Some fans of the Belgian Malinois are worried. They saw what "Marley & Me" did for the Labrador retriever and what Walt Disney did for Dalmatians. They're calling it the "Max effect."
The movie "Max" tells the story of a military dog that goes to live with his handler's family after leaving Afghanistan. It's a touching tale, and Max is a great dog — so great that moviegoers may leave the theater wanting a Max of their very own.
The dogs that shared the starring role were all Belgian Malinois, an active, intelligent working breed often used for law enforcement and the military. But talk to anyone who has owned or trained one of these high-drive dogs, and they'll tell you the dogs are not your typical family pet.
"If you are looking for a beautiful animal to just sit at home with you, or to be left to its own designs, do NOT choose a Malinois," says a statement on the American Belgian Malinois Club website. "These dogs are bred to be taught and assigned tasks, and then to perform them at the highest levels of their mental and physical capabilities. An underutilized dog is a frustrated dog. And a frustrated dog is not a good housemate."
Online information drive
The movie inspired the creation of a Facebook page called "Soooo,you think you want a Malinois?", a place where breed owners share cautionary tales and photos of their dogs' activities. This includes bites, destroyed furniture and snarling, bared teeth.
"We are NOT Malinois bashing. We love the breed, so much so in fact, that we want to breed to be preserved as a WORKING BREED. Uneducated, irresponsible malinois breeders and owners will, in the short term, get a lot of people hurt and a lot of dogs destroyed. They will, in the long term, lead to the destruction of the breed and the loss of its working ability. #SavetheMalinois We are your Malinois' warning label."
Lots of Malinois owners are quick to point out on social media what their dogs are like.
Watch this video of a Malinois swimming. And swimming. And swimming.
'No idea what they're getting themselves into'
Daniel McElroy, a Chicago-based trainer, helped created the Facebook page after several trainers were worried about the "Max" effect and were talking about it at a training session right before the movie came out.
"I don't think people realize what genetics really are in any particular dog population, especially in working breed dogs," McElroy tells MNN. "People have no idea what they're getting themselves into. I'm a full-time trainer, and I get people all of the time saying they read the description of a particular breed on the Internet. They come to me saying, 'I read where it said they were defensive, headstrong and so forth. I thought I could handle it until I actually got the dog.'"
Breeders and trainers talk about what a strong "prey drive" and "bite drive" these dogs have. YouTube is full of videos of tiny Malinois puppies latching on to pants legs and not letting go. Here's a good example:
Malinois lovers are afraid that newbie breed converts will buy a pup, be overwhelmed with the dog's energy drive — or worse, get bitten — and the dog will end up at a shelter.
"We love dogs, and we love movies, and we love movies with dogs in them — but we don't love when people buy dogs because they saw them in movies," says a post on the Facebook page of Las Vegas K9 Training.
"Malinois are a pretty hardcore breed, even among trainers, they are 'the working dogs of working dogs.' They are NOT mini German shepherd's and they are certainly NOT pets. Don't get a dog just because you saw several professionally trained animal actors play the same part in a movie."
Yet, of course, some people are using the movie's popularity to sell Malinois puppies.
"We are already seeing advertisements on the Internet by irresponsible breeders selling the 'Air Jordon of dogs' or dogs like 'Max' from the movie," says Marcia Tokson, president of the American Belgian Malinois Rescue. "Our rescue coordinators are already getting calls from people looking for dogs because they have just seen the movie and their kids want one."
Tokson says they'll likely see an increase in abandoned Malinois puppies in about six to nine months.
"After the cute puppy stage is over and the dogs become harder to handle as adolescents, that's when they are dumped because they are doing damage to the house, knocking over the kids et cetera."
It's not just the Malinois
Yes, there are negatives to the Malinois' new-found popularity, but there are also positives, says dog trainer and retired police K9 handler Jeff Schettler, owner of Georgia K9 National Training Center and author of several tactical training books.
"The positive is that it brings a lot of light to the intelligence and the overall versatility and beauty of the breed," says Schettler, who points out that it's not just the Malinois that isn't a suitable family pet in the traditional sense.
"Any of the high-caliber working breeds like a high-caliber German shepherd or Rottweiler shouldn’t go the average person. In Europe, they also use giant shepherds. It's also Dutch shepherds and Rhodesian ridgebacks," he says. "It's not just the breed, it’s the drive of the dog."
With the Malinois, Schettler says the vast majority are bred for the military and police work. "The breeding has been for extremely high drive, incredible intelligence and some can be very aggressive. The average person should never own that," he says.
Schettler is currently training two Malinois that turned out to be more than their owners are able to handle.
"It's the biggest problem we have in our business: people dealing with dogs that are too much for them," he says. "I think Malinois are absolutely fantastic, but they're not for the average person."
If you've seen "Max," you know it's a touching canine tale. If not, check out the trailer below. It's a reminder of the breed's grace and intelligence — but that doesn't mean you should bring one home with you.