The Elusive Malinois “Off Switch”

Mac and LolaOn a regular basis I see on social media people talking about an "off switch" and how the Malinois doesn't have one.  Especially the working line Malinois.  People post their daily routine with their dog, which includes 2 hours of training, 1 hour of fetch at the park in the morning, a 2 hour run in the evening, and then boast about how the dog still wants more after all that.  Or photo after photo of their dogs destroying their homes.  When people do post photos of their dogs actually being calm in the house, they are many times met with derision and comments about how it must not be a "real Malinois" and is obviously lacking in drive and working ability.

I've owned Malinois since 1993, all working lines, and I have to say this is crap.  Barring serious temperament or nerve issues, there is NO reason a good Malinois can’t have an "off switch".  With some dogs this is genetic, with others it needs some training.  A large part of it is simply the expectations of the owner.  If you think your dog is going to require insane amounts of exercise, then it probably will.  I mean seriously who can have a family, full time job, and still have 5+ hours a day to "wear out" their Malinois.  Personally I love the breed because they make doing things with them easy, not because they make my life difficult.  I think people also don’t realize with all this exercise they are giving the dog, hoping to wear it out so they can live with it, all they are doing is building stamina.  An "off switch" is not a state of physical exhaustion, it’s a state of mind.  Some come by it easier than others, just like some people are more able to relax than others.  But all of them should be capable of it.

So Why the Claim of No "Off Switch"?

I believe when people say the Malinois has no "off switch", there are a couple of things at play. IMO there is a solid percentage of people who own Malinois for sport, who don't actually like the breed.  They like the winning they can do with the breed. The dog is nothing more than a tool to them to get on the podium and earn trophies, or a demo dog for their business to gain clients.  So buying into the whole "a good Malinois doesn't have an off switch" thing gives them a reason, in their mind, to leave their dog in a kennel/crate except when they actually want to train or compete with it. Then they get a different dog/breed to be their actual companion and house dog.  I talk to these people on a regular basis, you know the ones, that say "I would never have a Mal if I wasn't doing X sport".

Then there are a lot of pet people who want to feel they own a "real Malinois", so they buy into this same thing they hear from the competitors about their dogs. And while they are trying to make their dogs family pets, they are also trying to make them "real Malinois", which means keeping them in a constant state of arousal by playing games all the time, making every interaction stimulating, letting them tear up their homes, etc.  They actually post photos and accounts online of the 1000s of dollars of damage their dogs do to their homes, with a little shrug like "eh what can you do, it’s a Malinos".   Puppy damage is one thing, they are still young, learning the rules, and in some cases growing into their brain 🙂  They are going to explore their world, and most puppies use their mouth when doing so.  Especially in a breed bred for bitework.  2 and 3 year old adults who are routinely still tearing up couches, tearing holes in the drywall, etc is another thing completely. 

And then there is of course the chunk of the Malinois population that doesn't suffer from high drive as much as thin nerves and over reactivity, and are so on edge because of their nerves/reactivity that they really do have a hard time ever settling. And unfortunately some people can't seem to tell the difference between drive and nerve, and breed these "insane over the top drive" dogs.  Yes, the Malinois is supposed to be more aware, or reactive, to its environment than some other breeds.  It’s not supposed to be so reactive that it can never mentally "turn off" and actually relax.

Over the years I have had 7 FRIIIs, an IPOIII, a Herding Champion, and numerous other dogs/titles in my home.  All Malinois.  I’ve trained/competed with dogs in French Ring, MondioRing, Schutzhund, PSA, NADF, Herding, Agility, Obedience, Tracking, Weight Pull, Flyball, Nose Work and other venues.  These are not dogs lacking in drive or working ability.  Some I raised, others came to me as adults.  I’ve also raised multiple dogs that have gone on to be police dogs.  All of these dogs were capable of relaxing. The ones I raised, were raised that way.  As pups some were more active than others, some needed more encouragement to settle in the house or car than others.  Some had to be watched closer because they were more prone to being destructive as youngsters.  Some need more exercise, physical and/or mental.  But they all learned to settle, if they didn’t just do it naturally.  The ones acquired as adults, either came with an "off switch", or were eventually taught to be good house dogs.  And by "good house dog" I mean a dog who can be left unsupervised in the house without destruction.  A dog that can lay calmly on its dog bed for hours in the evening, without needing extreme amounts of exercise or training to get there.  A dog who can relax, and even nap, in its crate in the vehicle when we are at training, even while other dogs are being trained out on the field a short distance away.  IE a dog you can live with.  A dog with an "off switch".  A dog that when it's finally your turn at training, after having been there for a few hours, comes out of the crate rested and ready to work.  Not already so gassed out, because it's been spinning and barking for the last 3 hours, that it's done about the time you finish getting it's gear on. 

