How To Train Alaskan Malamute Dogs

Alaskan Malamutes: About The Breed

Before we take a look at how best to train an Alaskan malamute, the topic of the specifics about this remarkable breed must be addressed. In order to train a malamute, one must understand this ancient breed's background and inherent behaviors.

Malamutes are one of the oldest working breeds and one of the most intelligent group of canines you will ever encounter. That said, when training a malamute, you must never expect them to be like your old black lab, Molly who was content to please you at every turn and who seemingly artlessly learned commands she never forgot.

The Alaskan malamute is known for several traits and it is the wise owner who knows these traits from the beginning. It will make training for you both much simpler. The mal is best known (sometimes only known) for its pack behavior. Whether people like it or not, these dogs are used to a pack hierarchy mentality and in order to communicate with them and get them to obey you, there must be a human alpha.

That extends to every part of the human family that comes into contact with the dog. This alpha position is earned by the smart owner who knows how to keep the malamute in line and garners that essential position of respect through actions and interactions with the dog.

Malamute Training Challenges

Socialization and training for the malamute can be a bit of a challenge especially if you are not dealing with a pup. However, even starting out as a puppy in dog training classes, as the mal matures, depending on circumstances, he or she can exhibit behaviors of dominance. This does not mean that the dog is abnormal in any way. It simply means that the hereditary behavior characteristics of the dog make it more difficult to get along in a society of dogs that are not of the same temperament or "way of thinking."

If you decide to train your malamute with the idea that once trained, he or she will be 100% dependable to go to dog parks and/or run off-leash and play like other dogs, think again. In most cases, this just doesn't happen. It doesn't mean again that the dog is aggressive or defective. It simply means that this breed needs more structure than most. The key is to train the dog for the situations that do work and get he or she to behave at all times but without the illusion that the malamute will behave like other dog breeds.

Boredom is perhaps the greatest challenge in training an Alaskan malamute. This extends beyond the norm of boredom from not enough exercise, socialization, etc. A malamute is one of the most stubborn breeds you can ever deal with but again, with their high degree of intelligence, if you don't keep the training interesting, you'll be just as frustrated as they are. They will adopt the "dumb" face and act like they do not know what in the world you want from them so always keep it interesting. And if you aren't in the mood to train your mal, don't do it. Wait until a time when you are going to be fully engaged in the training with the dog because believe me, they will know a half-hearted attempt a mile away.

Remember that all members of the dog's family must be equal participants in its training. That doesn't mean that children should be training the dog, however. Remember that these dogs are wickedly big for the most part and small children should never be expected to "handle" these dogs or enforce behaviors. However, including children in the teaching is an excellent way to maintain the dog's "low spot" on the totem pole and convey the fact that the dog is not the alpha in the household. Participation with and respect for children in (and out of) a malamute's home are essential pieces of the puzzle that must be addressed to make living with this dog breed workable for all.

Commands to Teach a Malamute

When training any breed of dog, the goal is to selectively pick out the most important things you want them to know or the commands you feel are top priority for your mal to respond to. In determining those, you will need to have a laundry list of activities that you plan on doing with your dog. Then base the teaching of commands around those activity potentials so when the time comes, you and the dog will be ready and you will have a greater chance for success.

When we got two of our malamutes as puppies, we decided for instance that we would walk them a lot because they need exercise and lots of it. We decided we would walk them in busy places and we would occasionally sit outside and eat meals at cafes or drink lattes with them in tow. They therefore have to possess very good manners.

We also planned on bikejoring or scootering, snow shoeing and backpacking/hiking with them, so there of necessity needed to be some mushing commands taught. We added those to our list.

Our dogs are also part of our family and we happen to have a lot of friends and family who visit, some with dogs. We also travel everywhere with at least two of our mals so in addition to all the above commands, they needed to be taught manners in the car and traveling behaviors.

Our malamute need-to-know list included:

Teaching the Sit Command

  • Start with the dog in front of you while you are standing or sitting.
  • Have a piece of kibble in your hand and slowly move the kibble from the dog's nose backward over his or her head.
  • Their natural inclination will be to follow the kibble and they will "naturally" sit as they watch it go over their head and their body has to sit.
  • Just as the butt hits the floor and they are in the sit position, give the command sit.
  • Repeat many times and then leave it alone.
  • Randomly issue the command (with and without kibble) and keep practicing.

After you've taught your malamute this command, it's easy to move on to the next logical command which is the down command. Simply extend the command by using the kibble, lowering it slowly from the dog's nose, between the dog's front legs to the floor. As soon as the dog is spread on the floor, say the command down.

