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Breed-Specific Dog Training for Malamutes

Audrey has owned and trained Malamutes from puppyhood into adulthood for over 15 years. She has also rescued many other dog breeds.

Malamutes are large dogs known for their ability to pull heavy objects such as sleds or freight.

Malamutes are large dogs known for their ability to pull heavy objects such as sleds or freight.

Dog Training for Every Breed

Anyone who owns a dog, no matter what breed, should devote time to training their dog. There is simply no better way to ensure your dog's safety and the safety of others—humans or other animals.

Start with basic obedience training. Commands any dog should know include:

  • Sit. This is a command easily taught, used to keep a dog under control.
  • Down. This is a command used to ensure your dog will remain in place and assume a more docile mentality.
  • Stay. This command can save your dog's life and prevent tragedy.
  • Come. This is a command needed to get your dog back to you every time you call them.
  • Leave it. This command can also save your dog's life if the something he or she is about to grab could be life-threatening.
  • Off. This is a command telling a dog to not jump on people or stay off furniture.
  • Heel. This is a command telling a dog you want them right beside you.

There are, of course, many more commands, which we will get into later. Let's have a look at the importance of these commands for any dog, but specifically, the Alaskan Malamute.

I taut I saw a puddy tat!

I taut I saw a puddy tat!

Training Challenges With Malamutes

Having trained multiple breeds over the years, I can honestly say that I have never been more frustrated or laughed so hard as I have in training my Malamutes! That is both a good thing and a bad thing.

A lot of people associate Malamutes or any of the Northern dog breeds with romantic notions of their beauty and expertise in pulling sleds through the snow. I routinely have children (and adults) yell "Snow Dogs" and come barreling toward us. While all of these wonderful attributes are indeed true, the Alaskan Malamute is a highly intelligent dog breed with a bit of a sense of humor. In my experience, they are one of the smartest dog breeds, but they are also one of the most stubborn. They are also not just a "pretty face."

A Social Breed

They are highly social and enjoy more than anything the interaction with their families or trainers, as these people become part of their pack. They have always given me the impression that they are silently making fun of me when I'm training them because they have a tendency to do things in their own unique way.

An example would be giving a command (sit). We practice it once, we treat. We practice it twice, we treat. On the third try (usually), whichever Malamute I've been training will simply look at me with that gleam in his or her eye as if to say "You're kidding, right? Didn't I already demonstrate this for you correctly?"

What happens next will usually be any of these scenarios. They either do a spin or a down or some other command I haven't asked for once, or they may begin going through the entire repertoire of things they know. Why? I can only surmise that they think I'm insulting them and calling them stupid because the question was basically asked and answered to perfection and yet I persist.

Tip: Be Quick, Concise, and Creative

Therefore, the most important part of training Malamutes is to be quick, concise, and creative! If you do 10 short sessions of 10 minutes during the day to train them, you will have far greater success than attempting long drawn-out sessions where you repeat the same commands over and over. They are easily bored or they all have ADD; at least that has been my conclusion.

Whereas labradors will do whatever you want for as long as you want, just so that you are pleased, Malamutes have a mind of their own. They are a working breed, so keeping that in mind is very important. They want to be stimulated and they want to have to think. They love a challenge. Many people stereotype them and say that they do not make good dogs to play fetch or they hate water. All of this is untrue. Our dogs do play fetch regularly (not as well as a retriever perhaps) but they do it very well and have great fun with the exercise. One loves the water while the other hates the water. Every Malamute, just like people, will be different and the important thing is to find their strengths and capitalize on those while trying to avoid reinforcement of any negative traits.