One of the main reasons people like Malinois is they are so trainable.  So raise your standards, and if your dog doesn’t have the genetic off switch, train it.  Your dog will thank you for it.  When breeding or purchasing, look for dogs that have both high drive, and solid nerves.  See what the dog, or the parents of your new pup, is like out of drive.  Drive can be used to cover so many things, what is that dog like when it’s not being stimulated?  That’s when you will see the real dog.  Don't just say "eh, it's a Malinois, they have no off switch" and accept that your dog is going to be PITA for the next 12-16 years.

How do I Teach an "Off Switch"

If you have a dog with a genetic off switch, be happy and skip this section 🙂  When you have a dog that resists settling, for whatever reason, there are usually a couple main areas to be addressed.

1) make sure they are getting both physical AND mental exercise

Physical exercise is easy.  Take them for a run, play fetch with a chuck-it, go for a long hike, etc.  Mental exercise is more often what is lacking in the dogs routine.  Hit google for ideas, but searching games are one great way of wearing out your dog’s brain.  Rapid fire commands for skills they already know also works well.  Learning a new skill is another.  There are a wide variety of toys/puzzles that you can purchase.  I cannot stress this enough.  If your dog is not getting appropriate outlets for its drive and energy, you will have very limited success, if any, trying to teach an "off switch".

2) remove their physical outlet

I'm going to assume you have already "hit" #1 and your dog is suitably exercised.  Removing their ability to exude "nervous energy" and teaching them that calm is required in certain settings, can be done by using a place board so they can't get up and run around non-stop.  My favorite for this is a piece of plywood, sized for the dog, with carpet tacked on top of it.  In the middle attach a clip, so you can clip it to a short chain that is attached to their collar.  When sized right the dog can move around in a limited fashion but can't leave the board, their own weight on the board is what keeps it down.  It can be moved around to use in different locations in the house, in a crate, etc.  This allows you to put the dog there, and leave them without having to interact, go back and replace them if they leave, etc.  All that interaction just fuels their refusal to settle.  When they do relax, you can unclip them, if they get nutty again, put them back.  I like to use a long line through the clip, I have to put more effort into keeping them on the board, but once they settle I can release them without them realizing I have even done it.  Versus getting up and walking over there, which may trigger frenetic energy again.  Eventually they will understand a calm state of mind is rewarded.  The same for when they are in a crate.  If they circle non-stop, cross tie them or run a leash through the door to their collar so they can't spin.  Just make sure it's done correctly and you monitor them so they can't get themselves hung up.  Or set up a similar place board system, but with the clip towards the front of the board.  If they are barking, then I use an e-collar.  Cover the crate so they can't see and simulate even more.  If you stop the behavior, eventually the new behavior (calm) will become a habit, even if it's initially "forced calm". 

3) limit the simulation level

If you want your dog to learn to be calm, then you need to teach them in a calm environment as much as possible.  Your dog is not going to learn to be calm if the other beings, 2 and 4 legged, around them are not also being calm.  Putting the dog on a place board, when you have kids running non-stop through the house, or other dogs racing around, is not only not going to work, it's not fair.  Work on this in the evening, when everyone is sitting down watching a movie.  Asking the dog to learn to be calm in a crate in a vehicle full of barking dogs, is not going to work.  Move your vehicle further away from training and any barking dogs.  Cover your dog’s crate with a towel so they can't see.  Put a radio right next to their crate so they can't hear as well.  See if you have a friend with dogs that are calm in the vehicle, and try putting your dog’s crate in there.  Dogs learn a lot by watching what other dogs are doing. 

Will these things work for every dog.  Unfortunately no, some dogs just have so much nervous energy, and are wired in such a way, that they truly can't settle.  But this will work for many dogs, and make them much easier to live with, and better working dogs. 

26 thoughts on “The Elusive Malinois “Off Switch”

  1. "And then there is of course the chunk of the Malinois population that doesn't suffer from high drive as much as thin nerves and over reactivity, and are so on edge because of their nerves/reactivity that they really do have a hard time ever settling."

    I see this as being a huge problem with the breed. What percentage in your experience would fit into this category?

