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by Maren Bell Jones DVM, MA 2015
The Belgian Malinois is a large breed dog that is typically light fawn to mahogany red in color. They hail from continental Europe and have been developed since the 19th century to fulfill a variety of tasks for its owner including but not limited to herding, police and military work. While the breed has been used in an ever expanding list of tasks for which it is well capable of, there is one role that the Belgian Malinois was never meant for: being a pet.
The Malinois is a working breed. This does not just mean it happens to be a member of the working or herding group via the American Kennel Club and still vaguely looks like it did 100+ years ago when it was still somewhat useful. No, this breed is the premier breed for police and military applications and has become very popular in the last decade (especially the last 5 years) in the United States in protection sport (IPO, French ring, Mondioring, PSA), search and rescue, and scent detection as well as performance events (agility, dock diving, flyball, and so on).
Featured in dozens of inspiring articles and videos on military and police dogs, the Malinois is now the new canine star of a war dog movie called Max. In what looks to be a combination of American Sniper and How to Train Your Dragon, dog loving audiences used to more easy going breeds will falsely assume that love and devotion from a teenage boy will be enough to turn a ferocious former military working dog named Max into a loving house pet. The popularity of the Malinois will likely soar even higher along with ticket sales. And this is not a good thing.
The essence of the Malinois is in the work. The heart of the Malinois is in the work. Their soul lights up just as much when they are working with you as they are being petted and loved on at home. They truly come alive when they are doing what the breed has been bred for many decades to do: police/military and protection sport. Like Thoroughbred horses who absolutely love to race but are high maintenance and high strung, these high performance animals are often called the Ferrari of working dogs. They go fast. Really really fast! They are incredible to watch in the right hands. They go hard and can be true poetry in motion. They can also crash and burn hard, even in very capable hands. Just keep in mind actor Paul Walker of The Fast and the Furious movies who was killed in a high performance Porche driven by his friend who was a professional driver. Putting the average Malinois into average pet owner hands is like turning over the keys of that Ferrari to your 16 year old teenager. It may not always be fatal, but it's a pretty terrible idea.
Well, what if we made a safer Ferrari? Is it acceptable to take out the high performance engine and remove what makes a Ferrari a Ferrari just so a suburbanite can use it more safely for commuting or picking up groceries or your teenager can look cool driving to school? Is it acceptable to keep a Ferrari in a garage and never take it out because it's simply too much car for all but the most serious of drivers? No. Not everyone can handle one. Let it be understood that they are not for everybody. Let the Ferrari be a Ferrari. There are dozens and dozens of other car models that are more suited for commuting or grocery shopping or a teen's first ride. There are hundreds of purebred dog breeds and countless crossbreeds at shelters that have already lost most of their working attributes in order to be good pets and companions. Let the Malinois be a Malinois. The Belgian Malinois as an overall breed simply do not make good pets.
So what is a good pet? What does this term mean? As a house call veterinarian, I see people interact with their pet dogs in their home on a daily basis. The average pet owner wants a dog who will wait patiently at home for 8-10 hours a day snuggled up on the sofa with the cat while their owner is at work. Never barking. Never counter surfing. Never shredding said sofa. Or said cat for that matter! A good pet might learn a few basic obedience commands (sit, maybe down or stay, hopefully walking on leash). They may enjoy a few minutes of playing ball or a walk around the neighborhood. A nice hike for a couple miles would be the highlight of their week. Afterwards, they are happy to curl up next to you and require nothing else from you but a few kind words and pats on the head. Sounds totally doable for your average pug or golden retriever. This however is an extremely unrealistic expectation for nearly all Belgian Malinois!
On the other side, what attributes make a certain dog breed a poor pet? A dog with almost inexhaustible exercise requirements. A dog that can cause literally thousands of dollars of damage to your home in mere minutes if left unattended. A dog that loves the sound of their own voice to the point of neighbor complaints and calls to animal control. A dog that DEMANDS hundreds if not thousands of hours of training over a lifetime to keep them mentally and physically stimulated, least they become neurotic. A dog who is often a recipe for disaster at a dog park because of their natural assertiveness with other dogs. A dog who is not only extremely mouthy as a puppy, but whose prey drive is so incredibly high that they may see a child as a target rather than a friend. A dog who may be so orally fixated they happily ingest clothing and other items that will likely end up costing you at least a thousand dollars in vet bills to retrieve before they kill the dog. A dog whose first instinct is to bite first and ask questions later. A dog where socialization early and often is not an option in order to keep them from becoming a dangerous liability. A dog whose working characteristics (a strong will, a natural desire to be pushy, an almost insatiable desire to control) make them difficult to keep in a home that does not understand at least intermediate concepts in dog training.
