From the 1998 Alaskan Malamute Annual, This article illustrates the depth and complexity of the breed and how difficult it is to "fix" any dog once a behavior is acquired, especially a dog as intelligent as the Alaskan Malamute.

Nature or Nurture... the Story of Shadow

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Cindy O'Malley
Trenary, MichiganSteph gives Shadow a hug.

Where does nature leave off and nurture begin? What determines temperament - genetics or socialization? Malamutes are very perceptive, intelligent creatures, so how important is socialization and consistent rules to a puppy? Just as some children are more fragile than others, some puppies are more resilient than others. While one puppy is able to overcome true cruelty, another more sensitive pup, never truly recovers from unintentional neglect. My experience has been, through rescue and with Shadow, that an alpha pup, perhaps because he is so intelligent is more at risk. His behavior is precocious and trying to inexperienced owners, who make unintentional mistakes. He is demanding of time and attention, perhaps because his needs are more. Shadow was such a puppy. Sensitive and loving, perceptive with a strong sense of justice and above average intelligence. Through several name changes: Alfalfa-Spot-Fozzie-Shadow, he returned to us, and though still mostly the dog we knew, returned with a tear in his heart. A wound difficult to heal because it was emotional. Although it is easy to blame genetics for a problem dog, sometimes one must look deeper. Genetics plays a part in a dog's inherent personality, but whether that per sonality develops its full potential is dependent on early experiences. A series of unforseeable events, regretfully, might make the difference between a stable friendly adult or a fearful aggressive one. We waited in anticipation and excitement as our first litter was due. When it arrived, it was beyond our expectations. Four sweet puppies, each an individual, each a personality unto himself. We named them for the "Little Rascals" that they were - Alfal- fa, Spanky, Darla and Mary. As they tumbled happily through the spring grass Alfalfa began to stand out as the leader, a confident puppy, very, very bright and affectionate. When we called, he was the first to come run- ning, then Darla, then Spanky (tripping over his own feet) and lastly Mary, a reserved little girl. Slowly, Alfalfa's name became Spot because of a prominent black spot on his chest, and besides, he wasn't shy and unsure of himself, but rather the most confident and secure of the puppies. As they grew we bickered and bargained over which puppy to keep. The kids voted for Darla, a friendly, affectionate and very outgoing cuddler. We all loved Spanky - the clown. Dan fell for Spot, such show attitude and confidence! I fell for little Mary - quiet and sweet, not outgoing at all but a beauty! Mary, now called Star, went on to be our first champion. Spot would teach us more about dog behavior than we'd ever imagine. After heated debates it was decid- ed Mary would stay, and the others would go to the most perfect homes we could find from over 300 A happy puppy.responses to our ad. Spot was chosen to go to the home of a retired fireman. He promised he had all the time in the world to train and play. Spot, being an active and very intelligent puppy from the beginning, needed someone who would keep him busy and stimulate his mind. Len (human names have been changed to protect privacy) told us he had a fenced yard, previous Malamute experience and was recommended by a fellow breeder. He'd waited for over a year. ItSEEMEDperfect. It wasn't. Perhaps we should have seen problems coming when Len arrived to get his puppy with a rolled leather collar several sizes too big, and disclosed a girl- friend he'd lived with for years (who seemed nice) just a week before the pup went home. In retrospect, it didn't seem enough to change our plans to let him take Spot home. And Spot, loving adventure and new people, was happy to go. They renamed him Fozzie and things were fine for three months. We got semi-weekly rave reviews of what a wonderful and smart guy he was. Then the calls stopped. I waited, but when a month went by without a word, we called. They still insisted everything was okay, but I sensed something was wrong. I called the next week and discovered Fozzie was growling and stealing things ... and was being raised by the girlfriend with no dog experience at all, while the man we thought would be so involved went up north for weeks at a time. She needed some help since she apparently had no "dog sense" whatsoever. We made a trip to Ohio to visit and help with training, but it seemed we weren't getting the whole story. We discovered the "huge fenced yard" didn't have a gate so he was chained instead of allowed to run.

