A Belgian Cowherd Finds a New Leash on Life as An Attack Dog in Southern California

UPDATED 05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

It was just before dawn, but the cops from California's Newport Beach were still completely in the dark. They had trailed a quartet of car thieves into a residential area and seen them vanish on foot across shadowy lawns. Time to turn to their backup, on loan from the nearby Irvine Police Department—Officer Jeff Love and his Weapon of Last Resort. "Bad guys! Git 'em!" said Officer Love. They were buzzwords, and before you could say "Rin Tin Tin," an ungainly beast that might have been an enormous poodle gave the stolen vehicle the olfactory once-over and charged off into the night. "After about 10 minutes," recalls Love, "he had these four guys cornered on somebody's patio. They're bad guys and he gets pretty excited, but he didn't lunge or bite. I was real proud of Barr."

No, it's not the latest K-9 epic from the Disney Studio, but a true-life shaggy dog story. Barr the Wonder Dog is a Bouvier des Flandres, a species of European work animal that is finding new popularity as a police pooch in Southern California. The "boove" is thought to be the prototype of the 19th-century children's classic A Dog of Flanders by Ouida, and is often depicted on Dutch tiles pulling a milk cart, as the dogs do in present-day Holland and Belgium. In France they still herd sheep and cattle.

The name Bouvier des Flandres means "cowherd of Flanders," and, yes, Jacqueline Bouvier was "Jackie Cowherd" before she became a Kennedy or an Onassis. The canine Bouvier was a messenger for the Allies during World War I. Decades later thousands were killed by the Nazis as enemy dogs, but a few were smuggled to America by the French and Belgian underground. A first-rate tracker, thanks to a nose 500 times keener than your average cop's, the boove is equipped with jaws capable of applying 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch to a hapless crook's arm or leg. Bouviers are now used to herd cattle and sheep in some parts of California and the Midwest—training that can be useful in their police work. Says Officer Dan Pitocco of the City of Orange Police Department in California: "The Bouvier is a cattle dog and he throws body blocks into what he's herding. He has a massive chest, and it's all muscle. When he hits you, it's like a dump truck. Believe me, he can throw you down."

Barr was born in Washington State 15 months ago, stands 29 inches at the shoulder, weighs 95 pounds (he will weigh as much as 110 when full-grown), and was purchased for the hefty sum of $5,000, which included extensive training with the handler. Irvine Police Chief Leo Peart concedes that he could have shown less imagination and opted for a German shepherd, a Doberman pinscher or a Rottweiler. But, big on community relations, he preferred a guardian of the peace who was "nice-looking and friendly in appearance" to a conventional attack dog who scared people on sight. Says Barr's sidekick, Officer Love: "People have a tendency to stereotype dogs. You've got to judge each dog individually. Some dachshunds I've seen are more a threat than any Rottweiler, the way they always nip at your feet."

Alas, Barr is no great shakes at narcotics work, which requires a "high retrieval desire." Bouviers, says Officer Love, "may chase a stick a few times, but after that they fail to see the point. They know you're just going to throw it again." Yet Love is positively lyrical when the subject is Barr's prowess with bad guys. He goes so far as to suggest that Barr's mere presence in the department may already have resulted in a "psychological deterrent" to local crime. "Maybe we can't really attribute our recent drop in burglaries to Barr," says Love, "but we know they have gone down. It may be that the crooks are thinking, 'I don't want to be stuck in a building with a dog sniffing me down.' "

Barr's life, however, is not all pursuit of bad guys. On a typical day, before punching in at the station house late in the afternoon, Barr enjoys pampering suitable to a matinee idol. He pays regular visits to a female hairstylist to have his hair trimmed, and Love sprays his coat each day with a silicone solution to keep it shiny. For exercise, Barr repairs to nearby fields, which serve as a free-form salon where he can chase birds (always unsuccessfully). The chow is good: eight cups of dry and half a can of moist dog food daily. Then comes one of his favorite pastimes: reviewing the "rushes"—videotapes, that is, of his training sessions. "He's a real ham," concedes Love. "He can't get enough of watching and hearing himself." What's more, there's, well, a burgeoning romance in his young life. Seems there's been a new addition to the Love household, a 9-month-old bull mastiff named Heidi, who guards the home while Barr and Love are on duty. Says Love about this new fun couple: "They're not what you'd call an item, but they sure have a good time rolling around in the backyard." In Irvine, it's a dog's world.

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