In other words, we just described the typical Belgian Malinois.
The average pet home is simply not equipped to deal with the specific needs of the breed. They need too much exercise, training, and mental stimulation to be happy in most pet settings. They can become destructive at best or put holes in people at the worst. Putting a good Malinois in a pet home where it will never get a chance to fullfil its genetic potential is almost like getting a tiger or lion for a "pet." Sure, you can feed it, put it in an enclosure to try and keep it safe and contained, and you may even have a good relationship with it. Well, to the point it may not attack you if you approach it. It may be functionally alive, but there is a part of a captive wild animal that will never be totally whole, just as a proper Malinois will never be totally whole if their working drives are not developed and nurtured. It is just not fair to them to insist that they become a status symbol for us just because they are the new cool breed.
A Malinois who is not equipped with the strong nerves and high drives to do this sort of work is really barely a Malinois at all. In years past, they would have been culled (killed) to ensure their weaker genetics do not enter the gene pool. Nowadays, they are more frequently humanely culled (meaning spayed and neutered so they cannot reproduce) and placed into performance homes to do agility or dock diving or go into pet homes.
However, unscrupulous breeders won't ensure these lesser dogs can't reproduce. Instead they will be bred by irresponsible people who only see dollar signs to sell to those who don't know any better. They will market these lower drive dogs with weaker thin nerves as "natural family protectors" and "great pets for active families." Nothing could be further from the truth. First, every dog that is a true protection dog must learn how to protect. It is completely unfair to put them in a position where they are just expected to "protect" you when they have no training and may not even have the constitution for it. You can have immense raw talent in grappling or boxing, but unless you get months if not years of instruction, you cannot effectively and reliably harness that ability. The training to be a personal protection dog takes years to develop and thousands of dollars with a good trainer, not to mention maintenance training to keep the dog up to speed. You wouldn't expect a firearm to just protect you without an understanding of how they work and many hours at the range practicing. But somehow people expect their house dog with no training to be as skilled as a police dog or high level protection sport dog. It is an unrealistic and dangerous assumption to put your family and your dog at risk in a situation they are not ready for.
Second, they do need active families, but not just weekend warriors that go on a short hike as the highlight of the week. They must do something mentally challenging to them in addition to their extensive needs for physical exercise. The challenge of protection sport, detection, search and rescue and so on is what these dogs need to thrive. A Malinois who lacks a job will likely make up their own. And their idea of a job is almost certain not to be to your liking!
A few Belgian Malinois breeders have recently come out saying that they can indeed make fine pets and they don't always need to be working dogs. That is technically true. Some of them are not particularly high drive for playing with a ball or tug toy. However, even the lower drive dogs (which would formerly be called washouts from a working program) tend to need a tremendous amount of exercise.
A very small minority are true couch potatoes. They are the Thoroughbred that could never race or the Ferrari with a defective engine. While it is great if these dogs end up in good homes, they should never, ever be touted as typical or the ideal for the breed. These dogs should never be bred any more than a kit car Ferrari should be sold as the real thing. Any breeder that says these dogs make great family dogs is either wanting to sell more puppies or they have made the breed such a part of their lifestyle for so long that they have forgotten how high maintenance they are.
What about the family who want a personal protection dog? Realistically, having a personal protection dog is not in how well they can actually protect you (meaning bite and keep on biting until you say stop or otherwise). It's mostly the deterrence factor. In other words, how well does the dog's appearance, stature, and physicality make a potential criminal rethink about trying something with you or a loved one. To be very honest, while Malinois are an excellent choice for doing actual personal protection work, the Malinois are lower on the deterrence scale than many other breeds such as a German shepherd, Rottweiler, or the molosser/mastiff breeds. Even its very close cousin the Dutch shepherd is a more suitable breed simply because dark brindle is more intimidating than fawn. I used to own a sweet petite little 65 lbs female Rottweiler I adopted from a shelter who became a certified therapy dog. People would pick up their children and walk away as quickly as possible from her while wanting to pet my handsome red male Malinois trained in protection and not nearly as fond of strangers.
The extremely tough Malinois who can do the job of personal protection and do it well are often so driven and intense that they make very poor pets for the reasons we described anyways. Better to have a more visually intimidating dog than a Malinois but have lower energy to fit in better with the family. If your family has an alert Rottweiler or mastiff that barks and an intruder is still intent on breaking in and harming your family, they will likely just shoot the dog and come straight after you. A super elite, highly trained Malinois personal protection dog that will cost tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of training will likely not do much good against ill will and a bullet.