They collected antique furniture and were paranoid about a chewing puppy. Their discipline methods were inconsistent and erratic. Yet, our puppy seemed to be the same sweet guy, happy and exuberant. Where was the growling uncontrollable monster we were being told about? Leaving behind lots of information and all the help we could think of we went home,thinking we had helped. Then, a week later another desperate call.  I recommended obedience class. After many calls to figure out what she was doing wrong, and sensing her growing frustration, we asked that Fozzie come back to us. She insisted she couldn't bear to part with him, wanted to keep trying to make it work, but was afraid of him. Nothing made sense. Then one night she called crying, "You have to come and get Fozzie now, Len will be home in the morning and he'll kill him - he's growling in his crate and I'm afraid of him." Ahhhh, perhaps the truth. She admitted he hadn't gotten shots, and Len encouraged his aggression toward strangers then beat him when it was directed to the wrong person, he was crated more than twenty hours a day, and they had quit obedience class - all in violation of our contract. So at l:00 am Dan drove to Ohio to bring Spot home. He'd been locked in a crate for hours with a pinch collar on, but still greeted Dan with exuberant kisses. At first we didn't understand. How could this sweet puppy be a vicious growling menace? Slowly, the story came out. It was fear.  They'd give him a rawhide and take it away over and over in a misguided attempt to teach him to give it up. Instead he learned to guard it.   The girlfriend allowed him anything he wanted. If he stole something off the counter, she made a lame attempt to get it back, but if he growled, she would back off fearfully. She allowed him to bully her. He had no one willing to be alpha, confusing inconsistent rules, and so retreated to his crate and began to do the only thing he found worked. Growl fiercely and they leave you alone. If you growl, with some people you can do ANYTHING you want. He would spend long days alone in his crate while she worked, then sleep in his crate at night.  He was crated for over twenty hours a day with no chance to learn or socialize with people or other dogs. The only person he saw for weeks at a time was the girlfriend who was admittedly afraid of him now that he was almost full grown. Meanwhile, Len would hear about a typical puppy misdeed and return and beat him for misbehavior done weeks earlier. Our very confused puppy came home. We'd made a big mistake, so owed Spot a second chance at a happy life.

He returned to us and seemed his happy puppy self. An hour later, a rawhide fell off the refrigerator and Spot quickly snatched it and raced to the crate. I followed and was greeted by vicious growling and snarling. Surprised by this new development, I locked him in the crate to think. I decided I couldn't let him win, since he'd always won by scaring people before, so began taking the crate apart pin by pin. As it fell apart, he ran for cover - scared puppy or vicious attack dog? Under the table he went, I pushed it over. With nowhere to go, he rolled over and submitted. When Dan returned home, I was crying and upset, thinking we'd have to put this beautiful puppy down because of what he'd become. We decided to take it day by day. Meanwhile Spot was staying in the side yard by day, visiting in the house when the other dogs were out, and at night slept in his crate. We discovered he was very dog aggressive (no socialization to other dogs?). So when the other dogs went out, he came in. Our dogs are housedogs, so this was very disruptive. The other dogs sensed his problems and Homer, our alpha male, was determined to put him in his place. Unsure of how to handle it, we kept Spot outside. He howled since he was used to being indoors. We brought him in and he challenged Homer. So he'd go back out. The rawhides were reluctantly picked up and put away. Unfortunately, I missed one. Spot had been with us a week while we determined what to do. Other breeders felt we should put him down, but we weren't sure that was the right thing to do. Then one day Stephanie came home from kindergarten. As she came in the door, Spot found it, and again raced for the crate. Before I could react, Stephanie followed him into the crate. He gave her a kiss, let her take the rawhide and she hugged him. Adults got vicious snarls, kids got kisses? Could it be children never hurt him? The trust in his eyes was deep, he loved Stephanie. How could we put him down now? The in and out thing began to get tiring so we again attempted to bring him in, but kept them apart as much as possible. Several rip-roaring fights later, we realized through all the bravado and noise, Homer never hurt Spot. So, as a last ditch effort to get him in the house permanently, we decided to just let things play out. To our surprise, Spot wanted to be inside so badly, he reluctantly submitted to Homer. Success! He could be inside if supervised. It was a tense truce, but at least he was indoors with the pack. Yet, it seemed he would never be happy as low man in our pack and was constantly picked on by our alpha male. Until this time our dogs were always allowed rawhides and we left them scattered around the house. Instead I bought a box of chew hooves for the dogs, the odd thing was, though he loved them, he did not guard these at all.

