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How to Train Alaskan Malamute Puppies to Pull a Sled

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

This ancient breed of dog was bred for one very important thing: pulling.

This ancient breed of dog was bred for one very important thing: pulling.

Alaskan Malamute Puppy Training

Alaskan Malamutes are at the top of the list of most misunderstood breeds—that is, except for people who know and love them. I happen to be one of those people. Understanding the Malamute is really not so hard. Think of a dog that has many human characteristics such as intelligence and sociability and you'll come to understand just a few of the most endearing qualities of the Malamute.

That said, they can also be one of the most frustrating dog breeds you can ever own simply because they must (and I stress must with a capital "M") be kept busy, and they must have a job to do. They are not the dog breed to sit idly by and be ignored.

Alaskan Malamutes have been around for centuries. They are one of the "true" dog breeds. Much as people say they are part wolf, they, in fact, are not. They are an ancient breed of dog that was bred for one very important thing…and that thing was pulling.

They get their name from the Mahlemut tribe of Alaskan Inuits and are known for their great strength. They are heavier than huskies, who are known for their speed and are usually the dogs that spring to mind when you think of speeding sleds pulled by snow dogs.

While Malamutes pull just fine on a sled, they don't possess the quickness or the speed. But while they are not the fastest on the block, they definitely are the strongest. The Malamutes of old pulled entire loads of building materials across the ice and snow for their masters. They were also revered as a member of the family by their owners and lived by the tenets of mutual respect.

Malamutes today are different in many respects because in our society they have little opportunity to be used as freight haulers. That is, unless you train them to pull. Now, why would someone want to do that? Let's find out.

Why Train a Malamute to Pull?

Well, there are several reasons for teaching an Alaskan Malamute to pull. To name just a few:

  • It's fun for owner and dog.
  • Some can pull up to almost 2000 pounds (this is called weight pulling).
  • They feel like they have a purpose and a job to do, and they'll do it without fail.
  • Teaching your dog to pull (no matter what breed, actually) can lead to fun dog sports like sledding, scootering, bikejoring, skijoring, carting and weight pulling contests which will keep you young and active and your dog fit and happy

But how to begin? I happen to have a Malamute puppy who just turned 6 months old. She's a great training example because she is full of life! We've been working on basic commands for months, but I just recently started training her for the harness. Come along with me and see how easily it can be done.

X-Back Harness

X-Back Harness

What You Need to Start Training

  • Dog harness—I started her out with a walking harness and now progressed to an X-back harness
  • Box or something to pull (I used a collapsible crate that weighed next to nothing)
  • Light weights, then heavier objects (eventually)
  • Gangline (attaching dog to weighted box or object)
  • Treats
  • Another person can be helpful but not necessary
  • Leash (sometimes helpful in guiding)
  • Time and patience
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Malamute Puppy Pull Training

With any puppy, you first have to be aware that they are puppies! You have to bear in mind that their bones are still growing and any excessive force or strain you put on their growing bodies may have a detrimental effect later in life.

For a Malamute youngster, the recommended age to let them truly start "pulling their weight" so to speak in front of a sled or in weight pull contests is 18 months. Some people argue that they can handle it earlier but my sources all agree that 18 months is the safe time to start letting them stress bones and joints.

However, that doesn't mean that even as young as 6 weeks to 2 months you can't start getting them into the groove of pulling. Pulling, just like anything else your dog will ever do for you or with you is based on the ability of the owner (that's you) to give a command and to have the puppy (that's her) obey that command. Without that equation firmly fixed in the puppy's makeup, you won't have much success at pull training—or probably with any other commands.

I began teaching Gabby commands like "sit", "down", and "wait" when she was 8 weeks old. It has paid off simply because she knows what's expected of her (though of course, it is an ongoing process). Because I worked with her so much, when it came time to slip on the harness and get down to pull training, she had the concept implanted in her head that when I speak, I want her to do something and that she is supposed to do it.

Truth be told though, even without that preliminary training, I think that she would have responded easily to training in harness simply because Malamutes have a built-in desire to participate. Pulling comes naturally for most of them and in my puppy's case, she gave it an enthusiastic 4 paws up!

