German shepherds and Belgian Malinois have a lot in common: both bred for herding sheep and other livestock, used for military and police work, and are active, highly trainable dogs who do best with experienced dog owners. So what are the differences?
If you’re trying to decide between a German shepherd and a Belgian Malinois, or if you’re just curious about these similar breeds, this article will walk you through everything these dogs do and don’t have in common.
In the late 19th century a German cavalry officer, Captain Max von Stephanitz, worked to combine the various herding dog breeds into a uniform breed, creating the foundation of the German shepherd as we know it today.
The versatile, intelligent dog became a popular dog with fanciers the world over, coming to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The breed’s popularity waned a bit during World War I, as it was associated with the enemy. This is when they began to be called Alsatians. This name is still commonly used in Great Britain.
The Belgian Malinois was also originally bred to herd sheep. They are part of a group of dogs from Belgium known as the Belgian shepherds—the Belgian Tervuren, the Belgian sheepdog, and the Laekenois—whose types were refined in the late 1800s from herding dogs likely used for centuries.
The Malinois is the only short-coated one of the four, and their excellent herding abilities were harnessed early on for police and military work.
Size and coloring
A Belgian Malinois looks sort of like a smaller, blonder German shepherd, and is sometimes even mistaken for a German shepherd. Malinois are shorthaired dogs, fawn in color, with a black overlay, and a black mask and ears. The females average about 40-60 pounds, and the males weigh about 60-80 pounds.
While they’re smaller and finer boned than German shepherds, with an elegant, “no-frills” sort of sleekness, they’re strong and muscular dogs that are nearly tireless.
German shepherds are approximately 10 percent larger than a Belgian Malinois, with females running between 50 and 70 pounds and males between 65 and 90 pounds. Along with their slightly larger size, their coats are slightly longer as well, with a little more fluff and undercoat than the Belgian Malinois—there’s even a long-coated German shepherd variety.
They’re known for the classic coloring—black and tan or black and silver with a black saddle over the body—but solid black and sable dogs, usually with a dark face, are also common in the breed. Sable, or more correctly, agouti, is the banding of color on each and every individual hair, which leads to a variety of shades and colors which can vary greatly from sable dog to sable dog.
The famous Rin Tin Tin, the first canine movie star, was a sable German shepherd.
Both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are bred to work. As with most herding breeds, they’re smart, willing partners who enjoy working alongside their humans. Both breeds are better suited for experienced dog owners since their high energy and intelligence make them more difficult to handle.
While they love their people, if they’re not given a job to do, or exercised regularly, they can get into trouble.
This high work drive and versatility is what has made both breeds so highly prized by police and military K9 units. They seem to come hard-wired for adventure and, as herding breeds, are very alert and keenly aware of their surroundings.
This makes for a great partnership in just about any endeavor, but especially in the high-risk situations of police or military work, where these dogs are invaluable to their handlers and their units.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that these dogs don’t do well when left for hours on end in the backyard, and a daily walk barely dents the surface for their exercise needs. They like to have a job, and activities like obedience, nose work, agility, tracking, and of course herding, are all great ways to engage them both mentally and physically.
The sport of Schutzhund—tracking, obedience, and protection competition—is something many German shepherd and Belgian Malinois owners enjoy.
These breeds also make excellent search and rescue dogs, and Malinois, in particular, are great biking or jogging partners.
Of the two breeds, the Belgian Malinois is generally considered the busier and more challenging, but both breeds need regular tasks to do.
Not content to snooze the day away, they’ll find things to do if they aren’t stimulated regularly. This might include redecorating your home by chewing a hole in the plasterboard, or digging trenches in your back yard. They have an extremely high prey drive and although this is good for a working K9, some Malinois are not “cat-safe.”
While no slouch, the average German shepherd isn’t quite as active as the Belgian malinois. He won’t be content to just lie around all day but thrives on interaction with his human family.
From protection work to guide dogs for the blind (the world’s first official guide dog for the blind was a German shepherd named Buddy), German shepherds excel at nearly anything we humans ask them to do. They’re also great family dogs and wonderful with children. They’re known for their courage, versatility, and fearlessness.
With recent TV and film appearances and social media fame, the Belgian Malinois breed is becoming more popular than ever, with AKC registrations now putting them as the 43rd most popular AKC breed, up from 76th most popular just a few years ago.
The American Belgian Malinois Club “is delighted at the interest in our breed sparked by videos and television shows that show off the intelligence, physical capabilities, and beauty of these animals.”
But they also caution, “however, the activities and behaviors that are presented, and that look so easy for the dog, are the result of lengthy, intense and constant training. Malinois are bred and born to perform almost any task; they’re not bred to be a couch potato.”
The German shepherd breed has been so popular, for so long—currently #2 in AKC registrations, and in the top 5 most popular AKC breeds for decades—that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. As part of an active family, they make excellent family companions as long as one is willing and able to give them the time and training they need.
In the right home, the German shepherd is a breed that has it all.
Similarly, with the right active companion, a Belgian Malinois is a smart, energetic dog who will bring loyalty and excitement to the household.
Belgian Malinois vs. German shepherd: the bottom line
These two breeds have similar looks and trainability and both will thrive with dedicated, hands-on owners whose dogs are a central part of their lives.