Alaskan malamutes are an ancient breed, with many of their innate arctic survival traits still intact. Understanding what malamutes had to do to survive before they became a recognized breed in the 1930’s and started living on couches in far more temperate regions will help you understand the behaviors that are often labeled undesirable and can even get a dog branded as a “bad” dog. Many of these “undesirable” behaviors are actually normal expressions of malamute behavior displaced from the arctic. It is important to know about these normal traits in advance of getting a malamute, and to have a plan on how you will address them in a way that is consistent and fair to your household and your dog.
Malamutes were originally dogs of indigenous peoples in the far north, living in small family groups with their people and a few other dogs. They pulled loads by sled and pack. Food was a precious and scarce commodity. They dug down into snow drifts to escape wind and cold. When in harness traveling over endless snow that hides what lies beneath, the dogs knew if there was unstable ground or not and made decisions accordingly – despite what their handler may say. This “intelligent disobedience” kept them alive, as well as their people. In current times, these traits still exist but manifest differently. Malamutes tend to be dog-selective, welcoming only known dog friends into their lives, and other dogs are considered intruders. Malamutes may guard their resources -usually food, but also toys, people, or even sleeping spots – from any that may seek to take it. They often dig in the garden when there isn’t snow.
The most common “bad” traits are listed below along with some general suggestions on how to manage them. Your dog’s personality and drives, along with your training consistency and clarity, will determine if these suggestions are appropriate for you.
Resource guarding means your dog wants to keep a thing, and believes another creature is going to take it away. With malamutes, resources are usually food or toys, but can also be attention from their favorite person or even a favorite sleeping spot.
Resource guarding is a NATURAL behavior, and a dog that growls at you is telling you they really want what they have and do not come any closer. Malamutes, with their development in a food-scarce environment, will guard their stuff unless we teach them other options.
How to manage it
It is far easier to address resource guarding from people than resource guarding among dogs. For both, you want to first establish a zone of safety for your dog so they do not feel the need to guard a resource.
With people, avoid putting your hands in the dog’s food bowl or taking food and toys away. Some people believe that they should be able to take anything away from their dog just because the human is “the boss”. Well… that’s not being a boss, it is being a bully. Besides, malamutes do not care if you are the boss or not. They care about what is in it for them, and if you just snatch their delicious bone or favorite chew toy they will have opinions about it! What sort of partner does that, anyway? Taking their stuff reinforces that they need to protect it from you. Instead, “trade up”, which is a game where you offer the dog something else in exchange.
Teaching “drop it” is another great skill to help manage resource guarding, so that if your dog has something toxic you can get them to drop it and move along. In general, never forcibly remove something from your dog unless it is a dire threat to their health, like poison. For dogs with intense resource guarding
Dog-to-dog guarding: Management, management, management. Keep resources put away when you aren’t supervising the dogs. Feed them in separate rooms or crates, so they cannot steal from one another. If you have a multi-dog household, seek professional help on addressing resource guarding before it escalates into a dog fight! There are a lot of nuances to dog-to-dog resource guarding.
As puppies, malamutes can be very dog social, regardless of the sex of their playmates. Dog day care, dog parks, all those things media have convinced people are necessary to a dog’s happiness and fulfillment go pretty well at first!
And then they become teenagers. Around 18 months of age, malamutes start maturing into their adult personalities and become far more dog selective. Reactivity can show up around this same time, especially if they have been exposed to other dogs with awkward body language or rude behavior.
It is my belief that malamutes regard strange dogs as a threat because back in the day, when they were on small teams of known dogs, a strange dog WAS a threat. A threat to food, to the safety of the team harnessed together, and the other scarce resources necessary for survival. Malamutes were never selected to be part of a group of strange dogs like many sporting breeds (retrievers, beagles, etc).
Modern malamutes have been selected to be more tolerant, but they are still selective about who they want to interact with.
