History of the Boerboel


The Boerboel as a breed fell into obscurity during the last decades of the 20th century. It might have disappeared completely had not the lovers of the breed undertaken to classify, record and register everything about the breed. This was a huge task which required extensive travel throughout Southern Africa to log all Boerboels in existence at that time. That effort was successful and now the Boerboel breed is becoming more and more popular throughout the world. This comes with downsides though – greed and lack of knowledge means that inferior dogs are being sold for inflated prices by unscrupulous or inexperienced breeders, purely to take advantage of the breed’s popularity. The effort of Boerboel campaigners and ambassadors to keep the breed as close as possible to the original dogs is invaluable.


Roman coin
A Roman coin depicting a dog


The earliest reference to dog classification is found only in the reference to use or function of the animal for humans. Broadly speaking, our ancient forefathers only knew dogs good for hunting small prey and vermin, herding dogs that herded and guarded livestock, scenting dogs that could follow prey, sight dogs that could run any prey it could see to the ground and holding dogs that could physically overpower and hold the prey until its master could catch up and have it for dinner.

Dog breeds were not named or classified as nobody had any use for a fancy name except to describe the use of the dog. To protect the characteristics of for instance your favourite small vermin catcher, even early humans purposefully bred good, small vermin catchers to other good, small vermin catchers and the whole concept of breeding for a specific purpose was initiated.

The social use of dogs for humans however deviated over time from pure “hunter’s assistants” and “vermin catchers” to include household companion dogs, dogs of unique appearance and “I like that” dogs, which mostly satisfies a cosmetic human whim.

Every domesticated animal species shows tremendous variety in size, colour, and conformation as a result of man’s intervention in the breeding process. However, no species demonstrates more variety than man’s best friend, the domestic dog.

Canis familiaris comes in every imaginable size and shape, with every possible colour and coat variation. Where did these varieties come from?

Throughout the ages, an amazing number of people have pondered that question and theorized answers. Most of these people began by first cataloguing the different kinds of dogs. Among the most well-known of these “cataloguers” was Dr. Caius, who was the personal physician to Queen Elizabeth and who undertook the classification of British Dogs in 1576. Robert Leighton, another Englishman, records early classifications in his New Book of the Dog. Among them is one which was drawn up by the Romans and which classified dogs into canes villatica (watchdogs), canes pastorales (sheepdogs), canes vanatici (hunting dogs). These hunting dogs were further sub-divided into pugnaces (attackers), nare sagaces (trackers), pedibus cleres (chasers).

These early classifications were made primarily on the basis of the dog’s function, its job. Today a widely accepted classification of dogs divides them into four main categories each representing a different origin and sharing certain physical traits. Those categories, according to Richard and Alice Fiennes, are the Dingo group, the Northern group, the Greyhound group and the Mastiff group.

As humans realized the application of a specific dog’s characteristics to their specific needs, dogs started accruing a commercial value. This value attached by humans to a specific use for a specific purpose of a segment of the dog population was the main reason for the initiation of breed societies. Breed societies are simply collections of humans with a specific purpose in mind.

Breed societies established “breed standards” that were based on four different sets of imperatives.

  • Firstly some breed societies started breeding for a certain appearance to satisfy personal preference or market demand which gave rise to a whole range of “cosmetic” dog breeds.
  • A second group of “breeder societies” soon formed to protect the interests of the breeders themselves
  • Other breed societies were purely focused on potential use for certain physical or character traits to achieve a specific purpose such as fighting dogs, racing dogs, etc.
  • A last broad group of breed societies focused on the historical purpose of the breed and established mechanisms to retain bloodlines that still adhered to the historical purpose of the dog even though that purpose might have disappeared through the evolution of human society.

The drift of breed societies from the initial protection of historical purpose to the breeding of dogs having certain, at such time, desirable “look”, must be guarded against. The management structures of breed associations also have a tendency to digress into breeders’ associations with catastrophic results for the breed. As the management structures change, the perception of what the breed appearance should be, changes with it, resulting in regular changes to the breed standard to, eventually, only achieve cosmetic whims.



Mastiff Mozaik
An ancient Roman mosaic depicting a large, domesticated dog

Western civilization arose from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Near East, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and Phoenicia. All these great empires contributed in many ways to the culture, beliefs, civilization social habits and types of domesticated animals seen in modern society.

The most reliable proof of how these civilizations, and their domesticated animals developed, is found in archeological evidence. In the Near East and Western Asia (today known as Iran, Iraq and Israel) huge rubble heaps, called tells, are the targets of archeologists. These tells or mounds are the ancient ruins of once illustrious centers of civilization, now forgotten.

The bottom layers of these tells, that date often date back to the Stone Age, are difficult to interpret and to find proof of the existence of early domestication of dogs. One such tell, dated at 7000 B.C., which once represented the ancient city of Jarmo in the Zargos Mountains of Kurdistan in present day Iraq, however yielded a small unfired clay figurine of a dog that resembles a shaggy sheep dog.

From Jericho, or Tell-es Sultan, an archeologist working the mound between 1952 and 1958, found evidence not only of massive walls and towers that existed some 6000 years before Joshua is said to have blown them down, but also of large guarding dogs which today would have been described as being of the Mastiff type.

Mastiff stone relief
An ancient stone relief showing a large, wide mouthed dog

The Susa tell in the Khuzestan lowlands of Iran, once the capital of the plains of Elam and one of the most important cities in Western Asia, delivered the first stone engravings of two types of dogs hunting with humans. The one type of dog appeared great in size, with a deep stop, prominent suborbital ridges, strong jaws and remarkably well developed cheek muscles, whilst the other type looks very similar to the sight dogs still favored in the Near East. The Susa tell provides proof that even in early civilization, a mastiff type dog was being developed separately from the more common sight hounds of the ancient people.

Both previously published books, analyzing the origins of the Boerboel, talk about the dogs of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was a huge area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, about 3000 and 2000 km in length respectively, and was once inhabited by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medians, Persians and Sumerians. The earliest of these groups were the Sumerians which inhabited the area as early as the 4thmillennia B.C. A writer from the Sumerian era, Opian, gave a description of bear hunting in Mesopotamia[1] utilizing hunting dogs and capturing nets. Other manuscripts from this era gives proof of the early value of a well bred dog as it refers to the nuisance caused by unwanted curs and stray dogs wandering the street of these ancient villages[2].

But why were the dogs of Mesopotamia so special and were they really the origins of the modern breeds? The reason for the “Mesopotamian assumption” is simple. The dogs were not unique nor did they originate from Mesopotamia but the earliest forms of writing were developed by the Sumerians, who inhabited Mesopotamia. This writing consisted of reliefs and drawings on clay tablets, to convey a specific message or reflect a piece of history. These “drawings”, especially those found at Lagas and Dyala, clearly shows differentiated types of breeds of dogs being:

  • A small spitz-type dog with a curled tail
  • Taller sight hounds, prick eared and with their curled tails carried high
  • Other tall, heavier types of hound, presumably the Indian type narrow muzzled dogs often referred to by writers, some with prick ears, others with drooping ears and still others with folded ears, all with short tails carried in a sickle close to or over the back of the dog, and finally;
  • Mastiffs, displaying wide mouths and muscular power rather than speed

During the 2nd millennium B.C., Samaria became known as Babylonia, and from this period good evidence of the existence of the Babylonian mastiff emanates.

Assyrian pottery
A well preserved pottery piece from the Babylonian era showing chariots and a dog.

 Babylonia and Assyria existed from about 1900 B.C. to about 600 B.C. Archeologists have unearthed a domestic quarter, dating back to 1900 B.C., in which ruins of some of the houses were still reasonably intact. One ruin, in particular, is remarkable as, standing against one of the walls, was a large dog kennel. In fact, dogs were regularly portrayed with great care and lifelike in form by the Babylonians.

The Babylonian mastiff was a huge dog by modern standards. At the end of the 3rdmillennium, these dogs were portrayed to be up to 80cm at the shoulder and were prized as lion and bear hunters, as well as guardians of property including homesteads. The importance of the mastiffs in the ancient culture is best portrayed by the fact that they were awarded certain superstitious and supernatural powers. Proof of this statement is the terracotta charms of mastiffs that were buried under the house thresholds by the Babylonians and Assyrians in the belief that they would ward off evil.

The ancient Persian armies invaded Greece and Egypt with thousands of sight hounds and mastiffs included in their war machine. Most of these were Indian hounds but a substantive percentage was savage mastiffs utilized in the battle itself. This use of dogs in combat was extended throughout Asia and later adopted by the Romans in both military combat as well as for entertainment in the circus.

It is well known that Hammurabi (about 2100 B.C.) used dogs during his battles. He had a great horde of mastiffs that were let loose on the enemy before the actual hand-to-hand combat would begin. He also had great success in getting his mastiffs to spook and pull down horses used to draw war chariots and had specific training for his mastiffs to hamstring horses, thereby immobilizing both the horse and the chariot. But were these dogs really effective? The answer is found in the history[3] of Xerxes, the King of Persia, who had four large villages dedicated to just finding and preparing food for his war dogs and Ptolemy II, who displayed, during a daylong military parade, 2400 war dogs!