Now move on to leave it from there or wait (putting it on the floor in front of them and not allowing them to take it until you say so) or the roll command or a variety of other commands.

Basic Obedience and Behavior Commands

  • Sit - good anywhere and easy to teach - see inset
  • Down - also good anywhere and harder to teach a mal
  • Wait - applies everywhere from going out a door to attacking their food
  • Stay - much like the wait only for longer periods of time
  • (Dog name) come - priceless - they must come to you immediately
  • Drop it - this can save a life - drop that poisonous bottle you picked up
  • Off - off the bed, off people, off the furniture
  • Leave it - do not even think about touching that or going after it
  • Out - out of the car, out the door
  • Spin - for fun and amusement - teaches them balance and makes them think
  • Hold or stand - works for exams or grooming - stand up
  • Roll - great for exams and brushing or grooming
  • Shake - just for fun - both paws - or together for more fun
  • Quiet! (good luck) - just because but some are more talkative than others
  • Go get it - playing fetch - some will do it
  • Bring it - bringing it back - some will do it
  • On by - go past someone or dogs - great for close quarters
  • Up - for jumping in the car into the crate or on a low table (or their chair)

Simple Musing Commands for Mals

  • Whoa - stop!
  • Gee - turn right
  • Haw - turn left
  • Giddy up or let's go - pour on the steam - run
  • Over - move over to the side of the trail or road

That might seem like a long list but working down the list some, though similar, are unique to certain situations and others are usable anywhere and any time. Most are geared towards safety of the dog and safety of others. And some are just plain fun.

Malamutes like other breeds do have a humorous side and enjoy some activities just for fun. The important thing to remember is never to have an activity that overstimulates the dog or feeds into aggressive behavior. For instance, tug-of-war could get out of hand with the wrong malamute.

All training should be done with the idea in mind that the owner is alpha and the session begins and ends with him or her being in charge...period.

Training a Malamute Puppy

Obviously, life is much simpler when you start training a malamute as a puppy. It isn't easy but it is easier than trying to teach an old dog new tricks...literally. However, it can be done. My oldest mal is a rescued malamute who was abused and over the course of a year, I was able to train her very well. It did take an inordinant amount of patience, however, as she fought me every step of the way.

The most important point to remember with training any dog but especially malamutes is to always end on a high note. The high note means you win, not them. Sometimes in the course of a training session, in fact almost always, if you require a mal to do a command more than once, you will meet with resistance. Or they will become very creative in the way that they execute that command. For instance, sit becomes a down, etc.

The key is to keep it ever-changing. Take them to the park to train them one day, take them out in the garage the next day. Never do the same routine of commands exactly the same way. Mix it up and interject some play time in between. You will accomplish the same objective, but you will do it without going one on one with what I like to call the malamute frozen brain. When they decide they are done with something, it is a trial to get them to keep moving in the direction you want them to go. I have found though that as long as I end up "getting my way" that is all that matters and it never hurts to throw some distraction into the mix.

Where to start with training?

I consider the first few items on the basic command list vital to their safety and mine. I have to know that they will sit if someone small or frail walks in the door or someone approaches suddenly around a corner with a very small dog. It is self preservation for them and since I'm attached to the leash or they are in my circle, for me.

If I feel that they need to down in order to maintain self control, this command is also vital to their safety and my peace of mind.

Most important of all is the recall command. I carry treats on my person at all times and randomly call one or all the dogs to me wherever I am. I try to do it from far away as well as close by. They do not always get a treat but just as randomly as I invite them to come to me as soon as I call, I also randomly give them treats for obeying on a dime.

Another great teaching tool is mealtime. Malamutes should be taught from the beginning that when a command is issued, they need to look the person issuing it in the eye. This is a form of dominance and lets them know that you mean business. Before our dogs are allowed to come in for their dinner, they are required to sit at the door calmly and quietly while the door is opened wide. They must look whoever is feeding them in the eye and hold that gaze for several seconds. They are released only after the feeding person is comfortable with releasing them. They then go to their bowl and are not allowed to just eat. They sit at their bowl and then are given a command or two - to down or sit or both. They are told to wait. Then they are released with "okay" so that they may gobble up their food.

Little encounters like the above reinforce what you want from your malamute and says clearly to them "this is what I expect from you if you want to eat." They understand this kind of relationship and it is a pretty effortless way to reinforce commands that they know.