 Time passed and he seemed to be doing much better so we felt he might do well in a home with kids and an adult that would work with him. He had abysmal house manners. He was constantly in trouble for getting in the garbage and stealing from counters, but also had an almost desperate need to be near people. He followed me around constantly. He took most of our attention, but was making progress. But, he needed more than we could give him. He needed to be an only dog. We decided to look for the right person for our return puppy. We found that person in Sandy. She had a boy three and a six-year-old daughter. They fell in love and decided to call him Shadow. Shadow gave them kisses and all the affection he had been craving for so long. Carefully we screened, visiting their home and making them vow to stay in touch. He seemed to settle in quickly, and adored the little boy. Sandy didn't mind his overprotectiveness as she was home alone at night due to her husband's job. She taught him tricks and had him pulling the kids on a sled. She exercised him on leash with a golf cart. We thought he had found his home until a call came six months later. He scared the Schwann man and they wanted him "OUT." No explanation. Until now, everything had been fantastic. I'd been out to their house several times and everything was great, although I was concerned he was being kept outside as much as in. He seemed happy and I didn't worry about it. Shadow adored the kids, Sandy adored Shadow. Then Sandy went to Florida for two weeks, leaving her husband in charge. We suspect with his beloved Sandy and the kids gone, Shadow began to feel insecure again and threatened her husband. Sandy received an ultimatum, get rid of the dog or else! So Shadow returned to us with a fear of being locked outdoors at night and coat thicker than any full-time housedog's would be.