The Mechanics of Pulling

I set my pulling object on the grass and attached the gangline (or towline) securely to it. You want something for them to pull that won't make a lot of noise (at first especially) and that will move fairly easily but not fly up and hit them if they yank too hard. You can frighten a dog this way. Many people, when training, use old tires without the rims. Word of caution there though. Just make sure that the weight is not excessive if you're training a puppy. It's always better to start with a little weight and build up. For a puppy in training, 5 pounds should be more than sufficient.

Attach the towline and drag it out so that it's stretched away from the pulling object. If you want to add a small amount of weight to give a bit of drag, you can – again just make sure that it is not over a few pounds. I started with the milk crate open but as she pulled it, it collapsed on itself. She didn't even seem to notice but when it was flat, it was easy to throw a weight on top of it. You can also bungee cord a small rock to it or do any number of things. The idea is to get them used to pulling something behind them. Be mindful to make it a good experience and never a frightening one. Also, keep in mind that too much too soon can create confusion.

In terms of how to go about it, attach the dog's harness to the gangline. It's best to work with 1 dog at a time at this point, although this is where a partner can really come in handy. In our case, we attached Gabby's walking harness to a leash so we could control how fast or hard we wanted her to pull at first. Bob was the partner with the leash while I was the partner who ran backwards with Griffin, our other malamute, inviting Gabby to "pull" towards us. Griffin being in front of her at first gave her an extra incentive to come towards me when I gave the command "pull."

When teaching any dog to pull, it's most important to make sure the dog is listening to your commands. If you repeatedly let a dog get away with not obeying your commands, you may have a worse time of it later trying to break bad habits. I used a lot of the "wait" command while putting on her harness. Exuberance and puppies go hand in hand and it helps to teach the dog early to try hard to be quiet while you are harnessing them up. Some days it works better than others! At any time in the process, you can issue other commands such as "sit" or "down" if the pup knows the command. It's a good exercise to practice when later you might need to harness up 2 dogs for instance.

Once you have the dog harnessed, you're ready to begin. Keep in mind that you can use whatever commands over time that you find most comfortable for you and your dog. I happen to like "let's go" when I want my dogs to kick in and start to pull. So when Gabby is in the harness, connected to the gangline and the box is behind her, ready to begin her training to come to me, I walk backwards in front of her while Bob, my partner, holds her leash beside her. With Gabby, it really was just a security hold because she didn't need it. She understood the concept right away and wasn't frightened in the slightest of running towards me and Griff (as you can see from the video). She wasn't frightened by the box being tugged behind her and barely noticed it.

Her natural instincts took over and she "dug in" and began to pull. She had excellent form and it wasn't long before she was going back and forth easily with her "load." The important thing here though was to make her wait until given the command to start and then to pull. She had a bit of trouble with over-exuberance at first but she eventually settled down.

Griffin as a puppy learning the ropes.

Griffin as a puppy learning the ropes.

Moving On to Urban Mushing

Like anything else that you want to perfect in life, teaching an Alaskan Malamute to pull requires diligence on the part of the owner (again, that's you) and practice, practice and more practice on the part of your team (the dog). The more you practice, the more confident your dog becomes in the exercise and will know what to expect.

Using a partner, you can attach a light choke chain with a leash and teach the dog in an open area the commands of "gee" and "haw", praising the dog lavishly for getting it right. After practicing for a while, the dog becomes accustomed to the spoken word and knows which way to turn.

Commands such as "on by" can easily be worked on while simply walking your dog on a leash! I train my Malamutes all the time with the "on by" command because it is a huge command to get right. "On by" means that no matter what they pass, they will leave it alone and keep going. This comes in handy when urban mushing but it also comes in very handy when you're descending a mountain trail and you're passing someone with a dog. Or I'm walking down the street and someone has a dog that's snarling. I don't want to deal with it so I use the command. Or I pass 17 deer lying in a field (for real) and I want Griffin to just leave them alone.

Again, this is a basic concept but invaluable when you have several dogs pulling a scooter or a sled and you go to pass another group of dogs. Instead of chaos and risks of a dog fight, you can smoothly encourage your dog or dogs to simply keep going straight ahead. It is one of the most disciplined of the commands but truly the most invaluable in my opinion. The fact that it works in everyday Malamute life is an added bonus.

Once you and your dog have mastered the basics of pulling, then you're ready to start putting it to use. Depending upon where you live and the weather, you can routinely run your dog on a bike, which is bikejoring; you can cross country ski with your dog which is skijoring; you can train your dog to pull a cart or even an ATV or you can train your dog to pull a mountain scooter, which is called scootering. We have 2 such scooters and train our dogs to scooter simply because our weather and terrain are most conducive to that.