King Tut grave
Detail from a painted chest in the tomb of Tutankhamen shows two dogs in battle below the pharaoh’s chariot

Ancient Egyptian records, reliefs and artifacts abound with representations of various types of dogs. Most of the Egyptian dogs were grazoid (fast and thin) in appearance but evidence of mastiffs have been found at Hierakonpolis, dating from the first dynasty, where a large serpentine vase was unearthed with handles in the shape of mastiff heads and a mace head depicting alternating mastiffs and lions, each attacking the lion ahead of it. A mastiff skull was also found among 38 skulls of mummified dogs found at Abydos, Thebes and Asyut, and is now housed in the Vienna Museum of Natural History.

As a result of the sparseness of evidence of mastiff dogs in Egypt, it can be assumed that mastiffs were not regularly bred in Egypt but imported from other regions.

Mastiffs were well known throughout the classical world of Greece and Rome and were even present among the Celts when Caesar invaded Britain. The Far East however also provides evidence of mastiffs. Alexander the Great found mastiffs being used a guard dogs in Punjab in 327-325 B.C. Mastiffs were undoubtedly distributed along the ancient trade routes, as guards for the trade vessels or goods, as hunters for fresh meat in ports of call, as trade items themselves and as war dogs. Some sources give the source of Alexander the Great’s war dogs as being imported specifically for the purpose from Punjab but although the “importation” of a number of dogs cannot be discounted after so many years, the earlier part of this chapter clearly shows that there were already war dogs (mastiffs) available to Alexander the Great and that he clearly didn’t need to import dogs to start a line for the specific purpose.

Roman relief
Another Roman stone relief showing two large, wide mouthed dogs

The distribution of the mastiff was further aided by the colonists with their more placid mastiffs. In time, through interbreeding with local types or particular breeds, these mastiffs are believed to have established themselves in local areas. Of particular interest to me, as an avid reader of Asterix books, is that a mastiff type dog (and I am not referring to Dogmatix) was to some extent responsible for the legendary resistance the Gauls, the Huns and the Vandals were able to put up against the mighty Roman Empire in the late 4th and 5th century. References from the time gives credit to the dogs owned by a clan or group called the Alans, which were far better than the dogs the Romans brought with them and kept the Romans far away from the villages and Asterix’s magic potion.

War dog
A Greek vase painting of a war dog

Mastiff type dogs were known north of the Alps at around 1000 B.C.[4] as Canus Molossus. These dogs did not originate from the Tibetan mastiff (incorrectly named a mastiff as it is actually only large dog used to guard livestock and is genetically quite far removed from the “true” mastiffs) as some researchers and even the authors of some early articles on the Boerboel thought but were descendants of the true mastiffs of southern Albania.

The use of dogs in warfare is as ancient as man’s association with the dog itself. Examples of the use of dogs to protect and fight are:

  • 628 BC: The Lydians deployed a separate battalion of fighting dogs.
  • 525 BC: Cambyses II used huge fighting dogs against Egyptian spearmen and archers.
  • 490 BC: Battle of Marathon: A brave fighting dog was immortalized in a mural.
  • 385 BC: Siege of Mantineia: Fighting dogs cut off enemy reinforcements.
  • 101 BC: Battle of Vercellae: Large Cimbri dogs led by women defended theirwagon forts.
  • 1525: Henry VIII exported 400 mastiffs to support Spain.
  • 1580: Elizabeth I sent 800 fighting dogs to fight in the Desmond Rebellions.
  • 1799: Napoleon assembled large numbers of fighting dogs in front of his reserves.
  • 1914: The Belgian Army used carabiniers, strong-muscled Bouvier des Flandres to haul heavy machine guns to the front.
  • 1914–1918: Dogs were used by international forces to deliver vital messages.
  • 1941–1945: The Soviet Union used dogs strapped with explosives to destroy invading German tanks.
  • 1943–1945: The United States Marine Corps used dogs, donated by their American owners, in the Pacific theater to help take islands back from Japanese occupying forces. During this period the Doberman Pinscher became the official dog of the U.S.M.C.; however, all breeds of dogs were eligible to train to be “war dogs of the Pacific”. Of the 549 dogs that returned from the war, only 4 could not be detrained and returned to civilian life. Many of the dogs went home with their handlers from the war.
Sgt Stubby
Sargeant Stubby, hero and veteran of WWI, and perhaps the most decorated War Dog in history.
  • 1966–1973: Approximately 5,000 US war dogs served in the Vietnam War (theUS Army did not retain records prior to 1968); about 10,000 US servicemen served as dog-handlers during the war, and the K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives. 232 military working dogs and 295 US servicemen working as dog handlers were killed in action during the war. It is estimated that about 200 Vietnam War dogs survived the war to be assigned at other US bases outside the US. The remaining canines were euthanized or left behind.
  • 1979–1988: The Soviet Union again used dogs, this time in the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
  • 2011: United States Navy SEALs used a Belgian Malinois war dog named Cairo in Operation Neptune Spear, in which Osama bin Laden was killed.
Seal dog
A US Seal war dog on a training exercise

But how did a group of mastiff dogs develop on the Southern tip of Africa into a unique and recognizable breed?

Although the history of the Boerboel has not been properly academically researched or genetically traced, the evolving of the breed as a result of geographic isolation, a harsh environment and virtually no breeder interference resulted in a unique combination of physical and temperament characteristics which is internationally recognized as the South African Boerboel.

The ability of the breed to meet a purpose secured human support for the development of a set of unique characteristics suited to the African environment and the geographic isolation ensured minimal external breed interference on this evolutionary, developmental path.


Dog stamps
A set of stamps issued by the South African Postal Service in 2003, depicting the “South African dog breeds”

It is clear that the answer to the question: “Where did the Boerboel originate from?” is complex, as the breed definitely did not originate from a single source.

Both the previous authors of books on the Boerboel (Bert Grabe and Annemari Pretorius), whilst speculating on the history of the breed, chose to discuss the Greek ruler, Alexander the Great and his satisfaction with a particularly large dog he was given as a present by the King of Abyssinia.

This might be a very valid starting point but it does not take into account that there were NO regulated breeding practices for any dog breed until very recently (in relation to the time elapsed since man and wolf formed a social bond) and that the Boerboel developed over a 300 year time period in a very isolated geographical region at the southern tip of Africa.

Dogs interbred freely and with limited human interference all over the world for thousands of years as a result of the complex human social structure in which they found a specific and useful niche. As humans migrated and interacted socially, so did the dogs associated with them. As a result of environmental, security and food supply demands, early humans were much more purpose focused and basic needs driven than modern man and therefore obviously combined good and desirable traits (meeting of purpose, environmental fit and assistance with survival) found in a particular dog with another dog displaying similar or complimentary traits in order to achieve the desired complimentary purpose. Over the span of millennia, very practical uses were found by humans for dogs performing supportive functions to their social requirements.

Despite the above, it is still important to visit the major dog groups that could have had an influence on the development of the Boerboel as a very distinctive breed.

Even though some of the influences discussed below might seem minute at first glance, the probability is great that the following dog groups might have had an impact upon the development of the Boerboel as a dog breed, as dog are dogs and will continue to breed amongst themselves.

The Khoi influence

  Khoi Pics

Source: http://www.mieliestronk.com by Dugeot and  http://www.tabikiana.de/ by Marion Andres

The African dog most mentioned by some authors as a potential contributor to the gene pool of the Boerboel is the Khoi (Khoikhoi) dog.

In order to assess the validity of this claim and the potential impact of the Khoikhoi dog to the original gene pool of the Boerboel, we need to look at where the owners of this dog, the Khoikhoi, originated from…and thereby trace the ancestry of the dog.

The Khoikhoi was the population of indigenous people found by the first Europeans when they first landed in Cape of Storms (later renamed as the the Cape of Good Hope) in 1652. The Khoikhoi migrated from the Great Lakes Region some centuries before and, along with the big horned oxes and fat tailed sheep, they took with them on their migration a small-medium sized dog, about 45 cm tall, with pricked ears, a ridge on the back and a terrible temperament. The Khoikhoi crested dog was neither elegant nor impressive at first sight, but the European settlers soon noted some of its extraordinary characteristics. It was very brave and courageous, had long, thin legs which made it capable to achieve high speed and was resistant to most of the regional diseases. It was also adapted to the climate and insects of the African veldt, with its short, thick coat of hair. It was also able to cover very long distances without taking food or even water, and, most impressive of all, was capable of warning or defending its masters against large predators such as lions or hyenas.

Recent archeological research shows that the Khoikhoi, at some stage during their southwards migration, also inhabited the northern parts of Botswana and southern Zimbabwe, where Basenji type dogs were obtained from another now extinct tribe called the Khoe. The Khoe were an agricultural, hunter-gatherer, Bantu-speaking group living in the area now known as northern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe around 2000 years ago. The history of the Khoe’s links and their passion for the keeping of Basenji-type dogs as fully domesticated, household animals is evident from the findings of archeological digs undertaken in the area.

