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Developed as an all-purpose farm dog, the Boerboel is strong boned and confident.

Dark Clouds

The growing acceptance of black Boerboels has created a storm of controversy in this South African Molosser

Breed standards, by their very nature, are exclusionary. After all, in order to describe what a breed is, the “blueprint” of the breed must also say – if only by inference, but oftentimes much more explicitly – what a breed is not. And nowhere are those lines of demarcation more clearly drawn – and often times, most controversial – than when it comes to cosmetic traits such as color.  

Molosser breeds are by no means immune to internal disagreements over “correct” coloration. Some thirty years ago, the Fila Brasileiro underwent a rocky debate about what colors constituted the “true” Fila, creating a schism in the breed that has never quite been bridged. And today, a similar controversy smolders among breeders and fanciers of the Boerboel.  

In Afrikaans, this South African Molosser’s name literally means “farm dog” or “Boer dog” – a reference to the descendants of Dutch settlers who developed the breed to guard their homesteads. Because the Boers were more concerned with survival than neatly lettered pedigrees, the breed’s origins are murky. In trying to pinpoint the Boerboel’s ground zero, some cite the Bullenbijter – a now extinct bull-fighting breed and forerunner of the Boxer – which was brought to South Africa by Cape Town founder Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. In the intervening centuries, other breeds were added, very likely including Great Dane, Bullmastiff and Rhodesian Ridgeback.  


Members of the South African Boerboel Breeders Association will vote this spring to amend the standard to include black dogs. Photo courtesy Mark Wallrach


The current Boerboel breed standard approved by the Kennel Union of South Africa recognizes all shades of red, brown and yellow (fawn), as well as the brindle pattern. But more than a decade ago, Boerboel breeders began actively producing dogs that were solid black. (These are not the very dark “ultra brindles” that can appear at first glance to be solid when the black striping overlays a dark brown coat.) In 2003, the first black dogs, Muller Lady and Muller Poppie, along with a male named Jim, were registered by Lukas van Vuuren of Spitsvuur Boerboels with the now defunct Historical Boerboel Organisation of South Africa.  

And this is where the controversy begins. Defenders of the black dogs say that they have existed for as long as the breed has, and were simply excluded when the Suid-Afrikaanse Boerboel Telersvereniging, or SABT, was founded in 1983 and the standard published a few years later, because of ill-founded accusations of crossbreeding. They note that black is a logical color for a dog whose main job description is to guard.  

“Where does color, except for maybe the albino gene, except for lack of adequate pigmentation, impact in nature on working ability?” comments the steering committee of the South African Boerboel Breeders Society, which now has replaced the SABT and is proposing a new standard in which black dogs are accepted. “Take for example our national antelope, the springbok, which can be brown, black or white ... Isn’t it about preferences?”  

The anti-black faction contends that the black dogs are mongrels, more recently infused with genetic contributions from black Labrador Retrievers, Cane Corsos and Neapolitan Mastiffs.  

“My family has been breeding Boerboels since before they were called Boerboels,” says Johan Swart of Linjo Boerboele in Pretoria, South Africa. “The oldest known pictures of Boerboel puppies are of my mother, taken about 50 years ago. We have never seen nor heard of black Boerboels until we started hearing the stories from the black-dog breeders. I have personally interviewed most of the founding Boerboel breeders and only one ever reported seeing a dog with very dark pigmentation (and cannot confirm if it was black or a dark brindle). If black Boerboels existed, they should have appeared consistently over the years.”  


Above: Swart’s mother Linda with Boerboel puppies in 1956. Below: Paul Stoltz with Boerboels, around the same time. Photos courtesy Johan Swart


“There were a lot of past accusations, but, although requested from those involved in the accusations, no substantiated evidence has been provided thus far,” responds the South African Boerboel Breeders Society. “The proposed Boerboel breed standard comprises various characteristics, of which color is only one.”  

Another issue raised by skeptics is that rather than being a recessive genetic trait, which could snake through multiple generations in the breed without being expressed, the black coat color is dominant – that is, one parent must be black in order for the offspring to be. While it is theoretically possible that a spontaneous genetic mutation gave rise to this color in the breed, those who object to the black coat color say that it is cross-breeding to black dogs of other breeds that is the most logical explanation for its appearance.  

“When I got involved with the Boerboel ten-plus years ago, there were no black dogs, but I did hear of an occasional white/cream colored one,” says Kerri Dale, president of the American Boerboel Club, which adamantly opposes the black dogs. “So to me, it is just common sense. To go from no black dogs to the number that are now being produced in the last five years or so testifies, in my opinion, to the introduction of a new breed. If these black dogs came from the occasional black dog that a brindle could allegedly produce, the numbers would not, could not, possibly be what they are.”  

The catalyst that brought this long-brewing debate to a heated boil was a 1998 South African law called the Animal Improvement Act, or AIA, which requires every breed to have a breeders’ society that registers breeders and issues pedigrees. Four groups – the SABT, along with rival clubs Boerboel International and the Elite Boerboel Breed Association of Southern Africa and a consortium of interested parties represented by the Kennel Union of South Africa – formed the Boerboel Breed Council to hammer out their differences. But, perhaps predictably, they found themselves at an impasse over the black dogs.  

In April 2012, the SABT (which has since been renamed the South African Boerboel Breeders Society, or SABBS) filed with the Registrar of Animal Improvement as the Boerboel’s official breed society. Less than a month later, after being contacted by the other piqued members of the breed council, the registrar suspended the SABT/SABBS’s registration under the Animal Improvement Act. But the registrar did not follow proper protocol regarding the suspension, and after a court challenge in 2014, it was reversed. As a result, at the present time, the SABBS is the sole government-recognized club representing the Boerboel in South Africa.  

