Boerboel (South African Mastiff)

Boerboels are intelligent, loyal, and gentle protectors of their families. They can weigh up to 200 pounds. Learn more about living with boerboels.
By Lola Augustine Brown
August 24, 2020
South African Mastiff
Breed Group
Dog Size
Other Traits
Temperament
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South African Mastiff

height
  • 22 to 27 inches
weight
  • 150 to 200 pounds
life span
  • 9 to 11 years
breed size
  • extra large (101 lbs. or more)
good with
  • children
  • families
temperament
  • friendly
  • outgoing
intelligence
  • high
shedding amount
  • normal
exercise needs
  • medium
energy level
  • calm
barking level
  • when necessary
drool amount
  • high
breed group
  • working
coat length/texture
  • short
colors
  • brown / chocolate / liver
  • red
  • cream
patterns
  • bicolor
  • tricolor
  • brindle
other traits
  • highly territorial
  • loves water
  • cold weather tolerant
  • hot weather tolerant
  • strong loyalty tendencies

When well-trained and socialized from an early age, boerboels can be gentle and loyal family dogs while still fulfilling the role they were originally bred for: acting as protective guardians. In the Afrikaans language, the name boerboel (pronounced boo-r-bull) translates to “farmer’s dog.” And in South Africa, where the breed originated, that described these dogs’ primary use as protectors of farms.

Weighing up to 200 pounds, this is a dog that you need to have control over, and is a breed best suited to experienced dog owners. Boerboels are smart and highly trainable dogs who love attention from their humans, but it’s worth considering that with their size if you own one you’ll be feeding the equivalent of another adult in your household. 

Appearance

The mighty boerboel is an agile and broad, well–muscled dog who may weigh as much (or more) than its owner. As tall as 27 inches and weighing in at between 150 and 200 pounds, the boerboel makes for a powerful companion who is much more agile than other dogs of this size. 

Boerboel colors include brindle, cream, brown, rust, and red, and their sleek coat can come in a variety of different markings. They shed a fair amount, but their short coats are easily cared for. Their eyes are brown, and horizontally set, helping give the boerboel its characteristic alert and intelligent expression. 

Temperament

The boerboel temperament is one of a loving family dog who serves as an excellent protector. Though this is no dog for inexperienced owners, a well-adjusted boerboel can be a loving companion. And despite their magnificent size, the breed has even been used as therapy dogs with children. 

Danny Jones, an AKC registered breeder and owner of D & K Boerboels in St. Louis, Mo., says although he was attracted to the breed because of their impressive size, it’s their temperament that he loves the most. “They are big babies at home, loyal to their family, and so good with children," Jones says. “They are really affectionate.” 

Despite their size, and the fact that they were bred as guard dogs, Jones says that he is never worried about the dogs’ aggression. “They know when it's a bad situation and when it’s not,” he says. Smart enough to tell the difference between friend and foe, boerboels make excellent guard dogs. This isn’t a dog that anyone wants to mess with, but you don’t have to worry about them behaving inappropriately. 

“In general, if they're treated with love and brought up nicely, larger dogs such as boerboels tend to be very calm and very docile,” says Margaret Coffey, DVM, former Hospital Director of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University. “When you’re breeding an animal of that size, you need to ensure that they have an even temperament, and that’s what breeders are selecting for."

As with other giant breeds, you need to start boerboel training and socializing early, and be consistent. Jones says that he has known owners who get into trouble when they’ve babied their dogs, which confuses the boerboel when you are trying to set boundaries. “As long as you are in control, this is a great dog to own. Once they feel that they can get one over on you, they'll just keep doing it,” Jones says. “But they are smart dogs, which makes them easy to train.”

The boerboel isn’t suited to first-time dog owners or those unable to put in the time and effort required to make them become the wonderful, loyal companions that they can be. 

Living Needs

Boerboels aren’t super active dogs, but they do need daily exercise, whether that be long walks on a leash or plenty of play in a fenced-in backyard. Because of their huge size and the fact that they are highly territorial, excursions to the off-leash dog park are not a good idea with this breed.

