Will "Max" Hurt Mals? And 7 Things To Know Before Adopting a Retired Working Dog

Have you always admired the fierce determination and pure devotion of a serious working dog? Whether it’s the indefatigable loyalty of a “seeing eye” dog, the sloppy-eared devotion of a search and rescue hound, or the intensity of a Belgian malinois on the beat, working dogs in action are a glory to behold.

I’m clearly not the only devotee. Otherwise, why would the movie Max exist? 

Subtitled, “Best friend. Hero. Marine,” Max is a sweet flick about a Belgian malinois who suffers PTSD after his handler is killed in action. Here's the trailer:

Presumably geared to dog-loving children and their patriotic parents, this ode to military working dogs offers mals what Lassie did for collies and Rin Tin Tin for shepherds. Unfortunately, it could also do what Hollywood Chihuahuas and 101 Dalmations did to their respective breeds (i.e., produce tons of purebred puppies with not a care for their health or welfare). 

Though this movie attempts to depict the hardships inherent to adopting a difficult dog with specialized training, it can’t help but glorify its main character's breed. Our culture finds purebreds way too irresistible for Max the movie to deny that it trades on this detail at the risk of giving the breed a boost dogs might not benefit from. 

On the flip side, there are plenty of awesome retired mals who could be considered as candidates for adoption. After all, what happens when these dogs’ vision starts to fail, their joints feel the strain of long wear, and their formerly acute senses are blunted by the inexorability of advancing age? If they’re lucky to live long and productive working lives, it’s almost inevitable they’ll be needing somewhere soft to land when their glory days are past. 

But alas, not all working dogs are fortunate enough to find forever homes with their former handlers. This is often the case of military working dogs whose handlers remain deployed, but also happens often when protection trained dogs are retired. After all, not all homes are well suited to retirees whose aggressive tendencies have been honed for active duty. For example, they’re generally considered a poor fit for households with young children.

Which again, raises the specter of misplaced Belgian malinois dogs á la Max

Thankfully, working dogs aren't typically trained in bite work. Most are more likely to be aged-out working dogs from other categories, such as racing greyhounds, personal assistance dogs (whose households can’t support more than one working dog at a time), and nose-work dogs of all description (among others). 

Enter you, a willing participant and, ideally, no mere beginner in the game of turning your home into a destination for dogs who require one. It only makes sense that you, a serious dog person and working animal admirer might want to reward a hard driving dog with a quiet, orderly place to call home. 

I did. When asked last year whether I might enjoy the privilege of taking in a retired prisoner transport dog, I considered it only briefly before caving. But in Tika’s case it was easy. In her three-year stint as a semi-retired breeding dog this Dutch-trained Belgian malinois had been a patient of mine. What’s more, I’d recently adopted one of her pups (the only one born with a neurological condition that rendered her unworkable). 

As a working dog watcher I was smitten. As Violet’s mother … I couldn’t resist. Here's Tika in action for some context:

But it hasn’t been easy. I should’ve known the very first day that things might occasionally head southwards. All those commands! And in Dutch! Thank God there’s a website with all the correct pronunciations or else who knows what might’ve happened. (You definitely don’t want to confuse your los with your luids.) 

It’s true that the protection training thing has been foremost among the issues we’ve confronted. There’s a big scary learning curve to be breasted when it comes to managing a dog trained to stop anyone they consider a target. But there are plenty other issues to worth through as well –– one anyone who considers offering a working dog a home should acknowledge before embarking on this adventure of a lifetime.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert (I’ve never been a professional handler) and I certainly can’t say this list is anything but a snapshot of the issues any future adopter should consider, but it’s a start nonetheless. Consider these items carefully. Do you have the right stuff?

#1 Safety first!

Lots of working dogs are protection trained. Though it may be unpopular to say so, any dog whose aggressive drive has been tapped for his work should always be treated like a potential weapon. Recognize that families with young children and those with lots of visitors are usually ill-suited for this kind of retiree. 

Note: A soft leather basket-style muzzle has been our constant companion since we adopted Tika. She may not love it but she has learned to tolerate it. Sure, it earns us lots of strange looks when we take her to Starbucks but it’s worth it to know we’ll always be safe. 

#2 Beware the learning curve.

Unless you’ve been a handler, you’re probably looking up the slope of a steep one when it comes to knowing where the average working dog is coming from. Here’s one case where the dog usually knows way more than you do. She has, after all, been extensively trained to perform certain functions you may have no earthly idea about. I, for example, have no clue what it takes to hamstring a fleeing prisoner with my face. (And for that I am truly grateful.)

#3 Cluelessness can go both ways.

When we first took in Tika we were surprised to realize that she’d never seen a king-sized bed, played with a plush toy, lounged on a sofa, or hung out in a kitchen. She was effectively uncivilized! The first week home this highly trained nine year-old dog leapt atop kitchen counters (all four!), begged mercilessly for food, peed on the floor (until we effectively house trained her) and actively sought out leather shoes and boots to destroy. 

Thus we learned, firsthand, how many dogs who live in kennels their whole lives must be re-trained. Which makes complete sense. We just didn’t know to expect it. 

#4 Create a safe spot.

Every pet needs a safe spot. Ideally, that spot should resemble the one they had whence they came. Working dogs who’ve been housed in crates or runs should have access to similar enclosures for maximum comfort. It may be too much to expect that they’ll instantly feel cozy in large, open spaces. And some, like Max, really do come with PTSD-like issues that require “safety zone” behavior modification.

#5 Once a professional …

Sure, we know they’re retired but in their heads many of them will never understand the difference between working and retirement. We have to respect this fact and understand that sometimes their training will take over when we least expect it. Which won’t be too much of a problem in most cases, but it’s important to be on the lookout for a reversion to chasing, hunting, herding, etc. if it’s likely to get them into trouble. 

#6 Consider retraining.

We talked to a couple of behavior professionals about this and in the end we decided to transition our Tika to a different, more relaxed kind of training. Though we considered keeping up her fancy bite work drills (to forestall any boredom), we realized it was interfering with her transition to domestic life. Part of retirement, we realized, was redirecting her thinking to a less intense mode. Far from being boring, it’s been a great challenge for all of us!

#7 Beware the hidden costs!

Many working dogs retire with serious work-related ailments and injuries. Our Tika, for example, retired with four fractured canine teeth after all that biting. Root canals and extractions have not been inexpensive! Then there’s that chronic shoulder injury …

Nope, canine retirees aren’t for everyone. But it all depends on their line of work and your household. Keep this in mind before you drink the delicious Kool-Aid offered by our culture’s popular entertainment. But don’t let that keep you from seeing the movie. Fair warning: Though the dog does not die (I checked on doesthedogdie.com to be sure), Max is likely to be a tearjerker.