We use all kinds of commands throughout our interaction with them at all times of the day and in all situations. The important thing to remember is that if you issue a command, it must be followed; not 60% of the time, not 80% of the time but 100% of the time. If your mal gets away with disobeying or ignoring you once, he or she will do it repeatedly because he or she does not feel you have earned their respect.

If you tell your dog to down and he or she refuses, you must physically help him or her to assume the position and stay there until released. This does not mean that you have to manhandle or wrestle a 40 pound puppy or a 100 pound adult male. You simply make it work by using a treat or using whatever means you feel appropriate (except physically hurting the dog by kicking, hitting, beating, etc.) to get the dog into the position that you commanded and then releasing the dog when you are ready, not when the dog is ready.

Failure to make a dog of any breed follow through on a command is trainer suicide. You are wasting your time (and the dog's) if you do not intend to have them follow the command...and the first time. In the beginning, you may have to issue the command more than once, but try not to do that if at all possible. Once should be the rule and then wait for it to be obeyed; if not obeyed in reasonable time, assisted obeyance should follow immediately.

Training the Adult Malamute Dog

At roughly 8 months to 2 years, your malamute no matter how well trained will go through a period I like to refer to as "my brain is in the mail." They somehow decide that their masters know nothing and they become much like teenagers, wanting to do things their own way and in their own sweet time. This is the time when it is essential for the mal owner to be consistent and reinforce commands each and every time. When they do receive their brain in the mail at 2 years old, it all begins to click in and they do resign themselves to the fact that much as they would like to be in an alpha position, they didn't make the cut.

When training a malamute, you have to apply what you know about the breed and then balance that with what you are trying to accomplish. You can have the most well trained malamute on the planet and you still will probably not want the dog roaming in an open pasture hoping that he or she will respond to you when you give the recall command. More than likely, your beautiful malamute will take off after rodents or the neighbor's cat or as mine have, simply disappear into the hills. This is a story all too familiar with many malamute owners who regret ever trusting their dog off leash thinking that they were trained well enough to obey.

At some point, instinct can override training and it can result in tragedy. I've been warned by local police that because of the breed of my dogs, if they are loose and they do go after livestock or people's pets, people here will shoot first and talk about it later. They would be within their rights to do so. The solution? I simply don't allow my dogs to be at such high risk. It isn't cruel and it isn't setting my expectations too low. It's just the reality of the situation. I try never to give them the opportunity to fail.

The same theory applies when it comes to dog parks. While as puppies we did frequent dog parks and did attend training classes, we simply don't take chances there unless it is a class being taught by someone who deals with northern breeds and there are dog owners who can control their dogs.

Dog parks are one of the biggest setups for disaster when it comes to malamutes simply because by the time there is a problem, it can be too late. Usually it isn't even the malamute's "fault" but they have responded negatively to an aggressive dog who thinks it appropriate to take on a breed who is made for pack behavior. Aggression of any kind is received very poorly by a malamute. They don't care if it's a small dog or a huge dog. Our Griffin was bitten in the face by two tiny dogs at the dog park enough that it drew blood. He never forgot that. I have worked and worked with him but any sign of aggression from the smallest growl to out and out snarling sets him off. I thus avoid situations where I know he will be stressed to the point of overreacting. I can still train him without putting him face to face with aggressive dogs. We can pass them on the street and everyone is safe. Would I turn him loose and hope he does okay? No way!

One of the most frustrating things of having a well trained malamute is having people unknowingly undo all your hard work. Because a malamute is such a bright creature, he or she will go with the flow and take every liberty afforded him or her. For this reason, it's important to convey your training techniques to family and friends. Remember that behavior is a learned thing and the bad behaviors one person allows them to get away with will carry over into other situations.

A good example of this is the approaching person squealing at the top of her lungs "Oh my Gawd...that is the most BEAUTIFUL dog - come HERE baby!" all the while she is enticing my 95 pound dog to jump up on her. There isn't too much you can do about the person who doesn't realize what she is doing (or undoing in this case) so I quickly assert myself and make the dog sit and stay. When I get the "Oh - it's really okay - I just GOTTA hug this beautiful boy" I just politely say that he's in training and he needs to listen to me and behave. Other people cannot assume the training (or untraining) of your dog, especially a malamute.

Training Tools for Malamutes

I've given you a basic overview of how to train a malamute. It is by no means an easy task but it is a very rewarding task. Malamutes are one of the most intelligent dog breeds I've personally ever worked with. I take a great deal of pride in everything I've been able to teach my mals but it is never over. Training goes on for their entire lifetime.