Tip: Consider Their Prey Drive

Malamutes and most Northern breed dogs have an ingrained prey instinct. That effectively has always kept me from assuming that they would be great candidates for off-leash work and for taking them to dog parks. I simply do not trust that instinct, as they are highly stimulated by rodents and things that move quickly. With small dogs or aggressive dogs, the thought that if stimulated, that instinct could show itself, I've always felt that it is my job to protect them by not putting them into situations where they might fail. It also has to do with other owners and their ability to control their own dogs, whether big or small, should something go wrong. It also has to do with the fact that my dog breed is very big and has very big teeth, so any bites could certainly have more potential for harm. I am not a proponent for dogs being randomly put together in an enclosed area and "all will be well" no matter what the breed, but especially not with Malamutes.

Tip: Don't Set Them Up to Fail

That isn't to say that I don't walk them or expose them to other dogs. I just have always felt that the best policy is to be sure of the situation before assuming that the breed is like other breeds or that all dog owners have the same set of rules that I might have. There are simply too many variables when dogs get together that do not know each other and my feeling has always been why take the risk? Why let your dog go into a situation I know nothing about and "assume" it will be okay?

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The most problematic situation for me as a Malamute owner has always been "the other dog." I can train my dog a thousand times a day and have my dog behave in a manner that I'm comfortable with without fail, whether at home or on a walk. However, I can take that same dog on a walk another day and have various and sundry incidents occur that are totally out of my control because someone else did not train their dog or is not as responsible as I try to be with mine.

Tip: Heed the Common Sayings

There is nothing more frustrating than having my dog on a leash behaving like a perfect gentleman, only to be accosted by a yipping, yapping small dog who has run down the entire street to get at my dog and has now caused a situation that is unpleasant and potentially dangerous to all of us. There is a saying I heard long ago about Malamutes. They will not start a fight, but if they are provoked, they may finish it. That is never something I want to see happen.

Tip: Be Consistent

Consistency is the name of the game with Malamutes. If we fear what will happen and we lock them away, not braving our deepest fears over what could happen, we do them an injustice. A Malamute can and will be a good citizen in the world, but I do believe that existence must be tempered with owners who understand them and their limitations when it comes to aggressive behavior in other dogs. I decided a long time ago to ensure my dog's safety hopefully by being watchful or protective of them in order to assure no remorseful situations. It is not so much my dog or dogs that I'm worried about. It has been again, my experience, the other dogs who were not managed properly by their owners that have given me pause for concern.

I let our Malamutes play with dogs that I feel safe with or that they have accepted as part of their pack. I take them to training classes, which is a controlled environment, where everyone has to keep control of their dog so I know without a doubt that there will be no trouble. This is great exposure for them! They are around other dogs of all shapes, sizes, and breeds, with their own challenges for their owners. My dogs have to be in total control and listen only to me and they can thus learn to trust canine situations rather than react to the stimulus of meeting other dogs. Even if another dog growls or makes a move toward my dog in a training situation, it's okay because there is no chaos and no harm since we are all cognizant of our own dog's behavior in this situation. Those moments are worth all the time, energy and money put into dog training. It is the perfect way to desensitize my dog to the perils of the dog world and without risk to me or my dog.

Tip: Respect Their Size

Malamutes are big, strong dogs. They have a strong pull urge as that is what their breed is all about. Unlike huskies, who are the speedsters in the Northern breeds, Malamutes have short legs and are extremely strong. They were used to pull building materials across ice and snow and unless they are trained to walk properly on leash, they can be a nightmare to walk because of their pull instinct.

Because they are a working breed, Malamutes, if left to their own devices, can and will find various ways to be destructive or even escape. They are highly social animals and do not like being left alone. They can be diggers, jumpers, or just bulldozers if they feel they are being neglected. We had one that pulled boards off the fence to escape when we left him at home.

All that being said, training a Malamute is probably one of the most rewarding experiences there is. Feeling a connection with them is key and celebrating their accomplishments is crucial. A trained Malamute is a happy camper and your relationship with this remarkable breed will only deepen the more you work together. They are "team" dogs and they enjoy the challenge of learning and growing their skills.

Starting young is key.

Starting young is key.

