This article titled 'Pack Living' appeared in the 1997 Alaskan Malamute Annual: 

Pack Living

(Original) by Cindy O'Malley

"There is mutual respect in a stable pack among the dogs and people.
If the pack is truly a PACK, fights may look bad but injuries minor."

Living with a pack of Malamutes in your home can be hell or heaven, much depends on the individuals and your determination to make it work. Every pack is going to be different. A stable pack will have few fights, the group is amicable and everything goes smoothly. Problems start when a pack is not stable. This can be for a variety of reasons - a clash of personalities, a trouble-maker or just temporary stress. Our pack is relatively stable, with one trouble-maker and the occasional stress any household might have. It's dealing with these difficult times that make or break your resolve. Many have hit these bumps and given up, sending the dogs off to individual kennels or separating them into friendly groups. This is one way of dealing with disharmony. Another is to be a firm, consistent supreme alpha and deal with the conflict and tension as it occurs. Your commands and expectations must be clear. There is mutual respect in a stable pack among the dogs and people. If the pack is truly a PACK, fights may look bad but injuries minor. No pack member wants to hurt another. Their goal is dominance. If a pack's members consistently need stitches and surgery after a disagreement something is terribly wrong with the pack order.

Malamute owners who are experiencing an unstable pack situation need to be extremely firm. Just as they test each other they will test the owner, the supreme alpha. They will not respect an individual that doesn't take charge. A stable pack, however, runs itself. The individuals have worked out their order long ago, usually without conflict. Mostly the dogs spend hours in quiet relaxation, hanging out. Allow them the freedom to communicate with each other. Often this may mean allowing some growling and posturing. Respect increases because threatening postures are never allowed toward us. Manners, order and rules are an important part of Malamutes' lives and our family has been privileged to see this functioning up-close. Our pack is small and includes six adults, three males, three females all intact. Our oldest is seven and our two youngest, one. Our trouble-maker, Shadow has taught us much about pack relationships, aggression and dog psychology. Pack structure is much like a close but competitive family - they love each very much, and use every opportunity to one-up each other too.

Showing respect to Mom Star

Humans see pack order much differently than dogs do. Although humans see the alpha dog as controlling, the dogs see it as security. They need someone to take charge. That someone must always be you, backed up by your alpha dog. When the pack is stressed tensions will increase and so will fights. Dogs that never fight with each other will sense the uncertainty and pack order will be tested. 

Recently our pack was under some strain. Dan's parents had some serious medical problems which were weighing heavily upon his mind. The dogs sensed this but had no understanding of why supreme alpha is quick-tempered, depressed or just not giving them the same kind of attention he usually does. In their confusion they sense a "shake-up" is occurring and THEIR tempers become short. Once we realize our emotions are creating the difficulty, something can be done to lessen the stress on people and dogs. A remedy of strict discipline, strong commands, a show of confidence by the alpha-humans reminiscent of Marine "boot camp" sets things right. Humans assume "pack order" is a simple line order of alpha, beta, omega thinking. It's much more complicated than that, pack order is dynamic and changing. If the human alpha isn't there - mentally or physically - another individual needs to step forward into that position. The complicating factor is there are male and female hierarchies which are in effect alongside a linear hierarchy. During this time of stress the males were having the most problems getting along. Meanwhile, the bitches were having few. Though I can fill a temporary role as "alpha" for the male dogs, a female "alpha" often is not QUITE enough, hence the stress. To fill their need for order, the male alpha dog will try and take control so I must be firmer than usual. 

One special circumstance of our pack is Shadow. We took him back because his owner attempted to train him to be an attack dog. Because of this early confusion and training his personality is somewhat unstable, although his underlying temperament is fine. He is our 8 year old daughter's best friend and is completely trustworthy with children, yet, with adults outside of our home, can be dangerous. We've spent many hours working with him, and though we see immense improvement, it will be a long time before he is the dog that left our home as a puppy. As a puppy, he was a very happy alpha personality, up and intense, curious and opportunistic. Unfortunately, all those neat qualities have been warped, He now food guards, is pushy, a food thief, protects the van and his crate like Cujo, and has several phobias from things his previous owner did. With dogs outside our family he is extremely dog aggressive, with our pack (after a tense adjustment period) he is fine. He is accepted as part of the pack. Unfortunately, his food and dog aggression create problems with other pack members, upsetting the stability that is inherently there. The other pack members realize he has problems and give him a wide berth at and no slack at others. Even though they don't entirely trust him because of his aggression - they accept him. At first we always stopped fights between Homer and Shadow immediately. One day it occurred to us most of the fighting was just posturing. No one was getting hurt, so we let it go to see what happened -- ready to intervene if necessary. made a tremendous difference in Shadow's attitude. He stopped instigating so much, his threatening behaviors such as food guarding and "Cujo in the crate" lessened and he was more willing to submit properly to Homer and us (without the usual resistance). We had to reconsider if Homer was trying to help us straighten out his son. 