    • dantero

      It’s so hard to say.  In the true working/sport dog population, it’s a decent number, but not a majority.  I’d say in the 20-30% range, and it’s hard to tell sometimes if that is really the dog, or how the dog is being handled.  I actually think this number might have been even higher a few years back, when people didn’t really understand the difference between drive and nerve.  I think the “end user” has gotten a little smarter about the difference though, and is demanding better breedings from the breeders.  But there is also a group of “end users” who like this type of dog, so it will always be bred for by some.  I also differentiate between external drive, and thin nerve.  You see them together in a lot of dogs, but you can have one without the other.  In the pet Malinois population, a lot which are working lines a few generations back, I think it’s a much higher percentage.  So many of the people producing these dogs, or new to the working dog world and breeding before they truly understand what makes a Malinois tick, are breeding thin nerve thinking it’s crazy drive. 

      • Susan


         I just found your website! I have a 2 yr. old all black Belgian Malinois/Dutch Shepherd from a breeder in CO.. My dog is extraordinary; very high prey drive…high energy…we run agilithy in my back yard and do some scent detection as well. I do this a bit here and there to keep his mind active. I can also go days if get busy and my dog just hangs outside and chills on the property. He came to me leash reactive..worked with him for almost two years..lots of managment but he is a well trained dog now. He has a huge "on switch" (balls, frisbees, sticks, anything he can find to drop at your feet ) , but also a massive "off switch" when I want him to chill. Would like to start Shutzhund. Any ideas? Best, Susan from Santa Fe, NM

        • dantero

          I would check the AWDF, USCA, AWMA, and DVG websites for lists of Schutzhund clubs in your area.  After you find a few, go visit each of them that are taking new members.  Watch them train for awhile and see how you feel about their training methods, the personalities of the people in the club, the club goals, etc.  You will spend a LOT of time with these people, so make sure it’s a good fit for everyone prior to joining a club.  If you are uncomfortable with their training, or your goals don’t mesh with their’s, etc it’s better to just keep looking for another club.

    • Prerna

      I don't know but I have a malinoise. To be honest I do struggle with him when he is around other animals as he will attack but I never had any issues inside the house, distroying property and with kids. He is the most protective and kids loving dog. But when he is outside and there are other animals. It gets difficult. He often calls for fight or will attack if we are not attentive. 

  2. I've had a few questions about the "place board" so I'll try to describe it in a little more detail.  Keep in mind the size of your dog, and adjust accordingly.  For my dogs, especially an adult, they are usually a 3 or 4 foot square piece of moderately heavy plywood. Like 1/2-3/4 inch. I cover it with carpet or one of those thick rubber mats to make it more comfortable to lay on. Drill a hole dead center, then put some sort of loop through that, or an eyebolt, then hook a clip to it. Sometimes I drill 2 holes, so I can just run a loop of heavy wire through them vs trying to recess the back of a bolt to save floor damage if on hardwood or linoleum. The chain is usually a short choke chain, so the dog has about 12-18 inches to work with, depending on the size of the dog. Basically they can stand up, to move around a bit, but it's more comfortable to just stay laying down. The main part though is they can't get their front feet off the board, so their own weight on the board is what keeps it in place, regardless of how much they decide to fight it. If needed, they are on a choke or pinch instead of the flat collar, so they self correct if they fight it. I want as little interaction from me as possible during this. I don't care if the entire body stays on the board, that's not it's purpose. It's just to force the dog to stay in one general location, without me having to have bolts, chains, etc scattered throughout my house.

  3. Connie Kaplan

    Really nice article. I am not a mal person nor do I desire one but I appreciate the explanations for their behavior with a management and training plan. 

  4. Beth F.

    As a long time owner of Border Collies, working line, sport line and rescued dogs, I can tell you that an "off switch" is a trained behavior and a behavioral expectation. Its about self control and them regulating their own arousal level. I use ex pens, tethers and crates vs your place board, but once you have had an appropriate amount of exercise and interaction, sometimes you are just going to have to learn to relax quietly.

  5. Judy Olson

    My Mal Gal is afraid of strangers. We can work in a class with dogs an people an no issues but if a stranger gets close she growls. I would like to show in obedience some day an they have to touch the dog. Any suggestions 

    • dantero

      When you say in class with dogs and people and no issues, are they touching her?  If not, I would work with your trainer on that.  I would also teach an “enough”.  It’s not a “no don’t growl at all” but more of a “I see your concern, and now I’m telling you it’s unwarranted” or “I appreciate the heads up about that person, now I’ve got this so you can stop”.  I use this when I want them to stop any behavior, without the goal being to extinguish the behavior.  With dogs that are unsure about strangers handling them, or other things going on around them, I teach them to focus on the handler.  Ignore that dog barking at you behind the fence, and give a focused heel to get past.  Ignore that stranger touching you during a stand for exam, and focus on the handler.  Etc.  Your trainer is in a better position to determine why your dog is growling though, so advice given here or on social media should be taken with a grain of salt, as we can’t actually see your dog, and accurately read why it’s doing what it does. 

