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Function Is Beauty

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A Look at the Working Malinois

Function is beauty

I recently stumbled upon a striking image of a mountain climber with a Japanese character set underneath. A closer inspection revealed it was an ad for MontBell. The meaning of the characters? Kinoubi—function is beauty. It made me think of the working Malinois, a subset of the Malinois population known by many complimentary denotations, “beautiful” not one of those usually heard.

That should not be construed negatively. If we’re honest about our breed, we realize that there is a substantial dichotomy between show type and working type. Though there are some individuals and breeders making an honest attempt to do both, by and large the breed has split into two very distinct paths. Often, individuals on either one of those paths look only superficially at the other side, without full understanding.

I propose a very different look at the working Malinois…a look at function and how it pertains to the beauty of the Malinois.

The Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) standard for the breed describes the general appearance and aptitude of the Malinois as:

A medium-lined dog, harmoniously proportioned, intelligent, rustic, accustomed to open-air life, built to resist the bad weather of the seasons and the atmospheric variations so frequent to the Belgian climate.

By the harmony of his shape and the proud carriage of his head, the Belgian Shepherd Dog must give the impression of that robust elegance which has become the heritage of the selected representatives of a working breed.

In addition to his inborn aptitude for guarding flocks, he has the precious qualities to be the best guard dog for the property.When necessary he is, without hesitation, a tenacious and ardent defender of his master. He is vigilant and attentive, his look is alert and enquiring, denoting his intelligence.

So here we find the Malinois described as harmoniously built, intelligent, rustic, and built to withstand climactic extremes. So far, so good. The Malinois should give the impression of robust elegance. Still with me? And the Malinois should be, if needed, a tenacious and ardent defender of his master, vigilant and attentive.

Sounds good to me so far. Many working Malinois fit this description.

Rather than go through the standard point by point…I’ll look at a few select conformational details as they apply to function.

Under the “Head” category…Nose? yup. Gotta have one of those. Dentition? Teeth are good too. Bite…hmmmm. Now here’s where some working people may differ from conformation folks. Teeth, and their longevity, is a very important factor to consider in a dog who is using their mouth to “protect and serve.” The standard says that the level or “pincer” bite has long been preferred by herdsman. Having experienced both level and scissors bites “flea-biting” me, I think I know why. A scissors bite pinches more—and has the potential to do more damage to flesh in terms of ripping. So a level bite is a little safer should the dog need to grip uncooperative or unruly stock. The level bite is not typically the preference in protection dogs for a simple reason. A level bite wears down the teeth—and fast. And a protection dog without teeth has a hard time doing his job. Moving on to Eyes/Ears? Yup, need those too. Does it particularly matter if the ears are big, or tall? Not really. Does it really matter if they even stand? Marginally…many people feel that prick-eared dogs are better able to locate the origin of sounds, so that may indeed be a factor to consider in a working dog.

Moving right along, let’s agree to the fact that a working dog should have a neck.

Forequarters…now here’s a section with some meat to it. The FCI standard says:

Solid bone structure all over, muscles dry and strong.
Shoulders: the shoulder blades are long, sloping and flat, sufficiently angulated with the humerus to give the elbows easy play.
Upper arms: should move in a direction strictly parallel to the longitudinal axis of the body.
Forearms: long and well muscled.
Front Pasterns: strong and short. Wrists clean without traces of rickets.
Feet: rather round. The toes arched and well closed. The pads thick and elastic. Nails dark and strong.

I think we can all agree to the importance of solid bone and muscle. Too light, and you have a fragile dog and you loose “stopping” power whether we’re talking about a man or a ram. Too heavy, and you lose agility and speed. Moderation is the key.

The issue of Shoulder Angulation has always intrigued me. Here, the standard calls for sufficient angulation to give the elbows “easy play.” That’s something to think about. How many straight-shouldered working Malinois have you seen? Particularly among those training and competing in ringsport, you usually see nicely angulated shoulders—they have to be nicely angulated to withstand the agility requirements of the sport, or the shoulders break down.

