Did you know that as well as the well-known German Shepherd, there are a few other types of Shepherd dog? One of the lesser known breeds is the Malinois, otherwise known as the Belgian Shepherd Dog. They have a lot in common, but there are some key differences to take into account if you’re deciding between them.
The German Shepherd is one of the most popular breeds in the world, known for highly skilled jobs such as drug-sniffing, disability aid or police work. Despite this, they’ve still considered a newer breed, dating back to 1899. Captain Max von Stephanitz, a member of the German cavalry, decided in his retirement to breed a herding dog.
He bought a dog named Hektor Linksrhein and began to breed them. He is responsible for the breeds renown as a working dog beyond the fields, as it was von Stephanitz who persuaded the German government to make use of the breed – and indeed, they served as a Red Cross dog during WW1. As time went on von Stephanitz took issue with the American breeding of the dog – the focus on aesthetics and winning dog shows went against his original goal, which was to create a superior working dog. This split continues today, with American breeders focusing on appearance, and German breeders focusing on skill/ability to work, though due to health concerns many American breeders are now shifting emphasis to ability over looks.
The Malinois, despite being a relatively recently recognized breed in the US, has a long history. Developed in the 1800s in Belgium, the first standard dates back to 1892. There were four distinct types, and the one known as the Malinois today can be traced to a breeding pair in Laeken. This pair acted as shepherding dogs, but in 1897 it was suggested that, as there were not that many sheep left, they could also have trials to test intelligence, loyalty, and obedience.
It is for this reason that the breed is mainly known for agility, as much of the initial breeding was focused on this. The breed began to be exported in the 1920s, with a lot of servicemen returning from WW1 with the dogs in tow – just like their counterpart, the German Shepherd. Since then, they have continued their important work, with many being found in search and rescue, police forces, and the military.
You’re probably familiar with the classic German Shepherd – tall, with pointed ears and a slight downward slope to their back. The Malinois is similar but leaner and with a straighter back. If you’re struggling to tell the difference visually, the slope of the spine is a useful detail to bear in mind. Bear in mind though that this slope should not be too exaggerated – many dogs that are bred solely for this particular look suffer joint problems in later life.
A German Shepherd will be between 75 and 95 pounds, while a Malinois is about 40-80 pounds. However, they are both very similar in height (about 2ft at the shoulder), so much of this difference is in build – the Malinois is much less bulky than the German Shepherd.
The German Shepherd also has a longer coat than the Malinois, often wiry and prone to shedding. Regular grooming – two or three times a week – is required to keep them in top condition. The Malinois has shorter hair and will shed less. They also require grooming to keep their fur looking shiny, but a quick brush once a week will do the trick. They are usually fawn-colored, while the German Shepherd is often fawn with a black saddle – though there are variants of both.
While similar in personality as well as looks – after all, they were both bred to be shepherd dogs – there are also some tendencies distinct to each breed. Of course, dogs are as individual as humans, so while we can talk about these traits in broad terms, it’s not a guarantee that your dog will act entirely in this manner!
Generally speaking, German Shepherds can seem quite aloof with strangers but are staunchly loyal and affectionate to their owners. With appropriate socialization as a puppy, they can also be excellent with children. They do have a tendency towards anxiety, in particular, separation anxiety so they should not be left alone for long periods. They will often act out when anxious, including chewing furniture, barking for long periods of time, or otherwise acting destructively. This is worsened by boredom/lack of exercise, so make sure you have plenty of time for them so that they can flourish.
They do have a tendency towards anxiety, in particular, separation anxiety so they should not be left alone for long periods. They will often act out when anxious, including chewing furniture, barking for long periods of time, or otherwise acting destructively. This is worsened by boredom/lack of exercise, so make sure you have plenty of time for them so that they can flourish.
German Sheppards know to be picky when it comes to food so make sure to give them proper nutrition if you want to train them properly.
Malinois suffer from the same tendency to boredom – they have a lot of energy and need to be able to burn this off to be happy. As herding dogs, you may find that if not engaged enough they begin to herd your children! Make sure you keep them active, and you’ll get to see the best of them. They are particularly sharp dogs, and good at reading facial expressions so expect them to be very responsive to you. They are often playful, but this can be hidden behind shyness/aggression if not socialized correctly.
Both dogs are intelligent, active and respond well to positive training. Neither is suitable for a first-time dog owner due to the high demands of the breed, but Malinois, in particular, require an experienced and capable owner.
