Actually his birthday was yesterday. But it took me some time to pull all my musings together into coherent enough thoughts to write this.
Toast came into my life during a time of growing concern among people who love his breed. It had been publicly known for some time that the dog involved in the raid on Bin Ladin was a malinois. A malinois was on the cover on National Geographic as part an emerging pattern of celebrating military working dogs in the media. The movie “Max” was released during his adolescence. The concern, as when any breed finds its way into the spotlight, was that this trend of publicizing the breed would take a breed very few outside of certain working situations and dog sports anyone had heard of and thrust it into the American consciousness, where it would become too popular with all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.
Some people in the breed circled the wagons, assuring the outside world that this was simply not a breed for the masses. Others decided that demonstrating what it is like to live with a malinois via graphic pictures of dog-inflicted injuries (which, as I sit here in a knee brace due to a malinois collision-induced strain I can confirm will most likely happen) and videos of high drive puppies hanging off clothing like Christmas ornaments as they are evaluated for work would scare people off. Still others took the time to engage with people showing interest in the breed, asking questions and educating to see if the breed was the right fit or a passing fancy.
Fortunately for me, Toast’s breeders fell into the third category.
I’m not going to lie, Toast is unlike any dog I’ve known or lived with. In some ways he was an incredibly easy puppy – smart, very handler focused and eager to learn. But he’s also full of quirks, can become obsessive about certain things, and has a “react first, think later” mentality. He’s busy and noisy and oh, those pinch-bites. So many pinch-bites while we worked on redirecting his default target to toys rather than my arms (a mission that was eventually accomplished). There were weeks during his early puppyhood that I could only wear long sleeved shirts or risk constant side-eyes and polite concern.
We had days when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Days when I was plagued with self doubt and questioned if I were capable of this dog, if I should drive him back to his breeder and let him go live with someone who could truly handle a malinois and where he could be happy. But we also had days of such pure joy and connection and partnership, accomplishments and laughter and chest-bursting pride in each other. And as we slogged through it all, the latter began to outpace the former. I climbed up my learning curve and Toast climbed up his. And while we’re not at the top yet, we’re getting there. Now I can’t even imagine my life without him, his enthusiasm and vibrant energy are infectious and color every part of my life.
And here I find myself standing firmly in that third camp of malinois owners. Because I’ve come to firmly believe that “Can you handle a malinois?” is the wrong kind of question to ask people showing interest in the breed. Honestly, I think almost anyone can be capable of owning almost any breed, just like it is possible to eventually force that square peg into a round hole with enough force. It’s not that it can’t be done, but the real question is – why would you want to do it?
So I think the more important approach to take, instead of trying to scare people off the breed, is something like “Are you really going to be happy living with a malinois?”
(Note: There is both truth and humor in what follows. I’ve tried to qualify where I think people may misunderstand my humor and dive in with helpful advice but the point of this post is not to provide a expert, comprehensive breed guide. It is meant to be a humorous recap of the first year of my experience as a first time malinois owner and some food for thought about what beyond YOU CANNOT HANDLE A MALINOIS is actually useful to discuss with new people showing interest in the breed.
I have had and will always have a tremendous amount of support and good advice whenever I need it from Toast’s breeder and am happy with where we are and where we are headed. Some of these things will resonate with other malinois owners and some won’t – because like us, our dogs are all individuals.)
Can you emotionally detach and not have your feelings hurt by getting bitten by your own dog? Those videos of puppies hanging off clothing are no joke. These dogs have been bred for generations to bite things and for many it is their default when they are excited or stimulated by anything. If you don’t want your malinois to do that, get used to repetition because you will probably be redirecting your puppy’s mouth from your person to toys all day, every day, for literally months and months before you successfully countermand their programming and “get your toy” is a thing that happens consistently. If you DO want your malinois to do that in some circumstances (e.g. bite work or protection training), you need to find a reputable training club and put in an enormous amount of time to teach your puppy when, where, and how it is appropriate to do so.
Honestly, does it make you happy to participate in sports or other physical activities with your dog AND train at home nearly every single day? Because I’m not sure it is physically possible to exhaust a malinois’ body without also working their minds. They are not like a jogging buddy, they are like a jogging buddy who then needs to go home and complete a 1000 piece puzzle every day or go Renfield on the world creating bizarre elaborate schemes only they truly understand but are definitely creepy. In case I’m not being clear, these dogs need mental exercise every day. If I’m in a time crunch and have to choose, I’ll pick training over physical exercise most of the time, or try to work on balance and conditioning exercises that do both (bookmark FitPaws now).