Between any other two dogs, we stop any fight immediately, anticipating the tension and defusing it before it starts. Living closely with our dogs, we notice postures that are easily missed. Ears up, tail up and stiff legs mean a tense situation. There is a difference in growls that are talking, warning or imminent attack. Some dogs have shorter fuses and are more ready to respond to a challenge than others. Threatening behavior must be anticipated, corrected and defused before a challenge is made. Reading body language an, knowing each dog's personality is necessary. We've never had a problem wits wading into the fray since our dogs respect us and would never intentionally bite a human breaking up a fight. Even an accidental nip should be severely corrected. Hoover and Nova showing Respect to Mom Star

If your dog is biting you "in the heat of battle" when you intervene perhaps your alpha-ness is not respected. Stopping a fight can be difficult alone. The longer the fight continues the more difficult it is to stop. Both dogs should be punished severely unless one dog was obviously the aggressor. We punish by pinning both dogs if possible (the worst offender if only one adult is available), lots of dramatic and harsh voice corrections and then banishment to their crates - next to each other. Never completely separate the offenders or as soon as they can they'll fight again. They need to be able to see each other and feel you are a bigger threat to their happiness than each other. The alpha male is always the pack protector and leader. He is the most dominant and makes many 'dog only' rules concerning manners or behavior and enforces our rules. Homer doesn't let any dog rummage in the trash or steal food. When the pack is threatened it is his job to "check it out". He expects proper respect from the males, yet will tolerate insubordination from the bitches. Also, having a certain job within the pack can shape personality. 

Before we accumulated enough dogs to be a "pack" Homer was a very mellow, gentle guy, not very protective and not at all aggressive. He still is ... sort of. He takes his responsibility seriously and has become much more aggressive as his responsibility has grown. A dog with a more aggressive temperament might even become dangerous in the alpha role since it is part of the "job" to dominate the other dogs. Fortunately, Homer by nature isn't very dominant so it's made it easier for us to deal with his new "attitude", The pack is a group of dogs working together for their common good, so it is natural they will assign areas of responsibility among themselves to avoid conflict, or a pack "job". An example of a job is "wakeup" dog, Star keeps time and gets us up first, then the dogs. Another job is "alert dog". It is the alert dog's job to keep track of who is near pack territory (the house and yard) and to bark at anything unusual. Any of the dogs can do this job. However, a protective personality, maybe a little neurotic, will always be on guard and make a good alert dog for the pack. The most curious job is the one I call "spokes dog". This is Penny's. No other member of the pack ever asks for treats or dinner. We may be encouraging this behavior since Penny is our first dog and always gets any treat first when they're handed out, or perhaps she is just very confident we'll agree when she asks. Regardless, she is the one the other dogs put up to asking. She keeps track of when dinner time is, and always remembers when a rawhide was promised. 

