Of “Max” and Malinois

So I saw the movie “Max” today, the one about the military dog who suffers PTSD after his handler is killed in action. It’s a tale of good guys, bad guys, healing, and redemption, but there’s (rightly) a lot of concern among the malinois community that it will spark a little too much interest in the breed from people who would be a bad fit for it.

Let me just give you a too long;didn’t read version of my thoughts first: I hope to god that people understand that basing what kind of dog you get solely on a movie starring a highly trained dog who got as many takes as he needed to look perfect and who had FIVE stunt doubles is a really poor idea. Even if you get a malinois, you’re not going to get a dog like Max because there is no such thing as a dog like Max. Like ewoks, Indiana Jones, and the Stay Puft marshmallow man, Max does not really exist. So instead, please get a dog based on what kind of dog fits you.

I have been a malinois owner for just about six months now, so there are a lot of people in the breed a lot more experienced than I am. But I have a few things to say anyway and this is the internet where you can’t stop me saying whatever I like on my own blog although you can certainly roll your eyes out of your head or stop reading if you like.

There’s a movement in some quarters to discourage interest in the breed by the general public by posting bite photos and photos of property destruction on social media in order to prove how unsuitable they are as family pets. I think this is well intentioned but misguided. I’m not going to lie; malinois bite. So far it’s been my experience that Toast has a heaping helping of react first, think later in his psyche. But honestly, I think some people are going to see the bite pictures and just think “ah, I can handle getting bitten because I’m a badass/ master dog trainer/ whatever.”

And besides, a well-bred, stable malinois should not be a raving lunatic randomly running amok; for my boy I’ve found that there are relatively predictable and recognizable situations/triggers that can be anticipated, managed, and worked on. There’s more to these dogs than their teeth. The bigger challenge I see for most people is not the biting, and not even their exercise needs (which are enormous), but the sort of constant vigilance and awareness this breed requires. Really, ALL dog owners should be aware of the environment, how their dog is reacting to things in it, and prepared to manage the dog appropriately. But realistically I know that if my attention wanes a little Maisy or Squash is never, ever going to react to being surprised by a jogger coming up behind by lunging, barking up a storm, and scaring the bejeebers out of some poor stranger. You need to pay attention, always, and you have to be prepared for some raised eyebrows, side-eyes, and scowls. Yes, you are now that person with that dog. Is that what you really want? Will it hurt your feelings?

Make no mistake, I love my Toast. He has solid genetics and got a great start in life from a breeder who bred his litter thoughtfully, placed the puppies carefully, and continues to provide a great deal of support to us puppy owners as they grow and mature. He is smart and focused, a very great pleasure to train and work, and with people he knows/trusts he is indescribably sweet and funny. He learns new skills so fast and he loves to work and train. He works for all kinds of rewards, not just food. He loves to mush. He adores the other dogs. He doesn’t like to let me out of his sight.  And let’s not lie, he’s gorgeous.


But he’s also full of more mental & physical energy and drive* than he always knows what to do with. He’s currently an adolescent, and he’s still figuring out how to handle himself in the world. We have good days and bad days there; on the bad days, he’s “that dog.” When he’s happy, frustrated, confused, or excited his default is to bite and/or scream. It’s taken about 5-6 months of practicing every single time I come home that although he’s super excited to see me, he needs to grab a toy to play tug instead of biting my ass for toy grabbing to become his default. (As I open his crate I still need to shriek TOY! though.)

Yes, it really took that long to countermand his programming.

Yes, it really took that long to countermand his programming.

I’m not sure it’s possible to physically exhaust him, and his mind is always racing. One night after a rally class some of us were sitting around chatting and someone remarked, “He seems so calm, I thought they were higher energy.” And to be fair, he DID seem calm. He was lying quietly. But at the same time, his eyes were alertly locked onto me. And he seemed calm because that day we had been mushing, he had played outside in the yard alternately with Squash and with the sprinkler for over an hour, and we’d just spend an hour in rally class. He’s always ready to do more. I’m not even sure if he sleeps.

Having said all of that: We’re a perfect fit. I love his vibrant energy even if I still get an overexcited bite here or there and even if I wonder when the police are going to knock on the door investigating the bloodcurdling screams or if the neighborhood kids call us the murder house. But the reason why we’re a perfect fit is not that he is badass or I am badass but that at some point after Squash came home I morphed from “a lady with dogs” to “a dog lady.” I live a very dog-centric life and I love doing so. I play mushing and agility and obedience the way some people play fishing or video games or fantasy football. A lot of my day is spent working with my dogs. These activities are my hobbies, things I do because I love to do them rather than because I have to do them, and he’s a dog who needs an owner who loves to do things like that with him so we’re a good match. When I’m not doing things with my dogs, I’m thinking about and planning things to do with them. When we hit a training snag, I like to problem solve.** I’m perfectly ok with knowing that if I don’t have a toy handy to redirect him onto when he’s so excited he’s lost his damn mind, Toast might bite me instead because his brain is telling him to bite something. I need to manage the dogs fairly heavily because when he gets overexcited he screams in the others’ faces which has led to some scuffles.

