German Shepherd vs. Belgian Malinois: Comparing Two Confident Breeds

The Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) may both be from the same Shepherd lineage, and some people may confuse the Malinois for being just a shorter haired version of the German Shepherd; but these two breeds, while having some similar traits, are actually very different in terms of their personalities and lifestyle requirements.

The German Shepherd is one of the most well known and popular dog breeds.  They can still be a challenge for a novice dog owner, but they can make great family pets with consistent training and socialization.  The Malinois is an even more intensely work driven dog, and they are not generally the best choice of dog for a standard family home.

If you have been considering offering a home to one of these breeds, hopefully, this article will allow you to understand more about the differences between them and whether you can offer them a suitable home.

History

The history of the breeds is quite similar. Both were introduced around the same time, and they were developed with a focus on their working abilities. Let’s take a look at the history behind each of the breeds.

German Shepherd

German Shepherds, as the name suggests, originated from Germany.  The breed resulted in selective mating of traditional farm dogs that were involved with guarding and herding livestock.  The breed, as we know it today, was thought to have been introduced in the late 1800s and was championed and refined by a club dedicated to the breed that was started by a German Cavalry Officer.  The club was also responsible for their promotion as being ideal military and police dogs.

The breed grew in popularity through the 1900s, particularly after the appearance of a German Shepherd in the much-viewed tv program Rin-Tin-Tin.

The breed continues to be popular today as a family pet and also as a breed of choice for working in the police, armed services, and as a support dog.  They are often commonly compared to other breeds as a family dog, like when compared to the Husky.

Belgian Malinois

Like the GSD, the Belgian Malinois (often referred to as a Mali), has a similar recent history and they were also first introduced in the late 1800s.

Their name comes from the Belgian city they were first thought to have been bred; Malines (also known as Mechelen).

The Mali has also been used heavily as a working/service dog.  The military services regularly employ them and they continue to show prowess in their herding abilities.  When they were first bred there was a serious focus on their working capabilities and much less so on the traits that would make them good companion animals.

Appearance Comparison

The German Shepherd is much more well known and widely recognized.  Malinois have a shorter coat, slimmer head with a finer skull and they tend to be longer in the leg and narrower in the body.  They have a particularly athletic physique.

The German Shepherd tends to be broader across the body, chest and skull.

Although both dogs are around about the same height, the GSD is much heavier and stockier built than the Mali.

The GSD has a short and long coated variety.  The Mali only has a short coat, and it is a lot less dense than the short coat that a GSD has.  Both do shed, but the GSD is known for shedding much more heavily than a Mali and will need much more grooming to lift out the dead hairs, and probably the house will need more frequent vacuum cleaning too.

The Malinois is usually a fawn color, but they can also come in darker shades of sable and red.  Their ears are normally darker.

The GSD comes in a much wider variety of colors; some mixed coloring and some solid colors, like black or white, although the White German Shepherd is not recognized as a showing breed standard by the American Kennel Club.

Temperament Comparison

Both breeds are highly intelligent, very driven, eager to learn, courageous and athletic.  They are also both known for being exceptionally devoted to their owners and for their guarding capacity.

Malinois are generally more highly strung than the GSD.  They can exhibit problem behaviors more readily as a result of stress and anxiety.  They are also more intense.  Their herding traits are often even higher.  They can be more prone to reactivity towards other dogs, and their prey drive is generally stronger.

While both are high energy breeds that need a lot of exercise and stimulation, the Mali is one of the most energetic and athletic breeds out there and so will usually require a lot more activity than a GSD will.

The GSD, while still needing a high amount of exercise and enrichment, is likely to be able to settle more easily in a family environment.  Their personalities are usually a little more laid back.

Training Comparison

Both breeds are exceptionally intelligent, and they are very trainable, thus why they are such popular service dogs.

Because if their strength and intelligence though, they can both sometimes prove to be a challenge for novice dog owners and this is particularly true of the, often highly strung, Mali.

These are dogs that need the training to focus their herding and guarding traits in a healthy way.  Without this sort of guidance and stimulation, then problem behaviors can surface.

The Mali, in particular, is not a dog that is suited to being left for prolonged periods on their own.  Not only can they become easily bored and hyperactive, but they can also be prone to separation anxiety, given the bonds they form with their owners.

Both dogs respond extremely well to training using positive reinforcement methods.  Not only do they pick up the behaviors they are being rewarded for very quickly, but it also ensures that a good bond of trust is formed between dog and owner.

Using aversive training methods can easily backfire, breaking down the bond of trust and, especially with the often highly strung and sensitive Mali, this can cause them to become stressed and possibly even lash out in fear or retaliation.

It is important to have consistent and frequent training from the start with both breeds.  Without it, these intelligent and strong breeds can easily become bored, and problem behaviors can quickly escalate.

The Belgian Malinois particularly thrives on the constant challenge of new training exercises, and both breeds are often seen competing in dog sports and obedience.

Health Comparison

The health issues that both these dogs face is also quite similar as they have similar body traits.  The gait of the German Shepherd leads to different health problems than the Malinois though.  Let’s take a look at the health of each of the pups.