It is dynamic to see a puppy's role change as he/she grows up. The youngsters were very uncomfortable "staying up" after the adult dogs went to bed, even though it seemed they wanted to. Perhaps it was presumptuous that a low ranking dog should hang out with the supreme alphas. Learning from the adults, following and learning what is expected, a puppy slowly begins to take on more responsibility as puberty approaches. At puberty they are expected to do their "job", hunt and help the pack defend territory -- and they can stay up past bedtime if they want to! The male/female hierarchy can be very complicated. Penny, who used to be alpha bitch has recently (without conflict) given that role to Star, her daughter (except for food and treats, she still expects to be first). Individuals who are secure in their role do not challenge each other. It is the dogs that are insecure in their role that posture dominance and submit excessively. We have watched Penny slowly groom Star for the alpha bitch role, only letting her have it when Penny felt Star wouldn't abuse it. It's been a very gradual process. Occasionally Penny would hang back and let Star be first through a door, or would play and let her win. If Star got uppity, Penny would immediately pin her and take back her alpha rank. If Star was "nice", Penny let her have the win. Now most of the time Star wins and Penny hangs back. Before she gave up this role, Penny submitted to Shadow, the Beta male in the pack. Hierarchy is not always a direct line down so it was probably pretty embarrassing for the Alpha bitch to submit to a lesser ranked dog. Perhaps this is why Penny has given up the alpha role to her daughter, since Star would rather fight than submit, and ranks Shadow often to prove it because she is still rather insecure in the new role. The longer she is alpha bitch, the less she ranks Shadow -- and when she does, he now submits reluctantly. 

When a female puppy is kept, the first weeks of conflict between adult bitches and female puppies can be difficult. The age of 12 weeks through 16 weeks seems especially rough. Supervision is necessary because an older bitch may attack the puppy, not to injure, but to establish dominance. In our pack it was Mom who was the overbearing one, not Grandma as might be expected. Since the puppy could be unintentionally hurt, your strong intervention is necessary to protect the puppy. We allow looks, snarls, pinning, and never allow an attack. This intimidation may go on intermittently for weeks, sometimes less intensely for months. As gradually as it started, the adult bitch stops bullying and begins to accept the youngster. Balance has been achieved and they'll probably not have a serious row again. If allowed to establish pack order early, females can get along fine. They keep a scorecard and expect equality and fairness from you. Males tend to establish dominance between themselves later, at puberty, when a younger male begins to get full of himself. Males handle any unfairness somewhat better, and the alpha male should receive special attention to go with his rank. 

We teach our dogs. They also teach each other, Homer loves to take young puppies under his wing and teach them the art of hanging out, patrolling the yard, and proper respect. Penny and Star on the other hand have taught puppies their specialties. Penny, and now Star have taught the nuns how to hunt. Graduating from bugs to mice to bunnies to woodchucks. Star wanted to teach her puppies how to escape UNDER the fence (her specialty). We nixed that one! All adults are involved in teaching manners by growling at annoying or rule-breaking puppies. Important information is handed down this way, including respect for the adults and cooperation. In this way they are ensuring pack survival. As supreme alpha, you must determine the house rules and enforce them. In a pack situation, you can expect help from the alpha dog. The challenge is to let him do his job without allowing him to be a bully. He will grumble at any dog even thinking about getting into trouble, often before we notice the rustle of the trash can. Maintaining order involves anticipating trouble. Homer will warn us Shadow is counter-cruising with a certain bark-growl. Other dogs will help maintain the rules, particularly the "enforcer" dog (another pack job). Star has always had this job and sometimes goes overboard. She'll tattle, by growling or snarling, on any dog not following the rules. Now that she is alpha bitch, the kitchen is her domain, the dishwasher her personal appliance. If a any dog walks through when I'm cooking, Star makes sure they stay back. Only Bitches (according to Star) are allowed in the kitchen during dinner. Nova, though bullied other is Kitchen Dog in training. Meanwhile, Star considers it her personal mission to throw the boys out. Including Homer! 

All the dogs have individual time with us, car rides, treats and attention, which are kept as equal and fair as possible. In any group, there are occasional personality clashes. Shadow has had more than his share of conflict because of his insecurity and strong desire for the alpha job. It is interesting that the alpha male, Homer, will rarely get involved in fights between two dogs unless he feels the fight isn't fair and someone is in danger. He will intervene if Shadow attacks one of the girls, He is very patient and tolerant of the girls (they can steal his toys and go in his crate anytime), but not the boys. He is more tolerant of Hoover than Shadow, probably because Hoover is still quite immature. The personality mix you currently have must be considered when a new member is added. You must consider how an additional dog will fit into the pack structure. Hoover has been a joy to incorporate - we joke he is Homer's "yes man" since he is such a gentle, mellow guy, completely respectful and submissive. Meanwhile, Nova his sister, who by nature is pushy with a temper, has chilled considerably due to pressure from the pack, especially mom Star. Star has required Nova grovel and apologize for being born. It worked. Nova fits in nicely now and Star is SLOWLY lightening up. Of course, this has made it difficult to get the "attitude" you want with a show dog, but peace in the pack had to come first. Nova will get her "attitude" and confidence back later when her place in the pack has been firmly established. 