How to manage it
Ensure your malamute’s interactions with other dogs, even during the dog social puppy period, are fair and monitored. Protect your puppy from rude dogs, overbearing dogs, and reactive dogs. Dog parks and day care sound great, but a lot of overstimulated dogs are there with owners that aren’t usually savvy to what is going on in canine language. Focus on teaching neutrality when observing other dogs rather than an excited greeting and play. A malamute that knows they can safely leave a dog interaction they do not want is one that will not need to be reactive.
Inter-dog and Same Sex Aggression
Dogs living in the same household can have disagreements. Sometimes those disagreements get really gnarly, and those disagreements are more likely when you have two dogs of the same sex, and even moreso if they are similar ages. A study in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association found that 79% of inter-dog household aggression involved same-sex pairs, and of those 68% were females. Usually aggression is instigated by the dog newest to the household.
Same sex dog aggression is a trait that occurs in a number of breeds, but it is common enough in malamutes to list here.
How to manage it
This is far too complex of a topic for a little paragraph. As with any working breed, ensuring that each dog has its own safe space to eat, sleep, and retreat to goes a long way to preventing arguments that turn into long term dislike. I personally separate my dogs when they are left alone, just to be sure no disagreements happen when I’m not around to make sure they listen to each other – it’s a lot like small children, but with teeth.
If you plan to have more than one dog, be prepared to work with a qualified professional dog trainer. I recommend a positive reinforcement trainer, as using aversives on aggression usually makes it worse.
Small furries – especially ones that run – ignite parts of the brain that are primal! The predatory sequence has not been diluted or distilled or altered in malamutes like it has in herding and sporting breeds. It is still fully intact, and even with exposure as puppies, engage-disengage games, and years of getting along with the family cat just fine. The full sequence consists of the following actions:
- Search (orient, nose/ear/eye);
- Bite (grab-bite, kill-bite);
Nestled in with prey drive is a lack of generalizing – say you do train your malamute to avoid or ignore the house cat. Well, all that training applies to THAT cat, and probably not the neighbor’s cat that has come over to your yard.
How to manage it
Lots of neutral socializing and desensitization to animals that will be in your household and neighborhood, including engage-disengage will help your dog with the impulse to search and stalk those particular animals. If a small animal runs away from your malamute, however, they may still give chase!
In addition, provide ample opportunities for your dog to engage in the predatory sequence with acceptable items. Scent games and nosework fulfill searching and stalking. Flirt poles, FAST cat, and malamute-fetch (you throw something, they chase it, then you go pick it up) help them express the need to chase. Toys and cardboard boxes stuffed with treats let them dissect and consume.
While mass destruction of household items isn’t a wholly malamute trait – many other breeds do this too – it is pretty common in malamutes. Anything from pillows and furniture to actual walls and doors, there is a malamute guilty of tearing into pieces.
Destruction is part of the prey sequence – dissecting dinner. Since dinner is often in a bowl, our malamutes don’t have to dissect much of anything, and this need goes unfulfilled.
Destruction can also be a symptom of separation anxiety, so be sure your dog isn’t suffering from that if you find lots of damage when you get back home.
How to manage it
Management and acceptable outlets!
When you have a puppy or a “new to you” older dog, use exercise pens, crates, and tethers to prevent your malamute from practicing unauthorized demolition. Then, give them appropriate things to tear apart. Dog toys with squeakers, chew toys, even cardboard boxes with treats inside can all provide safe alternatives to the throw pillow.
This is what malamutes have been bred to do for decades! They are inherently going to pull against weight – even if that weight is a human holding the other end of a collar. Teaching loose leash walking can be more challenging with malamutes simply because you are fighting with their breed genetics.
That doesn’t mean they cannot learn when you want them to pull and when you do not – but it does mean that it will take more effort on your part to give them clear, consistent criteria.
How to manage it
There are so many variations on how to address pulling, entire dog training courses are dedicated to it. So long as you are consistent and clear in the criteria you’ll get there eventually!
In general, to fully address pulling, you’ll need management for outside of training sessions, a loose leash walking training plan, and a separate activity that allows your malamute to pull – that is what they were bred to do!