  6. Shannon howard

    Amen to this whole blog. You know my dogs they settle very quickly on the bed with me and can go out and work all day if I want. To me this is a very important part of owner a dog. Any breed!

  7. MalMuttMother

    Thank you for this post. I felt like you were describing my dog, unfortunately, with this statement: "And then there is of course the chunk of the Malinois population that doesn't suffer from high drive as much as thin nerves and over reactivity, and are so on edge because of their nerves/reactivity that they really do have a hard time ever settling." 

    My dog is a rescue and a mutt. We knew she was mostly Malinois, but we thought perhaps the mix of breeds would calm her down (her mother was apparently a real chill big dog like a Landseer). Unfortunately our dog has "thin nerves and over-reacts" and her previous owner must not have trained her well. We have our work cut out for us in order to teach her to be calm. We will definitely follow your advice…especially the place training, since she is 6 or 7 years old and doesn't seem to need that much physical exercise. If you have any more advice, we'd love to hear it!

  8. Melanie

    We got a rescue that we were told was a GSD and Husky mix.  To be honest, I had never really heard of a Mallinois.  He has been a chalkenge and I often feel like Im in over my head. We live in the middle of the woods and my husband was working from home the first few months for the most part.  He was crated when we were both gone and he did well.  We made the mistake of leaving windows open and he became obsessed with barking at squirrels.  We couldnt get him into obedience because it was right at the beginning of COVID.  We covered windows and for the most part taught him to relax in the house.  We dont have a lot of people over but he is doing pretty well with them after initial excitement.  My husband is back full time now out of house and Strider can be out in house in limited area with limited window access.  We walk him at least two hours a day and had a fairly small area fenced because it is what we could afford.  I try to "romp" him and he does well with basic obedience.  I feed him out of kongs mostly and some puzzle toys.  I also hand feed part of his dinner while we do basic tricks.  He can weave tgrough my legs, shake and bow.  He is horrible about deer and bunnies.  He has pulled me on my face a few times.  We had to go to a prong collar because nothing else was working.  It has helped some.  He is a good dog butI constantly feel I am not doing enough for him.  I read about the breed and how tgey need their brain worked and I try but I admit, mostly I just want to walk my dog.  And we walk him ALOT.  I dont know how to tell if he is bored or just naturally a bit alert.  I am attached to this dog but I also feel like he is going to give me an ulcer.  suggestions are appreciated

  9. Melanie

    to add to that, we have nowhere to let him run off leash because we arent sure he wont take off.  we are nowhere near dog parks or any classes we can go to easily.  we try bike jouring hut again, he does great unless there are deer and then it gets dicey.

  10. Le Wang

    What does thin nerves look like?  How is it different to high drive?

    Can you test for thin nerves in a puppy?

    • dantero

      It's hard to explain the difference between nerves and drives in writing.  One way to describe nerves is sensory threshold or reactivity.  IE the amount of stimulus that is necessary to get a response from a dog.  The thinner the nerve, the faster the dog is to respond to stimulus.  Up to a point, this is not a bad thing.  Especially when it's combined with confidence/courage.  The level of reactivity is part of what makes a Malinois a Malinois, and not a GSD, Rott, etc. which are generally thicker nerved than a Malinois.  IE less reactive to stimulus.   But when the dog is so easily stimulated that it just can't turn it's brain off and settle because every little noise, shadow, flicker of movement, etc has it wound up again, that is an issue. 

      Drives are how motivated a dog is for a behaviour.  If a dog is highly motivated to chase a ball, you would say the dog is high in prey or toy drive. If it just stares at a ball you have thrown, without even thinking of chasing it, you would say the dog is low in prey or toy drive.  A thin nerved but low prey drive dog would notice the moment you pulled that ball out to throw, but wouldn't bother to chase the ball.  A good example of a thinner nerved but high drive dog might be a dog that comes out screaming at the end of the line, is hectic when playing with the toy or on the bite, etc.  Because they are so over stimulated, even by just a small amount of prey movement, and the training director is always commenting on ways to calm the dog down. 