Care and Training
Both dogs can be stubborn and willful, but with positive training will flourish into incredibly quick-witted and obedient dogs. Out of the two, it is the Malinois that is more eager to please, and quicker to respond, but they are both very intelligent breeds. The Malinois also tends to be calmer and quieter than the German Shepherd, but they quickly grow anxious if you are too forceful in your training.
A Malinois is less directly assertive than a German Shepherd in their guarding behavior, preferring instead to herd and nip at people’s heels than bark and overpower them. What is good guarding behavior for a German Shepherd can often be a sign of anxiety in a Malinois, and training should be focused on guarding according to their breed, rather than a one size fits all method. When training, positive reinforcement should be the main goal, and anything physical should be strictly avoided. Punishment will not work on a Malinois – it will only make them stubborn or fearful, neither of which lead to rewarding relationships. It is for this reason that they are recommended for confident, experienced dog owners who have the time, patience and strength of conviction needed.
German Shepherds are not quite as sensitive, but they also respond best to positive-focused training. In both cases, training and socialization should begin as soon as possible – Puppy classes are an excellent option due to the chance to meet and get used to other dogs and people. An ill-socialized dog may still make an excellent family companion, but they will be much harder to manage in public contexts.
Both breeds prefer cooler temperatures but can manage warmth – though particular hot climates may suit a Malinois over a German Shepherd due to the shorter coat. They also need to be repeated, interesting exercise – one walk in the morning simply won’t entertain them enough. This does mean that they make excellent hiking partners though!
Both breeds come with their specific health risks, and unfortunately, the German Shepherd has more. This is likely due to it being the more popular breed, leading to more inbreeding and exacerbating of issues. Both breeds can suffer from hip and elbow dysplasia, with the German Shepherd having an increased risk in the hips due to the sloped back that is distinctive to the breed.
The Malinois has a tendency towards PRA – Progressive Retinal Atrophy. This is a degenerative disorder which leads to the dog going blind due to the loss of photoreceptors. It can be detected many years before any symptoms show, so responsible breeders should have screened for it and be able to give you the chances. However, PRA is far from a death sentence – dogs are notoriously good at adapting, and the Malinois especially so! Ensure regular checkups, and make sure your dog is trained vocally, not just visually.
The more worrying trait is the Malinois’ sensitivity to anesthesia. Make sure any vet you visit is aware of the breed and this particular aspect, and make sure to keep an eye on important health issues. For example, extra care should be spent cleaning their teeth to avoid unnecessary anesthetic procedures.
In contrast, the German Shepherd has no breed-specific sight risks, but it does have other issues. A common one is EPI – Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency. This is a genetic disease which affects the pancreas, leading to the inability to digest food. It can be diagnosed with a blood test, and has a very easy to apply treatment – the enzymes that it is missing are directly added to the food. With good treatment, most dogs go on to recover. It is therefore worth regularly checking the dog’s weight and appetite, as any change may indicate this disease – and it is always better to catch it sooner.
There is a more serious issue to look out for – degenerative myelopathy. This is an issue with the spinal cord and leads to cases where the dog cannot walk due to a lack of information between the brain and the hind legs. In rare cases, it is related to a lack of vitamin intake and can be stabilized, but in most cases, it is incurable, and there is no treatment. In such an active breed, this often leads to them being put to sleep. Again, responsible breeders should be able to give you a history of their family lineage and the risks.
With good research, many of these risks are avoidable. As mentioned, a good breeder will have a family history available to you, and may even have done genetic screening. Any breeder unwilling to share this with you is one that you should not trust. Also, take the opportunity to see the parent dogs. You should at least be able to see photos of the father and should have a chance to meet the mother to get an idea of temperament.
During this time, take note of physical attributes – is their fur patchy? They may have allergies. Does the back have a very pronounced slope? They may be at risk of joint problems. Obviously, this only applies if you are getting a dog from a breeder – a rescue dog will be more of an unknown quantity. However, as rescues are often older, issues will already have been flagged up and they will have stronger, more fully developed personalities, and the rescue center should be able to give you details of these. There are benefits to both methods, but whichever you do, make sure you ask lots of questions – and if you are refused answers (turned down, rather than told they are not sure), then go elsewhere.
References and Sources:
- Malinois dog – Wikipedia
German Shepherd – Temperament & Personality – Pet Wave
Michele Welton – German Shepherd Temperament, What’s Good About ‘Em, What’s Bad About ‘Em – Your Pure Bred Puppy