Is an Alaskan Malamute Dog Right for You?
Alaskan Malamute: Is This The Right Dog For You?
What word pops on the Internet when you type in Alaskan Malamute or malamute?
Rescue - that means that there are a whole lot of folks out there who do not know what they are getting into and turn these dogs over to someone else.
As a lover of malamutes - PLEASE take your time and think it through. Dogs, like people are not disposable and that is what happens more times than I would like to think on. Malamutes are one of the most misunderstood breeds out there. If folks just knew what to do with them - priceless to coin MasterCard's catch phrase.
First And Foremost How Energetic Are You?
As a "veteran" owner of several malamutes spanning 10+ years, I can honestly say that this is the first question I have for folks who are considering getting a malamute. They are king of the working dogs and as such, have an inbred drive to DO something and need that as much as they need sustenance. They need to feel productive, and as an owner of a dog of this breed, you have to be aware of this going in or quickly come to realize it. Otherwise, your experience with dogs of this breed might prove frustrating to say the least!
We're A Lot Of Work But We Are Worth It If You Can Take It!
These dogs are one of the friendliest breeds I have come across in my many decades of dog worship and although they are not loyal to one particular person per se, they are great family dogs. They are wonderfully social and engaging dogs. There are many, many misconceptions about the Arctic breeds and malamutes do sometimes get a terrible reputation for doing poorly in families or in certain situations; I have found this to be completely the opposite. Ours are happiest when anyone is paying attention to them.
Another misconception is that the Alaskan malamute is part of the wolf family. Alaskan malamutes were first introduced into the AKC in 1935 and are one of the "natural breeds" meaning that they were not created as a breed such as a labrador or a doberman for instance. They are highly intelligent and social dogs but need above all understanding of their underlying nature and many positive traits. I have found in my dealings with the malamutes, they constantly surprise me in their abilities and they mesmerize me with their knack at being part of a unit. Their "work ethic" is unbelievable.
They require a tremendous amount of work and let's not forget patience! A malamute by nature will try to be a dominant persona and if allowed that privilege, the owner will of necessity no longer be the alpha, which is the opposite of what needs to happen. A malamute needs a strong alpha to depend on and that alpha must be human. They will test the limits otherwise constantly and once control is lost, it is a difficult thing to get back.
The next question for someone contemplating adding a malamute to their household would be how much can you think outside the box? How willing are you to realize that a malamute needs constant stimulation and feedback from its owner and/or its "pack" which is the family unit whatever that is comprised of? A malamute is not a dog who will be content to sit outside unattended for days at a time, although they truly are very independent and self-reliant in many ways. However, social interaction is something that they crave and without it, they look for ways to replace that which may be repugnant to an owner.
At the very minimum, a malamute must have a large yard and a fenced yard at that. The fence should be quite high just in case they might be tempted to leap it in a single bound. They need space to run and exercise themselves as they are by nature extremely active dogs. They are of the working class of dogs and thus need to have a "work product" on some level each and every day to feel complete. Having a companion dog of the same nature has helped ours tremendously because whereas our yard is not huge by any means, there are many decks and sets of stairs that they can run about on and chase each other over time and time again. They are obviously not kept confined. They can also spend hours wrestling with each other as well, which is a great way for them to get in their need for exercising.
However, most malamutes will still need extraneous help in fulfilling their work needs plus they need the human socialization. Walking is a great form and the most basic of all available to any of us. Daily walking or running can be extremely beneficial to the malamute for burning off excess energy. Taking them to dog parks can also be beneficial though with this I would stress here the caveat that the malamute should have demonstrated the ability to get along with other dogs before turning them loose in a dog park! They are a pack breed and sometimes they can be a bit of a challenge when socializing with other dogs if they have not been previously tested in their ability to play rather than assuming the role of alpha in a situation.
There are other forms of working a malamute and will address those in another hub that are both great for the malamute and good for the owner. Again, it all depends on how much you want to do with your dog and if you have chosen a malamute, it almost becomes a necessity to have some form of exercising interaction that works for you both.
Living with Alaskan Malamutes
Living with malamutes can be the most rewarding experience in the world and conversely, it can be one of the most frustrating ones you will ever encounter if you do not understand the breed. Knowing the breed is the fundamental basis for a positive and enriching experience for both dog and owner. Knowing the breed's limitations and also its strengths is key to a mutually harmonious coexistence. I am of the mind that it is one of the greatest experiences I have ever been privileged to have but only because I think that I understand my malamutes and what they need to be healthy and happy.
