Everybody’s familiar with the German Shepherd Dog. After all, they’ve been one of America’s most popular breeds for years. But not everybody is quite as well acquainted with the Belgian Malinois. In fact, their similar coloring and heritage as herding breeds might lead some people to mistake the Belgian Malinois for the German Shepherd Dog. However, there are a few key differences between these two breeds, as well as some fascinating similarities.
A Shared Herding Heritage
Both the Malinois and German Shepherd Dogs are members of the Herding Group and can trace their origins to livestock herding dogs. As their names imply, the Belgian Malinois was developed in Belgium and the German Shepherd Dog in Germany.
The Malinois was one of four varieties of Belgian Shepherd Dog in use in the late 1800s. It was first recognized by Professor Adolphe Reul. He characterized the variety as a medium-sized, square dog with dark brown eyes and triangular ears. Each of the four types of Belgian Shepherd Dog was named for the area around Brussels where it was developed, with the Malinois hailing from the Malines region.
“As the agricultural lifestyle declined, the Belgian Shepherd Dog became favored in the development of police dog training,” according to Ann MacKay, who has owned and bred Belgian Malinois for decades.
In fact, as early as 1908, the AKC Gazette mentioned that two Belgian Sheepdogs had been imported into the United States to work as police dogs in New York City. More were imported in 1911, including two specifically identified in the AKC studbook as Malinois. Finally, in 1959, the Belgian Malinois was granted full AKC recognition as a breed of its own, separate from the other Belgian Shepherd Dog varieties.
Also dating back to the late 1800s, the German Shepherd Dog was developed by Captain Max von Stephanitz. He wanted to create the perfect dog breed. von Stephanitz was impressed by the variety of herding dogs he saw throughout Germany. Looking for his ideal medium-to-large-sized dog with an independent, persistent, and obedient personality, he found and purchased a dog at a show in 1899. That dog became the first registered German Shepherd Dog in von Stephanitz’s newly established German Shepherd Dog Club and the founder of the breed.
Although the breed’s original purpose was “herding sheep in what we refer to as a tending fashion, the breed soon became popular with the police and as military dogs,” says Julie Degen, a German Shepherd Dog enthusiast and veteran breeder. “The sport of Schutzhund was developed as a test to choose appropriate animals for breeding when it wasn’t possible to evaluate the dogs by their traditional work. In short order, she adds, GSDs “became one of the best known and most popular breeds in the world.”
Different Physical Qualities
Both breeds are similar in height. Males stand 24-26 inches high at the withers and females 22-24 inches. But the majority of Malinois are lighter than most German Shepherd Dogs. The male Malinois weighs 60-80 pounds and the female weighs 40-60 pounds. In contrast, a male German Shepherd Dog can weigh up to 90 pounds and a female up to 70 pounds.
MacKay, former vice president and longtime member of the American Belgian Malinois Club, points out that the Malinois’ ears more closely resemble a triangle than the German Shepherd’s ears. Plus, the Malinois is a square breed. In other words, when viewing from the side, the topline, front legs, and back legs should closely approximate a square.
On the other hand, the breed standard for the German Shepherd Dog describes a dog that is “longer than tall, deep-bodied, and presents an outline of smooth curves rather than angles.”
Degen, a longtime member of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America who served as both the herding chair and performance chair, is struck by the German Shepherd Dog’s movement. She describes the breed as having a unique, extremely efficient, and effortless gait. This helps them cover the most amount of ground with the least effort.
Common Personality Traits
According to MacKay, the Malinois is energetic, intelligent, and inquisitive. They possess a lively character evident in a proud carriage and sparkling, attentive eyes. These dogs possess an intense desire to work, and this trait is usually directed at the owner.
“The Belgian Malinois is an exceptional watchdog,” she adds. “Vigilant yet responsive, they balance all the qualities needed in a stock dog, protector, and sensible working partner.”
The GSD has a beloved personality, with an intelligent, protective, and active character. Not a breed for lounging around, these dogs need plenty of exercise. Dog sports are a great way to give both their bodies and brains a workout. Degen defines the breed as strong, confident, independent, and usually serious. In addition, she believes that German Shepherd Dogs excel in versatility. Besides conformation, German Shepherds compete in dog sports like herding, obedience, agility, tracking, diving, Disc Dog, barn hunt, and more.
Of course, the herding background of both breeds leads to certain shared personality traits. For example, both breeds are confident. They would have to be to face off against a flock of sheep. Both are also loyal to their family but can show some aloofness with strangers. These traits also would have served them well when protecting livestock.
Finally, both breeds are alert and ready to respond to their handlers. It’s no wonder these two breeds have been embraced as both beloved pets and valued working dogs.