Now let me tell you the first hand story of two young Malinois who we all have failed. The first is named Chance. He was purchased by an affluent family in Kansas City for "personal protection" from a puppy mill that used to operate out of Colorado, but now is located in Oklahoma. They likely thought Chance could simply develop into a "natural family protector" without training and discipline. They did not socialize Chance. In fact, they became afraid of him even as a puppy when he simply acted like a Malinois. So they locked him in a crate in their garage and until he was rescued, he never left the crate. He was fed through the top of the crate. They sprayed his crate out with a hose while he was still in it in order to clean it. But that is not the worst. You see, Chance barked. Go figure, right? So they ran cattle hotwire to Chance's crate and would turn it on when he barked. He was rescued and was a complete basketcase. After weeks of being in foster care, a new home was found! The new owner was a former military working dog handler familiar with the Malinois breed and who did not own any other dogs. Perfect! That caliber of home just doesn't come around every day. We thought Chance may finally get a chance at a new life. But it was not to be. Within a few weeks, Chance attacked his new owner, who needed over 40 stitches. Chance came back into rescue and there was no more chances for Chance.
I killed Chance via lethal injection at age 15 months old.
Trigger came into rescue because he was purchased in a very similar manner from a high production breeder who markets their puppies for "personal protection" homes and pets. Trigger was too much for his first owner as a puppy so he was passed along to someone else. While Trigger liked his owner, he was extremely dog aggressive and he backed up several people into a corner with major threat displays by a year old. A dog trainer friend of mine who is highly experienced in the breed offered to work with Trigger since he was very close to a live bite. Trigger was so reactive and aggressive that he could not be pulled out of his crate without a bite suit jacket on for protection, even with over a week at the trainer. There were no other homes for Trigger.
I killed Trigger via lethal injection at virtually the same age as Chance.
Neither of these dogs were amazing working dogs that just needed the right home to bring the right things out of them. They both were fear aggressive, sharp, and a huge liability but with no workable drive to salvage them. They likely would have had to spend the rest of their lives in a kennel and never allowed out into the outside world for their own safety. For a proud breed like the Malinois, that is no life at all. For both of these dogs, I had to sit in anguish but appear to be calm and soothing for their sake as I gave them a last pat and kind word as I gave them the euthanasia solution. Fortunately for them, they didn't end up in animal control walked down to the euthanasia room at the end of a rabies catch pole. They were with people who loved and understood the breed at the end while the people who sold them as puppies are breeding even more litters to this day and counting their money.
When I euthanize a dog, I almost always get a few drops of blood on my hands when I get access to the vein to start the catheter to give the sodium pentobarbital that stops their breathing and their heart. As far as I am concerned, every single person who promotes this breed as a great family pet or protector and every single breeder who only screens puppy buyers for the color of their money has Chance and Trigger's blood on their hands as well.
I am so sorry, Chance and Trigger. It is hard to be a good pet from the inside of 55 gallon trash bag.
In the end, I fear for the future of the breed. Even just a few short years ago, it was unusual to get a Malinois except as a working dog. But thanks to their notoriety as "the dog that took down Osama bin Laden" and rapidly expanding uses in military and police work, this will likely be the beginning of the end of the premier working dog in the world. It is the pinnacle of American hubris to believe that we need to take exactly what we all love about this breed and water it down so it is a golden retriever in Malinois clothing so everyone can have one as part of their patriotic duty. If you want a dog to act like a golden retriever...get a golden retriever!
If you absolutely insist you must get a Malinois as a pet, contact a reputable Malinois rescue and ask to foster their dogs first. You'll get a better first hand view of how they can be and who knows? Maybe you just found your future best friend. Or ask a friend with one to house sit for them and see what it is like to live with them. They are not just a dog, they are a lifestyle.
With the advent of YouTube and social media, many are now exposed to the work that the Belgian Malinois excel at. This is great for exposure for our sports, but often people put the cart before the horse and get a puppy from the nearest breeder and then try to find a training group. It should be the opposite, especially if you want an advanced level breed like a Malinois. As previously mentioned, well-bred dogs can be a big handful even in experienced hands. If you want to get involved with something like protection sport or search and rescue, find a group BEFORE getting a puppy. A good training club wants to see you suceed. They can help you find a suitable prospect before you drop over a thousand dollars on a potential dud.
Respect the Belgian Malinois for why I fell love it in the first place a decade ago when I first got involved in the breed: its power, grace, loyalty, agility, and tenacity. Don't water it down just so it can be your lawn ornament or bragging point at a cocktail party.
Keep the Malinois for what it was meant to be: a working dog.