Now with added fears of abandonment Shadow would refuse to go outdoors after 8 pm. We suspect he was tricked outside then tied outdoors for the night after the husband got home. Sandy said he liked sleeping on the boy's bed and he probably felt betrayed to be tricked into being separated from his little boy. When he returned to us this time, he loved balls, so much so that he would guard and sometimes eat them. We couldn't throw them far - we had to drop them like a three-year-old for him to fetch over and over again. He clearly missed the boy that had been the center of his life for six Adjusting adult - shadow standingprecious months - we wistfully wondered if Jason missed him too. Shadow was one year old, an adolescent, and his problems worsened. He seemed very insecure and provoked fights with the other dogs. He rummaged food with a vengeance. He guarded the van like a Rottweiler. He threatened strangers with bared teeth in public, yet if he met them in our home he sat in their laps and bestowed wet kisses. Visitors seemed amused when we explained he was our problem dog. No one believed he had aggression problems because in our home he greeted visitors happily. He obviously felt safe here, but why the aggression elsewhere? I practiced obedience with him to teach rules as some suggested, and though it helped, it probably didn't alleviate his real worries - fear and abandonment. Our second litter was due soon and Shadow took it upon himself to be our "salesdog," pouring on the charm with potential owners and trying to go out the door with anyone that came to visit. He clearly wanted to go home with SOMEONE and have a home of his own. Several of the people we interviewed for puppies went home wanting Shadow instead, regardless of his problems with other dogs, guarding food, toys and thievery. They loved his boundless enthusiasm, seeming happiness and apparent love of life. No one believed he had a "dark side." Most of the time he was the charming con man, but memories seemed to haunt him. He would occasionally get a blank look and be somewhere else. Usually calling, "Puppy, puppy" would bring him back, but often he seemed in a faraway place with his thoughts. He was intelligent and his personality ran deep. Raised properly he'd have been a wonderful therapy dog, obedience prospect, conformation special or lead dog with tremendous heart. Now our only goal was to make him a reliable housepet. The complete lack of training and socialization at a vulnerable age (along with being allowed to think he was invincible when he growled) was difficult to undo. Being an "only dog" much of his life, and getting all the attention, he hated sharing ours with the other dogs and, of course, Homer laid down the dog law and expected him to behave like a low ranked male should. Shadow wanted nothing to do with this, so was constantly "in trouble." If there was a fight, he'd always lose. So we began to think, just maybe, we should try again to put him in a home where he could be the only dog and get lots of attention and more training than we had time for. One problem. Who could deal with his, at seemingly psychotic and dangerous behavior? Meanwhile, a very nice couple had been visiting every few weeks in their wait for a future litter. They had all the attributes you'd want in a puppy home - and, of course, they fell in love with Shadow. Until Stacy and Steve, nobody seemed right. Stacy and Steve began coming not so much in anticipation of future puppies, but to see Shadow. We explained his problems and they were undaunted. They resolved to spend weeks if necessary getting to know him and learn how to handle him. By now we saw that his behavior was similar to Vietnam veterans that had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When he was stressed, he would get a faraway look in his eyes, they'd glaze over and he wouldn't see us. If confused, he'd growl and posture viciously. Then, with a "Hey Spot, puppy, puppy" we found we could often break the spell. Suddenly his gaze would soften, he'd relax and come squirming over for a hug and kisses - his real self returned. What had happened to our puppy to turn him into Jekyll and Hyde - only he knew, and he couldn't talk. But he was making tremendous progress, and because they were patient and firm and he genuinely liked them, we decided to give it one last try. Stacy and Steve understood this. We'd set up situations so they could see the glaze in his eyes and so they would realize he was very dangerous at those times. We stipulated that if they took him home, he was to NEVER get rawhides of any kind. They agreed. They promised to take obedience and stay in touch regularly. After several months we felt confident they could handle anything that came along. Shadow adored them, trying to go home with them at every visit. To make the transition easier, we brought him over for visits and to play in their big fenced backyard. He met their relatives and loved them. It seemed right. Reluctantly (by now he was beginning to tug at our heartstrings) we sent him to a new home. Again, all was fine. Other than giving him a rawhide the first night home (why don't people listen!), everything went fine. That is, until an evening two months later when Shadow began pinning their friends to the wall and wouldn't let them in the house! He apparently liked them TOO much and wanted to protect them from the world a la guard dog. Enough!

The Butt Head shadow sitting in the backyardHome again! This time we would keep him forever. We've had many express interest with the determination to handle this beautiful, messed up dog, including the owners of his littermates (who had no aggression problems). No. We would see it through. We began taking him to conformation training, not so much for showing as for the socialization. The instructor understood him and began making significant progress. Unfortunately, every time he'd make progress something would set him back. He could be so charming and deceiving, wagging his tail and "looking" friendly, so that no one believes he will bite. So they attempt to Malamute him, he snaps, and they jump back, and he's back to square one thinking he's invincible again. Progress has been slow, but there. He rummages less, no longer destroys his toys, doesn't make foolish challenges to the other dogs as often and we can put our hands in his food dish now. Small imperceptible steps. We figure by the time he's an old dog, he'll be a trusting one. He still SCREAMS when we leave him at home to go out due to separation anxiety. He is still dangerously aggressive at but NEVER to kids. We've even taken him to a quiet beach in summer to swim and he longs to play ball with the children, but when he growls at the parent they pull their child away. Who can blame them? We sometimes regret that we didn't keep him and his sister as puppies. Stephanie who first climbed in the crate and showed us the love in his heart insists he is HER dog and SHE wants to keep him. It has been difficult. At the last return our alpha male, his sire, would ride roughshod over Shadow bullying and pinning, often several times a day. He was an adolescent male with absolutely abhorrent dog manners! The fights again sounded ferocious but no one was ever harmed. Slowly the fights lessened to daily, then weekly, then monthly. A truce between Dad and Son. Shadow still has much to learn in the way of manners. A Malamute that doesn't learn them in the first six months will always be a bit of a brat and Shadow is - stealing food, guarding toys, rummaging countertops and trash. We continue to sort it out and put things together - the food stealing from the first home where he was allowed to steal things off the counter with no correction, the rummaging from the three-year-old that left french fries in couch cushions for Shadow to find, the toy guarding from the insecurity he still feels.