If you find that your dog is not responding as you think it should, enlist the help of a trainer. Read books, watch videos and get ideas on how to engage your dog. Usually it is simply a matter of finding what works. Griffin my 3-year-old is extremely food motivated. I can get him to do anything (including posing for photographs) with a kibble. My 1-year-old Gabby on the other hand is not interested at all in the kibble method. With her, I've had to up the ante a bit with more delectable treats just to get her to respond at first - until the behaviors become second nature.

Even all that said, because of their large size, I was not accomplishing what I wanted in terms of walking behaviors. There was too much pulling and distracted behavior going on for my tastes. So I enlisted the help of a local trainer.

We started first with a choke collar, then went to a pinch collar to reinforce commands, and finally when all else failed, we went to the e-collar. This is an electronic collar that delivers a pinch/small electronic pulse to the dog's neck. The owner has a remote control that you administer the reprimand or the reward with. I had thought these collars barbaric but on trying one with my dogs, I wonder why it took me so long to come around to it.

The goal of the training, even the e-collar, is to simply get the malamutes to obey you. If all else fails and you find you do need some additional help, I feel that it is appropriate to employ whatever means it takes to keep the dogs under control. Malamutes out of control end up in shelters or euthanized. That is the pure and simple truth. Or they end up never seeing the light of day and being confined to their own backyards for their entire lives because people simply can't deal with them.

That's a lot of information but I do believe every word of it. I've had more than 10 years of training with my own mals from puppyhood to old age and I wouldn't trade a bit of it. They are a fascinating dog breed and so full of life and joy that it's hard to imagine my life without them. They are a gift that I cherish. However, much like children, these dogs definitely need a firm hand and a guiding hand to shape them into respectful, tolerable pets. As dog owners, that is the deal. We have to be the ones to teach them in the way that they must go. I guarantee if you keep that in mind, your walk with your mal through life will be one you will never forget and best of all, never regret.

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akirchner profile image

akirchner 4 years ago from Central Oregon Author

P.S. Meant Dorsi - I really can spell - just not enough caffeine yet~

akirchner profile image

akirchner 4 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Thanks for your kind and insightful comment, Dori...and glad Indie can enjoy some of those commands - most are really pretty basic but I add a lot just because my dogs are way too smart. Gotta keep them engaged and whatever that takes~

Indeed, though - that is always the object of my somewhat lengthy hubs on mals~ They are of course always on the dangerous dogs list which makes them very vulnerable to say the least. They are also one of the most misunderstood dog breeds on the planet. If you have a malamute and you do know what he or she is about, I swear that you will never be able to not get another one, in spite of all the training and in spite of all that grooming.

They are truly one of the most social breeds, but then again, they can be one of the most comical, the most trying, the most loving, the most stubborn, the most's kind of a half glass full kind of deal for me. But then again...they had me at the first howl~

Dorsi profile image

Dorsi 4 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

Awesome hub, very thorough and well written. I have learned about a breed that I knew very little about! These commands are also helpful for me to use with Indie. Mals are a dog that I look forward to learning more about. You have given information here that will help a lot of Mal owners and hopefully keep them out a backyard existence or worse yet getting sent to a shelter because their owners don't know how to train them. Rated up up up!

akirchner profile image

akirchner 4 years ago from Central Oregon Author

BJ - I thought maybe I would not receive a welcome let alone a warm one but you amaze me~ Thanks for being such a true friend. Sorry I kind of crashed and burned with my writing and went in a few (thousand) directions.

I now teach on line as well and own a photography biz as well as all the other nonsense that I do - good grief. But...all that said...a part of me did miss the writing though I truly need to figure out what I need to do to be better at it - so here I am again! Like the proverbial bad penny I return...missed you as well - you are a dear friend and I still haven't received that car....drat~I need it with my magnificent mals though Griffin is really holding out for a convertible. He finds it so much easier on his hair blowing in the wind. Sigh - the guy is just unreasonable as heck eh? Bob probably wouldn't mind it either though he has far less hair than my Griffin...and then Gabs would probably eat the seat - or the mirror - or something...she is still a pup and if I get the chance, I shall have to write a piece on hillbilly decorating a la malamute~

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Just wanted you to know, Audrey, m'dear, that I am delighted to once more see you in Hubland. You are still my Hubbuddy even though it appeared you had forsaken us.

With this fascinating hub, you have re-established your place as the Malemute Maven of all time. Griffin and Gabby are fortunate to have you. So is hubby.

