When I made the decision to begin my career professionally training dogs, I sought the help of a number of experts. After reviewing the curriculum of many well respected online and in person universities, I repeatedly found that the lessons tended to be lacking, one sided, or geared towards very specific goals. I was in search of a well rounded education, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that, in order to make that happen, I would need to find a wide array of trainers and mentors to lend their expertise.
I had worked with a number of professional trainers, competitors and behaviorists for just under a year before fate stepped in and gave me a hefty shove. I contacted a potential mentor, asking if I could volunteer in exchange for an apprenticeship. I remember his response like the call happened yesterday. First, he laughed. It was a cocky chuckle, and I could tell he had immediately written me off. Then, he told me that the only education I needed, I could get from a Belgian Malinois. He advised me to buy and raise a puppy for civil or sport protection work. He continued to instruct me to research working malinois breeders, and ask them for the “hardest”, strongest, most dominant male pup in their litter. Only after I had raised the pup for a year, would he consider allowing me to participate in his program.
Being new to the world of dog training, I was wildly naive. I approached this endeavor wide-eyed and still believed that “there are no bad dogs – only bad owners”, and “aggressive dogs were obviously that way because of past trauma or abuse”, and “love is all you need”. My world was about rainbows, butterflies and unicorns at that point. Given my gullibility, I took my “advisor” at his word, and began my search.
I researched 37 Working Belgian Malinois breeders across the country, and explained to each exactly what my advisor had instructed me that I needed. Many laughed at me. Some failed to respond. Others hit me with a sales pitch that made me feel like I was buying a used car. Some tried to steer me in a different direction, but most took me at my word and picked a puppy for me, the newbie, that was exactly what I thought I wanted.
When I finally settled on my breeder, Debbie and Ron Skinner of Les Ombres Valeureux Working Malinois, my gears shifted. Debbie didn’t let me buy what I thought I wanted. Instead, through numerous emails, she forced my focus to what I needed. While I approached the search looking for a hard, dominant male, I ended up buying a driven, biddable female with a good work ethic. Hallelujah!
I remember the day I picked up Cyrrah, my new Malinois puppy. One of the trainers there told me that these dogs weren’t like a typical pet.
“You don’t ‘own’ a Malinois,” she warned.
“A Malinois isn’t your dog…..” she continued, “a Malinois is your partner”.
As I raised my little hellion, I pushed those words to the back of my mind. All I had witnessed was a mouthy, bitey, angry little puppy with attitude, who abused me on a regular basis and who continually challenged my knowledge, patience, and tolerance. I shed blood, sweat, tears, and even more blood and tears. Oftentimes, I thought about giving up. I thought about placing her with someone who knew what they were doing. I felt hopeless.
This was no partnership. This was abuse, and I was the victim.
Can you imagine how I would have dealt with a strong, hard, dominant male? I’d likely be dead.
It took two years for me to fully understand the weight of the words “A Malinois is your partner”, and when I did, a wave of guilt and humility nearly ended my career.
In all of my training, I was constantly trying to control my unruly puppy. I was acting like she was simply a thing I owned, that I could bend and conform to my life and specifications. But she wasn’t playdough. In fact, she had a backbone, and she wasn’t about to tolerate my feeble attempts at control.
I was never “mean” to Cyrrah, but I never tried to work WITH her – I simply tried to force her to fit into a cookie cutter vision I had in my head of what a well trained Malinois should look like. In fact, I didn’t “own” her and she consistently attempted to put me in my place. Sadly, it took me two years to check my ego at the door and realize this.
Belgian Malinois are some of the world’s most elite K9 performers. As one of the more prevalent breeds utilized for law enforcement and military applications, these dogs possess the drive and trainability to take out bad guys, detect explosives, clear buildings, detect and respond to threats, search out drugs, and perform countless other tasks to help keep our country safe. Their bravery, independence, and strong will allow them to confidently enter a battle zone, and their heightened senses make them critical tools for detection, so their handlers can stay safe. However those attributes that make them excel at their work, also make them challenge a novice handler that is inadvertently unfair or unclear.
In my struggles with my young pup, I always pointed the finger at her.
“Maybe a Malinois is your partner….” I thought to myself often, “but this one completely hates me”.
In all actuality, Cyrrah not only wanted a partner, she needed one. I however, had too big of an ego for teamwork.
Cyrrah was one of the biggest learning experiences of my career. I now raise hard, pushy, dominant dogs and regularly select for those traits. Given my experience with Cyrrah, I can honestly say that a strong male in the “rainbows and unicorns” phase of my life would have ended me.
While my “advisor” attempted to lead me astray, he did offer some critical words of wisdom that proved to be the catalyst for substantial change and growth. The only education I needed, I could get from a Belgian Malinois. My ass and my ego were handed to me at a crucial point in my career, and only through that experience was I able to learn valuable lessons about teamwork, partnership, and dog training.
Thanks and stay tuned for more Malinois stories, training, and tips.