Upper arms? Moving without interference is important—a dog who is crabbing or paddling is not moving efficiently, and probably has less endurance. What about short Pasterns? Sounds good, and I agree that we don’t want to see rickets. Feet? If anything will make or break a working dog, it is the quality and character of his feet. A flat or spread foot is a liability on many surfaces…prone to injury from something as innocuous as the wrong piece of gravel. Thick pads are a must, cushioning the blow from less than perfect surfaces and providing good traction. Good strong nails are preferable to weak, splintery nails. One more site for easy injury. Does the color matter? Well, dark nails make nail trimming more of a challenge, but in the long run, it’s not really an issue.

Now we move into another substantial section, the body.

The body is powerful without heaviness. Length from point of shoulders to point of buttocks approximately equal to height at withers in the dog. Maybe slightly longer in the bitch.
Forechest: seen from the front little broad, without being narrow.
Chest: little broad, but deep and well let down, as in all animals of great endurance. The rib cage is constructed of ribs arched in their upper parts.
Withers: pronounced.
Top line (Back and loin): straight, broad and powerfully muscled.
Croup: very slightly sloping, broad without excess.
Belly: moderately developed, neither drooping nor tucked up, continuing the underline of the chest in a harmonious curve.

Starting from the top. Body..powerful without heaviness. Sounds good to me. Length equal to height at withers? In theory, I can agree to this. I think a dog approaching square proportions is more efficient and more structurally stable than a long-backed dog. It’s theinterpretation that I’m not comfortable with. Square, to me (and to mathematicians), means four sides of identical length that join with right angles. There is no such thing as “very square” (used by conformation people to mean length shorter than height.) Square is square…like a light switch, it’s either on or off. Think about the logic here. You would never hear someone refer to a dog that is longer than tall as “very square” so why should a dog that is taller than long be referred to that way? And is “very square” in the sense of taller than long desirable? No! Take a dog with moderate angulation, remove the coupling so that his length decreases and he’s now”very square.” Now ask him to move. What’s that I see? Hind legs interfering with front? Crabbing to avoid interference? You got it! Not very efficient, and not proper for a working dog.

Forechest, Chest, and Withers all seem pretty straightforward to me. Next we see the Topline. Straight, broad, and powerful. This sounds great—a dog built for moving comfortably and easily. Working Malinois are often described as high in the rear—a structural fault. A few years ago a young judge who was applying for Malinois talked to me at a fun match. During the course of the conversation, he told me that at the last judging seminar he went to, it was emphasized that the biggest conformation flaw in the Malinois was high rear. I laughed.

Let’s look at it from a historical perspective. Think of animals built for speed and agility…the working border collie and the cheetah come to mind. Both are slightly high in the rear. Coincidence? I think not. With a level topline should come long distance stamina. With slightly high rear often comes speed and maneuverability. Interesting tradeoff. As a herding person pointed out to me, stamina is necessary for the work, but the Belgian is not a “living fence” like a German Shepherd—so the ability to run a marathon is less important than the ability to make a quick outrun, turn on a dime, and put just the right amount of pressure onto the stock. In protection work, the same is true. While stamina is part of the equation, speed and agility are absolute necessities. There’s a difference between a dog able to work all day, and a dog able to run all day. The Belgians should be able towork all day, while retaining quickness and maneuverability. So is a high rear a problem in a working dog? Probably not, unless it is exaggerated enough (e.g. “running downhill”) to cause stress on other parts of the body. I’ve personally never seen a problem in dogs that were slightly high in the rear. And the success of the BC and Cheetah speak for themselves.


Moving backwards over the dog, we find the FCI Standard’s description of the hindquarters:

Powerful, without heaviness, moving in the same planes as the forequarters. In stance perpendicular to the ground.
Upper thighs: broad and strongly muscled. The stifle nearly perpendicular to the hip.
Lower thighs: long, broad, muscled and sufficiently bent at the hocks without excess. Hocks well let down, broad and muscled.Seen from behind they should be perfectly parallel.
Rear pasterns: solid and short. Dewclaws not desirable.
Feet: slightly oval. Toes arched and well closed. Pads thick and elastic. Nails dark and strong.

Like the description of the forequarters, I can find nothing to argue with here.

The tail is well set on, strong at the base and of medium length. At rest the dog carries hanging down, the tip bent slightly backwards at the level of the hock. On the move he lifts it, accentuating the curve towards the tip, but at no time forming a hook or deviation.