      You can see nerves in a litter just by watching them.  Which pups notice a change in the environment first, whether it's audio or visual.  For example if all the pups are just hanging out chilling, and you start tossing small rocks a distance away, which one(s) notice quickest.  When something has caught a pups attention, but the simulus has stopped, how quickly does it relax again?   Just keep in mind there is a reason people say "puppies are a crap shoot" and part of that is how quickly and how much they can change.  So what you see at 6, 7, and 8 weeks may not be what you see at 6, 7, and 8 months.  Or even at noon on Friday vs 4PM on Friday when they are young 🙂

      At the end of the day how thick or thin of nerves a handler wants is really a personal choice.  It's one reason there are so many different breeds of dogs, even within categories with the same basic original tasks. 


  11. Le Wang

    Nate Shoemer has a shaping box in this timestamped video.  Is your place board design basically this with a hole drilled in the dead center, and the dog is placed on top or inside it?  I think since you're saying movement should be limited, maybe inside is better.  Is the sizing what you have in mind?

    It seems this is quite similar to a crate, I'm assuming the key difference is the sizing part to restrict movement, so I want to double check.

    Thanks again for your efforts to put all this info together!

    • dantero

      I can't see the video, but it doesn't sound like the same thing since you mentioned a box.  This is just a flat board, the idea being to emulate a piece of carpet, a dog bed, etc.  IE something the dog can just get up and wander away from if they wanted to.  Except the tie down part keeps them from doing so.  I could see a box, as long as the sides were short, working.  I've also seen people use one of those raised dog beds, and a hook in the wall to tie the dog to.  A crate may work for some dogs, but for many the moment the door is opened it's "party time", which is not the response you want. 

  12. Scott

    Ny roommate had one that just wouldn't calm down. The dog was just always moving, and still is around him even to this day. I decided to do an experiment and a few times a week take her to a quiet area and just lay down on the floor. At first she didn't really want any part of it, but after a week or two started to get snuggly. Before long she was one of the best snuggling dogs ever, she put just as much heart into that as anything she does. 

    I don't live with her anymore, but still dog-sit, and she still loves to lay on the couch and watch TV. Heck, she is the reason I am looking at malinois breeders right now. 

    Your dog takes way more cues from you than most people realize. Shaping a dog into what you want is so much more than just making them follow orders, and it seems like this holds true even more with the best working breeds. 

  13. Dwayne Conyers

    I grew up with an adopted German Shepherd and madly loved that dog.  When I completed undergrad, I agreed to a tour of duty in the military.  Surprisingly,  Mom declared "YOU'RE NOT TAKING THAT DOG."  Arguing the fact that I raised him only made Mom angry. Sadly, Mom couldn't control him and let him run loose.  I got the news from home that my best friend was killed. 

  14. Lauren Verity Giles

    This blog is a godsend. Pup I have just will not stop. Only time I can get her to sleep is if I crate her and cover otherwise shes wondering around like maniac biting everyone in house 24.7. I train 3 times a day, 2 walks 30 -45 min (with fetch) only 4 months old but I get home and she good to go more. Don't want her to spend her days in crate so will give the teather a go otherwise I think I will have to get rid of her.

  15. Lauren Giles

    Your an actual miracle, one day on teather, completely different dog. No biting, relaxed, actually going back to her teather spot to sleep unteathered. Before I had to crate her to sleep otherwise she would walk around aimlessly biting people, things being a maniac. Sge was going to be rehomed so Thank you for your informative post, made a huge difference here in UK!

  16. Kade

    Amazing article! Ive been trying to explain this to many other malinois and other dog breed owners. They often wonder why my Mal is so well behaved and calm and they dont realize that they are teaching there dogs too act the way they do.

  17. Matilda Bastian

    Is this a training method you should use on an adult dog or what age can you start this?

    • dantero

      I would start this at any age.  Just make your expectations age approriate, IE you don’t want to exercise an 8 week old puppy the same way you would a 2 year old.  A puppy also won’t have the attention span a 2 year old can.  But even with my pups when they come inside I expect a certain amount of calmness, even if its just encouraged by giving them something to chew on as they lay next to my office chair or couch.  I also don’t expect a puppy to handle me getting up and moving around the house a lot, while they are working on settling. 

  18. E

    Totally agree with practicing calm.  I highly recommend the book, Positive Training for Aggressive and Reactive Dogs by Annie Phenix for more exercises and tips.

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