Trembling with excitement, Rudy perked up his ears, twitched his nose and seemed ready to leap from his skin.
“Spring!” shouted the police officer.
The dog shot like a cannonball across the dirt lot, dove through the window of a pickup truck and yanked wildly at the arm of an officer portraying a suspect.
Rodney Spicer looked on, smiling like a proud parent.
“I’ve bred German shepherds for 15 years, but once you go Malinois you never go back,” said Spicer, who buys and trains the breed of dogs on behalf of the Oxnard Police Department.
Oxnard is the only department in Ventura County to replace its canine unit’s German shepherds with Belgian Malinois (pronounced Malin-Waw). But 75% of dogs used by the Los Angeles Police Department and the U.S. military are Malinois, as are 10 of the 12 dogs used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“Why drive a Cadillac when you can drive a Porsche?” observed one Oxnard officer.
The Cadillac here is the German shepherd--big, lumbering and powerful. The Porsche is the Belgian Malinois, a sporty European import that is light, tireless and so intense the dogs seem to vibrate.
Smaller and less dour looking than a German shepherd, the Malinois cuts a dashing figure with a squarish body, sharply defined jawbone, pointy snout and straight back.
J.R. Perez, a canine officer with the Oxnard police, said the two breeds simply don’t compare. The Malinois is faster, more athletic and agile than the shepherd, he said.
“The dog is a workaholic. He’d work until he passed out if I let him,” said Perez as his antsy Malinois Rudy stood beside him. “I could toss a ball to him and he’d retrieve it all day.”
Last month, Rudy tracked a pair of burglars through Hueneme High School, eventually finding them behind two locked doors.
When the Malinois training in Oxnard weren’t chasing or searching, they looked like bored guests at a cocktail party.
“Most law enforcement agencies throughout the world are moving toward the Malinois. Even the Germans no longer use the German shepherd,” said Sgt. Bob Guilbault, a canine officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “The Malinois is like the Energizer bunny--it keeps going and going and going.”
German shepherds may have the sentimental appeal of Rin Tin Tin, but many canine handlers say breeders have forgotten the shepherds’ working dog roots and have transformed them into show dogs. Their backs sag, their hips give out and they lack the tenacity of a Malinois, say handlers.
“German shepherds are like the national anthem,” Spicer said. “But there is so much inbreeding in German shepherds. Breeders breed for pedigree not for the dog. The Malinois is a mixed breed, it has no health problems. The priority in the Malinois breed is working ability. They are self-motivating dogs.”
The Oxnard Police Department started with one Malinois before switching over in 1987.
“We were one of the first agencies in the state to have a Malinois,” said Sgt. Bill Lewis, who heads Oxnard’s five-dog canine unit. “The drive of the dog was what we liked. It didn’t have hip displacement problems like a German shepherd. I’ve seen German shepherds as good as Malinois, but the Malinois are consistently good.”
The dogs were originally bred as sheep dogs in Antwerp, Belgium, in the late 1800s. Today, they are still nearly all trained in Holland and Belgium and respond to commands in Dutch and Flemish or a combination of both.
Commands include: platz to heel; halt to sit; auf to lie down; zuch to find evidence and spring to jump.
Spicer travels to Europe once each year to buy Malinois, which he then sells to police departments for $6,500 each. He said Europeans breed the choicest police dogs because canine sports are a major part of their culture.
“Dog sports are like Little League baseball over there,” he said.
The U.S. Air Force buys and trains dogs for use in all the branches of the military. They began bringing Malinois to the U.S. in 1984.
“We started with German shepherds, but a lot of them have trouble with their hind legs and we need animals that can stand long periods on their hind legs,” said Ed Castillo, a spokesman at Lackland Air Force base in Texas, where the dogs are trained to search for bombs and assist with base security. “We checked for adaptability to handlers, different climates, different locations and this breed adapted better to changes.”
Sgt. Steve Groover, a canine officer with the LAPD’s Metro Division, said a good, working German shepherd costs about $10,000 while a Belgian Malinois starts at $5,000.
“We were skeptical when we first tried the Malinois eight years ago,” he said. “They have really strong drives. I have a Belgian Malinois and a German shepherd at home. The shepherd will lay in your lap like an older child and the Malinois will jump in your lap and want to play like a young child.”
But the breed’s frenetic disposition, along with, perhaps, police officers’ sentimental attachment to German shepherds, has made other police departments in Ventura County reluctant to change.
“We use shepherds and don’t plan on switching,” said Sgt. Rick Alaniz, canine supervisor for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. “The Malinois are good dogs, but they require a lot of extra attention.”
Fans of the German shepherd say the shepherds are reliable, smart and tough, but gentle enough to mingle with kids.
Lt. Quinn Fenwick, a former canine officer for the Ventura Police Department, said he has seen an increase in the use of the Malinois.
“I’ll take a shepherd over a Malinois any day,” he said. “You can search for a suspect and then the next second you can do a classroom demonstration. I like the even temperament of the shepherd.”
But Spicer is convinced the future belongs to the Malinois.
“Once you find a dog that exceeds your expectations, you stick with it,” Spicer said as he watched several Malinois race around a police training course. “I like German shepherds, but I need something to work with.”