After the Khoikhoi’s interlude with the Khoe, their migratory route split into two streams of human movement with one stream going down the west coast and the other opting for a more inland migration. But eventually the Khoikhoi reached the southern tip of the continent and could go no further south. Evidence that they still had spitz-type dogs living and travelling with them have been found in digs performed by paleontologists at early Khoikhoi sites at Cape St. Francis, close to the southern tip of the continent. The dogs are also depicted in early Bushmen paintings for instance on those found at the Zimri shelter near Clanwilliam, which is also further south than any other evidence found of early human settlement in the region.

The notion by some authors that the Khoikhoi had no dogs until they met with Nguni-speaking tribes in the eastern parts of Southern Africa, and obtained Nguni dogs from them are refuted by the facts that the Nguni-speaking tribes only arrived in the eastern parts of Southern Africa more than a 1000 years after the Khoikhoi passed through the region, by which time the Khoikhoi were already much further south as well as the evidence of the presence of domesticated dogs in the Khoikhoi archeological digs further to the north and further to the south. The group that met Jan van Riebeeck (the leader of the first group of Dutch to settle at the southern tip of Africa) when he first set foot ashore in the Cape of Storms in 1652, were probably from the group that followed the west coast down to Cape Point.

Bushmen painting 1
A Bushman rock painting depicting small, spitz type hunting dogs

That the Khoikhoi had dogs, and allowed these dogs to migrate with them is therefore an irrefutable fact. But did these dogs, by the time they met with Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 (the first Dutch settler), look like spitz-type or Basenji dogs, or like mastiffs? The references to what the Khoi dogs looked like are not easy to find but an account by a gentleman named Kolb, a German who lived in Cape Town from 1705 to 1712 is captured in a handbook by Johan Galant titled The Dogs of Africa. He describes the Khoi dogs as nondescript little dogs with very small heads, a sharp muzzle and erect pointed ears[5]. These dogs were seldom higher than 45 cm with a coat the colour of cindered ashes. Kolb goes further to state: “A dog is the only domestic animal the Hottentots (Khoikhoi) have……..but he is such a piece of ugliness, of the dog kind, as is not to be seen, perhaps in any other part of the world. Tho’ he has a thousand good qualities, you see nothing in his features that is indicative of one of them. Appearance never gave such a lie as it does in him….in Europe, if a man was not fond of showing him as a curiosity, he would be ashamed to see him at his heels”

Bushmen painting 2
Enhanced depictions of Bushman rock paintings depicting dogs, the first one showing spitz type dogs but the second clearly showing a dog with a distinctive, wide muzzle

Meyners d’Estrey (1891) came across the same type of dog when he calls it one of the ugliest members of the canine family. Schinz (also in 1891) must have come across a different type of dog as he describes the Khoi dogs as medium-sized with short hair, long snouts and drooping ears. Anderson (1856) paints a somewhat different picture when he writes: “It would be somewhat difficult to determine to what species of the canine race these dogs belong, or from what breed they originally descended. They bear some slight resemblance to those I have seen in the homesteads of the Swedish peasants”

George McCall Theal (1907) described the Khoikhoi dogs as being “medium sized animals weighing about 40 pounds reddish brown or tan in colour, prick eared with a pointed muzzle and a bushy tail. Wary of strangers and very vicious, their most distinguishing feature was a ridge or short mane which ran along the back from the shoulders to the croup.” This description sounds a lot like the ancestor of the Rhodesian ridgeback to me (except for the prick ears and the bushy tail). Skeptics would however quickly point out that this observation was only made in 1907 (250 years after the settlement of the Cape by the Dutch) but then more light was thrown onto the differing descriptions when Professor von Schulmuth came across the amazingly well preserved remains of 3 Khoikhoi dogs in a riverbed in the Northern Cape during an archeological dig in 1936. He estimated the age of the remains to be at least 200 to 300 years old. The dogs were probable drowned during a flashflood and was buried in 2 meter deep mud, which solidified over time. One of the carcasses still had a lot of its hide and fur intact and showed a prominent ridge on the back. The remains of the dogs matched the earlier descriptions regarding muzzle shape and overall size.

An elderly Bushman, latter day remnants of the Khoikhoi tribe

In my opinion, the above describes a likely contributor (but clearly not the only one) to the gene pool of the distinctive dog breed that later became known as the Boerboel. The Khoikhoi dogs were definitely at the southern tip of Africa…..but did not resemble the modern day Boerboel at all….not in looks nor in temperament.

So, where did the wide mouthed Mastiff appearance come from? Khoikhoi were well known dog lovers. Could it be that the earlier observers only saw and described some of the types of dogs kept by the southern Khoikhoi tribes? Early settler observers were in any case only recognized for depicting animals that were unfamiliar to their area of origin being Europe. In all my research of the early sources I found no reference to any other dogs of dissimilar appearance observed with the Khoikhoi…and I had some serious doubt about the origins of the uniquely appearing breed. However, the dogs depicted in the Bushmen painting, which pre-dates the European settlers’ observations by far, however shows a dog with a wide muzzle……..and Bushmen are of the keenest observers known in the history of man and were known to depict animals very accurately in their rock paintings. There is no reason why the early Bushmen rock artists would have depicted a flight of fantasy……they painted what they saw.

No reports could be found of any exposure to Khoikhoi or other indigenous tribes living in the northern or eastern parts of the sub continent as no interaction took place. During the period the western observers and historians reflected upon, the Dutch settlers were bound to only the establishment of a trade post at the most southern tip of Africa and were not mandated to explore the hinterland.

The source of the wide mouthed Mastiff appearance and character of the modern day Boerboel therefore had to come from somewhere else.

I only came to realise the probable origins of the breed when I started researching the origins of other similar looking wide mouthed Mastiff dogs across the world. But more on that later as we must first look into the origins of other African dog breeds and their potential influence on the emergence of the modern Boerboel.

The North African influence


A Basenji is a dog breed indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa. Humans might have first domesticated dogs from wolves in Africa, with Egypt being one possibility, since wolves were native to that region. (Source: Dog domestication likely started in N. Africa – DNA was compared in dogs in several African areas with those elsewhere by Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News)

As humans migrated from Northern Africa to the southern regions over millennia, dogs accompanied them. It is therefore only logical to assume that some North African dog breeds were spread as far south as the people went and either got in contact with the Khoikhoi dogs or that the Khoikhoi’s ancestors traded or obtained such dogs over time and that they were the original ancestors of the Khoikhoi dogs.

Archeological research into the distribution of early North African dogs indicates that their presence is still evident in breeds such as the Egyptian “sabe” (Arabic for “lion”). This dog, known to the Western world as the Egyptian Armant, is a flock protector standing about 56 cm high and weighing between 22 and 30 kg. The earliest source consulted was an author named Siber who in 1899 describes the “sabe” or Armant dogs as having a broad head and a pointed muzzle. It should be noted that by 1899, the Khoikhoi as a tribe were nearly extinct already and that the first European observations of the Khoikhoi dogs were made just after 1652. Later authors such as Epstein (1971) describe the “sabe” or Armant breed with a blunter and wider muzzle but the observation was not taken into consideration due to the period during which the observation was made.

Egyptian Kennel Club

The ancient Armant as depicted on the Kennel Club of Egypt’s logo

The “Sabe” or Armant’s origins are speculated to be from the time of the Persian (343-332 B.C.) and the Roman (100 B.C.) conquests of Egypt. Archeological evidence however suggests the existence of a similarly build dog in Syria and Israel around 2200 B.C. The Armant is however not a mastiff type dog and none of its characteristics show up in the Boerboel.

Another likely Arabic dog to survive the harsh African environment and an extended trip following human migration down the length of the African continent, is the “badawi”, (desert dog in Arabic), known to the Western world as the Bedouin Shepherd. This pariah type dog, which probable shares ancestry with most of the other African pariah type dogs is not a recognized dog breed in its native area but shows distinct characteristics similar to the Southern African pariah type dogs. The Khoikhoi dogs were however not pure pariah dogs as they were of much larger stature and of different demeanor.

A Bedouin Shepherd dog or “badawi”

The Canaan dog is another likely “early import” into Southern Africa. Known as the Sabra in Israel, still lives as a wild dog, semi-domesticated by Bedouin tribes or fully domesticated as kennel dogs. Canaan dogs are even utilized as present-day sight dogs for the blind and police dogs specializing in drug detection. This member of the spitz dog family is of ancient ancestry and evidence of the breed has been found in the Ben Hassan tombs dating to between 2200 B.C. and 2000 B. C.

The Sabra is directly related to the Southern African Basenji, and is, according to most authors, one of the most likely ancestors of the Khoikhoi dog. Extreme territoriality, in comparison to other dog breeds, is the foundation of the Sabra’s character. Where it is common for some other dogs of specific breeds to protect its master and his immovable property (since the dog sees it as an extension of its owner), the Sabra, believes that both the master and the property actually belongs to the Sabra and will defend it with his life, irrespective of where the master might find himself or where the property might be temporarily located.

