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Auntie Behavior in Malamutes

People talk about "Auntie Behavior", but just what is it? Malamutes unlike some dogs really get into the pack thing. They live, breathe, survive because of the pack. When puppies are born, they are doted on by all pack members. The pack mentality becomes a part of their identity.

Auntie behavior is where the entire pack becomes involved in raising the puppies. It works because they ARE puppies and nature has provided for this behavior so that the puppies of the pack will survive. If the mother dies or is inattentive, the pack takes up the slack and shares the duties of raising the puppies. Malamute pups are quite dependent on their pack for at least the first 4-5 months or until sexual maturity. Once they are old enough to survive on their own, the tolerance and nurturing from all but the closest members usually disappears and any personality conflicts under the surface materialize.

Puppies that go to their new human homes at 9 weeks are also still under the influence of auntie behavior - but instead their new humans are their nurturers or "aunties". That is why what you do in that first 6 months with your malamute puppy is incredibly important and sets the stage for all future behavior and interactions within your pack.

Auntie behavior usually means that most pack members will adopt and include all young puppies in their activities, showing increased tolerance for the pestering, playfulness and annoying behaviors puppies exhibit that they wouldn't tolerate at an older age. Eventually, as the puppy grows up, often certain adults become the rules enforcers. Like human teenagers, often this disciplinary conflict will begin to push the pups out of the nest - perhaps as an incentive to have them go out on their own to start new packs were they "in the wild" - while other pups that fit in better remain. Of course this can't happen in a human-controlled situation, but the conflict almost always happens with some pack members to some degree.

Auntie Behavior is actually the process of raising and nurturing the puppies in a pack to be contributing and successful members of the pack, and sometimes allowing the pack itself to choose their next alpha. When the entire pack continues to nurture a puppy past a young age...it's often an indicator they like and approve of the little guy (or gal).

Raising Max

Max at 5 months has a great personality and defers to the older and wiser males, and loves all his "aunties" - the female members of the pack. I personally think he'd love to have Riggs' job - alpha male. But rather than bullying his way to the top (even though he's younger and stronger than the old guy) - I think he's going to do it another way - with finesse and diplomacy. He has wormed his way into every pack member's heart and is loved by all - no easy feat in malamutedom! How Max (and his sister Shila until she went to her new home) was raised, is an excellent example of the pack working together to raise and nurture puppies.

Max is being raised by aunts, uncles and cousin. It all started when he was born. Mom Pod wasn't the best mom - actually she was kind of flighty and inconsistent and a low-ranking female without much status. The other members of the pack liked her puppies however, and took the puppies under their care and made the effort to teach and show them love because Mom wasn't that interested. This would be somewhat comparable to losing their mom "in the wild" and having the pack continue to raise them since they were given limited interaction with their mom after 5 weeks when she crushed Shuffle.

Auntie behavior happens with most litters, but usually the Mom is much more in control of her own puppies social contacts - determining who is allowed to be with them and who is not. Because Pod was not the best mom, I think the pack felt it was in the pack's best interest to help out more than usual and we obliged so were able to see the full extent of "Auntie Behavior" at it's best. Hence, Max has several "Mommy's" and is being raised by the entire pack. While other pups have had an auntie or two helping mom out, Max is equally at home with every sub-pack and individual we have.

At first Jazzy took the initiative. As a previous mother of 11 (and jokingly called the Octomom) she had the experience and knowledge to pull it together for two very confused puppies. When Pod, Jazzy's sister and arch enemy, accidentally killed Shuffle, Pod had to be separated from the remaining two pups for safety. They were lost without their familiar mommy. So Jazzy, alpha female of the Mula/Riggs/Mocha Sub pack stepped in and set the pace - playing with them, making them feel loved and cared for. It was beautiful. The rest of the pack followed suit.

It has since evolved into an interesting schema. Pod is mommy, she will always be and Max respects her even though sometimes I feel he even thinks she's a little daft. She makes sure he respects her and always goes out the door first with him - which is in contrast to the rest of the pack that allows him through the door before they go out. Perhaps an early indicator that he is the likely heir-apparent to the alpha position.

Relationships Evolve

Relationships have evolved slowly, but each member has a role to play in raising this new important pack member into a responsible, fair and gentle alpha-in-training.

Mommy, is of course, Mommy. Nothing changes that. She is his security and he likes to sleep near her. He has pulled her bedding through the crate bars into his own pen to be near her smell. Mommy's are always security.

Auntie Grace is like the older aunt with white gloves you respect, admire, but never dare play with. She teaches manners, dignity and he loves following her around the yard but never gets too presumptuous or too close.

Uncle Riggs is the patriarch and Max's favorite role model. One of the funnier aspects of this is that Riggs has taken to "huffing" when he wants to go outside (his kidney's aren't in the best condition). It's not a bark, or a howl, it's a huff...as in a soft heavy breathing. Max watches everything Alpha Male Riggs' does - and tries to emulate him - right down to the "huffing" to go outside which sounds pretty funny coming from a puppy! If Riggs is relaxing, Max relaxes. If Riggs does ANYTHING Max follows suit. Max has great admiration and awe of Riggs. Riggs is also a gentle disciplinarian and when Max gets a bit too wild, Riggs grumbles at him and he settles right down. No questions asked! Riggs is the boss...no argument there.

