Is a Belgian Malinois Right for You?

Belgian Malinois (Mal-in-wah) seem to be the flavour of the month, with movies like Max helping to fuel their popularity.  The reality is, though, these dogs are not for everyone. But they are fantastic companions in the right hands. They are like your Formula 1 cars, with a skilled driver the cars can reach their full potential. But with a novice driver that applies the acceleration or brake incorrectly, there is a high chance of a spectacular crash.

Belgian Malinois Delta
Belgian Malinois Delta

These dogs are not Labradors or Staffies or German Shepherds or Border Collies, they do not have the same temperament so you cannot compare the breeds. They are Malinois. Self-assured, confident, fast and affectionately called “Maligators” for a very good reason. You cannot expect them to act like other breeds. And you cannot train a Malinois the same as those other breeds either.

True Malinois enthusiasts do not want to see this breed in rescues or put to sleep because good people did not know what the breed is really like. Romanticising the breed based on a movie or cool YouTube video and getting a dog that you were not prepared for, will lead to disaster. True Malinois enthusiasts do not want to see the breed ‘dumbed down’ so they can make suitable pets either. There are plenty of breeds that are shadows of their former working ancestors, we recommend one of those instead.  Malinois are one of the last working breeds available.  Dobermanns, German Shepherds, and other breeds have already suffered the fate of popularity which has lead to a decline in health and working traits (Dobermann, Rotweiller, German Shepherd, etc.).

Why Belgian Malinois Do Not Make Good Pets

Belgian Malinois Nym and Shadow
Belgian Malinois Nym and Shadow

Belgian Malinois are difficult dogs to live with because they are very fast and very mouthy and easily get overexcited. If you add those ingredients together, you can end up in A&E as I’ve done (or hospital, like some of my friends). The dogs really help you to reassess your once held opinions of what constitutes a dog bite (and Malinois can single-handedly be credited for raising my pain tolerance). Society though does not share that opinion. So it is up to us as handlers to protect our dogs from themselves. You can make them crazy about almost anything, and as much fun as it may seem at the time, it doesn’t stay fun for long and can make them more difficult to live with.

To be successful in war zones and as frontline dogs, they need a level of mental toughness. This means that they don’t just obey you because you want them to. They are amazing dogs and loyal but if you are a doormat, they will treat you like one, they are not the loyal lassie-dog you are dreaming of. You need to be consistent and help them believe in you as their guide, mentor and leader. This either inspires their handlers to step up and meet the challenge or the dogs find themselves without a capable handler. Without capable leadership, the dogs can become nervous, appear ‘unstable’ or become aggressive and end up getting into trouble. I have not met an unstable Malinois in NZ. I have, so far, only come across incapable handlers.

Expecting a Malinois not to bite is like getting a huntaway (or a Sheltie) and expecting it not to bark.  Or a retriever not to retrieve.  Or a Border Collie not to round everything up.  Hang on a minute, Malinois do all of that as well!  If you decide you want a Malinois, you must get well informed on aggression and dealing with bitey-mouthy dogs.  If you do not provide this breed with the proper upbringing, there is a high probability that the dog will be unmanageable and show reactiveness or aggression. Too many Malinois have already been put to sleep because of incompetent handlers.

The Owner Determines How The Dog Turns Out

Belgian Malinois Jake

Handlers are often quick to blame the dog instead of their own shortcomings. But I have seen many dogs that people failed to have success with (often labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘nervous’) go on to do everything the previous owner claimed it could not (like live as a family dog, with children, win in the competition ring, or go on to become a top working dog). As a handler, it is your job to make our soft dog strong and our strong dog biddable. Just because the dog is from the best-imported bloodlines doesn’t mean it will automatically be fantastic.  Good dogs are made, not born. If the handler lacks the skills, the dog will appear unstable, aggressive or nervous. In the same way that it takes skill and practice to become an artist or a formula 1 race car driver, so you have to work at your craft to make your Malinois into an amazing dog. I am not saying genetics does not play a part, it does. but remember Malinois are bred to be sharp, dominant and driven. So don’t be surprised if your Malinois is like that.

Malinois can be fantastic family pets. Ours live as pets in our home and are loved by our family and friends (once I actually learned how to handle them) and I believe Belgian Malinois are better suited to living with a family than in runs or cages. But be prepared that a Malinois will probably be a wild ride of highs and very low, lows while we learn. Many experienced dog trainers have failed with this breed.  So far 4 have been put to sleep, that I know of, and many, many more have been rehomed in NZ. Considering the NZ Malinois population is probably around 80-100 by my estimation (2016), this is not good.

