The Boerboel dates back to the mid-1600s in South Africa. Its name comes from the Afrikaan word “boer,” which means “farmer.” This term refers to early white Dutch farmers who settled in South Africa and used large, Mastiff-like dogs to guard and protect their farms and families. Many experts say that when Egypt was conquered, Assyrian dogs spread to Africa and to the rest of the world. Two basic types of dogs developed from these Assyrian dogs: hounds and mastiffs. Hounds were used primarily for hunting, while mastiffs were mainly used for guarding and protection. According to most reports, a Dutchman named Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape Horn in South Africa in 1652. He is credited as being the colonial administrator and founder of what now is Capetown. He brought a dog with him to protect his family in the wild, unfamiliar and unforgiving new territory. That popular Dutch dog was called a "Bullenbitjer." These were huge, heavy, Mastiff-type animals with extremely strong guarding and protective instincts. Other Europeans who immigrated to Riebeeck’s new settlement brought dogs of similar and dissimilar types. They undoubtedly mated with native domestic South African dogs.
During the Great Trek that started in the 1800s, Dutch and other European colonists increasingly moved inland to protest tight British rule in southern Africa. Their Boer dogs became scattered across the region. Those that survived the harsh environment were exceptionally hardy, trustworthy, adaptable and loyal. They lived with people who were isolated from the rest of the world and relied on them for guarding, herding and companionship. These dogs were the first line of defense against wild and human predators. They also were used to track and hold down wounded game, until the hunters could retrieve it and use it as a source of food.
Many Boer dogs were highly inbred during this period, which stamped in their toughness, resilience and strength. Starting sometime in the 1930s, Bullmastiffs were brought to South Africa by the De Beers diamond company to guard their mines. These dogs played an important role in the development of the Boerboel. Rhodesian Ridgebacks and their descendants probably also contributed to the Boerboel, although they show no sign of a back ridge today.
By the mid-to-late 1900s, due to the consequences of the World Wars, increasing urbanization in southern Africa and careless crossings of Boerboels with other breeds, the Boerboel was at risk of extinction. A group of enthusiasts formed the South African Boerboel Breeders’ Association (SABBA) to save the breed. In the early 1980s, the founding members of SABBA set out to restore the breed to its original type. They covered thousands of miles, travelling to extremely remote areas, looking for genuine Boerboels of the original Boer dog type. Their goal was to find animals that were unlikely to have come from random, poorly thought-out matings because of their geographical isolation. The group reportedly located about 250 dogs that fit their description. Of these, 72 were formally recognized and registered as Boerboels. As a result of these aficionados’ efforts, Boerboels slowly regained their popularity in South Africa, which led to their exportation outside of that country. Nonetheless, Boerboels remain relatively unknown and are extremely rare. They still are used by South African farmers for traditional purposes of guarding, hunting and personal protection. Dog registries in some countries apparently consider Boerboels to be fighting dogs, which has not helped to improve their reputation, popularity or numbers. Fighting is not in their history.
SABBA made a television documentary about the Boerboels in 1990. The American Boerboel Club was founded in July of 2006. The breed was accepted into the American Kennel Club’s Foundation Stock Service Program that same year. In January 2010, the American Boerboel Club was designated as the AKC’s Parent Club, and the breed was accepted into the AKC’s Miscellaneous Class as a member of its Working Group.
Boerboels are generally healthy, living on average about 10 to 12 years. Boerboels have few reported hereditary diseases or disorders. Breed health concerns may include bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV); torsion), ectropion, entropion, elbow dysplasia and hip dysplasia.