The SABBS, which says it has 650 members internationally, has included black dogs in its proposed Boerboel breed standard, which will be voted on by its membership at a special general meeting this May. Should the standard pass, the Kennel Union of South Africa would presumably be forced to accept it, and black Boerboels will be welcomed into the fold in the breed’s county of origin.  


Fawn Boerboels such as these have been well documented in the breed.


Swart says that there is a powerful financial incentive for breeding black Boerboels, noting that they bring up to 10 times the price of a brown or fawn dog. “Many inexperienced breeders therefore paid a lot of money to purchase a black dog to also become part of the money-making scene,” he says. “Even some experienced breeders got black dogs as they could see the rest making small fortunes from the black puppies they produced.”  


Because they are perceived as different and desirable, black puppies can fetch a premium from buyers. Photo courtesy Mark Wallrach


Diane Seaman of Scottsville, Kentucky, a German Shepherd enthusiast who has become involved in Boerboels, notes that “the main export market” for black Boerboels is the United States. A number of fledgling American breeders have acquired black Boerboels, only to find that they are not recognized; some black dogs that had been issued official AKC pedigrees found they had been de-registered by the kennel club. “I feel bad for these people,” says Seaman, who sees both sides of the argument. “These are good, hard-working people, and they did nothing wrong.”  

If the new SABBS standard incorporating black dogs is passed this spring, it will have no immediate effect on AKC-registered Boerboels in America, as the breed was officially recognized at the beginning of 2015, and AKC rules prevent the standard from being changed for another five years. Frustrated with that impasse, some black-dog breeders have approached the rival United Kennel Club, which is aware of the controversy and has decided not to adopt any Boerboel standard until June 2015. (As for Europe, the Boerboel is not yet recognized by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, or FCI.)  


Dark brindle puppies like this one are not to be confused with solid blacks. Photo courtesy Diane Seaman    


Many American breeders of black Boerboels take a philosophic approach to the conundrum in which they find themselves.  

“I’m not here to defend the fact that they have been around, or weren’t around, in the beginning, but I am here to defend fact that they are here now,” says Mark Wallrath of Waldrodt Boerboels in Texas, adding that he gets more inquiries about black Boerboels than any other color. “I love the dogs, all of them, not particularly the black dogs. I don’t think just because a dog’s black he should be thrown away.”  


The blocky, broad, deep and fairly short head is a distinctive feature of Boerboel type.


While some breeders of black Boerboels, at least in the States, acknowledge that the origins of their dogs might be problematic, they also note that the breed as a whole has arguably bigger problems. New breeders are multiplying exponentially, with few mentors to support and guide them. “There are a lot more puppies on the ground than there were even a year ago,” says Christina Ross of Revelation Boerboels in Courtland, Virginia, who bred her first litter last spring. And not least of all, having existed as a land race for centuries before it was standardized some three decades ago, the Boerboel understandably exhibits great inconsistency – regardless of color.  

“It’s the lack of type and conformation alone that hurts your head sometimes,” Ross says, noting that the breed’s giant size and relatively recent standardization make it a “challenge” to breed. “I don’t even know what half my dogs’ great-great-grandparents looked like.”  

Even if the membership of the South African Boerboel club gives a thumbs-up to its proposed standard embracing black dogs, that hardly spells the end of the story. Some diehard fanciers are considering abandoning the Boerboel label entirely, and are debating registering as a new breed under the banner of “Plaas boel” or “Boerboel type.”

“Things are going to get pretty interesting,” Seaman says. “And it may get ugly before it gets better.”  


Back in Black, Take 2

Though their breeds hail from the same part of Africa – and arguably share a good deal of genetic material – there is not much cross pollination between today’s fanciers of Boerboels and that other native breed of southern Africa, the Rhodesian Ridgeback.  


South Africa’s two native breeds, the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Boerboel, were very likely crossbred to each other over the centuries.
But the Ridgeback, too, has had its modern-day upheavals over the color black, albeit with decidedly different results.  
Likely because of the involvement of British fanciers in Rhodesia, who were arguably more obsessed with pedigrees and standardization, the Rhodesian Ridgeback was recognized more than a half-century before the Boerboel. Though today the Ridgeback has only one permissible color – wheaten, ranging from a light gold to a richer red shade – the original breed standard of the 1920s contained many of the same colors and patterns considered acceptable by most Boerboel fanciers today, including reds, fawns and brindles (as well as some now unacceptable ones, such as Irish marked).  
Black was never cited in the original Ridgeback standard, and, as with the Boerboel, no early photographs of black dogs have surfaced to date. The general consensus among modern Ridgeback fanciers is that black was an unsuitable color for a dog expected to hunt and trot all day in the hot African sun.  
More than a decade ago, some Ridgeback breeders began producing black-and-tan dogs, which have a patterning that is identical to a Doberman Pinscher – solid black with tan points. This was not a breed-wide phenomenon, but rather cropped up in a handful of unrelated lines in Africa, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. Breeders of these dogs have pointed to some of the foundation dogs, which included Airedales, as the source of this color pattern, while their more skeptical colleagues note that the Ridgeback/Doberman cross was and still is a very popular one in Africa, as it bestows a bit more “edge” to the Ridgeback temperament.  
In the case of the Ridgeback, intense pressure from senior breeders across the globe has stifled any movement to have the black-and-tans accepted as an allowable color; the color pattern also appears to be recessive, and is more difficult to produce in the breed. In 2005, a black-and-tan Ridgeback was brought into the ring at an American Kennel Club show, and was excused by the judge. Still, many prospective owners consider the color pattern “rare,” and are willing to pay a premium for it.


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