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.)
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.”