Then there is Auntie Mula...she's the fun aunt - she plays with him and acts as the fun surrogate mommy. They'll go out in the yard, do play bows, she lets him ambush her and they run wild around the yard. Everyone needs a fun auntie! I think she loves this role because she couldn't play with her own puppies at that age because she was in too much pain (from the botched c-section). Rather than have her puppies lose respect for her as weak, she hid the pain and played dignified. But with Max she is much different and can actually enjoy the silly puppy antics she missed with her own pups and loves the fact she no longer has to pretend dignity - she is having a blast with her nephew!

On the flip side Auntie Jazzy has decided someone must be the disciplinarian or the boy will run wild. She thinks Auntie Mula is just not teaching Max enough manners and respect so it's become her mission to make him behave and become a responsible, pack citizen. He gets too wild and you hear a low growl in the other room - it's Jazzy telling him to chill out and behave. He likes to play with Jazzy - and she plays with him - but she calls the shots and makes sure he knows when she wants to stop. Octomom has it covered! whereas this works because Max is male, when she tried this role previously with Simone it didn't work out when Simone grew up - it became female to female aggression...

Dad Superman is kind of a distant Dad these days. While he likes puppies and his son, like most Dad's he wants perfection in his kid. He has a no tolerance policy for puppy antics. He is somewhat like the Dad in Mary Poppins...distant, loving, but demanding of his progeny. One must keep one's alpha daddy status among the children and require them to behave with sterling manners. Superman can be playful with Max, but it requires close supervision and I really wouldn't call it "play"...kind of a forced and formal jockeying for position (and Superman always wins).

Then there's Cousin Theodore - Max's best buddy! Max ADORES Theo...and follows him adoringly around the yard and does everything he does. Theo is the adored big brother role model. Theo doesn't mind as long as Max isn't in his face when he's trying to eat snow (Theo likes his snow). Max grovels and submits to an indifferent Theo constantly, hoping for some bit of acknowledgement. Theo occasionally does acknowledge him - with a quick sprint around the yard and game of chase. Theo is the perfect big brother - he maintains his alpha status, but is fun too!

Cousin Simone is a lot like Theo. Max likes her allot, but she has her own agenda...she is usually off sniffing something but will occasionally be up to a game of chase with Max and Theo - if she is in control of the official chase toy. Max, Theo and Simone in many ways are like the neighborhood guys, and he looks forward to wild crazy adventures with his friends.

His best friend of all though is Mocha. She tolerates his puppy silliness and plays with him non-stop. She lets him chew on her like a chicken-leg. Her role is that of big sister. She never tells him "no" or "stop" which is why I think he likes her the best of all. He can do no wrong with Mocha - it's unconditional love. She has infinite patience with her puppy-cousin and is the perfect baby sitter. He respects her, but knows she's a soft touch for a game of stick tag or wrestle mania.

Then last of all there is Grandma Holly. I think he respects her the most of all - she is the perfect Grandma. Fun because she occasionally plays with him, but is also the best teacher of life skills. She walks him around the yard and you can just hear the deep conversations they must be having. He has complete respect for her because when he's gone a bit too far, she let him know with a quick snap - gently but firmly.

You can just see the respect for her in his eyes. Not the groveling, sniveling respect he has for Theo, or the fearful, I better be good respect he has for Jazzy and Superman - but something much more subtle and deeper. She is the matriarch, the wise one, someone he can learn from and he knows it. They have a mutual respect - she teaches him and he watches out for her in the yard. If she falls down (she's getting up in age) he pretends not to notice. She loves her grandson dearly and it shows. She also trusts him implicitly.

So the pack is taking little Max (who isn't so little any more) under their protection and guidance and teaching him the life skills to become a kind and gentle leader of the pack. I think he will attain his dream some day. You can't make a dog an alpha - it's there or it isn't. And in a pack situation, the pack will choose who they respect enough to lead. I do think Max may be the one to succeed Riggs' some day - it's not often you get a puppy that EVERYONE likes so well at this age.

So that is auntie behavior - the pack taking turns, each with a role teaching youngsters. Under their protection and guidance they love and nurture him into the pack role they wish him to have. It's a beautiful thing to watch. The most interesting thing of all is that Max will rise to Alpha status because he deserves and has earned that status - and will become a fair and good leader because of it. Not because his parents were alphas (Pod is a low ranking female). This sort of debunks some of the "wolf theories" I've read (where the son of Alpha becomes alpha) and such. Stable Malamute packs are interesting and complex and quite democratic. It's not just alpha-beta-theta as some would like you to believe. It's NOT all about power and force - it's more about diplomacy and cooperation. Auntie behavior is a large part of how this happens and an alpha is chosen. Auntie behavior gives the young ones role models to emulate. It creates respect and cements the hierarchy within the pack so the youngster has no doubt where he fits in.

Higher ranking dogs share their wisdom and demand respect, lower ranking dogs are fun and playful and give him the comradarie of almost-equals (though not quite - they still let him know he's a puppy). Perhaps we humans could learn from this - after all it DOES take a village...whether it's a village of humans or a village of malamutes.

Ultimately, the Alpha will be the dog that has the greatest respect from the most pack members - not the toughest, or pushiest dog as some would have you believe ...and little Max is on his road to fulfilling those big paws quite nicely some day.