An older dog may never fit well into the pack, particularly a pushy dominant one (such as our Shadow). If the pack runs smoothly MOST of the time with a dog like this you're doing well. Conflict is usually resolved by playing, not fighting. Play is a big part of the pack's life. Play always has an underlying purpose, to confirm and establish pack order. If you watch closely, even very gentle play is really teaching and ranking. The rules for every game are very specific. Wrestling games or play face biting games are usually between close ranked dogs, a game of "chase me" can include anybody, and keep away is a puppy game. Tug is mostly played by adult females and puppies, find and fetch or ball tossing are human made-up games, The dog that plays human games usually won't allow the other dogs to play at the same time. My favorite game is "the crabby-grandma game". It's a game between an older dog and younger dog or puppy. The young dog comes up to the senior to 'woo' in her face, then tries to jump back fast before she snaps at the youngster. Games are designed to determine pack order without conflict. A dog that gives in or loses more will rank lower in the pack than a dog that always has to win. The alpha dog rarely plays in the presence of the pack, usually content to supervise and watch. If at any time a game gets too rough, it's ended by the higher ranking dog. (A lesson for us humans here). All the dogs, even puppies, refuse to play with Shadow. If he initiates play, Homer immediately reprimands him. This is the pack's way of not allowing him to "move up". 

One characteristic that we've noticed that may or may not be unique to our pack is that to ask to play the girls will chase their tails and the boys play bow. Never the reverse. Visitors are exciting and stressful. The alpha dog's job is to "check out" visitors. He will enter the room with presence and authority and discipline any dog (usually Shadow) that gets too exuberant about visitors. Shadow will climb on a lap (even though outside our house he is aggressive). Homer apparently feels this is inappropriate and will growl and pin Shadow to show his disapproval. It is our job to temper both of their reactions, usually with a hand on a collar until the gang gets over it's excitement. Malamutes love people and each wants to be petted first. A snarl from Penny to Star to "back off" it's my belly rub, or from Star to Nova to "get out" may seem a fight is imminent. It's not. It's only communication. There is a certain expectation of manners between the individuals and when a dog forgets, another pack member will remind with a look or raised lip. Usually we'll introduce one or two dogs at a time. Slow introductions keep the energy level more stable because the first dogs are calming when the next group comes in so everyone isn't in a state of high tension at the same time. 

Malamutes have very specific "greeting" rules. Malamutes in a pack situation have a stronger expectation of dog manners, and will come down hard on a pack member for an infraction of the rules. There are many ways as supreme alpha you can help your pack become more stable. A large living area is helpful. The closer the group is confined, just like people, the more they will get on each others nerves. Bitches seem to need more space. The girls all have a "zone". Star has the children's bedroom and kitchen, Penny prefers the basement and her "cave" under the stairs, Nova has her crate in the "dog room" until the time she appropriates a larger area. All the dogs have preferred places to relax all over the house. The males are more content to relax together in the "common" areas. If I buy a new throw rug soon someone has "claimed" it. It has been interesting watching the adolescents, Hoover and Nova search for previously unclaimed places. Hoover finally chose the couch cushion next to the TV that has never been used, and Nova picked the ledge by the fireplace. That worked until we built the first fire! Poor Nova, she eventually found another place Star had vacated under the table, and now has a place of her own. 