The Canaan Dog or Sabra


It is also highly likely that some other lineages of dogs entered South Africa from its east coast. Between 900 A.D. and 1400 A.D. an Arab trade network extended all along the eastern coastline of Africa, possible as far south as Durban, South Africa dealing in rare and valuable goods. Evidence of Chinese and Indian trade is also acknowledged and evident in ship wrecks and architectural styles of ancient buildings.

It is a recorded fact that Arab, Indian and Chinese sailors preferred to take dogs on trading ships with them as the dogs had a definite functionality and were seen as a trade commodity.

Although the majority of Arabic peoples are currently following the Islamic faith, the adoption of the religion, which regards the dog as an unclean animal, only took place after the death of Mohammed in 632 A.D. As the peak of the Arab period of influence along the African coast was between 900 and 1500 A.D., as supported by archeological evidence of the presence of dogs, the adoption of the religious belief that dogs are unclean had probably not immediately spread to the seafaring and trading casts. Arabian traders spread their influence and goods deep into the interior including the current states of Zimbabwe and Botswana and the Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu Natal provinces of South Africa.

The major city where the Arabian trade initially centered around was called Mapungubwe. One thousand years ago, Mapungubwe, situated in the present day Limpopo province of South Africa, was the centre of the largest kingdom in the subcontinent, where a highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt. During the archaeological excavation of Mapungubwe, not only the expected pariah type dog was found, but also the remains of a larger, greyhound type of dog, much valued by Arabic traders of the time.


Mapungubwe’s famous gold foil rhinoceros (Photo: University of Pretoria): http://www.southafrica.info/about/history/mapungubwe.htm

By 1300 A.D., the Mapungubwe State was superseded by the Great Zimbabwe Empire.

It is therefore held that the Khoikhoi dog could be the result of cross breeding between the larger Arabic type sight hounds and the smaller North African dogs, to achieve a specific purpose within the human society it found itself attached to.



India still has a rare dog breed called the Alangu Mastiff or the Indian Mastiff that is mostly found in the Trichy and Thanjavur districts of South India. Alangu Mastiffs are massive, powerful dogs that are mostly used as guard or war dogs. The origin of the Alangu Mastiff can be traced back to the Bhawalpur area of Punjab, parts of Rajasthan and the desert area of Kutch.

Although there is no exact documentation to support the theories, it is believed that the Alangu Mastiff dog breed existed in ancient India as far back as 486 BC and was introduced into Greece between 486 and 465 BC, by Xerxes the First and later by Alexander the Great, who brought the breed from India. The dog was also used by the Indian royal families for the sport of hunting large game.

The modern Alangu Mastiff



A mistaken belief is that the African Wild Dog might have played a role in the development of African domestic dogs. To refute to this belief it is necessary to position the African Wild Dog within the family of Canidae. The African Wild Dog’s scientific name is Lycaon pictus – meaning “painted wild canid”. This indicates a clear genus distinction with Canis lupus (wolf) and Canis familiaris (domestic dog). The split in the two different lines occurred some 20 million years ago and although the African Wild Dog is quite close to our domestic dogs in its physical structure and some behavioural patterns, its genetic make-up is so different that any influence is highly unlikely.[6] Some sources also claim such a substantive genetic difference that any cross breeding is impossible.



Historical “evidence” of the European influence in the establishment of dog breeds on the sub-continent points to a dog of Dutch origin, brought to the Cape of Storms in 1652 by the first manager of the first settlement named Jan van Riebeeck. Jan apparently brought a “bullenbijter” with him to this far outpost to assist with all types of tasks.

Jan van Riebeeck

If we investigate the origins of the Dutch “bullenbijter” (freely translated as “bull biter”), it is evident that this dog got its name from a specific historical purpose being its ability to grab and hold down large prey for its master to slaughter for meat. “Fighting” bulls as a reason for its existence is a myth as bull fighting was never a sport in the Netherlands. In the absence of regulated abattoirs, dogs of a similar appearance and demeanor were used to grab bulls, which were clearly not as domesticated as our present day cattle, by the nose and hold them down until its master could get close enough to cut its throat to slaughter them for domestic consumption. Later, this type of dog was grouped in a broad class known as the “wide mouthed Mastiffs”.

Internet depictions of the “bullenbijter”
Bull biting
The “sport” of bull biting


It is unknown if Jan’s “bull biter” survived or not. In his diary, Jan mentions that most imported animals died shortly after arrival from diseases that they were not exposed to in Europe. He also meticulously recorded results with breeding of all types of other animals but never mentions any offspring of his “bullen bijter”.

If some of the colonial history of Africa is investigated, it is evident that, if it survived, Jan’s dog was probably not the first and only of its kind at the soon renamed Cape of Good Hope. Long before and after Jan van Riebeeck, other merchants and soldiers from Portuguese, Dutch and other origins rounded the Cape of Storms in their sail ships, whilst searching for a passage to India or on their way to the riches of the East. The present day Cape Town is internationally known as one of the prettiest harbours in the world, underneath a beautiful and unusually shaped mountain, with lush green valleys and a Mediterranean climate. Just imaging the joy (and relief0 of the sailors and animals when this beautiful sight came into view after a long and dreadful trip down the southern part of the western coast of Africa (not called the Skeleton Coast for no reason). Many ships anchored in this bay to rest and replenish water and whatever other food stock could be found in this strange and beautiful land.

In the present era of airplanes and fast ships, very few people still understand the rigours of travelling with an ancient sailing ship. These ships had to travel into the great unknown with no reliable maps, very primitive compasses, no navigation lights, no refrigeration to preserve food or water and a belief that the earth was flat and that you could physically fall over the edge if you went too far. They therefore hugged the coastline and only ventured out of sight of land if blown off course by storms. Every opportunity had to be utilized to replenish stocks of fresh food and drinking water aboard the ships, whilst their closeness to the shoreline made them constantly vulnerable to “sneak visits” by people from the shore to “obtain” a piece of rope or anything valuable. Remember, long ropes to use as anchors were incredibly valuable and could not be replaced once out of port. Most vessels therefore used, by modern standards, very short anchor ropes and physically anchored either inside sheltered bays or just beyond the shore break, every single night of each journey that sometimes took years to complete. As none of the sailing ships could travel at night, the “coastal hops” were short and probably ended well before nightfall.

The romanticized notion of sailors rowing ashore whilst being waved at by welcoming, topless local inhabitants is a fallacy. I cannot image that each village along the route had fresh meat, grain and water in such abundance that each little sailing ship that anchored in their little bay was welcomed with open arms.

Jan van Riebeeck Charles Bell

A romanticised depiction of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Table Bay, meeting with the Khoikhoi (byCharles Bell)

This bit of seemingly unrelated historical fact could explain a very likely addition to the gene pool of the earliest South African dogs, explaining the size and muzzle shape of many of the “non sight hound” characteristics of the dogs depicted by the Bushmen and the presence of a dog breed later known as the Boerboel. Research into ship’s journals from the period reveals that most sailors from all seafaring nations took dogs onto the ships with them.

Dogs were brought on and tolerated on board of sailing ships as they served very specific purposes for the sailors and soldiers on board these ships. They were extremely useful for the “deck protection” of the vessel against ship boarders who swam in from shore in the dead of night to “liberate” some irreplaceable goods, stowaways that wanted to see the next bay, pirate ships of other nations (remember, it was perfectly acceptable to take any vessels that did not fly your country’s flag) and petty thieves in harbours.

They were further essential for the “personal protection” of rowing boat crews who went ashore to collect fresh food and water against “over protective” local inhabitants (who obviously tried to protect their own meager resources), real and imagined predators and to help catch live, fresh food in most bays in which they moored, despite “local” objections. Dogs therefore disembarked wherever the sailors went ashore, and knowing the nature of a dog that was cooped up in a strange environment (on board a ship) for months at a time, the dogs were probably not too keen to leave the lush and exciting valleys in which they were allowed to hunt, to go back aboard a cramped ship to sail off into the far blue yonder.  Dog breeds, not indigenous to continents were definitely “introduced” into new regions by sailing ships as the similarities between the “wide mouthed” Mastiff types found on most continents where the early sailing vessels went is just too evident to be a coincidence.

Sailors dog
Statue of a sailor’s dog in Norway

Before I explore the most likely source of these dogs, we need to find out what type of dogs would be suitable to live on board a sailing ship. In other words, what were the characteristics required of these ship’s dogs? History again gives us a clear indication of purpose driving characteristics. These “sailor’s dogs” had to adhere to the following requirements:

  • They had to be real companions with good temperaments in order to make agreeable shipboard companions during long voyages (or risk being thrown overboard),
  • They had to be protective of their owners in strange environments and show bravery when faced with unknown pirates, predators and hordes of spear carrying “natives”.
  • They had to be mobile enough to be able to hunt and strong enough to hold down edible animals of unknown size until their masters could catch up with a musket or a butcher’s knife.