So let me be even more clear that by “does it make you happy” I mean NOT sure, I can take that up for the sake of a dog but I need a dog who can fill the horrible yawning void that encroaches when I don’t spend a chunk of time every day playing with and teaching a dog to do things.
Can you behave in a clear and consistent manner, and have clear and consistent expectations for your dog’s house manners (if you expect any)? If you can’t, can you live with whatever behavior you create? These dogs are smart and learn fast. Unfortunately, that means they learn bad habits just as quickly as good habits and they will pick up on any inconsistency on your part and stretch that inch into a mile before you can even start to think about regretting your folly. Toast acts completely different when my husband is around, because my husband is a very no nonsense kind of guy. I, on the other hand, tend to cultivate a certain amount of what can only be described as circus-like behavior – but honestly I enjoy that. If you don’t: Be like mushbaby’s husband, not mushbaby.
Can you live with “that dog?” Some malinois are very social with other people and dogs, some are neutral, and some are reactive or aggressive either selectively or across the board. Most have at least some degree of stranger suspicion.No one on this earth can love harder than a malinois, but a reacting/aggressing malinois is a scary sight. I’ve had more than one person in Toast’s circle of friends tell me that if they didn’t know him, they’d be scared of him. I’ve had incidents where he has reacted badly to strangers and scared the bejeebs out of them. Your malinois might be a go-anywhere, do-anything dog. He might not be. Are you ok with the latter or do you need the former? If you need the former, then maybe a breed that has been bred for generations for military, police, and protection work isn’t a good choice for you.
If you forge boldly ahead, you need to be prepared for any of the following that might be necessary to keep others AND your dog (who will pay the price for any serious incidents) safe: Properly socialize (not forced associate, which is a pet peeve of mine) your puppy, manage, train, desensitize, counter-condition, teach alternative behaviors, and grow a thick skin. You simply cannot allow your feelings to be hurt by your dog’s behavior and other people’s reactions to it. You absolutely need to care more about your dog than a stranger’s feelings and tell them NO when they ask to pet your dog if she is in fact not safe for strangers to pet. You need to not force your non-social dog into uncomfortable social situations because your ego demands a dog who can go to a kids’ soccer game. If a behavior problem crops up, you need to figure out what you need to do and do it.
Do you like a dog who acts a little bit like a stalker? Because this is your life now. Even if your dog has a good off switch there will likely be eyes following your every move and muscles tensed to spring into action if it looks like you might possibly be getting up even though that last 5 times in a row you were only reaching for your water to take a sip. You will have toys and other gifts dropped in your lap which will then be stared at until you politely acknowledge and/or toss them. Some are very busy in the house, is that going to drive you nuts? If so, can you teach a dog to settle?
In short: You will never be alone again. Unless you leave the house. Which sometimes, I admit, I have done specifically to escape the suffocating adoration for a few hours.
Do you value your hearing? Because I think possibly the people who mispronounce mal in wah as “malinoise” might actually have the right idea. There are times I wonder when the DNR will show up on an anonymous tip to confiscate the hyena I’m keeping illegally.
In all seriousness, do you live where a noisy dog is going to cause serious neighbor disharmony? The amount of noise they are capable of is no joke and if your dog is noisy you’re going to need a plan to address that.
Do you value your stuff? Honestly I think as a breed their destructiveness is a bit overstated. A good malinois isn’t shouldn’t be a mindless shredding machine, and ANY dog can and will redirect pent up energy and frustration onto your stuff if you slack off on the exercise and training. But with malinois it takes so little to slack off and they are capable of a tremendous amount of damage. They also seem to make weird and intelligently quirky choices about WHAT to destroy. But remember, it’s pretty much your fault if you didn’t work your dog (of any breed) for four days. Remember #2 up there? Go read it again and get mad at yourself instead of your dog.
Does versatility, amazing handler focus, utter devotion, joy, enthusiasm, drive, intelligence, problem-solving, and a sense of humor make your heart go pitter-patter? Mine, too. 🙂
I will always be so grateful that my introduction to malinois was from people who were kind, supportive, and truly love the breed. Without their faith in me I wouldn’t have this tremendous dog who has challenged me so much, and I might never have experienced such highs and lows that have taught me, humbled me, lifted me up, and made me so happy. Happy birthday, my Toasties. Let’s go screaming and flailing into the future together, for many more years to come.