aristotle named the forefathers of these dogs: Leontix (sons of lions). The romans also apparently believed that these dogs were obtained by crossing a dog and a lion. There are cases on record when a lone Boerboel time and again won the fight against a leopard!

He is definitely a child’s friend and playmate. He does not only accept one person as his master, but accepts the protection of the whole family as his duty and is affectionate to all of them. Many a story has been told about a Boerboel spending hour after hour guarding a little baby in a pram. He feels the whole family belongs to him and his sole purpose is to protect them, with his life, if necessary.

Our forefathers required the following from their Boerboel: During the day the dog had to go to the veld with the children to guard the sheep. There he should catch a hare for them to cook for lunch. He should also protect them against all danger that may threaten them. At night he should lie in front of the fire at home and protect the whole family against anything that may be lurking in the dark.


For more information visit Premier Boerboels. For a complete index of all my Boerboel posts, click here

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

8 thoughts

  1. Great family members Borboels, we are seeing to many in the States, more of these fine animals showing up in the dog pound….Sad to say….

    1. Yes it is so sad when a breed becomes popular and this is the side effect. Particularly when it is accompanied by bad breeders and irresponsible owners. The dogs are always the ones who suffer.

  2. Great interesting read. However not sure about all western dogs descended from 326 bc. Evolution and different breed types take a much longer process than this. I would like to think that a dog and a lion could cross breed but again this is almost impossible. Natural selection however would allow for adaption, the strongest dogs fit for purpose would flourish.
    All lovely read

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