Easiest and Hardest Commands to Teach a Malamute

Like most breeds, especially if treats are involved, the easiest commands are:

  • Sit
  • Shake
  • Down

The down command can sometimes be a challenge at first for some Malamutes as it puts them in a vulnerable position, but with encouragement, it is completely achievable. It gives the owner an "alpha" authority with a simple command. In all situations, the owner of a Malamute must be the alpha.

For Malamutes, some of the more challenging commands include:

  • Come
  • Stay
  • Heel
  • Leave it

The "come" command can be a challenge when there are other things interesting happening. In the midst of a busy local park, it can be an iffy outcome. I am not a huge proponent for anyone having dogs off leash in a park or on streets for that matter. When that occurs, it can be anyone's guess whether it will go well or go badly. I have not done a lot of off-leash work with our Malamutes for that reason. If I can count on my dog's behavior, that's one thing, but it's the other person's dog's behavior that I can't bank on, and for that reason alone, I see more downsides to upsides in those scenarios. They do need to know the command and follow it through, as in the case of an open door and an accidental escape, the dog needs to be obedient enough to come to me the first time every time.

"Stay" is completely doable in the Malamute but it has to be reinforced and followed through with consistently. If a dog breaks the stay, we have to take the dog back to where we had originally told it to stay and start over again. With lots and lots of patience and practice, you can end up with a Malamute who is staring at his bowl of food for 10 minutes while you go answer the door or take a phone call and come back to see him still sitting there staring (and drooling) without touching the food because you didn't release him from his stay. Most importantly, a stay command can save your dog's life. If you see a car zooming down the street and your dog is across the street, you want the ability to simply say "Down - stay!" and have your dog drop and wait until the danger has passed.

The "heel" command is more difficult merely because of the Malamute's inherent drive to pull. I have found, however, that you can teach a Malamute to pull (for instance a scooter or a sled) and still enforce the heel command while on a leash. They know the difference. Prong collars also help with that and again, reinforcing every time they do heel properly right beside you simply implants the idea that this is what you want. Reward in sight!

The "leave it" command is also something that takes a lot of work. Anything that drops on the ground is fair game, even if it happens to be a piece of broken glass or a battery. It could be food or it could be a substance that any dog should not ingest. It can also be a dead seal on the beach or a big pile of garbage left on the road. It can be strange-looking fluid on the street that might have antifreeze in it. It can be a squirrel running across the street or someone passing you who's holding an ice cream cone. Whatever it is that you do not want your dog to pay attention to, the words "leave it" should stop him or her from going after it, at it, or wanting it.

I regularly practice with both Malamutes on the kitchen floor and throw kibble or carrot bits that they love. I throw them near them, at them, between them. I've bounced a few off their heads or their backs while they were in a down position on the floor. It takes some work but eventually they learn that the payoff will be that if they leave those lovely temptations alone every time, they are going to get a big reward at the end of the exercise.

Like well-trained seals waiting for a treat!

Like well-trained seals waiting for a treat!

Mix Up Your Training

With Malamutes, change is good. Challenge is good. Working with a trainer, we discovered some interesting ways to train Max, our youngest Malamute.

You might notice that he has a "Do Not Pet/Service Dog" jacket on in some of the photographs. Early on, he was not enjoying meeting people. People are sometimes not very good with dogs, especially with big dogs. They assume things they should not assume. Most dogs, but especially bigger dogs, do not like people standing over them, as it feels like a threat to them. No matter how sweet and friendly Max is with certain people, he does not have tolerance for people leaning over his head at first greet. He also does not like people throwing their arms around his neck that he does not know and trying to kiss him. We found this out through several bad experiences. He never bit anyone, but he definitely backed them out of his space with a warning in body language. Eliminate the possibility of problems has become our mantra. Asking people to not pet him while he is out and about solves the problem and doesn't put him in situations he has no control over.