It was however not only sailors that disembarked at each little bay along the African coast  (including coast the Cape of Good Hope). Merchant ships were in colonial times nearly always accompanied by warships as merchant ships carried valuable cargo that required protection and went to places where some intimidation or applied force could result in obtaining the riches even easier and cheaper. Again diaries of officers commanding such groups of soldiers refer to the dogs they brought with them. It seems strange to think of a dog in a semi-modern military environment but historical circumstances again dictated a specific need that a certain type of dog filled very adequately.

The “warship” dogs were used as a tool against especially the people of the territories on the route of the ships to the Indies. The soldiers were shipped out of Europe, around the southern tip of Africa, to protect merchant ships against pirates and to conquer new territories from which spices and other riches could be brought home and it soon became known, probably by watching the reaction of the people on islands and on the coast to the merchant sailors’ dogs, that dogs with certain characteristics could be excellent tools to give the troops dominance over local people without reverting to hand-to-hand combat.

The military forces, having learnt the lessons on the value of dogs from the middle ages, sourced dogs that were fearless, looked impressive, were very protective of their handlers and could survive long sea voyages. Again the ships’ records show that mostly dogs, later broad classifiable as “wide-mouthed mastiffs”, were favoured, selected and brought along. It is only reasonable to again assume that some of these dogs, which were definitely not as disciplined as the soldiers that handled them, ran off at ports of call all along the African coast, including the present Cape Town, Namibia, KwaZulu Natal and Mozambique.

The effect of wide-mouthed mastiff dogs-of-war probably minimal when the end destination of India was reached as India was probably the original source of Alexander the Great’s War dogs and (as discussed earlier) is also home to a wide mouthed Mastiff type of dog and the Indian people were probably not as intimidated by a dog type well known to them as the peoples along the way were..

But if there was a particular type of dog that was favoured by the sailors as a ship’s dog, where did they find these dogs?

To answer the question, and to unlock the secret behind the “similarity” of the dog types found where the early sailing explorers went (Africa, North America, South America), one needs to simply track the routes of the sailing ships from their home ports. Whilst some of the dogs probably left their home ports in Spain, Portugal or Britain on board the ships at departure, some were probably caught, traded, bred or bought along the way. To me it is a simple deduction…..if the “end result” on more than one continent looks pretty similar, there had to be similar looking dogs or a source of similar looking dogs somewhere on the common departure route taken from the ports of origin in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal or Britain.



Were there similar looking dogs in the territories of four of the major seafaring nations? To some extent the answer is yes……but let us look at each separately and with a specific emphasis on similarities and the probability of such a dog being a useful “shipboard companion”.


The Portuguese Mastiff

Portuguese Mastiff

A Rafiero do Alentejo. Source: http://www.rightpet.com/DogBreedDetail/rafeiro-do-alentejo

The Portuguese have an indigenous mastiff type dog, also known as the Rafeiro do Alentejo, which is a herding breed. It may be one of the oldest breeds of dog, and it is closely related to the Anatolian Shepherd Dog. For centuries, the breed has been used specifically to move sheep during winter from mountains in northern Portugal to the plateau of Alentejo, and then back to the mountains. The Portuguese Mastiff weighs 130 to 155 pounds, has a thick chest and a strong, rectangular body with very muscular legs. The head of the breed is bear-like, with dark eyes and hanging, tapered ears. It has a long, curved tail.

The breed is energetic and loveable, but it is also particularly known as an independent breed which may be hard to train in obedience and which matures very slowly.

My rating of the probability of a Rafeiro do Alentejo to be taken aboard a ship as a companion: Very slim……for three reasons. Firstly it was from the mountains in the northern parts of Portugal and therefore not well known to the sailors, who were from where the sea is, in the south of the country. Secondly it is “hard to train in obedience” which won’t make it an ideal companion aboard a small ship and lastly, it was known to “mature very slowly”, which again will mean an extended period of time, compared to other available breeds, to be a useful ship’s dog.

The Spanish Mastiff

Spanish Mastiff

A Mastin Español. Source: http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/spanishmastiff.htm

The Spanish Mastiff or Mastín Español is a large breed of dog, originating in Spain, originally bred to be a Livestock guardian dog and a guard dog whose purpose is to defend livestock from wolves and other predators. The Spanish Mastiff is thought to have descended from Greek dogs brought to Spain via Greek and Phoenician maritime traders starting around 1000 BC. The Greeks used similar dogs in battle because of their strength.

During the conquest of the Americas, Spanish conquistadors used Spanish Mastiffs and other Molosser type dogs in battle against Native Americans. These specially trained dogs were feared by the Indians for their strength and ferocity.

The Spanish Mastiff is a very large and powerful dog, similar in appearance to other Mastiff breeds. Males in this breed are at least 77 cm tall at the withers, and range from 80–120 kg. Females are at least 72 cm, and weigh 70–100 kg.

This noble giant is aloof, dignified, calm and intelligent. It is devoted to its family and may politely accept strangers if it has been socialized properly, although it will be wary of them. It can be aggressive toward other dogs. The breed is quite alert and food motivated but can bore easily. Once a trainer has established the dog’s respect as leader, the Spanish Mastiff will be an extremely loyal pet.

My rating of the probability of a Mastin Español to be taken aboard a ship as a companion: Mayby……but with a slightly better chance than a Portuguese Mastiff……again for three reasons.

Firstly it gets an “affirmative nod” as it was known to be taken to foreign territories where it played an important role.

Secondly gets a “probable negative head scratch” because of its size. I simply cannot imagine sailors in cramped, under-stocked little sailing vessels sharing their meagre resources with a dog weighing as much as two good sailors.

In the third instance it gets a “definite negative headshake” as it is described as a breed that “bores easily” and when bored, requires a lot of attention……which won’t make it an ideal companion aboard a small ship with sailors who might not always have the time or inclination to relieve a dog’s boredom.


The Dutch Mastiff

I must admit that I had a giggle when I researched this topic…..as the dog popularly known as the Dutch Mastiff in modern times, hardly resembles a Mastiff at all……as it is known as a Pug.


Although pugs are most definitely Mastiff decendants their likelihood to protect a ship, chase local inhabitants up trees and catch goats is less than slim.

But all jokes aside (I’m still in two minds if jokes are allowed in handbooks) the Dutch did have a Mastiff and we know at least one was on board Jan van Riebeeck’s ship to the Cape of Storms in 1652, called a “bullen bijter”. The Boxer breed seems to claim the descendance of their breed to be from specifically the smaller Brabantse Bullenbijter but most Boxer reference sites refer to the origins of the breed being from the Roman war dogs used by Alexander the Great.

Bull fighting

Source: https://www.google.co.za/search?q=brabantse+bullebijter .


My rating of the probability of a “Bullen Bijter” to be taken aboard a ship as a companion: Probably……again for three reasons.

Firstly it gets a “yes” as it was known to be taken to foreign territories, even in ancient times, where it played an important role.

Secondly gets second “yes” because of its size. It was not an overly massive dog and it could probably be tolerated by sailors aboard a small vessel.

In the third instance it also gets a “yes” as it is described as a breed that was used to herd cattle and when required, could catch even large animals such as bulls by the nose and hold them until their master arrived to dispose of the animal.

The English Mastiff

English Mastiff

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EnglishMastiffChurchill.JPG

The English Mastiff is a breed of large dog perhaps descended from the ancient Alaunt breed through the breed distribution process known as “Pugnaces Britanniae”. Distinguishable by enormous size, massive head, and a limited range of colors, but always displaying a black mask, the Mastiff is noted for its gentle temperament. According to Wikipedia, the lineage of the modern English Mastiff can be traced back to the early 19th century, and the modern type was stabilised in the 1880s.

“Pugnaces Britanniae” refers to dogs originating from the Roman Province of Britannia (the current Britain), which was known for exporting dogs. References by Roman writers to these dogs suggest that British dogs were fast and strong, useful in hunting and even in war. Some modern dog book authors are of the opinion that these dogs were a distinct breed of dog, and that this breed was the progenitor to the English Mastiff and possibly the Bulldog.

The ancient Roman poet Grattius (or Grattius Faliscus) wrote of British dogs, describing them as superior to the ancient Greek Molossus, saying: “What if you choose to penetrate even among the Britons? How great your reward, how great your gain beyond any outlays! If you are not bent on looks and deceptive graces (this is the one defect of the British whelps), at any rate when serious work has come, when bravery must be shown, and the impetuous War-god calls in the utmost hazard, then you could not admire the renowned Molossians so much.”[7]

The ancient Greek historian Strabo reported that dogs were exported from Britain for the purpose of game hunting, and that these dogs were also used by the Celts as war dogs.[8]

The Roman writer Tacitus, in the first century AD, mentions in his accounts of Britain that its principal exports were grain, hides, cattle, iron, silver, slaves, and clever hunting-dogs.

The late Roman poet Nemesianus referred to British dogs, describing them as swift and suited to hunting.[9]  The even later Roman poet Claudian describes British dogs “that can break the backs of mighty bulls.”[10]

My rating of the probability of an “English Mastiff” to be taken aboard a ship as a companion: Very slim……again for three reasons…..but before I explore my reasons, it must be made clear that the “English Mastiff” of the 17th Century was not similar to the modern English Mastiff. Unfortunately breeder preference has changed to modern English Mastiff into dogs that are probably even larger than their predecessors but not nowhere as brave.

