Clownish and energetic, yet devoted and trainable, boxer dogs make an entertaining addition to the family. Katy Birchall learns more about these former police dogs.
Boxer dog Biff is something of a celebrity. After landing the role of Buster in the heartwarming John Lewis Christmas advertisement in 2016, Biff became an overnight sensation – the two-minute spot, which saw the exuberant boxer bouncing up and down gleefully on a trampoline, was the most-watched Christmas TV advertisement worldwide on YouTube that year, gaining more than 20 million views. Within minutes of its release, ‘Buster the Boxer’ was trending higher on social media than the US election results, announced the day before.
‘Biff loves the attention,’ reveals owner Jan Patten, who has three boxers in total: Biff, Betty and Darcey. ‘He’d never done anything like that before. We only auditioned because my agility trainer saw the advertisement and suggested we go along. It was three years ago, but he’s still sometimes recognised – he’s been asked for so many photographs that, now, whenever he sees someone holding a camera, he sits and poses.’
Playful, energetic and silly, boxers are natural comics – the perfect star for an advertisement designed to make people smile. Then there’s the matter of those lovable faces. ‘They’ve got such expression,’ says Mrs Patten. ‘That’s what sets them apart. They can look so different from one minute to the next. They’re real clowns, constantly making us laugh. You have to have a big sense of humour to own a boxer – the biggest sense of humour, perhaps, but once you live with one, there’s no other dog.’
The charming, cheeky personality of the boxer has won it the royal seal of approval – Zara Tindall’s boxer has been photographed in the past accompanying her family to horse trials – and several high-profile fans, including Clare Balding, who has often shared her fond memories of growing up with boxers (her family still has them). Across the pond, the breed has had its fair share of the limelight as the beloved pet of cultural icons – Tony Curtis, Humphrey Bogart and Shirley Temple were all devotees – and has even managed to bound into the heart of the Kardashian empire, thanks to Kim’s aptly-named boxer, Rocky.
‘They’re tremendously good fun,’ enthuses Amanda Jinks, chairman of the British Boxer Club and owner of four of the dogs. ‘There’s something about their faces, about that modest, loving look they give you – it’s difficult to put your finger on it. They’re loyal, affectionate, courageous dogs and very intelligent, too, so they’re trainable.’
Mrs Jinks competes with her boxers in Heelwork to Music, an activity that requires a high level of obedience as participants perform complex routines with their dog. ‘A lot of people use border collies because they’re so biddable, but boxers are, too, if you work at it,’ she insists. ‘My dogs really throw their hearts into it. Boxers have a lot to give.’
‘I always say that, once you have a boxer, you’ll never have anything else’
Mrs Jinks emphasises that the strong character of the boxer means it’s essential to establish a training structure early on. ‘They can be opinionated and boisterous, so it’s important to take them to classes and get them socialised, otherwise you might end up with a hooligan,’ she laughs.
Originating in Germany, the boxer evolved from the Bullenbeisser, meaning bull-biter – agile, powerful and exceptionally courageous dogs bred to hunt bears and boars, as well as being used in bull-baiting. When it was outlawed, these tough, intelligent dogs, with a natural distrust of strangers, made suitable guard dogs.
By the late 19th century, the name boxer had been coined to differentiate the breed from bulldogs and the first boxer club was formed in Munich. Still relatively unknown in Britain, the brave boxer became highly valued in Germany for police work and served as messenger, guard, pack-carrier and as patrol dogs during the First and Second World Wars. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the UK started to sit up and take notice, but, by the 1950s, the boxer was ranking as one of the nation’s most popular breeds.
Although German shepherds are recognised as today’s police dog of choice, the boxer’s instinctive capability for this line of work is still present in the breed. Neil McMahon is currently training his second successful boxer in IGP, a three-part sport consisting of tracking, obedience and protection, designed to show off the abilities of working breeds used in police training or the military.
‘Boxers are very much suited to the sport; they were originally developed for this sort of work and they’re naturally good at it,’ he explains. ‘They adore the training because they enjoy being outdoors in the fields and spending as much time with their owner as possible.’
The sport involves several retrieving tasks and one wonders whether the boxer might fare well in the shooting field – it is rare, but not completely unheard of and there have been occasional reports of boxers managing to keep up with more typical gundogs.
‘Some are in the habit of drooling, so perhaps not the right fit for anyone opposed to a bit of slobber’
‘The working element to boxers isn’t as common here in the UK, but when you see one working in IGP, it is magnificent to watch’ says Vikki Van-Beck of Newlaithe Boxers and the Northern Boxer Club. Based in South Yorkshire, Mrs Van-Beck can’t remember a life before boxers. ‘My mum has bred and shown them for almost 60 years, so they’ve been part of my every day since I was born,’ she explains, revealing that they own 11 boxers between them.
‘I always say that, once you have a boxer, you’ll never have anything else. They’re such characters, loyal and trusting. Mainly, they like being with people; they’re affectionate dogs that always want to be at your side.’
The boxer’s keen sense of attachment can lead to a common trait of separation anxiety and Mrs Jenks is keen to point out that they’re not a dog to be left to their own devices at home all day. ‘They’re people-oriented and can get distressed if they’re on their own for too long, so we wouldn’t advise the breed to anyone out working long hours,’ she elaborates.
‘It should also be remembered that boxers are big, strong and can be boisterous – rescue boxers often come from those with young children, unable to cope with them blundering about the home.’ She adds that some are in the habit of drooling, so perhaps not the right fit for anyone opposed to a bit of slobber.
The day after the release of ‘Buster the Boxer’, searches for boxer puppies rose by a staggering 160% on the Kennel Club’s (KC) website. In response, the KC quickly added a ‘Living with Buster’ page, to show fans the realities of owning a boxer. ‘It was a worry that enquiries spiked so hugely,’ remembers Mrs Patten. ‘It’s so important to do your homework, to speak to boxer owners and meet the dogs of responsible breeders before you make a decision. Biff didn’t get to his standard of obedience overnight – it took work.’
Thankfully, Biff isn’t the kind of dog to take his celebrity lightly and has done his bit, raising money for boxer rescues all over the UK, from auctioning off his paw-printed photographs to making special appearances at charity events, showing off his agility talents to an adoring crowd. ‘Boxers are simply beautiful dogs. Everyone who meets Biff falls in love with him,’ concludes Mrs Patten fondly. ‘We’ve just done our last gig, however; it’s time for him to retire.’
It sounds as if he has earnt it.