Malamutes are notoriously stubborn. This is a fact I see on a daily basis and whereas labradors I trained were always eager to please and usually obedient to a fault, malamutes have a definite mindset of their own. It is not that they wish to be disobedient; it is simply that they will always look for the chink in the armor and try to push their way through something. However, having a human alpha will prevent this from happening. Being consistent and forthright in dealings with a malamute is paramount to a good relationship. Sometimes, they just seem to be bored with the routine of doing something time and time again.
With my labs, I could teach commands and have them performing like circus dogs in minutes, but the malamute has a different approach. They learn basic commands readily enough but after a few repetitions of these commands, they are quite frankly done with it. If they have demonstrated a sit more than 2 or 3 times in a training session, they become "creative" in their own way by doing every command BUT the sit. Even Griffin at 4 months old, when asked to do a sit command perhaps the third time in one encapsulated session will run through the entire barrage of commands he has been taught and give me surprisingly every last one BUT somehow omit the one I actually requested, thus proving to me that he does know the command! How clever that he only chose that one to miss!
They seem to be of a mind that they are always thinking and asking their owners questions. In this case, it is something along the line of perhaps "Didn't I just show you I knew that trick? Then why are we going over it again?" Of course as the alpha, you have to make sure that the malamute does do a given command but I have found that getting around it in a different way is just as effective, i.e. letting that command drop for the moment and then getting the correct response to any other command, ending the session and/or taking a quick break and returning to it solves the problem. It also lets me still be the alpha. It is always best to end a training session with a command performed than giving up and walking away with a command not answered. No one has to be a failure and it is all about the end result.
I have learned with malamutes that the best training sessions involve 5-10 minute command-intensive sessions and very frequently throughout a day. One must also apply the principles of basic dog training and teach them to not be solely food-motivated. I spend a lot of other time working on broader aspects of development such as food issues, crate training, etc. While a malamute is very intelligent and can and will perform all "routine" commands, their main focus seems to be in interacting and social situations. Teaching the dog to be comfortable in their crate or learning to eat in the crate when presented with a meal is as important as teaching a dog to sit and stay in their case. Also teaching them to NOT react when food is dropped for instance can be an invaluable part of the dog's training as it can be applied later to many, many things such as leaving a bird alone that is hurt or racing after a cat it just saw! Or teaching them not to bolt in a prison break when the door is opened - invaluable! (We use specific commands of "leave it" or "wait" for these situations but we work them in many different and various scenarios so that they are prepared for them when they are needed.)
I believe wholeheartedly that malamutes are meant to be part of a family unit. By that, I mean that they thrive on the interaction of all parts of that family unit and seem to do best when involved in the day-to-day workings of the family. They are basically outdoor dogs but they are also very comfortable being part of a household and being allowed the freedom to exist with the family in different situations, especially indoors. Ours come and go but only as we allow them to do so. Some people use doggie doors and that is another alternative. Ours are invited in at varying times throughout the day and evening and interact with us as much as possible, in every room and every situation, whether we have guests are just alone by ourselves. They are taught appropriate behaviors while in the house and discouraged from the inappropriate, much like children. However, without exposure to the family unit and the interactions of a household, it would be less likely that they would be well-behaved in those situations; hence, we prefer to make sure that they are well-versed in indoor as well as outdoor behavior.
Our dogs are allowed as well at our invitation to join us on the bed for cuddling and play. We do not encourage our dogs to be on furniture unless they are specifically invited. We also expect that when the playtime is over, they need to be respectful and abide by our rules. Likewise, they are allowed toys since Griffin is a puppy and needs the outlet for chewing constantly; rather than having that occur on furniture or treasures, we provide him with a variety of age-appropriate outlets for his teething. However, we have another malamute who is a rescued and abused dog and since she has food issues, we are ever vigilant about having opportunities for her to feel a need for aggression over food; hence we avoid any chew toys or items that might be misunderstood in her situation as food sources such as pig ears, etc. We also never give our dogs constant access to food as that eliminates many problems right there in who needs to be dominant. Feeding times are set by us - the alphas - and when feeding is done, the food disappears.