The Belgian Malinois

The Belgian Malinois is generally thought to be a more overall healthy breed.  There are less of them being breed, and most of the breeders tend to be reputable and responsible, carrying out thorough health checks on parents.  They do still have some heritable conditions though that it is worth being aware of, and these include:

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA):  This is a degenerative condition that eventually leads to blindness.  While dogs can still live a high-quality life when blind, a good breeder will do screening in the parents for this condition to help avoid it being passed on to puppies.

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia:  Again both of these conditions tend to be degenerative, and while they can often be successfully managed with medication and alternative therapies or, in extreme cases, surgery, good breeders will also have their dogs screened for signs of these problems too.

The German Shepherd

Probably as a result of their popularity, German Shepherds are known for having more genetic conditions than the Mali.  This makes it all the more important to make sure that you seek out a responsible breeder that carries out relevant health screening on potential parents.  As well as also being prone to elbow and hip dysplasia, some of the other conditions they can be more susceptible to include:

Gastric Torsion / Bloat:  This is a condition that vets are still studying to find out more about.  It is recognised though that, in some instances, there can be an increased chance of this occurring if it is in the genes and also for large breed dogs that have deep and narrow chests, like the GSD.

It is a very distressing condition, for the dog and owner, that can come on very suddenly, and if urgent veterinary treatment is not sought, then it can result in death.  It involves the stomach becoming bloated and twisting, and it can cause extreme pain, and the dog can even go into shock.

If your GSD is a dog that likes to guzzle down their food, then feeding them from a slow feed bowl and also in smaller and more frequent portions could potentially reduce the risk.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI):  This is a condition where the pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes, and it can cause the dog to have extreme stomach and digestive issues.  It is a condition that is commonly associated with the GSD.  It can usually be successfully managed by adding an enzyme supplement to the dog’s diet.

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): This is a disease that is commonly seen in German Shepherds, and it relates to a degenerative spinal cord condition which can eventually lead to paralysis.  While there is no cure, treating the condition can help to extend the quality of life of the patient, and it is another one that can be screen tested for before breeding.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some common questions that people may have about the differences between the two breeds.

Q: Which Breed Would be Better Suited to a Family Home?

A: In general, a German Shepherd makes a better family pet than a Malinois does.  The Malis extremely high work drive, energy, and often highly strung personality means they are not usually the right pet for a standard family environment.  They need a very dedicated home that clearly understands the specific needs of the breed and can give them these.  They need a lot of training, exercise and enrichment and a lot of the activities that they do should be focussed to harness their skills.  Unless there are very careful introductions and supervision, they may not be best suited to a home with young children.  They can be prone to nipping at little heels and other herding behaviors.

The German Shepherd, while still a dog that may not be best for a first-time owner, tends to be much less highly strung and have less intense exercise and enrichment requirements.  Long haired GSD variants also pose a challenge when it comes to grooming.

Malis are known for often bonding extremely strongly with one particular person, while GSDs often have a very close, protective bond with their entire family.

Q: Is Either Dog Suited to Apartment Living?

A: Both dogs are large, active breeds and would both benefit from the extra space of a garden.  The Malinois, in particular, is not really suited to apartment-style living unless the owner is extremely dedicated to making sure they get enough outdoor time and enrichment.

Don’t forget that the Mali is an expert climber too and can easily scale fences that are 6 foot high.  If they do have access to a garden, it will need to have high enough fences and be extra secure.

Q: Will a Belgian Malinois need more exercise than a German Shepherd?

A: In short, yes.  Of course, every dog is an individual, and there will be exceptions to this general rule, but usually, a Mali is much more high energy than a German Shepherd.  Both breeds require plenty of exercise, but the Mali is one of the most energetic breeds around and has boundless energy and focus, and this needs to be channeled healthily.  They are absolutely not a dog that will thrive on one or two quick walks around the neighborhood a day and, if this was what they got, it would likely mean that their boredom could manifest itself in undesirable, problematic behaviors.   They may begin to be destructive in the home and in extreme cases, their frustration can lead to hyperactive behavior that can even become aggressive if not handled appropriately.

Q: Which Breed Will Live Longer?

A: The Belgian Malinois generally has a longer lifespan than a German Shepherd. The GSD will often live for around 10 – 12 years (although sometimes longer), Malis often live to be about 12 – 14 years old.

Final Thoughts

If you are passionate about dog training and lead a very active lifestyle then taking on the commitment of a Belgian Malinois or a German Shepherd could be a good choice for you.

Neither dog is usually for the novice dog owner but, with the right training and enrichment, a German Shepherd can make a great family pet.

The Belgian Malinois is really only suited to a very particular type of home. Ideally, it will be someone that knows the breed or that is, at least, an experienced dog owner.  They need a home that can be greatly tailored around their requirements; they need someone that is up for the training challenge, can give the dog the additional exercise and stimulation that they will need, and that is around for them most of the day.

If you want to go on a challenging learning journey with your dog, you are extremely active, or you want to be involved in dog sports, like agility, at a serious competitive level then one of these breeds may be for you.

Be honest with yourself though.  Many Malinois end up in rescue because the owners greatly underestimated their specific needs.  This is a tragedy, especially given they can be difficult to rehome, and their highly strung personalities mean they often do not cope well in the kennel environment.

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