Welcome back, m'luv.

akirchner profile image

akirchner 4 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Hi Virginia - yes indeed, I have a very strong ethic about people and dogs. I think it's vital that someone understands what they're getting into before they do it and if not before, certainly WHEN. Dogs are just like kids and unless you train them properly (which differs from breed to breed in my humble opinion), you're in for a nasty bit of rough road. Dogs don't act up because they are stupid or mean or anything else really. They act up because someone hasn't taught them properly. Especially mals! So that is my mission this late in life, teaching people what I've learned I guess and hoping so to prevent any more discarded malamutes. They truly are one of the most pure breeds and one of the most intelligent around but you gotta be on it like a hawk from the beginning or they will run right over the top of you. Thanks so much for stopping by~~

Hi Pamela~ Can you believe it? Like rising from the ashes here I am again. Hope I do okay this time around as I did have a terrible time of it last year and just couldn't bring myself to do it anymore. Feeling good about it right now though - so going to take it one word at a time and one day at a time~~~ Thanks so much for stopping in to say hi, too!!!

Kristy - Thanks so much for stopping by. I love the sit command because it illustrates really how easy it is to train a dog - it just takes a bit of time and ingenuity is all - and repeat, repeat, repeat in the most unusual circumstances and times - I really enjoy my dogs' success...can you tell?

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States

akirchner--this is a fabulous hub. I love the way you explain why the dogs act the way they do in order to help owners know the reason for the training techniques. We had a bad experience in trying to train a Lab puppy when I had 3 preschoolers. We didn't know what we were doing or how to untrain the dog from some bad habits. Luckily, we found a family that knew more about it. I wish we'd had thought about what it required to teach a puppy before we got the dog. Your advice will also help people decide if this is the right dog for them. Voted up, useful and interesting!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 4 years ago from United States

Audry, It is good to see you after such a long time and with a hub about your beloved Malamutes. Your hub was very thorough with great information as usual. I hope you are doing great. Pam

kissayer profile image

kissayer 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

This is an excellent hub! How you broke down teaching the sit command is perfect for first time dog owners!

akirchner profile image

akirchner 4 years ago from Central Oregon Author

CR - OMG - someone who GETS them!!! Wow - I hear you completely and on so many levels. Poor Griffin has been traumatized multiple times by dogs and their aggression so it is an ongoing deconditioning now for him but I keep at it all the time. I refuse to let him be relegated to staying home because of the stupidity that other people kind of spilled onto my poor dog!

I have heard this same argument - leashed dogs are more aggressive - right! Do you really want to see what his incisors can do to your dog when I let him OFF the leash? I doubt it!!! I always say there are no bad dogs just bad dog owners. If they don't get it, poor them. I just try and maintain a cool and calm presence - ha ha - most of the time when people who don't know anything about the breed try and tell me how I "should" be training them - and then walk away with my mals muttering 'idiot' or something more colorful.

I agree with you completely as well - these guys are soulmates of mine and even my husband who after ALL these dogs and ALL these years of dogs says "I'm not really a dog person" - hilarious! He is so bonded to these guys he weeps like a girl (nothing wrong with that) when we lose one of them. And definitely - these dogs are not going to ever be happy being ignored! Gabby comes to under my office window with something in her mouth ON PURPOSE that she is not supposed to be messing with and tosses it up so I can see it just to say "hey - could one of you please pay some attention to me like NOW?" They do keep you young, I'll say that! Love meeting fellow mal appreciaters and thanks so much for leaving such a great comment. Audrey

CR Rookwood profile image

CR Rookwood 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

Wow, you really know these dogs! I love the part where you talk about the 'stupid face' as anyone who owns a Malamute knows exactly what you mean by that. You know they know, but they're telling you, I'm bored, I'm doing something else in spite of you.

It took me a good year to get our Malamute to behave on a leash, and that was a year of working on it every day. The worst part, as you mention, was other people and their cluelessness, especially people with off-leash dogs. One person even said to me, "Leashed dogs are more aggressive, you shouldn't keep you dog on a leash," and I said, "I keep him on a leash for YOUR sake, not mine," but that wasn't entirely true.

Now, he will not go after a dog, even if it charges right up to him, which very few dogs do anymore. I just say no, and he stays calm. But you are so right, dog parks are not for us! Still, he is the best friend I've ever had. These dogs are magnificent. I hate to see people get them and then not interact with them, as if they are furniture. This is not a dog you can do that with. Thank you! Thumbs up. :)

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