The most popular dog breeds for law enforcement and military work are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds, and occasionally mixes of these breeds. Every once in a while, mainly in Europe, you may still see Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, and Bouvier de Flandres working patrol. So where does the German Shepherd stand in its modern role as a dual-purpose police service dog or military working dog?
For a century, the German Shepherd Dog was the #1 service and working dog across the world. The character of a German Shepherd can best be depicted as confident, courageous, extraordinarily intelligent, and fearless. These dogs are highly intelligent, easy to train, and eager to have a job or purpose to do. These attributes are precisely what has made German Shepherds such highly successful working dogs.
Now for more somber news. In the modern world, the Belgian Malinois is taking the #1 spot in police and military work. But rest assured, even though the Belgian Malinois may be the top dog for now, German Shepherds are still a common choice for police and military forces. These dogs are a particularly great choice for scent-work roles, including search and rescue, cadaver searching, narcotics detection, and explosives detection.
German Shepherds have, do, and hopefully always will make great family dogs and can get along well with children and other animals when selected, socialized, and trained properly. The breed standard calls for aloofness when it comes to new people, so be on the lookout for that. But overall, German Shepherds are probably the most loyal, devoted, and protective dogs in the world if they are part of your family.
As a brief introduction to the competition, a few words about Belgian Malinois are applicable. The Belgian Malinois is best described exactly how the German Shepherd was described with one difference. Even average examples exhibit more prey drive than all but the top German Shepherds. In fact, a common catchphrase these days when talking about working line German Shepherds is “That dog has Malinois drive!” Belgian Malinois are just as easy to train and eager to work as German Shepherds, if not more. And though a strong bond is necessary with both breeds, it seems the will to work outpaces loyalty in the Belgian Malinois when compared to a German Shepherd.
Belgian Malinois are used and trained for use in all of the same jobs as German Shepherds, making them direct competition. They’re used as assistance dogs, detection dogs, guard dogs, guide dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, cadaver dogs, herding dogs … you name it, and they’ll do it and do it well. These dogs are more demanding when it comes to activity, mental stimulation, and training. Working is their life. If they aren’t working, they are losing their minds and unhappy.
Even for an experienced dog owner, the Belgian Malinois is difficult to turn into a family pet. But this certainly isn’t always the case. If a Malinois isn’t actively training daily and working, it will become destructive or develop behavioral problems.
Malinois also seem to have some traits that are a problem in home life as compared to German Shepherds. For instance, they are much more likely to resource guard. In most of the major sports designed specifically for the Malinois, nearly all have a phase where the dog must defend an item. Dogs who were good at that were bred. So it is easy to see why they’re more inclined to take offense to you or your family and definitely strangers who approach them when they have food or toys.
They also seem more likely to be what we call “neurotic” which can, in some cases, be linked to their extreme prey drive. Neurotic behaviors would be things like tail-chasing, spinning in circles repetitively, jumping repetitively, and extreme anxiety when confined or left alone. We’re not just talking about the mild version of these things. We’re talking tail amputation because they bite their own tail so hard that it can’t be saved, or spinning so much their paws need medical attention.
When people say, “This breed needs experienced handlers.” They usually mean someone who has experience with similar dogs. The only dog remotely similar to a Malinois is a well-bred working-line German Shepherd. Malinois aren’t a breed that needs experienced handlers. They’re a breed that needs advanced or professional handling. There are things you can get away with when handling a working line German Shepherd that you just can’t do with a well-bred Belgian Malinois. Mistakes are amplified.
So now that we’ve discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. The main takeaway should be that the negative traits of a Malinois are often what makes it more efficient for a working dog handler. But those same traits are also what make the German Shepherd a better dog for active families.
Don’t get too sad. German Shepherds are still used for work. A lot of departments and K9 handlers in the military choose and work with German Shepherds today. German Shepherds aren’t going anywhere. But, and there’s always a “but,” here is a list of reasons why German Shepherds have slipped down a rank, losing out to the Belgian Malinois in modern times.
1: Malinois are generally healthier dogs. Diseases such as degenerative myelopathy, hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis, heart disease and certain cancers, are found more in German Shepherds than Belgian Malinois. They also live longer in general terms, partly because of reduced genetic health issues, and partly due to smaller dogs simply live longer.
2: Size matters. Malinois are smaller. That means they can run faster, jump higher, don’t generate as much heat when working and can work longer, can fit into smaller spaces and are easier to carry if they need to be carried.
3: Price also matters to police departments, who often do not have a budget whatsoever for their K9 units. They get the money from donations, charity drives from local businesses etc. Malinois, especially at the beginning of their popularity in the late ’90s, were much cheaper. 1/3rd cheaper. Most Americans didn’t hear about Malinois until roughly 20 years ago during The War on Terror. Low demand meant cheap supply.
4: Belgian Malinois have top levels of drive. Those negative behaviors mentioned before don’t really show up as much when the dog is worked daily, because they have a place to channel that energy. There are examples of German Shepherds who have that kind of drive, but it’s a small portion of the breed, whereas it’s normal for Malinois in general.
5: Last but not least, the thing that brought down the German Shepherd from its top spot is … the German Shepherd Dog itself. The German Shepherd is still the most versatile and well-loved breed on the planet. Increased demand means increased supply. Increased supply when not done carefully leads to decreased quality. So many breeders, the majority of them, are pet owners who decided to have puppies. They had no goals of working. With every breeding and generation that is bred without the #1 and #2 priorities being: #1 health, #2 working ability/drive, is one breeding or generation further from the original goal of the German Shepherd being the best working dog in the world.
Success has been the downfall of more civilizations, empires, people, and powerful companies than failure. The German Shepherd is just so good that millions of people want one without knowing the breed, or who the German Shepherd really is.
“The most striking features of the correctly bred German Shepherds are firmness of nerves, attentiveness, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability, and incorruptibility together with courage, fighting tenacity and hardness.”
“Utility is the true criterion of beauty.”
“The breeding of shepherd dogs is the breeding of working dogs, and this must always be the aim, or we shall cease to produce shepherd dogs.”
All 3 of those were quotes from the founder of the breed, Captain Max Von Stephanitz.
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