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Pat McGowan
Photo of the author, Carilee Moran, and her Malinois BISS Ch Avonlea Burning Love UDTX RA AX OAJ

Events have again hurled the Belgian Malinois onto the national stage, with the participation of the Navy SEAL dog, Conan, in the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Favorable publicity for the Malinois is a double-edged sword: It makes people more aware of this still-unusual breed, which has the potential to benefit the Malinois by increasing the number of capable, committed owners. But a “cool dog” surge also attracts buyers who haven’t researched their next pet as much as they would a new dishwasher.

In response to this latest wave of celebrity, worried Malinois fanciers are redoubling their efforts to educate the pet seekers about the nature of the breed, hoping to prevent a new cycle of “Saw it-Loved it-Bought it-Hated it-Dumped it,” a problem that recurs whenever a dog breed becomes newly fashionable.  When reality bumps into last year’s fashion, disappointed buyers who cannot manage their cool new toys dump them onto rescues such as the American Belgian Malinois Rescue (ABMR). Surrenders to ABMR have increased steadily since 2011, from around 100 dogs per year to well over 200, according to Marcia Tokson, Rescue Coordinator.

About 90 percent of the surrenders are dogs from lines of Malinois generally produced for protection sports enthusiasts, private protection businesses, narcotics detection, border patrol, and military/police use. Some of these dogs exhibited serious health problems or behavioral issues. Others were working dogs that were unsuitable for the work. But in most cases, the dog either had behavior problems attributable to lack of socialization and training, or simply did not fit into the pet home due to excessive drive and energy levels.

The realities of owning a Belgian Malinois: even as seniors, their energy never stops! This dog was 11 years old when she unpacked every single stuffed toy from a box meant to be prizes at a national specialty show. Photo courtesy of Laurie Thal.

Get to Know the Belgian Malinois

To help you decide whether the Belgian Malinois would be a good choice for your home, let’s take a closer look at this powerhouse. The American Belgian Malinois Club’s breed standard says:

“The Belgian Malinois is a well-balanced, square dog… The dog is strong, agile, well-muscled, alert, and full of life. … Correct temperament is essential to the working character of the Belgian Malinois. The breed is confident, exhibiting neither shyness nor aggressiveness in new situations. The dog may be reserved with strangers but is affectionate with his own people. He is naturally protective of his owner’s person and property without being overly aggressive. The Belgian Malinois possesses a strong desire to work and is quick and responsive to commands from his owner.”

Who wouldn’t want a dog like that? It sounds perfect. But the Malinois is not produced in a Belgian Malinois Stamping Factory, every individual a cookie-cutter copy of the last. From the beginning, the Malinois has always been a flexible dog who could fill many roles. These different jobs require an emphasis on different characteristics.

Before her Belgian Malinois dug it up, the author once had a raised bed of lettuce.

The Many Jobs of the Belgian Malinois

Over time, the Malinois has split into lines generally produced for work and lines generally produced for conformation, with attention to performance abilities. There is some crossover between these two main branches, and within each branch are more branches, right down to the preferences of individual breeders, even for the same sport or type of work. All of these dogs are phenomenally strong for their size, with lightning-fast reflexes and incredible jumping ability. A high level of prey drive is a constant in the breed.

Some lines bred for work favor dogs that are perpetual motion machines. These dogs are active and ready to go, 24/7. This activity level works for the jobs and lifestyles of these dogs, who are more tools than pets, but the energy can be a tough row to hoe for a pet owner.

Other breeders of working Malinois favor dogs with an “off switch,” capable of firing up when needed, but able to settle down at other times. Malinois may be selected for varying levels of sociability and guarding tendency, depending on their purpose. All are bred with intelligence in mind, but some jobs demand more judgment and impulse control than others, and this is evident in the dogs.

Although few people use Malinois in commercial livestock operations, those who depend on the Malinois for farm chores need an all-around dog. The dog must take direction from the shepherd, but solve problems independently when required. The dog must be calm enough to move stock without stressing them, but always be ready to defend his master from rogue animals. Usually, this dog can settle, though his considerable endurance and energy need a regular outlet.

Dogs bred mainly for conformation and/or performance sports, such as obedience and agility, occupy another part of the Malinois character map. Ideally, a show dog will have steady nerves, the judgment not to see ordinary life events as threats requiring a reaction, and will be willing to tolerate less activity than working dogs. These dogs can be successful at any companion sport you can name, from dock diving to dog dancing.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Woods

What Do Malinois Owners Say?

Consider these reflections from two experienced Malinois owners:

“My two show Malinois are very easy to live with. One requires a bit more exercise than the average dog but neither has ever been destructive, and they are great house pets. However, my first Malinois was a street dog of unknown origins. She destroyed sofas, mattresses, crates and anything else she deemed a worthy target for her frustrations. It took a long time for me to learn the amount of mental and physical exercise she required to be content. She was the smartest, craziest, most fun dog ever. I learned a lot from her, but she was not easy to live with, and not the type of dog the average dog owner would want to deal with.  At this point in my life, there is a good chance that I could not manage a dog with her kind of constant drive.” – L.E.

 “My first Malinois was a working dog acquired when he was two years old. He had a calm temperament, but if he wanted something, he would rip apart everything in his path to get to it. This included the car, a crate, and sometimes me. We couldn’t continue on together… but he did teach me how fast Malinois learn. Most of the other Malinois I’ve owned were moderately active and didn’t require over-the-top exercise programs. They were satisfied with one or two training classes per week and yard exercise. But I’ve had several that were a lot more challenging. One came to me at 15 months as a kennel dog. During the long time it took to housebreak her, she escaped from every enclosure I tried. My last foster Malinois regularly scaled a 6-foot fence and ran off – I spent a lot of time looking for him.  I’ve had experience with high-drive dogs, but I don’t do as much as I used to, so I know it’s not a good fit anymore.“ – D.L.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Woods

So, Should You Get a Malinois?

The Malinois does best in an active home. Such homes include the dog in regular, vigorous activities such as hiking, jogging, obedience, or other dog sports, in addition to free playtime in the yard. These dogs MUST have something to do. The successful home also considers the needs of every family member. You may be certain that you want a high-powered dog, but is the rest of your family ready to participate in training and maintaining a sometimes challenging canine citizen for the next for 13-15 years?

Should you just forget about the Malinois? Not at all! But it’s smart to know in advance what you are getting yourself into. Eventually, the Malinois himself would tell you if you made a mistake. But by then, it would be too late. You would be on your way to becoming just another rescue group statistic. No one wants that.

Before you buy a Malinois, you need to honestly evaluate your capabilities and your commitment to a high-energy, intelligent dog.  You also need to find a responsible breeder to guide you, and be honest with her, too. Keep asking questions until you and the breeder are both sure that the Malinois is the right kind of dog for you. Then if all systems are go, prepare yourself for an adventure like no other: life with a Belgian Malinois!
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