Firstly the 17th Century English Mastiff gets a “yes” as it was known to be taken to foreign territories, even in ancient times, where it played an important role.

Secondly gets a “maybe” because of its size. Although was not as overly massive as the modern English Mastiff dog, it was still a massive dog with a matching appetite.

In the third instance it gets a “no” as the English Mastiff in the 17th Century only belonged to nobility and commoners were not allowed to own or breed with them. The penalty described for allowing one of “the Lord’s” Mastiffs to breed with a mongrel was mostly the death penalty. As exploration trips were mostly funded by nobility but crewed by commoners, the chances of such a prized possession being “taken with for the ride” is virtually nil.


If the dogs available to the sailors departing from the ports of the four major seafaring nations of the 17th Century only received probability ratings of “Very slim”, “Maybe”, “Probably” and again “Very slim” to be taken aboard sailing vessels, there had to be another source of dogs similar to the dogs found at the end destination of the sailing ships on three different continents.

By studying ships’ journals and the routes taken from Europe by the sailing ships, the source of the dogs taken aboard the ships became obvious.

All ships departing from British, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch ports, whether they were on their way to Africa or the Americas, stopped over at the Canary Islands.During the times of the Spanish Empire the Canaries were the main stopover for Spanish galleons on their way to America because of the favorable easterly winds.[11] The Canary Islands is a Spanish archipelago located just off the northwest coast of mainland Africa, 100 km west of the border between Morocco and the Western Sahara.

Canary Islands
The location of the Canary Islands

Contrary to its name, the islands have nothing to do with the canary bird. Rather, it is the bird that is named after the islands, not the converse. The name Islas Canarias is likely derived from the Latin name Canariae Insulae, meaning “Island of the Dogs”, a name applied originally only to Gran Canaria. According to the historian Pliny the Elder, the Mauritanian king Juba II named the island Canaria because it contained “vast multitudes of dogs of very large size”.[12]

But what did the “Canary Island dogs” look like and were they in any way similar in appearance to the modern Boerboel? The modern Perro de Presa Canario is a large Molosser-type dog breed. The name of the breed is Spanish, means “Canarian catch dog,” and is often shortened to “Presa Canario” or simply “Presa.” The breed is also called Dogo Canario, meaning “Canarian Molosser”.

Dogo Canarios 2 Dogo Canarios 1

Dogo Canarios with unclipped ears. Source: http://www.dogtimes.com.br/dogocanario.htm

First introduced to the world outside of Spain’s Canary Islands by the American anthropologist Dr. Carl Semencic in an article for Dogworld Magazine and in his books on the subject of rare breeds of dogs, the Presa Canario or “Canary Dog” is described as a large-size dog with a thick and muscular body. The head is broad, massive, square, and powerful. Proper head and good expression are part of the breed standard, and are manifest in the best breed specimens. The ears are normally cropped, both to create a more formidable expression and to prevent damage while working with cattle. If cropped, the ears stand erect. In countries where ear-cropping is banned, the ears are close fitting to the head; they hang down and should be pendant or “rose” shaped. The upper lip is pendulous, although not excessively. Seen from the front, the upper and lower lips come together to form an inverted V. The flews are slightly divergent. Males average between 20 to 23 inches (51 to 58 cm) at the withers, with a minimum weight of 100 pounds (45 kg) and a maximum weight of 160 pounds (73 kg). Females average between 18 to 21 inches (46 to 53 cm) at the withers, with a minimum weight of 70 pounds (32 kg) and a maximum weight of 140 pounds (64 kg). Another characteristic of the breed is the shape of the paws (cat foot) and the catlike movement of the animal. The body is mesomorphic, that is, slightly longer than the dog is tall, contributing to the feline movement.

Do the above sound familiar?

This breed standard of the Presa could just as well have described the original Boerboel of 30 years ago.

But were these dogs on the Canary Islands available to each and every ship that passed by?

Again history played perfectly along with my theory on the distribution of the dogs by sailing vessels. In 1526 an order was issued by the Spanish government to exterminate all the wild dogs on the Canary islands as a result of the damage caused to cattle herds. Only dogs belonging to butchers and two dogs belonging to Don Pedro de Lugo were to be spared (by Royal decree). This was however easier said than done and the action of the Spanish Government was probably very poorly supported by the islanders as various decrees still referred to the ongoing intention to exterminate the dog population up to as late as 1624 (98 years after the initial decree).

The original Canary Island dogs living on the main island were therefore unwanted by the Spanish Government and threatened with extermination during the heyday of the sailing vessels calling at the islands. Ships’ journals have numerous references to “Canary Islanders” offering their dogs to sailors to avoid having them killed by Government authorised culling agents. By 1645 the mood however changed and citizens of the Canary Islands were again allowed to keep dogs to protect their homesteads. The first “protective order” for the breed was issued in March of 1737 when (again by Royal decree) all dogs left in the ports by strangers had to be killed to “avoid fusing of the bloodlines”.

The Canary Islands however consist of a number of islands, of which not all were equally densely populated, and on which two different dog breeds existed. On the island of Fuerteventura a slightly different dog breed existed that were really, according to the ships’ journals, the favourites of the sailors. Many ships’ journals refer to a “second stop” at Fuerteventura to catch young dogs to take with on the journeys. This distinct breed called Perro de Bardino Majorero and was later used to resurrect the Presa Canario breed on the main island. Historical documents list the Bardino Majorero as a co-existing separate breed from the dogs that occurred on the main island until the 18th century.

The colour characteristics of the “Majorero” provide a very interesting link to the South African Boerboel. The “Majorero” had pelts that were all shades of fawn (including a dark red) or brindle, including a shade called “verdino” which is best described as a greenish-tinted brindling. According to an interview with Bokkie Muller by Hester Grobbelaar, who grew up close to the Lesotho highlands, his father often used to go into the mountains to buy dogs from the local herdsmen which resembled the modern Boerboel. According to Mr. Muller, some of these dogs had a “greenish hue”…..something I put down as a rural legend until I came across the actual origins of the breed. The “Majorero” was also known for their even temperaments, short coats, distinctive facial expression (which included a distinct frown when the dog was alert), courage, a remarkable set of teeth and a disposition for taking on anything that it saw as a threat to its master or his property.

Perro de Presa Canario literally means the Canarian Dog of Prey. The word presa can also be translated to mean catch or hold and refers to the dog’s actual grip. The dog originated from dogs that were bred solely for function and not for type. For these working dogs, both as combatants and livestock catch dogs and guardians, physical power and stamina combined with heart, drive, and gameness to produced low-slung, muscular dogs with large heads and strong jaws. No phenotype existed, but the traditional coat patterns would eventually emerge as shades of fawn and brindle, some of which feature white markings.

In the 1940’s dog fighting was banned in the Canary Islands and the Perro de Presa Canario decreased greatly in numbers. It was relegated to farms and hillsides primarily as a guardian for domestic livestock which was clearly far less widespread than it was during the late middle ages.

The current colours acceptable for the Presa breed are:

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 2.35.26 PM

A number of Spanish and British breeds were used with the “Majorero” to “recreate” the Presa Canario. The Perro de Ganado Majorero (an Iberian cattle dog), Presa Español and Alano Español (the alano actually refers to Spanish bulldogs and not the modern breed) that were also used in the conquest of the Americas, were all re-introduced to “recreate the breed together with English Mastiffs and the Bulldog.


It can therefore be assumed that there were already some “coastal strays” when the first explorers and merchantmen who wrote down meticulous diaries pulled into the bay at the southern tip of the African continent.

The historical evidence found in Jan van Riebeeck’s diary of 1652 refers only to the so-called “Hottentot” or Khoikhoi dogs.

Vasco da Ghama
Vasco da Gama leaving Portugal by John Henry Amshewitz, early 1900’s

As neither Vasco da Gama (Portuguese explorer) nor Jan van Riebeeck were the first European to set foot on the most southern tip of Africa, the wide-mouthed mastiffs left behind by previous explorers, soldiers and merchantmen had probably already interbred with the original Khoi dogs and dogs similar in looks and nature to the European wide-mouthed mastiffs had to be around to supplement the gene pool to result in a dog phenotype not possible with only Egyptian type sight hounds or pariah dogs from North African origin. As all the dogs found in archeological digs further to the north along the migratory path of the Khoi showed only sight hound or pariah features, there had to be another influence.

Many contemplators of the Boerboel’s origins chose to link the Khoi dog directly to the Abyssinian dogs referred to in the writings of the Middle Ages. No such claim has yet been substantiated by any historical evidence except for the fact that the Khoi people most definitely had dogs to help them to hunt and to gather and that these dogs, as with the later Boerboel breed, had multiple potential contributors to their gene pool.

It can therefore be assumed that the initial basis of the South African Boerboel’s gene pool was a broad category of dogs, heavily influenced by a group, collectively known as the wide-mouthed mastiffs of Canarian origin.



