The rarest of all Belgian sheepdogs, the Belgian Laekenois breed has a long and interesting history. It begins in the late 1800s when modernization began making sheepdogs obsolete and the breed as a whole tottered on the brink of extinction.
A group, known as the Club du Chein de Berger Beige, was formed for the purpose of saving these dogs. As they gathered and evaluated them, however, it became clear that years of breeding these dogs to work, rather than for their appearance, resulted in characteristics that were thought to be “all over the place.”
A Belgian veterinarian, named Adolphe Reul, determined that the dogs could be classified based on their coat and color. Initially, six to eight classifications were considered. It was eventually paired down to four, which are still used today. This includes:
- Groenendael (long, black hair)
- Tervuren (long hair, fawn with black tip)
- Malinois (short-hair)
- Laekenois (touseled, rough coat)
It should be noted that all of these dogs had similar personality traits, stature, and temperament. The classifications were based almost purely on the differing coats. Once the breed classifications had been determined, the group was able to create standardized breeding programs for each of the four breeds.
Each of the four breeds was also named for a nearby location: The Groenendael for the village of the same name where it was first bred, the Tervuren for a village just east of Brussels, the Malinois for the city of Malines, and the Laekenois for the suburb of Laeken, where they were first bred.
It’s said that the Laekenois was known for herding sheep, guarding livestock, and guarding the linens drying in the fields at the Royal Castle of Laeken in Brussels. These dogs also enjoyed close companionship with their family members. They developed into an alert guardian of people and property, as well as a capable working dog. Today, they’re extremely affectionate with their human families and enjoy spending them with them. With strangers, they’re not fearful or aggressive but are often aloof, calm, and observant.
Another Threat and “Resurgence”
The breed was relatively unknown outside of Belgium until they were used in battle during World War I and World War II. They played the role of message carriers, often delivering small packages and letters to and from the Red Cross.
Unfortunately, as with many European dog breeds, the impact of these wars nearly decimated the Laekenois. In fact, they were the target of a bounty by Hitler during World War II, resulting in a significant drop in numbers. The bloodlines were only kept alive through the diligent work of breed enthusiasts.
The term “resurgence” when referring to this breed is to be taken with a grain of salt since they remain very rare. In fact, the dog is so unknown among Americans that many enthusiasts refer to them as the “best-kept secret” among purebred dogs. It’s estimated that there are only about 200 of them currently in the United States and there have been fewer than 400 nationwide since 1995.
Fun Fact: According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are approximately 1,846 wild pandas worldwide. Best estimates show that there are only about 1,000 Laekenois in the world!
Several organizations, including The Canadian Kennel Club, United Kennel Club, and Federation Cynolgique Internationale recognized the Belgian Sheepdog as a single breed. Each of the four types was recognized as separate varieties of this breed.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) did the same until 1958. At that time, they decided to give separate breed status to all but the Laekenois, which remained in the “miscellaneous” class.
Introduction to the United States
The Laekenois was quietly introduced into the United States with little to no fanfare. It’s not clear exactly when the breed first arrived, but it quickly developed a small yet passionate following of breeders, owners, and exhibitionists.
The American Belgian Laekenois Association was founded in 1995 and it was this group that began the push towards full AKC acceptance. The breed was accepted into the AKC’s “Foundation Stock Service” in 1998. This service allows for reputable record management of purebred breeds but does not make them eligible for AKC registration.
In 1998, the breed was also allowed to compete in the Companion Group, and in 2005 it was moved to the Miscellaneous Group. The breed has recently crossed the threshold into full AKC recognition. On July 1st, 2020, it became a separately recognized breed that was added to the Herding Group. This was a huge victory for breed enthusiasts!
The Modern-Day Breed
Although originally bred for herding and guarding, the Laekenois is a versatile and adaptable breed. It’s at home in both the city and the country as long as it receives adequate mental stimulation daily. The breed is an incredible sports enthusiast, excelling in agility competitions. It has also been used for occupational therapy, to provide physical assistance for spinal and brain-injury patients, as partners for special-needs children, and even as actors in movies and advertisements.