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.
Questions & Answers
Why does my Malamute howl every time he is alone in the house, or while I am going to school? My dad says it's because yesterday we took him on a walk, is that true?
Malamutes are just very, very social animals. They probably feel the pain of being alone a wee bit. It is not a bad thing for a mal to howl, as they do that rather than bark (most of them anyway). Unless it is a disturbance to someone, we let our dogs howl when they want to express something. However, if we want them to be quiet, we train them with that command - quiet. We reward them when they obey. We have a lot of friends (and neighbors) who actually love to hear our malamutes howl, though.
Do Malamutes need to learn how not to pull on a leash so they can go in the snow and be safe on icy roads?
Yes - that is the trick. When a malamute is on a leash, they have to learn that it is not the same as being in a harness. They have to be taught to heal and to obey, as being on icy roads become a real danger to the human attached to them! We have one of our mals who is horrible at pulling. I have to literally walk a few steps, make her sit, try again until she figures out we are not moving forward until she stops trying to pull me down the street. It takes a lot of training with some of them to get them to the understanding that a leash is NOT the same as a harness! Turning quickly from one direction to another with a treat held in your hand and them on a short length of the leash is a great training exercise to do with them. Anything involving 'heel' is the way to go. Letting them go too far out in front of you really spikes the behavior and increases the risk of them getting away with a pull rather than a heel.