I took my dog, Luna, to the pub the other day. A couple with a daughter, probably about 7, asked if they could say “Hello” to her, because they were thinking of getting a Malinois (a type of Belgian Shepherd), after seeing the film Dog. I did tell them that they’re a lot of work, that they’ll need to find a good dog trainer, and that, although they learn very quickly, they also learn bad habits very quickly. All the usual coded warnings. I guess this blog is what I’d have said if I had time to string together 1,000 words in my head.
A lot of the rehoming ads for Belgian Shepherds mention that they’re being rehomed because the family that bought them as puppies didn’t research the breed. I’m very pleased to say that I can’t be accused of that. No, indeed, I went and Googled ‘Belgian Shepherd’, and what I took away from that extensive research was, ‘Sort of a slightly smaller German Shepherd’.
This, it turns out, is a bit like describing a Scotch bonnet chilli as sort of a small version of a bell pepper – the description isn’t wrong, as far as it goes, but it omits a lot of information that you really should have before deciding to take a bite.
If you can’t be bothered to Google ‘Belgian Shepherd’ (perhaps because you aren’t considering buying one) then, briefly, they’re a herding dog (you probably didn’t need Google for that) which comes in 4 types – the long-haired Groenendael and Tervuren, the rough-coated Laekenois, and the short-haired Malinois (which is what Luna is, and which is generally regarded as the least suitable of the 4 for domestication). They’re all working dogs, which is to say that they have the energy and hardiness to spend all day, every day, on the side of whatever passes for a hill in Belgium, rounding up animals that don’t have the brains to neatly round up themselves.
The other thing you’ll see in the many, many rehoming posts for Malinois is that they’re looking for a home “with breed experience.” In case you’re not up on your dog-adoption lingo, this one means, “We’re looking for people who absolutely, definitely know what they’re letting themselves in for.”
We did not have breed experience.
Admittedly, Luna wasn’t our first dog, or even our first working dog, which might explain some of our reckless abandon. We went to get her during the pandemic (she wasn’t a pandemic pup, one of our dogs had just died). Restrictions meant that only two of us could go inside at a time. My wife & daughter went first and came out unsure, wondering if she was going to be too energetic for us. I went in and the damn dog got into my arms and went to sleep. This, it turns out, was a one-time-only offer.
Following on from that never-to-be-repeated doze, here’s what I’ve learned in the past 10 months:
- They are a working dog, they need work. It doesn’t have to be rounding up sheep. To a dog, finding and retrieving a ball for you is no more or less work than gathering a flock of idiot bovines together, but if your Malinois doesn’t have a job then it will come to you to be given one, and if you don’t supply one it will go and find its own work to do… this may be expensive.
- Dear god, you need to find a good trainer, who knows the breed. Mechelle of Curlabull training, who we use, has focussed almost exclusively on telling me what an idiot I am – from the very first session, where I laughed about puppy Luna lying down and not wanting to walk across the room… “You do NOT laugh at this breed!”, through to, “You cannot just say <weedy voice> ‘No’ to this dog! Armies use these dogs. You can literally shoot her and she will come back for more!” – and it’s been worth every single penny. You need to invest the time and effort in training, because…
- Owning a dog that’s perceived as aggressive is a lot of worry. There is a heartbeat between the development stage where people you meet in public react, “Aw, the cute little puppy is running at me”, and them moving to, “Arg! This vicious attack dog is running at me! I am going to be mauled!”. I have apologised to a lot of strangers in the past 10 months.
- No, really, you never fully relax on a walk. The best way I can describe it is that I have been a motorcyclist for more than 25 years now, but every time you get kitted-up to go out on the bike there’s always a little voice asking, “Will this be the time it goes disastrously wrong?” Well, it’s the same every time I take Luna for a walk. I know she’s not aggressive to people or other dogs. I know her recall is good. I know what distractions work well with her… but, still, there’s always the worry that she is an incredibly strong, and strong-willed, dog with a keenly honed ‘prey’ instinct and, to make matters worse, people or dogs who act afraid of her are the most likely to wind her up.
- It’s not an accident that these dogs get used by police forces. The breed’s default excited behaviour is to ‘mouth’ – to gently clamp their jaws on your wrist, ankle or loose piece of clothing. It takes a lot to train this out of them, but once you’ve sat and watched them destroy a bone you’ll almost certainly want to make the effort. You’ll also want to think very, very carefully about whether your children will understand that it’s fine to run and play with the dog but they have to know when to stop.
Don’t get me wrong, if you put in the time then you end up with a wonderful dog, but if you want just a family pet, that’s going to lounge in front of the fire all day then you’re better off elsewhere. I’m glad we did it, and I’d have another Mali in a heartbeat, but would I feel brave enough to adopt one of the dozens and dozens that are 6-18 months old… no, I’ve got just the wrong amount of breed experience for that.
Oh, and don’t make your decision based on a Hollywood film and a chance encounter with a bloke in the pub. They are a serious dog and deserve a serious commitment and complete self-honesty about what you’re looking for in a pet, and what you’re willing to invest in them.
Really, fantastic dogs, but serious…