German Shepherd vs Belgian Malinois – 5 Key differences

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Five key differences between German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois

When it comes to Belgian Malinois vs. German Shepherds, it’s pretty easy to get them confused. After all, the two dogs share a lot — they have similar temperaments and their look is easy to mistake for the other. Both breeds were initially used to herd livestock before becoming widely associated with law enforcement K9 units.


Of course, the German Shepherd is much more popular than its Malinois counterpart. While the American Kennel Club (AKC) popularity ranking has seen the Malinois jump to #43 in the past few years, the German Shepherd has comfortably sat in the top five for decades. The breed currently sits at #2.


But though you wouldn’t immediately see it, certain variances could make all the difference to the family who owns one of these dogs. Here are a few of the key ways to differentiate the breeds:


Let’s start with the look of these two dogs. As mentioned above, it’s easy to confuse these breeds for one another, but there are a few differences in the look of the different breeds:

  • German Shepherds are a bit bigger than your average Belgian Malinois. They’re fairly close — a few inches off in a full-grown male or female — but a Malinois will typically weigh a bit less, 60-80 pounds for a male and 40-60 pounds for a female, versus German Shepards which can weigh up to 90 pounds and 70 pounds, respectively.
  • Malinois is a square breed, meaning if you look at it from the side then the top line from its neck to its back legs should be flat. By contrast, the German Shepherd’s back has a slope to it; Shepherds are longer than they are tall, with a less angular look.
  • Both dogs are strong and well-muscled. But German Shepherds look a bit more substantial, and not at all spindly. A Belgian Malinois, on the other hand, gives the impression of solidity but without any of the same fluffy bulk that a Shepherd has.
  • German Shepherds’ hair has more fluff and undercoat than their Malinois counterparts, meaning their coat is a little longer. Though they look similar enough from a distance, up close, the difference in hair length means one looks more fluffy (Shepherd) and one looks sleeker (Malinois).
  • Though their coloring is easy to conflate, Belgian Malinois are generally a blonder-looking German Shepherd. Malinois sports only a black mask and ears, with fawn hair on the rest of its body. Shepherds, on the other hand, have a mix of colors (black and tan, or black and silver) which can lead to a variety of shades and patterns across the dog’s body.
German Shepherd In Flight
German Shepherd In Flight © / Zandeuk

Temperament and activity level

Both breeds come from herding backgrounds, which means that both are ready for action. They are very alert and have high energy, making it no surprise that they excel in both police and military K9 units. With either dog, you’re going to want to plan on an active lifestyle.


But the Belgian Malinois is typically considered to be the busier of the two. These dogs can’t just be left in the backyard — it’s possible a single walk a day won’t cut it either.


You’ll need to give a Malinois plenty of exercise to keep it out of trouble. But luckily, that high energy and friendliness make the Malinois an excellent partner for running, hiking, or biking.


An underworked German Shepherd is also prone to develop undesirable behaviors (think: chewing things it shouldn’t be). But they aren’t quite as high wire as the Malinois. They’ll be a bit more content to simply interact with their human family after a bit of daily exercise to keep them active.

Lifespan and health

Both German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are considered healthy breeds. They will both do well with a diet of high-quality (and age-appropriate) dog food. Their shared interests and look mean that there’s some crossover in health conditions to be on the lookout for, namely hip and elbow dysplasia that should be screened for by a responsible breeder.


German Shepherds have a shorter life span, typically between 7-10 years. When feeding them, keep in mind: table scraps have been known to cause digestive upset in Shepherds, so only give them human food sparingly, if at all.


Shepherd dogs can also experience bloat, a sudden, and sometimes life-threatening, swelling of the abdomen. They are also stoic, meaning they might not let you know when they are hurt. AKC advises checking paws, in particular, consistently for scratches or bruises.


The Malinois can live longer — its average life span is 14-16 years. The AKC’s guidance towards maintaining them is in line with what you would expect of other breeds: brush their teeth frequently, check their ears regularly for signs of infection, and keep them active.


The shorter coat of the Belgian Malinois is going to be easier to take care of. Occasional brushing with a hound glove, medium-bristle brush, or rubber grooming tool should do the trick.


For when the Malinois sheds (twice a year) a daily brushing with a slicker brush can help collect the loose hair.


German Shepherd’s medium-length coat inherently requires more maintenance — but not a ton. Aside from a quick brushing every few days the breed is easy to maintain. They also experience a higher-shed period once or twice a year, but more frequent brushing should help control the amount of hair that gets left on your furniture.

Malinois Dog Sitting Outdoors In Green Spring Meadow
Malinois Dog Sitting Outdoors In Green Spring Meadow © / Grisha Bruev

Training and human interaction

What’s it like to take these dogs for a walk in the park? Some of that will depend on your training. Early socialization and puppy training are vital to both German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois.


The good news is both breeds are easy to train. Malinois tend to be a bit warier of strangers, but are strongly interested in moving objects. That trait can lead to them chasing cars, animals, or children, but can be directed into more acceptable activities if they’re properly trained.


German Shepherds are eager to please. They feel happiest when they feel like they’re part of the pack. As highly intelligent and alert animals, they should keep a heavy exposure to their families’ activities. Consistency and reward-based training should yield excellent results in an adult Shepherd.