But if this movie sparks your interest in the breed, I’m totally cool with that. Malinois might be the perfect breed for you, too, who knows? Everybody has to start somewhere – I wouldn’t have Toast if his breeder hadn’t had some faith and taken a chance on me even though I’d never owned the breed before. But please, please spend some time around them before thinking about actually taking the plunge. Find a local IPO training club or breed club and ask if you can observe some training days. Attend some trials. Find a mentor, volunteer with a breed specific rescue. Hang out with malinois owners. Network to find a breeder who isn’t capitalizing on this movie, who loves the breed and will help and support you long after your money has exchanged hands. And for god’s sake be honest with yourself; if you’re not ok with anything you’ve read here about living with Toast, it doesn’t make you a better or worse dog owner than anyone else but please get another breed or no one will be happy. Not you, not your dog, not your family or your neighbors or maybe even your local animal control or police.

All people deserve a dog who fits them, and all dogs deserve a family with whom they fit.

*What’s drive? It’s word that gets thrown around a lot among dog people without ever really getting pinned down, but this quote from The Terminator kind of sums it up for me: A dog who is motivated to do what needs to be done until it is done (or you relieve them): “Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

**If I were posting a bite picture, it would be accompanied by (for example) this text: “Here’s a redirected bite from Toast I got trying to break up a minor scuffle between him and Squash on the back porch. The mistake I made was approaching him when he was backed into a corner and trying to physically move him instead of just opening the door behind him so he could run into the house. I learned that I really need to manage resources and dogs coming in and out of the house better and not physically intervene if I don’t want this to happen again.”

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11 Responses to Of “Max” and Malinois

  1. zoephee says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. My friend sent it to me and I will be sharing it on my pages. 🙂

  2. melissa richards says:

    Love, love, love, this. You hit the nail on the head. I might even have to share this, a few hundred times. I myself have grown up with malinois and currently have 2 myself. And I work with a breeder who is beyond amazing and even takes the time to help us with schutzhund. I fear that this breed will have a dark future if they get into the wrong hands. I will do my best to educate people, as the rest of the malinois community should.

    Thank you!!!

  3. Amanda says:

    Beautifully written and soooo true!

  4. szofimamma says:

    No matter how well trained they are, and I know many in the police world, had one for ten years, and raised a coupled litters, there is a screw loose in this breed. People MUST understand that unless they have help like you did/do these dogs do not make good pets. Everyone I know that has one has been bitten. Myself Included. Our boy had no pain tolerance and was also in a motor vehicle accident where his k9 partner was killed. So his brain was scrambled. A trip to the vet included a muzzle and heavy gloves every time. Please t hi k and research before you buy. They are not called a malligator fornothing

  5. I enjoyed reading your message and hope others take it to heart. While I have not had (many of) these problems, I do know that they exist. So many times, (Easter, Christmas, Valentine’s for example people receive a fur-baby that they adore, until he/she does something wrong or grows to be to big/time consuming, or loses it’s adorable factor and is dropped off at the nearest shelter or abandoned or perhaps abused.

  6. Sharon Abbott says:

    Sharon Abbott
    My husband and I went round and round about Terv vs. Mal. He said they sounded just alike except Terv’s have soooo much more grooming. I had him listen closely to the descriptions, I had him read the descriptions. It wasn’t getting through. They may have the same skeletal structure but that’s about all. I now have two (I won) Tervs, one is a total lazy girl, has NO desire to chase the ball…she’s just a lover…when she wants to be, otherwise, leave her ALONE. Absolutely obedient, she will come to me even if she see grooming tools LOL. Then there’s the boy that is obsessed with the ball. He is so ball driven, he will play until I stop him. I’ve never tested him to see if he would play until he passed out. But I think he would. Tons of energy watches my every move stays with me by my side 24/7. I could not ask for a better friend. But he loves to love me with his teeth (almost 2 years) we are still working on that. He strikes me more like a Mal in description. In a lot of ways…I like his nature more because it challenges me. Anyway, great piece…and the bottom line for all DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!!!

  7. Robin B says:

    I agree that it is not all about telling anyone who does not currently HAVE a Mal, “you can’t have one.” It is about knowing what you are getting into and the fact that you will have to be smarter than the dog. Who is ALWAYS thinking about SOMETHING. I have one that is the ultimate escape artist. We find a way to keep her in and all is fine . . . until it isn’t. She just figures out a way to get out of the house or her pen that we never envisioned and then we have a frightening several hours until someone calls that they (she takes her buddy with her) spotted her and we go get them. It is terrifying and I am really getting tired of trying to be smarter than this dog 24/7. That said, she is loyal, loving and beautiful but just too smart for her own good!

    • mushbaby says:

      Sometimes I say “he’s too smart for MY own good.” 😉 Agreed completely that it shouldn’t be “you can’t handle this breed” but “do you really, really WANT to handle this breed?”

  8. Tracey Lloyd says:

    My girl just turned 4. It has been a learning curve as she is unlike any dog I have ever owned. I had Rottweilers before her so I thought I could handle another working dog. You are so right about paying attention to your surroundings when walking them. She will lunge and scream at a jogger or bike, anything coming at us quickly. She hates bikes. I have often felt like that person with that dog, as people give you the evil eye. But she is loving and loyal. I Just have to be aware of her triggers, and have control of her.

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