Though the ideal situation for these dogs is likely a home with a big fenced yard where they can play with their owner, this isn’t essential, Coffey says. “A lot of people will say, ‘Well, I couldn't possibly have them in an apartment because they're just so big.’ But often with a larger dog they really require a lot less care, and so long as you meet their exercise needs, they tend to be a little lethargic at home,” Coffey says. “Big dogs can make great apartment dogs, and require way less attention than something like a Jack Russell.”

Boerboels can get along well with other pets in the home, especially if they are raised together. As with all dogs, this comes down to socialization and training. These dogs love being with their family, especially their special chosen person, and don’t tolerate being left alone for long periods of time. 

Historically, boerboels roamed huge farmlands in South Africa, so this is a breed that can easily keep up with you on long hikes (but you’ll need to keep them leashed). Jones says that his dogs love to swim. And the internet offers plenty of cute videos of these mighty beasts having a good paddle.

Care

Grooming your boerboel is easy. Their dense, short coat will benefit from a weekly go-over with a soft–bristled brush or grooming mitt to help take out any loose hairs, and to distribute his natural oils to give the coat a sleek, healthy look. You’ll only need to give them the occasional bath, should they roll in something or go for a muddy romp with you. 

The boerboel is an active and agile dog who needs daily exercise, but a few good, long walks or play time in your fenced-in backyard should cover it. The rest of the time they’ll happily snooze the day away. They are a very protective breed who will react to a threat from another dog, so you’ll want to keep them on-leash at all times. If you have the inclination, your dog will love taking part in agility, weight–pulling, and stock competitions; as a smart working dog, they excel at those types of challenges. 

Socially, your big, soppy boerboel wants to be with his family all the time and will not enjoy being left alone for long periods. They do best hanging out with their families. 

Health

The lifespan of boerboels is 9–11 years, in line with other giant breeds. Although they are considered a generally healthy breed they can suffer from the same issues that affect other giant breeds such as hip dysplasia and cancer. “It doesn't seem fair that the giant breeds don't live very long, and can be more susceptible to cancer,” Coffey says, adding that while all dogs can get cancer, bone cancers are much more prevalent in larger breeds.

Another big-dog issue that you should be aware of is bloat, a condition where the stomach twists and cuts off blood supply, which can kill a dog in two hours. “It happens so quickly that most owners don’t recognize what's going on. And by the time they get to the vet, the vet can't save them,” Coffey says. She notes that you can opt to have a simple preventative surgery in which the dog’s stomach is stitched to the wall of their body cavity so that it cannot rotate; this can be carried out when you have your dog spayed or neutered. “We advise this for all large barrel-chested dogs now,” Coffey says.

History

When Dutch, Huegenot, and German settlers began arriving in South Africa in the mid 1600s, they brought large mastiff and bull–type dogs with them to guard their farms. To this day, the boerboel is sometimes called the South African mastiff. These large breeds were bred over the centuries to create huge dogs that were able to protect the homestead from large predators, and also excellent companions for big game hunting. Occasionally these dogs are called “lion dogs” because of their supposed ability to win in a fight against a lion, but it’s unlikely that, despite their size, they could take down a healthy adult lion (though maybe a smaller big cat, such as leopard could be possible). 

Eventually, the results of breeding these large European dogs coalesced into the breed now commonly known as boerboels. And then these proud and mighty dogs became known outside of South Africa. In 2015, the AKC admitted the boerboel into the working dog category, which helped raise the breed’s profile in North America. 

Fun Facts

  • Boerboels are the only South African dog breed created to defend homesteads. 
  • American anthropologist Carl Semencic is credited with introducing boerboels to purebred enthusiasts worldwide in his 1998 book Gladiator Dogs
  • Receiving AKC status in 2015, the boerboel was the 183rd registered breed (out of 193 breeds).
  • A boerboel named Bilo was the first boerboel to participate in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, in 2016.