Walking him in busy towns where there are lots of people and lots of dogs and kids was a little daunting after some of the experiences we had at first. However, we quickly learned that the problem wasn't Max—it was as I suspected, the other people's approach to my dog. Having him stroll from one end of town to the other, reinforcing good behavior over and over again, having him climb up on rocks or benches to just "observe" and never having a bad experience all served him well and helped us to be more confident with him. We pass people with dogs constantly and although we do not let them socialize, he knows what is expected of him and that is worth all the effort. He also knows that he can pass people and hear kids yelling, car noises, be exposed to all sorts of different smells and experiences and he will be okay. It builds his confidence and it builds ours in handling him as well.

Back to the dog training classes, I have to say that some people are wary around Malamutes. I think personally that is mostly because there are always stories about them doing something bad with other dogs or just being one of the harder-to-handle breeds. I will say from personal experience that as long as you continue to work with them, stimulate them, and engage them, you will not find a dog that you could be prouder of walking beside you. Our trainer, Randal, likes to say that it is about 80% handler and 20% dog. If you keep that in mind and you also believe in the theory, as I do, that there are usually no bad dogs, only bad dog owners, it gives you a clearer perspective. You just have to find the thing that entices your Malamute to behave and do it every time.

Don't Stop With Obedience Training

Malamutes are highly intelligent dogs and love the stimulus of being used to do things. After completing basic obedience training, which I highly recommend for any Northern breed dog, preferably in a class, think of other ways to enhance your dog's overall life experience. A well-worked dog is a happy dog.

Some of the things you can teach a Malamute to do include things with harness pulling as part of the activity:

  • Scooter pulling
  • Sledding
  • Snowshoeing
  • Skijoring
  • Biking or ATV pulls

You can teach them all kinds of commands for pulling. There are also many groups that you can join for any of the above activities plus simply pull activities. I've seen Malamutes pull refrigerators, wagons full of people, and even a car once. You can become as avid a participant as you and your dog want. They absolutely love doing what they were meant to do.

They are also enthusiastic performers with hiking, backpacking (where they carry part of the load), swimming, agility, and performance (such as going on casting calls and being in a commercial). They love being the center of attention and they love, love, love being rewarded for good behavior. Training should never stop for any dog but especially a Malamute. They are clever in so many ways and the tricks never have to end.

We've taught ours to jump into a chair on the deck (their designated chair), to spin, roll over, and to "talk" though our males never seem to be at a loss for words on their own. They are training them to go to their "place" when someone comes to the door or we have friends over for dinner and only to interact once they are released. Gone are the days of them mobbing someone coming in the door or us having to make sure they are outside before someone can come in the door. It also minimizes the risk of escape if they are trained to be somewhere appropriate when we open the door. A dog on a stay cannot run out the front door!

Randal, our trainer, showed us how to take Max to Lowes or Home Depot and engage him in jumping up to sit on things, or simply sitting on the bench outside the store and watching people (and many other dogs) go by. He taught us a special way for the come command because Max had gotten out underneath one of our fences once and we had a bit of a panic trying to get him back as he had gone into the woods. We have a beautifully melodious bell in our backyard. We worked extensively with both dogs to come to the sound of that bell every time we ring it. We randomly ring it while they are in the house or out in the backyard and can't see us. We merely ring the bell now and they come. We treat them heavily for responding to that aural command. Our hope is that if they ever got out, they would hear the bell and run for home. I have a similar cowbell that I use also just in case there was ever a time when they got lost. Perhaps the sound of the bell would lead them back to us.

Body language is also great for commands at times. If we want to be quiet and not issue verbal commands, we have different signs that we give them, from a pointing finger to a tapping toe for sit and down respectively. If you make it a fun activity to train your dog to do exactly what you want them to do, it's also excitement and a reward for your dog. Every dog loves doing well and every dog loves praise. The more we encourage them to be good, the better they will become. I also believe the less time they have to get into mischief.

Pinch Collar for Malamutes

Happiness is a well-trained malamute.

Happiness is a well-trained malamute.

© 2018 Audrey Kirchner

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