Trainer Bias and Discrimination - the Importance of Finding a Trainer that Understands the Alaskan Malamute

(or how Simone got kicked out of Agility before class even started)

Malamutes are a very strong willed breed and it's quite common to have difficulty finding an obedience instructor that understands them. Malamutes get the bad reputation of being hard to train because they are so smart.

Let me start at the beginning. This is about Simone. Simone is a very special malamute in that she is simoneextremely smart, very energetic, can jump 5 foot STRAIGHT UP, and wants desperately to please to the point she appears to be a psycho (when all she is doing is trying everything she can think of that you may want her to do - sit, stand, jump, lie down, rotate, dance, all in 1 second before you even utter a word). I've only had one other mal like this (Shadow) and he was a handful! Mishandled, a dog like this becomes a "bad dog" that obedience instructors rarely want to deal with. They seem to have a difficult time understanding that dogs that are extremely intelligent and therefore make bad robots. They want a dog that plods along and waits for you to give them a command - THEN they tries something. If it doesn't work, you give another command, they try something else...and so it goes. However, an extremely bright Alaskan Malamute anticipates. They are trying to discover the magic key to your happiness. They will move heaven and earth to find it. That is Simone. I hoped to expand her drive and intelligence with a beginning Agility class.

Simone and other malamutes like her, with the right mixture of interest and motivation will learn amazingly fast. Instead, they are often thwarted with that plodding mentality and become frustrated and bored by the vast majority of obedience trainers. If given too much time to think about it, they can become aggressive out of pure frustration. A sled dog is not geared to stand still, sit, down, stay (note all the stationary exercises here....) - the usual routine of your typical beginning obedience class. Their brains are hard-wired to MOVE. Time spent in a dull obedience class, with nothing to do but listen to an instructor drone on with bla bla bla and they will come up with their own fun ways to pass the time.

Give a "look" to the dog next to them. Raise an eyebrow and see if they can get something fun going - like a fight or some distracting game. Embarrass Mom by doing everything backwards. Bore them enough and you have a difficult dog. Some dogs benefit from learning to focus in obedience classes, but frankly, that's all they may learn. Sure they pick up the sit, down stuff - but they would have learned that anyway. Every dog in our house can do those things even though I've never conciously trained them. It was a by-product of being part of our pack. pup

The brightest dogs really need something more, and the active dogs need more yet. They are in essence saying "Is this all you have to offer? I'm BORED" and will appear to be untrainable. It's all about motivation. It's not easy to work with a dog like this. You must always be one step ahead of them - and most training instructors don't have the time or want to bother that much with YOUR dog (though they'll work quite hard with their own dogs). It's easier to send you away and take the next easy dog in the door! Unless they really revel in a challenge, they will find malamutes frustrating and difficult. You need an instructor that appreciates this difference. It's not easy to find!

While a very smart malamute like this needs to focus, it also needs an overwhelming desire and REASON to focus. Because you "said so" is not good enough. It goes back to their heritage - just because you say go over the thin ice doesn't make safe or sensible. A malamute is always questioning - and the "authority" better prove itself worthy.

A stranger telling a malamute to "sit" is not going to elicit any kind of reliable response (especially without a cookie involved!). The owner might even have difficulty if the distractions are interesting and there seems to be no real benefit in the malamute's eyes. Sadly, most obedience instructors are used to labs and goldens that will perform for anyone, and think your malamute is stupid when they (big knowledgeable instructor) can't get him to do something simple like a sit.

There was an interesting Animal Planet special on last night that had a very good segment about Malamutes (Animal Planet - Alaska Dogs). But the interesting thing is that while historically the Inuit used Malamutes for finding seal - the scientists that are now researching seals are using labrador retrievers. Why do you think this is? Could it be because they are more "controllable"? Why are the scientists unable to train malamutes for a job they've done for the Inuit for 10,000 years?

I find it interesting they now use labs. I doubt it's because the Malamute has forgotten how - I think it's because the modern scientist is used to working with labs and has no clue how to motivate a malamute. This was alluded to in the segment when they said that they use labs because they needed to find seals hour after hour. A malamute would have said in essence - what is the point in that? Are we going to eat them or not? So something culturally is going on here. There is an inability of some very intelligent modern scientists to motivate the primitive malamute in a way that the Inuit could do month after month on the sea ice. Do you think Inuit hunters stopped when seal after seal got away? Not likely. They knew how to motivate their dogs - something sorely lacking today. Perhaps that's the problem with our "modern" instructors.