Mask: the mask must tend to include the upper and lower lips, the corner of the mouth and the eyelids in a single black area.

For the Malinois: only the fawn colour with black overlay (fauve-charbonne) with black mask.
In all the varieties a little white is tolerated on the forechest and on the toes.

Skin: Elastic but well tight over the whole body. External mucous membranes strongly pigmented.

The desired height at the withers is on average:
62 centimetres for dogs,
58 centimetres for bitches.
Tolerances: minus 2 centimetres, plus 4 centimetres.

The movement is brisk and free, covering a maximum of ground. Always on the move, the Belgian Shepherd Dog seems tireless. Because of his exuberant temperament, he has a marked tendency to move in circles rather than in a straight line.

Very short on the head, outer surface of the ears and on the lower parts of the legs. Short on the rest of the body, more abundant on the tail and around the neck where it forms a ruff which starts at the base of the ears and stretches to the throat. In addition the buttocks are feathered with longer hair. The tail is like a ripened shaft of wheat (épiée) without plume.

Tail? I haven’t found a tail (or lack thereof) to be of any consequence in the working Malinois I’ve seen. Some people contend that the tail is used as a “rudder” to aid in balance at high speed…but having spent time with a couple of docked Malinois (military working dogs) I don’t believe the tail does much beyond helping the dog communicate. As to whether the tail curves, hooks, or flies gaily? Not an issue in a working dog.

Coat Color/Mask? Well, in the overall scheme of things, the color, masking, and charcoaling of the dog are of little importance when the dog is working. I will personally go on record as saying that I think some of the “old” colors in the shorthaired Belgian Shepherd are beautiful—the greys and the brindles in particular, but also the black. I wish we still had a designation for them in the “autre” category (other color). I’m very pleased that the UKC standard includes a place for some of these colors.

Gait? Sounds pretty good to me. Brisk, tireless, long reaching.

So what does this leave us with? A dog that is rustic, intelligent, and physically sound. I can agree to that. Now the question is, I guess, is it more important that a dog is “typey” or that it is intelligent and physically sound? It seems apparent to me that a physically sound mongrel is not a better breed specimen than a physically unsound but typeyMalinois. Ah, the dilemma. But on the other hand, I think that if you applied those three criteria to dogs in the breed ring before an analysis of type, there’d be an interesting shakedown.

For me, and I may be in the minority on this issue, type is not restricted to the exterior and it is certainly not restricted to the headpiece. My definition of type includes the dog in silhouette and headpiece, gait, and the interior of the head…the “character” of the dog. Without breed character, I don’t believe a dog is typey. But no amount of character and physical soundness can make a Malinois “typey” if it doesn’t look like a Malinois. Hell of a working dog? Maybe. Hell of a Malinois? Not if it doesn’t look like one.

At this point in time, in the United States, I feel that a decent “working” Malinois approaches the standard as much as many of the dogs purported to be “showdogs”—and given the choice between a “typier” head without working character, and working character with some fine points of type missing, I have to go with character over cosmetics. It’s a tough call for someone like me, who truly believes dogs can and should look AND act like their breed.

A fix?

So is there a solution? I’m not sure. Here’s one idea…

In principal, I think the idea of a breed survey is excellent, and the approach the German Malinois Club (DMC) has arrived at, the Wertmessziffern and Koerung, has real merit although the conformation evaluation is only as good as the conformation knowledge of the evaluator.

I’d love to see the koerung happen here in the U.S. I don’t think it will, at least, not with the openness seen in Germany. Americans are somewhat obsessed with controlling who is allowed to critique their dogs, and who has access to those critiques afterwards…You lose that control with this sort of system. Perhaps the AWMA will eventually succeed with something of this nature.

At this time, I think the Malinois breed is in a troubled state, and it’s not looking to get any brighter unless people acknowledge some basic facts about what is and is not proper Malinois type and character…what should and should not be the “deciding factors” in breeding. Above all, we have a generic, shepherd-type breed. Rustic. Intelligent. Sound in mind and body. Moderate. No exaggerations. When you look at the functionality of the breed and use those criteria as the basis for your assessment, the Malinois takes on a whole new look. Function is beauty in the Malinois.


The Malinut Page is the product of Jona Decker and the 'Nuts of south central Wisconsin.


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