The early dogs referred to in this book did however not stay isolated in the southernmost tip of the African continent.

No sooner was Jan van Riebeeck settled in the Cape, when the British decided that the Dutch having a colony in as strategic a position as the Cape of Good Hope was not desirable. This led to the first English occupation of the territory in ±1670.

A number of Dutch farmers did not take kindly to the change in Government and started moving further away from the seat of power in Cape Town. As the west coast of southern Africa is barren as a result of the cold Benguela current sweeping the coastline and the eastern coast is lush with vegetation as a result of the warm Agulhas current flowing down from the tropics, this move took mostly place in an easterly direction.

New frontier towns were established in which life differed a lot from the protected environment of Cape Town. Undoubtedly only the strongest and most suitable dogs to this new environment thrived under the harsh circumstances. Very few records of the existence or appearance of these dogs exist as most of the “dissatisfied” farmers were exposed to limited schooling and the only book worth reading was considered to be the High-Dutch Bible.

Voortrekker camp
A depiction of a Voortrekker encampment

As the administration, which at times reverted back to Dutch control (and which caused the English colonialists to seek up the hinterland) attempted to exert and enforce its influence, the farmers moved further north. Eventually a few frontier settlements were established in the Eastern Cape and for the first time since the Khoi, the white Dutch and English settlers encountered black African people migrating south. This resulted in conflict (the Border wars) which changed the social fabric of the society within which the “farmer’s dogs” had to survive and earn their keep. From “hunter’s assistants” and “protectors of homesteads against wild animals” they had to, in addition, prove their worth against fierce warriors who burned down homesteads, killed their owners and drove off livestock. The historical role and inbred protective characteristics of the wide-mouthed mastiff must have been desirable traits to have in a dog during those trying times and it can only be supposed that those dogs with exceptional guarding instincts, fearless disposition, adequate size and an inert protective nature of its “family” and their belongings must have been in great demand and were bred with other dogs of similar nature to meet demand.

 The initial gene pool was probably strengthened in 1820 with the arrival of the British Settlers, who, according to historical record, also brought several “bulldog” and “mastiff type” dogs with them. The significance of these “imports” were however probably of little significance for a long period of time as it must be remembered that most of the frontier farmers were of Dutch origin and avoided the British settlers as much as they tried to avoid the British government which caused them to flee the southern Cape. Dogs are however less concerned about politics and it must be assumed that a fair number of straying males found bitches on heat of a “different political persuasion” and the resultant offspring followed commands in a language probably foreign to their sire.

Vorrtrekkers Karopo
“Trek boers” in the Karoo

The interference of the British Empire with the unruly farmers living on the outskirts of one of their colonies (refusing to pay taxes and swear allegiance to the Queen) as well as word of new settlements further north along the coast (such as Durban) resulted in the Great Trek. Between 1830 and 1840, several family and other groups banded together for protection, loaded their belongings onto ox wagons and started moving into the great unknown interior of the continent. Again the social circumstances of life on the move favored the importance of the wide-mouthed mastiff for its owners. The circumstances under which man and beast had to survive were incredibly harsh and as they moved further northwards, the ferocity of the warring black tribes intensified exponentially. The dogs were required to assist with hunting (as no supply chain for goods existed, this meant total dependency on the land), protect outriders and scouts for greener pastures against lions, leopards, rhino’s and other dangerous animals unknown or of limited occurrence back in the southern and eastern cape, protect homesteads and families left behind by hunters against murderous tribesmen, protect livestock against theft and wild animals and survive illness and parasites unknown in the colder climes they were accustomed to.

As the “Trekkers” (migrant farmers) reached the areas currently known as the central and northern parts of South Africa, they thought they were far enough away from the British and established two Republics namely the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR) in 1852 and the Oranje Vrijstaat in1854 and elected their own governments. Unfortunately for the “Boers” (a Dutch word for “farmer” as they collectively became known), gold was soon discovered in their republics, which proved too much to resist for the ever expanding British Empire. The resulting attempt by the British to “annex” the two fledgling republics led to the first “Boer” war. To the utmost annoyance of the British Queen, the British troops were defeated and had to withdraw. Many factors, also of importance to understand the role the Boerboel had to play within the social environment of the time, contributed to the victory of the Boers over the mighty British Army. Firstly the Boers did not “fight like gentlemen”. They did not wear bright red uniforms with white chest straps, did not march in rigid formation onto the battlefield and set traps for the British troop who did not know the lay of the land, climate or conditions. The Boers were the first guerilla fighters who could live off the land, move small groups around to pin down a large formal army and were very good marksmen. This Boer army had limited formal structures and consisted totally of volunteers, included a large number of black troops that went along to support their fellow countrymen.

Boere oorlog
Boer soldiers on the battlefield and the Battle of Majuba Hill

It did not take the British Empire long to regroup its troops and form a new strategy. This time they returned for the second Boer War (1899 to 1902), dressed in khaki and following a scorched earth policy. The policy entailed killing all livestock (including yard animals such as dogs) on sight, burning all homesteads and crops and taking all women, children and non-combatants to “concentration camps”. In these camps hundreds of thousands of women and children died from dysentery and starvation. The Boers (and in many instances their farmhands) sent the young boys into the mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal with selected livestock and the yard dogs. My own grandfather was one of the boys who were sent to the mountains to hide with some stock. The hardships they endured were horrendous but it was far better than being in a British concentration camp. These boys were regularly exchanged with battle weary boys who needed to get away from the rigors of war for a while. The scorched earth policy eventually forced the Boer Commandos into submission and they returned to farms with no buildings, no livestock, no crops, no game and no livelihood supported by government. The farmer’s dogs survived all these hardships with their masters and through their unquestioning loyalty, became an inextricable part of the Afrikaner culture.

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The oldest known picture of a dog resembling the modern Boerboel. The picture was taken in Cape Town and precedes the introduction of any other breeds such as Bull Mastiffs.

The First World War (1899-1902) had very little effect on the social circumstances of South Africans apart from rationing and conscription of young men to fight for the Allied Forces. The troops however returned with many stories of faraway lands and the sights they saw when fighting there. Many of the accounts refer to dogs and dog breeds seen overseas and comparisons to the “farmer’s dogs” these young men grew up with. The first South African realization that the “farmer’s dog” had developed into something unique as well as exposure to “pure bred” dogs probably arose from this international exposure.

Delville bos
The Battle of Delville Wood. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “the bloodiest battle of hell of 1916.”

In the book “White Hunters” by Brian Herne, published by Henry Holt and Company. pg. 64 there is a discussion about Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari to Kenya. They were in Juja, a remote, rural part of Kenya. Kermit Roosevelt, the son of Theodore, was trying to find a large lion in a “bush-choked ravine”. They came, instead, upon a leopard that retreated into the dense cover. The leopard charged out towards Kermit, who shot it in “the front part of the body”. The cat retreated back into the dense brush. The hunting party continued pressing the leopard and he came out again in a flash and attacked one of the beaters. They shot the leopard again and little damage was done to the beater, but the leopard again retreated into the brush. The White Hunter, McMillian, then sent for some “Boer-owned dogs” hoping to use them to flush the leopard out. The cat came out and was killed before the dogs could arrive but it proves that in 1909 Boers from South Africa had already settled in Kenya and were known to have dogs tough enough to be used to flush wounded leopards out of thickets.

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The second oldest known picture of a dog resembling the modern Boerboel dates from between 1910 and 1920 and was taken on a farm called Wonderkop in the current Limpopo province of South Africa. The stories about the particular dog’s feats (named “Tier”…meaning Tiger) are still told by the family.

In 1918 South Africa was beset with the “Great Flu’. This illness, that was probably a form of encephalitis (viral infection of the brain lining) started in the cities but spread like wildfire to the rural areas, Thousands of rural people died as there was simply no medical care or antibiotics available to them. Vast tracts of land was left uninhabited but as dogs were not susceptible to this particular virus, they were in many instances left to fend for themselves and to live off the land. Probably only the toughest dogs survived this ordeal and the resultant purification of the gene pool through the weeding out of the weakest led to an even tougher breed, totally resilient to what human society and its close association with the African farmer put in its developmental path.

Farm dog 1925

Picture of a “farm dog” taken pre-1925 in the Heilbron district, note the narrow chest and wide mouth.

The first import record of a “pedigreed” dog of the wide-mouthed mastiff type comes from 1928 when several Bull Mastiffs (including a “champion” male dog in 1938) were imported to guard the diamond mines of Kimberley. It must be kept in mind that the Bull Mastiff of 1928 look pretty similar to the modern Boerboel and that interference by the Bull Mastiff breed societies since the early 1900’s resulted in an altered appearance of the dog breed, still known as the Bull Mastiff, but vastly cosmetically enhanced. Modern Bull Mastiffs have heavier bodies, smaller heads, shorter snouts, less developed withers and less mobility, as a result of shorter legs, than the Bull Mastiffs of 1928. What the impact of these isolated “pedigreed” dogs were on a breed that was already established more than 250 years ago and which was spread over a massive tip of a continent, is not clear but it can only be assumed to be miniscule. The last remnants of these Bull Mastiff bloodlines were actually traced back in 1995 to three breeders in KwaZulu Natal being Dirk van Niekerk, Kotie Truter and Jaap van Niekerk.