Three homes and four names later, he's been back for two years. Often it's been touch and go. He is something of a charming "butthead," hence his unofficial nickname. Continually testing the rules to see if they are the same. But he's in the house with the rest of our pack. Reluctantly, they've accepted him. He's been a very expensive dog to own in that he's broken cameras, chewed the bait pockets out of new suits, devoured pans of brownies, eaten entire tennis balls, testing our patience and our veterinarian's payment plan to the limit.

On the good days the future seems promising. On bad ones, we just don't know how long we can continue to try. The frustration and anger can be so great at times. He needs a careful mix of gentleness and toughness. He needs VERY clear and consistent rules. He is so intelligent and pushy he could anger a saint. He is very persistent and opportunistic (good strong Malamute qualities!). He's a dog that most definitely can't be allowed to get away with ANYTHING. He's so bright I wonder if he planned to come back to us all along! Once he was rummaging the van for crumbs while we were shopping and we returned to find a flashlight turned on and pointed under the seat! He'll growl and guard a dog toy, but silently hand over a stolen kid toy with an innocent look of "But I FOUND it."

On good days he's our most personable people-oriented dog, the charming clown, always busy and willing to DO SOMETHING, happy and exuberant, wanting to be nearby cuddling, doing tricks, just NOTICE me! On bad days he sits in his crate with his memories, challenges the other dogs, starts fights and looks for trouble. But ALWAYS, he loves kids of any age, but particularly three-year- olds. On a bad day, he might growl and refuse to budge from the crate for us, but for Stephanie (who is now nine) he would leap tall buildings.

Moral of story? Breeders, place puppies with care. It's difficult to find second (and third) homes for problem dogs. Hindsight is always 20/20, and mistakes can be made even with the best intentions. It's easy to blame aggression on genetics, but more often, problem dogs are unintentionally made by ignorant owners. They are the innocent victims. It's not easy to undo the damage, unraveling the threads of insecurity. Is it nature or nurture? I'd probably vote nurture.

Shadow says Kids are cool - let's play dressup.


shadow line


In the almost 4 years since I wrote this article Shadow has made much progress.  He is STILL a world class thief and will steal anything that isn't nailed down.  He still tries our patience to the max, demands our attention constantly, and guards the van enthuiastically. He has calmed down and relaxes more.   He seems more content and less fearful.  He no longer viciously guards his crate, eats tennis balls or shreds his toys.  We can give him rawhides occasionally.  We can Malamute him when he eats (unless it's something REALLY good!).  He still doesn't trust strangers, but is very loving with us and friends or family he's known for a long time.  He's learning to trust again and his separation anxiety is not as intense.  He treasures a very structured routine because he feels secure knowing "what's next".   But the best gift of all is that the haunted distant look in his eyes is rarely seen anymore.

2nd Postscript  6-2-07

This is to let everyone know there is hope for every dog.  No dog should be a throwaway.  Shadow had so many issues with people, rawhides, life.  But in 13 years he overcame most of them.  He died a wonderful dog that greeted the UPS guy for cookies, and let me Malamute him while he ate the most delicious rawhide.  He still wanted to eat the cable guy, however - maybe it's because he knew we get such terrible service and he heard me complaining!   But never give up.  It takes patience, understanding, consistency, and love.  Shadow's at the rainbow bridge now, but if he can give just one person the inspiration to not give up on just one dog - he will have fulfilled his mission on this earth.