So last night we went to our first class ever for Simone. She was like a kid at Disneyland. Everything was new and interesting and other than being a bit vocal, she was incredibly well behaved. She stood nicely and waited. She tried to look at everything at once, but generally listened to me just fine. It was at a dog training club that I thought understood the malamute psyche. After all, one of their top instructors has mals. Simone & I had worked on a lot of obedience exercises at home (and if you think that's not distracting try and do it with 10 other dogs vying for attention). She did quite well. She was even heeling quite nicely. But she will never be a robot - her attention span is too short for something so foolish and useless.

So I signed her up for a beginning agility class at Ann Arbor Dog Training Club. Something non-competitive that we could have fun and continue our home-schooling in a different more interesting environment. BIG MISTAKE. They had an "evaluation" before you could be in the class. I thought it would be fair....it wasn't.

Rather than being evaluated we were judged because the instructor thought she "knew" malamutes. Simone had to be twice as obedient, twice as attentive, twice as calm as every other border collie, lab and golden there to be half as good. When she sat on command, I was reprimanded for using treats. When she looked away because something was far more interesting than the same boring command over and over, I was told she wasn't "attentive enough". Now I could understand if this were an evaluation for an upper echelon class - but it was a BEGINNER class - and introductory class. She was no less attentive than any other dog there - but she was a Malamute. Assumptions were made that she MUST be dog aggressive (she's not) and because she was distracted she wasn't well trained (she was). pup

The evaluation was a SHAM. The teacher of the class didn't ask anyone in the class to do anything - except Simone. Perhaps she already knew the other dogs - but they still should have been tested to make things fair for everyone. And when she wouldn't sit immediately on command for a STRANGER talking in a soft voice without treats, it was taken as an excuse to say she wasn't ready for the class. With those kinds of rules, she'll NEVER be ready.

She's a malamute - a primitive free spirit with independent thinking skills. Where was the motivation in telling her sit without a cookie in a very new and interesting environment? They should KNOW this if they are any kind of obedience instructors worth their salt.

I think the instructor didn't want a "difficult" malamute in her class. She was obvously not confident in her skills at motivating a malamute so it was just easier to not have one. The entire time there was vague innuindo to stay away from other dogs and for the other dogs to stay away from us. I thought that quite odd. Simone is fabulous with other dogs and was trying hard to get them to play with her.

She may talk (which I believe this instructor took to be aggression - but wooing is not aggression), and she gets along with every dog she meets. No, it's not "hey lets play" (a la golden retriever) - it's the reserved "I'm cool, you're cool" dog discussion often taken by inexperienced people as "potential" aggression.

Simone sizes up the other dog, decides they are "ok" and gives them a quick, imperceptible kiss on the nose then goes her own way. She doesn't offer to play, she doesn't wag her tail in happiness - she is dignified, professional. If you are not expert at dog body language you'd miss it. What these instructors don't understand is that when a malamute grows up and meets other dogs it's not like two children meeting at the park to play...it's like two executives meeting over a high powered formal business lunch. pup

It's serious, it's formal, it's friendly but not playful. How many execs have you seen tossle the hair and slap the butt of a colleague? Exactly my point. But a bad obedience instructor (meaning bad in the sense of not understanding the mal psyche) expects just that! Ain't gonna happen folks!

So the class went no further for us. We were told go take a beginning obedience course and then come back when you have "control" (aka "a robot"). My shock and surprise in all of this is that they are quite familiar with malamutes. And I DID have control. Like I said, an instructor that teaches there has them! But perhaps they have been lead to believe malamutes do actually act like goldens! Perhaps they've forgotten this mal owner puts in thousands of hours a week training her mals!

So how do you know if your instructor is a good one for your malamute? Frankly, you don't. I probably should have sat in on the class WITH Simone to get a feel for their biases. I'm not sure I would have seen it coming.

The odd thing is THEY were the ones that recommended Simone take the class. I asked for suggestions for a class for a very active girl and they suggested beginning Agility....I've decided instead to get my own agility equipment and I'm sure Simone will be our star sleddog when we get moved to our new home in the UP. I'm sure Simone will have it mastered quite fast. Perhaps that's better anyway, I'm sure all those robot dogs would just slow her down!