Leave your ego behind. The dog is a reflection of you and your skills. Their behaviour does not lie. If they are not the dog you expected, you must do a self-assessment, because chances are high that your next dog will have similar problems if you do not step up. You need to turn to people experienced with the breed if you are having trouble, not your local Agility trainer or Obedience club.  I have learned these lessons myself. And I have seen others make this mistake. It has cost good dogs their lives. I know of only 2 people in the whole of NZ I would now go to for advice on the breed.  One is Guus Knopers (who lives in the Bay of Plenty, KNPV background trained Malinois all his life, titled his first Malinois in KNPV, age 6) and the other is Jean-Pierre Derveaux (who lives in Canterbury from a French Ring background).  And I’ve been to all the clubs and know the people involved in the breed currently.

Family Life and Malinois

Well, and here’s another consideration.  Many people with Malinois find that they now can no longer go away on holiday.  The kennels and dog sitters can’t handle the breed.  So guess what… when you get a Malinois, there might be no more holidays for you!  Unless, by some miracle, your breeder will take the dog back for holidays.  Then you will get a vehicle that suits your Malinois because, in order to go anywhere, your dog now has to go too.  It now becomes all about transporting your Malinois and in some cases keeping your Malinois as far away from the family member that teased them (or while Delta was going through her bratty stage, you only had to look at her and she considered it an insult) as possible… and so it goes on and on and on…  some Malinois keep grudges better than an elephant.

Then there are relationships to consider.  Malinois have affected more than one relationship (yes, really!  A good friend has given up career prospects and relationships for the sake of her Malinois).  Getting the “it’s me or the dog” ultimatum with the average pet dog, is one thing.  But it takes on a whole new meaning with a Malinois that you’ve worked so hard on.  And it goes one of two ways: you choose to give up the dog to save your relationship (and resent your partner forever), or you give up your relationship because of the dog (and no, no one wants a destructive, aggressive Malinois as a flatmate).  You need a very special person to put up with your Belgian Malinois.  And usually, there’s only one crazy dog-nut per household (these dogs aren’t really the pets that sane people get).  Add to that not being able to go away, and no one wants our Malinois to come and stay – trust me, my family didn’t even want Delta to stay until I had her under control (she was an entitled, arrogant little brat)!

The Malinois I’ve worked with have taught me many lessons.  Without them, I wouldn’t be the trainer I am today.  But some of the lessons were very bitter pills to swallow. Where my German Shepherd made me look good, my Malinois made me look like an amateur.  Before getting a Malinois and committing the next 12-17 years to the dog, you should ask yourself if this breed is really one you should be considering?  This breed is not for novice handlers.  And any breeder selling these dogs to unsuspecting buyers is irresponsible.  No, they do not make great pets for the active family (unless you’re all masochists and love to be covered in bruises). The few dogs that fluke it and turn out easy to handle pets, is not worth bargaining on (and really not what Malinois breeders should be aiming to breed anyway, as these are working dogs, not pets). When people phone me asking about the breed I ask them “are you looking for a dog you can enjoy or a dog that you can never trust that will always require training and management, a dog that your family might not be able to get near?” Because there is a very high probability that your Malinois will be like that.

Still, Want a Malinois?

It is true, I do have clients with Malinois.  However, all my clients who now have Malinois have proved to me that they were suitable owners. They have worked hard to teach their dogs proper behaviour and continue to train their dogs. Both also started with older rehomes and didn’t start with 8-week old pups. Even though the Malinois they have, were suitable pets they have all had their challenges.  I’m always working with my clients to develop them, especially if they are interested in becoming future Malinois handlers (though I don’t sugar coat things either and will suggest alternate breeds if necessary).

For the record, every dog on this page is a stable, true representative of the breed.  I have handled all of them successfully. And I wouldn’t place any of the dogs in these photos with novice handlers.  They’d run amok as soon as they figured out your level of expertise isn’t quite up to Belgian Malinois standard.  I love the breed, but I won’t sugar-coat them.  I’m writing this article from experience with the breed.  They’re not for everyone, and certainly not for someone who’d like an easy going pet or someone who thinks a Malinois will make them look good (because they will not).

If you still think you would like a Malinois of your own, please read the below article and go to your local Schutzhund or IPO club to see the training involved in developing a Malinois. I am more than happy to pass on some contacts of experienced people that will be able to steer you in the right direction (that is Guus or Jean-Pierre).  My recommendation is also not to start with a puppy!  Contact New Zealand Malinois Rescue, the dogs they get through are assessed. You can enjoy all the drive that comes with having a Malinois, but without the serious side – as the charity will redirect the more difficult dogs into working roles.

Note to the American Public: Belgian Malinois, Look Don’t Touch – This article inspired me to become a better trainer. If you want a Malinois, this article is a must-read, then reassess your motives and commitment carefully against this article.

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