When you have a puppy Gabby's age, it's possible to train her on the scooter in harness as long as she isn't pulling any true weight. That means walking behind the scooter and teaching her the commands or giving the command to "pick it up" and then running behind the scooter. It's a great way to teach her the commands before we ever hit the trails and it's also great exercise for both trainer and dog. Our Malamute Griffin is shown here with Bob learning the ropes with Denaya, our older Malamute as we put him through his paces. We train on dirt roads and on pavement, but we never run the dogs on pavement.

Last but not least, if you've trained your dog to pull and you don't have the lifestyle or the inclination to urban mush, it's still all good! You can train your dog to pull and become involved in Malamute weight pulling. It's a great way for them to exercise, keep in tiptop shape and be involved in something they love. I used to think it was a rather strange dog sport simply because I didn't understand that Malamutes truly love to pull. They are experts at it and being involved in weight pulling is something they excel at.

Commonly Used Mushing Commands

COMMAND

WHAT IT MEANS

SKILL LEVEL

"Easy"

Slow down

Beginning

"Haw"

Go to the left

Beginning to Medium

"Gee"

Go to the right

Beginning to Medium

"On By"

Move past distraction without stopping

Medium to Difficult

"Hike or Let's Go"

Pick it up and move out

Medium

"Pull"

Dig for it, put some muscle into it

Beginning

"Keep On or Straight On"

Do not turn - go straight

Medium to Difficult

"Pick It Up"

Go Faster

Medium

"Whoa"

Stop!

Beginning to Medium

"Come Gee"

Make a U-turn right

Difficult

"Come Haw"

Make a U-turn left

Difficult

"Leave It"

Don't even think about it

Medium

A Wonderful Hobby

Training an Alaskan Malamute to pull is a wonderful hobby. It's good for you and it's good for your dog. Malamutes are by nature interested from the beginning in engaging with humans and they seem to have an untiring nature when it comes to participating and interacting. They can be stubborn, but with patience and consistent training, you'll find that you have a friend for life.

Any breed of dog can be taught to pull, and many medium to large breeds participate spectacularly in urban mushing activities. Whatever breed of dog you have, if you want to train them to pull, start slow and build up gradually.

Train them in the mechanics of the sport and they will have an outlet that will bring them a feeling of success and add another dimension to their lives. Strangely, it adds dimension to their human counterparts' lives as well. There's nothing like the thrill of training your dog to do something and to do it well.

There's also nothing quite like the thrill of riding behind a dog on a sled or a scooter and watching them do something they were meant to do. It's an experience hard to beat!

More Malamute Thoughts by This Author

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Comments

Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on April 18, 2018:

I just take my dogs to a park or work in the back yard and try and build up a bit at a time. Whatever works for you in your situation is the best way to handle it. You can also connect with other puller groups in your local area and get great info and events to attend even!

Jackiej1229 on January 31, 2018:

We want to start training a 3 year old Alaskan Malamute. My plan is to get the harness and ganglion and a cart of wheels for him to start and adding weight over time. I have a back yard but it's not super large, how much open space do you think they need? Can I start by just having hime pull the cart during our walks? What are your thoughts on those carts that the owners can sit in. I am not doing this to join competitions or anything just want to get my pup some exercise and a job to keep him busy.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Eiddwen from Wales on October 10, 2011:

A brilliant hub which I am sure many will benefit from reading .

I vote up without a doubt here.

Take care and have a great day.

Eiddwen.

Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on August 04, 2011:

Awesome nherritt - welcome to the madness~ great pic~!!

nherritt on August 03, 2011:

just wanted to say thanks, my guys are just 4 months old and I can't wait to start their training on pulling so glad to read and learn about the process. Voting UP!!!

Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on August 01, 2011:

Thanks, Hanna~

Hello, hello, from London, UK on August 01, 2011:

An excellent and informative hub. I am not a dog lover but enjoyed reading all your information.

Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on July 29, 2011:

Pamela - Thanks for the read - definitely don't want to create problems for them down the line as they are a large breed dog and can easily hurt themselves if stressed too early. They are wonderful huge dogs~ Strong dogs too - I keep asking myself what I'm doing with such big dogs at "my age" but I can't stop adoring this breed so there ya go~ You just have to keep on them to be 'good citizens' always and listen to their 'master'~!