A word about tools: “No pull” harnesses and other devices that claim to end pulling can be helpful training aids, but should not be your permanent solution. No pull harnesses prevent pulling by restricting movement, usually in the shoulder. Long term use can damage your dog’s body!
Ah, digging! It can look very cute when your puppy has a dirty nose and a happy face… until you find the hole in the prized garden, a decimated lawn, and dirty paw prints all through the house.
While mud and dirt tend to fall off a correct malamute coat, so just letting them dry and brushing them out can clean the dog off, that doesn’t clean your floors or repair the garden!
There are a few reasons for digging: to cool down, to dig out a critter, and the sheer joy of it. Knowing the reason your dog is digging will help you manage it.
How to manage it
Give your malamute an “approved” place to dig, and make it awesome to dig there. Bury toys and treats in the pit, frequently when training, then randomly. Ensure the dig pit is shaded and in a location where the substrate is cooler than the yards. While teaching your dog to use the dig pit, do not allow them to be outside unsupervised – you want to prevent them from digging in the unapproved places!
If your dog is digging to catch small furries like voles… well. I dunno what to tell you on that one, Renka is an accomplished vole catcher and Shoku specializes in moles. I just go fix the holes and salvage the plants as I can!
Intelligent disobedience is a concept used frequently in the service dog world. The dog uses their own judgement to not respond to a cue. For a service dog, this would be the dog of a blind handler refusing the cue to cross a street if there is oncoming traffic. Service dogs have to be taught this skill.
Malamutes have it built in.
Except the situations where it was useful – refusing to take an unsafe trail in the snow – are pretty uncommon for most malamutes these days. That innate reliance on their own judgement is a major difference between malamutes and a golden retriever or border collie.
How to manage it
Clarity, consistency, and mutual respect. If your malamute understands what you are asking, knows you are reliable and that you make good decisions that benefit them, they are far more likely to use YOUR judgement over their own. Train behavior patterns for specific situations where your malamute may make an undesirable choice so that the choice YOU want them to make is already a practiced skill. Control Unleashed is a program that contains many “pattern games” that help you do this. CU was originally designed for dogs competing in agility, but the pattern games help many dogs deal with the crazy situations we put them.
Malamutes have a bad rep for being “stubborn” and “hard to train”. This really isn’t true – we just have to find what motivates them. And once you have a relationship based on communication and cooperation, they will do a lot just for you.
How to manage it
Find what your dog LOVES – and use it! Figure out an assortment of things your dog enjoys. Food usually works well with malamutes (kibble, treats, cheese, etc), and other activities can be rewarding as well. Chasing after a toy, going for a walk, sniffing.
If your malamute refuses to do something you ask for, consider why. Is the reinforcement not valuable enough for the situation? Kibble may be great in the house, but outside with all those competing interests your request for a “sit” may fall on deaf ears. Is your dog not feeling well? Malamutes are quite stoic, and refusing to perform a task could be due to pain. Is the dog overwhelmed? If the setting has too many “triggers”, or things that your dog finds worrisome, they may not respond to your cues.
So. Much. Fur
Malamutes “blow” their coat twice a year. During these events vast quantities of fluffy undercoat appear everywhere. Every. Where. Some dogs blow their coat quickly, especially if they spend a few hours outside every day, while others can take a month to ditch all that fluff.
Outside of shedding season, you’ll still find fur around, but not as much as other breeds like Labradors.
How to manage it
A high -capacity dryer (no heat or low heat) can help loosen and remove this fluff, but even with daily brushing and blow outs there WILL be tumbleweeds of fur collecting in the corners and under furniture. My Shark robot vacuum can mostly handle one malamute blowing their coat, but when more than one go at the same time? Alas, the broom and heavy duty vacuum must come out.
During this time, line-combing out the coat once a week will remove dirt and get air down to the skin. You could do a marathon grooming session, or just do a section a day, whatever works for you and your dog.