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The Mask of the Belgian Shepherd                                                                                            

 by Michel Griol

Member of the Breeding Commission of the CFCBB


The definition of mask given in the breed standard is as follows: in the Tervueren and the Malinois the mask must be pronounced and should incorporate the upper and lower lips, the corners of the lips and the eyelids in a single black zone.  A strict minimum of six points of pigmentation is specified:  the two ears, the two upper eyelids and the upper and lower lips should be black.  In the Tervueren and the Malinois the absence of mask, including the muzzle being of a lighter colour than the rest of the coat, is a disqualifying fault.


The presence of the mask is determined by the action of the Em gene.  This gene is also responsible for the caudal triangle in the adult, and the black ridge in the newborn puppy which runs along the topline and which recedes as the puppy grows.  The E gene (absence of mask) is recessive to the dominant Em gene.  A Tervueren or a Malinois carrying the E gene in a double dose will be completely fawn, including the muzzle.  It is therefore impossible to know in advance if a Groenendael male carrying the fawn or grey gene from his ancestors will produce a Tervueren with a mask when mated to a heterozygous black female. 



In the latter third of the 20th Centry, it was not uncommon to see in Groenendael litters fawn and especially grey puppies with a very light head and absence of mask.  The normal area where the mask should b was lighter than the rest of the coat.  We incorrectly called this absence of mask "a reversed mask".  The incidence of puppies with a 'reversed mask' was even more frequent when they came down from the bloodlines of the Colley, introduced during the 1940s in the prolific Groenendael breeding kennel of "Mont -Sara". The gene pool having been particularly decimated during the war, breeders out of necessity used dogs from this kennel without being certain of the authenticity of their origins.


The 'reversed mask' is rarely found nowadays, a consequence of the quite significant number of intervariety matings carried out within the last three decades in France between Tervuerens and Groenendaels. Intervariety matings have clearly favoured the presence of the EM gene in heterozygous Groenendaels and it is clear that nowadays we tend to see Tervuerens carrying more or less of a mask from two Groenendael parents: more or less because the Em gene is also influenced by the action of other genes.


In the Tervueren as in the Malinois the expression of the mask can vary in its definition and/or in its intensity. This can vary from absence of mask to a head that is completely black. The variations in the extent and intensity of the mask are due to the action of genes known as major or minor on the expression of the Em gene. The effects of these genes modify not only the extent of the mask but also the intensity of the black.  This is why the mask can be minimum (six points of pigmentation) as described in the breed standard, it can be low (travelling upwards from the upper lip without covering the muzzle), diluted black (not solid and exposing flecks of the  base coat colour), open between the eyes and along the upper surface of the muzzle, have 'spectacles' (circles around the eyes of the same colour as the base coat), be ideally defined as described in the breed standard or invasive (head completely black, which is not desired but not penalised as such).



Though the quality of the mask does not supersede type, structure or character, an ideally defined mask is the finishing touch to the head of our Belgians.  It is therefore necessary for breeders to strive to obtain it through well planned matings.