A picture of a group of “businessmen”, probably taken during the late 1920’s with a dog of uncertain ancestry in the foreground. Source: Spitsvuur Boerboels 2007 website

The hardship of the “farmer’s dog” were however far from over. In 1930 the Great Drought and Depression hit. Farmers lost most of their livestock and crops as the result of a massive drought and when they started flocking to the cities to find work, the Great Depression hit, resulting in no employment opportunities. This combination of economic disasters gave rise to the “poor Afrikaner” phenomenon which resulted in many proud, but otherwise unskilled farmers, taking up employment in menial jobs as laborers simply to survive. Many dogs must have been abandoned on the farms as the survival of their human masters was first priority. The survival of these dogs without going the pariah dog route also contributes to our understanding of the unique character of the “farmer’s dog”.

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Another picture showing a typical Farmer’s dog taken in the 1930’s in the Eastern Free State.

In order to survive, a group of farmers again packed up whatever they had left and started the “Dorstland Trek”, a migration to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Kenya (see earlier note on 1909 presence of “Boer owned dogs” in Kenya). These farmers took their “farmer’s dogs” with then and there are still evidence (and in some cases some very good examples) of Boerboel dogs in all these countries.

Linden 1939
Another “farm dog” picture taken in the Linden, Johannesburg area in 1939 (Note the wide head, wide mouth and otherwise agile appearance, manifested by the “chain” to keep the dog within bounds)

The Second World War, which lasted from 1939-1945, again had little impact on the dogs of Southern Africa. The young men were conscripted and went off to fight an overseas war and those that returned, returned with memories of different cultures and strange dog breeds seen in other places.

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A dog pictured outside a farmhouse in Die Wilgers, Pretoria in 1949.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Union of South Africa was formed, which was followed in 1961 with a declaration of independence from Britain through the formation of the Republic of South Africa. A period of prosperity followed for the rural population and especially the Afrikaners. This was however also the period during which the Apartheid policies of the Nationalist Party were developed, which eventually led to worldwide condemnation and sanctions against the South African regime. All the dogs knew about this was that their gene pool was not tampered with to any great extent and that their masters were kept isolated from the “breed society” culture of the rest of the world.

This lack of focused attention however also had a detrimental effect on the “farmer’s dog”. As there was no interest group to recognize their unique value and characteristics, cross breeding by their human masters started to threaten their existence as a unique group. As the dogs were no longer free roaming and therefore under full human control, the cosmetic wishes of their masters started diluting the breed’s gene pool. Concerned people and isolated breeders voiced their concern but as the “farmer’s dog” was not a recognized breed with a representative human voice, pure examples representing the historical purpose of the breed were becoming extremely rare.

Kobus Rust

A picture hanging in Kobus Rust (ex-Chairman of SABT’s) office featuring a large Mastiff. The location where the picture was taken is however unknown and if the clothing of the people and the construction material utilized in the hut is considered, the picture was most probably not taken in South Africa.

In the 1950’s a Mr. Hendrik Petzer of Elsburg bred and provided Boerboels of good quality. One of the breeders who purchased dogs from Mr. Petzer and continued with the breed was Paul Stoltz, father of the 2005 – 2009 chairperson of EBBASA, Linda Swart and my grandfather. Pictures of these dogs, taken during the 1950’s, show very light-coloured dogs with recognizable Boerboel conformation.

Ma 1Ma 2

 All the above pictures shows some of the “Petzer” dogs kept and bred by the Stoltz family. Persons appearing in the pictures are Paul Stoltz (snr), Paul Stoltz (jnr), Linda Stoltz (Swart), Charlotte Stoltz (Van Eeden) and Yvonne Stoltz (Van der Merwe)

Johan Gallant, in his book “The story of the African dog” p. 93 shows a picture of a “broad-skulled Africanis” probably taken on a Afrikaner farm (if the age of the 1960’s Massey Ferguson tractor is considered. The actual date of the picture is however not confirmed.

Widemouthed Africanis

A wide-mouthed Africanis from “The Dogs of Africa” p. 93 – Johan Galant

Another breeder with a long history with the Boerboel breed is Marieta Pieterse, current owner of Gretchen Kennels. The kennels was established (also in the Carolina region with Ingrid and Linjo Kennels) by Mrs. Gretchen Greyling, Marieta’s mother. The following pictures show some of the early “Gretchen” dogs, taken before the establishment of a Boerboel Organisation.

Baron 1

“Baron” a dog owned by the Greyling family, pulling a cart made by the family’s children in 1968

Baron 2

“Baron” with Fanie Greyling and Marieta Greuling (Pieterse) in 1968


“Tisha”, a dog bought as a present for Gretchen Greyling by her children in 1977

The first advertisement mentioning the name “Boerboel” in the press was placed in the “Landbou Weekblad” (Farmer’s Weekly) of August 1984 when Mr. Johan de Jager of Utrecht stated: (Free translation): “If breeders want to assure the future of the Boerboel, and rescue what could still be rescued, a breed association must be formed as soon as possible to lay down breed standards and appraise dogs that are as close as possible to the set standard”

Johan de Jager

Mr. Johan de Jager with a Boerboel

But what caused this dog to retain and develop its unique characteristics without directed human interference for such a long period of time?

Firstly the absence of human interference in breeding practices caused the breed to remain unchanged as a result of cosmetic whims for much longer that most other dog breeds. No breed society existed for the Boerboel until 1986. If Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape is taken as the “origin date” of the breed, it means that unregulated breeding, including cross breeding, took place for 334 years, followed by a human managed breeding program, barely 24 years old. Humans have a known tendency to manipulate and change animals to what their desires dictate. As stated earlier, breed societies are simply collections of humans with a specific purpose in mind. By not regulating the Boerboel, the strongest genes were allowed to dominate freely. An unregulated dog pack is very similar in nature to a wolf pack in that the strongest male (Alpha) will mate with the females in season and the strongest female (Alpha) will kill the weaker females and sometimes their offspring to reduce competition.

If cross breeding was allowed to happen at will, why didn’t the dog lose its unique characteristics? The Boerboel genes that were dominant over other dog breed genes were simply those characteristics made them exceptionally suitable to the harsh African environment. If a dog was not hardy and resistant to the African illnesses and parasites, if it did not possess an amicable nature, was no good at protecting the ox wagons of the Voortrekkers or the homestead of a settler; if it could not face up to a lion or a leopard; if it could not kill snakes; if it could not run properly to at least keep the chase dogs in sight and if it could not hold its prey down until its master could kill it, it was of no use in its environment. Dogs showing these characteristics were therefore fed and deliberately bred with other dogs showing the same or complimentary characteristics long before any breed society was established. The result of the functionally driven breeding program, which clearly included survival of the fittest, resulted in a recognizable, unique dog named the Boerboel or “Farmer’s Dog”.

[1] Hull 1964

[2] Hall 2003 p. 269

[3] Maxwell Riddle 1987

[4] Epstein (ibid)

[5] The dogs of Africa. P 105

[6] The Story of the African Dog. Johan Gallant. P 46

[7]  “Grattius – Cynegeticon”. Retrieved 2009-06-07.

[8]  “Strabo’s Geography”. Retrieved 2011-10-07.

[9]  “Nemesianus – The Chase”. Retrieved 2012-12-24.

[11] “ViSioN BeTa: “Cualquier cosa que flote arrojada al mar desde Canarias, llegará a América””. Matiascallone.blogspot.com. 2006-07-11. Retrieved 2012-10-05 and translated by Walther Carreira.

[12] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Chap. 37. (32.)—The Fortunate Islands


Everything on this page is COPYRIGHT 2012, Johan Swart. I thank Johan from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to reproduce his work here. Johan is not only a wonderful man, but he is one of the foremost experts on the history of the breed, and a great breed ambassador. 

If you know of anyone who has old photos of Boerboels, please let me know so I can forward their details to Johan, who is writing a book on the subject. There are not many of these old photos around and they are vitally important to record the history of and also work towards the future of the Boerboel. This article is easily shareable so send it to anyone you think may be interested and maybe we can unearth some more photographs that way.



Author: Janet Carr

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

4 thoughts

  1. everything is good but as each time we differ the dogs according to their name whereas by looking at them we realize that they are neither + nor – the same dog is the same on another dog we will distinguish 1 red nose bully terrier of 1 black nose bully terrier, it’s like differentiating the shepherd who is German white from black and tan and saying that for any dog it’s the same without forgetting that the bullenbeisser just like any other name is the same dog because what participates in these names is that the foreign laguage by registering them with the name of the language of the country which of course makes 1 so-called other breed of dog and any country benefits on the back of the dog, long live the offices

  2. The Boerboel as influence of Fila da Terceira not rafeiro alentejano. Send me a email and I send you old pictures.


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