Some malamutes like sleeping outdoors and some prefer sleeping in crates. Some of course would prefer to be part of your bed and will quickly insinuate themselves into your nightly bedtime routine if allowed to do that! It is all about what each individual family wants to do. We have always brought our dogs in at night as we have found that it makes for sounder sleep - for them and for us knowing that they are safe and away from anything that could happen when we are not with them. They sleep in crates simply because they seem to have always done better with that situation and likewise, it is a carryover that works for other situations such as traveling or having to kennel the dogs, needing someone else to watch them at our home, etc. Since malamutes are a "pack" mentality, it also seems to serve them well in that it gives them some sense of protection and aloneness for their quiet times. However, whereas one dog will sleep in an open doored crate, another may prefer to have a "closed door policy" for their own well being. Griffin as a puppy is currently on the "I'm thinking about it" program and goes in and comes out at will but he is still confined in a certain area for sleep as a training method and has access to his crate, which he is learning is a "good place".
We also travel with our dogs quite frequently and take them routinely just around town. We take them to different places and let them experience many different facets of life such as walking in the parks, where they will be forced to deal with other dogs or other animals such as squirrels. We also take them to outside cafes, coffee shops or restaurants and work with them that way to expose them to noise, traffic, many people coming and going, what they are expected to do in that situation and not do, and of course the attention that they invariably get! It is a win-win situation as socializing them often and extensively can only lead to them being more well-adjusted and content with their place in your life rather than being always left to fend for themselves in terms of entertainment or making them uncomfortable in new situations. Malamutes do thrive on attention and interaction and if a malamute is without stimulation, you definitely will see many less desirable traits emerge simply because a bored malamute can be a destructive malamute!
- They are wonderful guard dogs. Unfortunately they are too social and are the worst breed ever for a guard dog! The only thing they can do is possibly intimidate someone because the person simply does not know the breed! They would probably show a burglar where all the best stuff is located and then skip out the door with him to boot!
- They require a lot of grooming and cleaning. Actually they don't! If you do not like the ever present hair that comes loose in the process of shedding, a quick brush once a day or every few days is sufficient. They are a little hard to bathe alone just because of the amount of fur and the size of the dog itself but we actually have done that for years ourselves. We now prefer to have them go to a groomer once or twice per year where their undercoats are blown/pulled and that proves enough to keep their coats beautiful while keeping shedding and "blowing of the coat" to a minimum. They should actually not be bathed too often.
- With all that fur, they must be very dirty. Whereas labs are oily, malamute fur is actually like a cat's fur and dirt does not stick to it! It is a wonderful aspect actually and they never smell like a dog. Whatever dirt attaches itself to the malamute fur, it basically dries and disappears. They are quite clean animals and are akin to a cat in their clean and sleek look and the softness of their fur.
- Food must cost a fortune to feed them. As with any large breed dog, they do eat their appropriate share but as with any large breed dog, the right food for that breed should be used and in the appropriate amounts to avoid an underweight or overweight situation. The vet or a breeder is the best source in determining what target weight the dog should be at and that should be maintained. Since they are a large breed dog, bloat is always a possibility so another training capsule would be teaching the dog to eat at a reasonable pace and not to wolf down the entire meal (I actually take up the food and make them slow down if they are not pacing themselves). Also feeding the dog at a raised height is recommended for all large-chested dogs. We do not feed our dogs any supplements but fish oil capsules and even that is not necessary. We do buy them breed-appropriate food, however, for large breed highly active dogs as the percentage of fat and fiber is right for them and we do exercise them pretty heavily. Just be sure to not exercise them immediately after eating for at least an hour or so or feed them for the same length of time before exercising.
- Malamutes cannot survive in hot climates. Their fur actually serves as an insulator for both heat and cold. While they may pant in hotter weather, they are not by any means bothered by it. They simply need access to shade (as any dog would) and they need access freely to lots and lots of water in times of extreme temperature. They should also not be exercised heavily during extreme temperatures; much better to wait for cooler evenings or mornings to exercise them. We give ours access to a small wading pool; whereas Griffin loves it and is constantly in it in hot weather, our older malamute is not a huge fan! However, if there is snow, they will readily go out and lay in it for hours.
- Malamutes are part wolf and/or husky. The malamute breed is a specific breed of dog, one of the "natural" breeds as noted above and they are not part of the wolf or husky family. They are an arctic breed like the husky but they are not the same dog nor do they have the same exact temperament or make-up. While a husky is more adept at pulling lighter weights, a malamute was actually used for hauling freight; the malamute disposition is actually geared towards "digging in" and pulling heavier loads whereas a husky is built for speed. Malamutes were used by the Eskimo tribe the Malhemuts to drag massive loads of goods across frozen tundra. They were also highly valued members of the family unit and viewed as part of the tribe due to their contributions, hence their devotion to participating and work ethic.
- Malamutes are horrible with children. To the contrary, malamutes love children! Their size, however, and their "look" sometimes will frighten children so caution is advised simply because a squealing or a shrieking child can sometimes spook any breed dog! Most days, our 2 malamutes are greeted by 4 or 5 neighborhood children who sling their arms about their neck and roll on the ground with them. Of course as in all situations involving dogs and children, the two should never be left unattended, and certainly food should never be added into the situation as the potential for disaster is great. In terms of dogs and children, I have seen the smallest dog attack a baby simply because the baby pressed on the dog's leg, the dog did not know how to react, and no one intervened in time to stop the bite.
- Malamutes are not good with cats. This may be true if the dog is older and has not been raised or conditioned to not react to cats or realize that they make sudden movements. Malamutes can be very happy coexisting with cats but they should be introduced with caution and at an early age if at all possible. The same could be said regarding smaller dogs as malamutes and arctic breeds do have a tendency towards the "prey" response. Training, however, can definitely desensitize the malamute to reacting but being aware of it is always recommended. Walking on our neighborhood street, we have rabbits that sometimes bolt out of nowhere and the malamutes are instantly ready to go after them. I have never seen them catch or harm anything, but the agility of certain small animals and the temptation to give chase must be kept in mind when you are dealing with a malamute.
- They are terrible diggers and are famous for getting out. They can be diggers yes, but the only reason that a malamute will dig is to escape. Once they learn how to escape, there are then only a few options to keep that from happening. The best plan where this issue is concerned is to prevent it from happening in the first place! We have solid bricks underneath our fence all the way around so that they cannot dig out under the fence. They cannot go over the fence because it is too tall. However, ours were very clever and figured out a way to loosen a board and escape that way. Mind you, one board was enough for a 100-pound dog to squeeze through! We did end up going to the electric fence simply to keep them fenced in as the threat to them being out is huge where we live so we felt that this was our individual appropriate answer. If a dog never does have a prison break, then the electric fence would not be necessary. The digging though can be handled in several different ways including wire placed in the ground or other methods as well but the brick has always proven effective for our dogs. It is a preventive measure in the long run and one we would rather take over losing the dogs.
All that said, the malamute is a family-oriented, social sweetheart of a dog. They do require a lot of stability and much in the way of devotion meaning that they are not a dog that likes to be ignored or left alone for long periods of time simply because they are too social. They value their owners, however, and relish the time spent interacting. They are one of the most intelligent breeds of dogs and if given the opportunity to be part of a family, they will be a lifelong companion that will bring years of joy and laughter to a home. They do require discipline and consistency but most of all attention and something to keep them exercised and "involved".
Summing Up Having an Alaskan Malamute
Having an Alaskan malamute has been one of the greatest experiences of my life - and I can say that in all honesty after having some other incredible dogs of other breeds.
BUT - owning not 1 but 2 Alaskan malamutes has been a commitment and one that I do not take lightly. I am totally dedicated to the proper care and raising of my malamutes, which means that I put an incredible amount of time and energy into their care. I have never had to do that with another dog breed and wish to emphasize the fact that if you are looking for a dog who exists pretty well on his or her own, please rethink getting a malamute!
You will do fine if you decide early on that the dog is part of your life and if you kind of work your life around having this breed - in terms of providing adequate exercise, plenty of socialization, and extensive training. If it seems like work instead of fun, then again, the Alaskan malamute is probably not the right dog for you.
If, however, you look at it like a wonderful privilege in terms of knowing a great breed and training a dog to do all kinds of athletic endeavors such as scootering, skijoring, bikejoring, carting, sledding - or even jogging or walking - just lots of it - then you're the right person to own a malamute.
They will love you endlessly and give you many rewards along the way - and if you are lucky enough to see that special spark that lives only in a malamute, I know you will get what I mean. Nothing makes me happier than knowing another malamute found a great home!