This is why a crate is very important. Until they can establish their own places, the crate serves that purpose. Some dogs really never look for more than a place or two, while others seem to need many. Some dogs will share their space with a close friend or companion. Penny needs to get away from the busyness of the household and chose under the basement stairs and won't let anyone enter her cave except Homer. Star loves under the kids' bed. We call her the "troll" since no dog may enter HER Trolldom. Trouble is, since Shadow is Stephanie's dog and loves to lie ON her bed, he has to take a flying leap from doorway to bed before Star leaps out from under the bed snarling and screaming at him. Once he's on the bed he's safe in his spot Star retreats. The pack really enjoys a good hunt, In the morning they all run left then fan out to the right searching for overnight intruders. Often they flush out a bunny or mouse. When one dog makes a kill, the whole pack is proud, coming over to congratulate. The dog that made the kill is the owner, even though all cooperated in the hunt. The kill owner is proud and gets extra respect for a day. Winter is a time for serious hunting. It's done with more intensity and all pack members participate. Summer hunting is less intense. It's a relaxing pastime of the girls -- rousting moles, snacking on mice and teaching the younger dogs to hunt. The males will lie majestically on the hill and watch. It reminds me of a pride of lions. Meanwhile, perimeter defense is an important activity to the males in the pack. Urine and feces are strategically deposited on the fence line by the males. If a stray dog is spotted, howls of excitement go up and the adult males run to the fence to challenge it, The adult females are close behind, and then the adolescents/puppies. Unwelcome dogs will rarely come within 10 feet of our fence (can you blame them). Usually we must bring in the gang because of the loud howls. If the females or younger dogs are out alone, they will not ordinals challenge the strangers and stare from a safe distance or howl alarm to Homer and Shadow. In spite of their differences within the pack, these two work tirelessly together to defend it. 

Obviously of extreme importance to Malamutes is food. Anyone who has them knows they will brawl over a crumb, so it has been challenging to keep order during dinner and for treats. With treats the handout order is always the same and if one gets a treat, they all expect one. Consistency is VERY important. Each dog knows who is next and will patiently wait for his/her turn. Dinner is the exception. Why Malamutes must howl, posture and jump around while the food is put in the dish is beyond me. They wait patiently any other time. Dinner is pandemonium. As each dish is passed out, the others bounce (Star circles madly), and they dive into the dish with abandon. Yet, because we keep the routine boringly the same and always in order, we rarely have had disagreements over food even though all are fed in our 10 x 10 kitchen together. In retrospect, I should have taught them to sit or lie down while waiting. It wasn't done when we had the chance with one or two, so now it seems hopeless!!! Nearness to supreme alpha is very important. When a dog's status is mildly threatened, a passive way to reinforce that status is to hang around with the supreme alphas. Status is bestowed by proximity to us, so we must be very careful to give the proper amounts of attention to each and recognize the pack order at times when it is important. It's fun to watch them while mooching move closer if they think their ranking is being usurped - the head on your knee, then your lap ... suddenly everyone that fits is on your lap. The treats are doled out in turn so there are no fights. The real challenge is to keep any for myself! You may wish to influence pack order. An example is we would never want Shadow as alpha, so he will be forever low when handing out treats, getting special attention, etc. To do otherwise would encourage him to try for the alpha job - and he is just too pushy, aggressive and unreliable to have it. Our hope is that Homer, who is currently grooming Hoover for the alpha position, will allow him to "take over" someday much the way Star was handed the reins from Penny. It will help that Hoover is much bigger than Shadow, and he has a gentle temperament like Homer. We never allow Shadow to intimidate or in any way bully Hoover - our heir apparent. 

You don't have to accept the status quo - having a functioning pack means molding the pack order to fit your needs by your choices and behavior. A Malamute pack, within the boundaries of your direction, is a cohesive group, a family, a monarchy. The alpha position can be handed down slowly to the selected heir. The alpha male will be most effective if he is trustworthy. The other dogs will accept his dominance and rarely challenge if he is fair. A dominant male that is not trusted (such as Shadow) would probably not be able to achieve stability. The best alphas are calm, secure individuals -- dog or human. Personalities will always differ and most combinations can achieve a peaceful coexistence. The alpha of a large pack will need support and reassurance to handle the stress of running the pack, particularly if it has problematic individuals. We give Homer special privileges and time away to recharge. A pack is dynamic, changing, and its individuals can be very complicated. In short, dogs in a pack have a life beyond living to please you -- they have each other. Living with your dogs will give you incredible insight into their personalities. Though your dogs may be very different from someone else's, pack structure will help you maintain order. Learn to understand and work with it to better enjoy your Malamutes!


"The Pack"

PennyHomer in the SnowStar grinsShadowHoover and his duckyNova sittingMy toy says Hollybrat

Evolution of the pack, updates since the original article and pack.

Postscript 5/10/99

Our dogs are still a pack, but the attacks on Shadow (usually provoked by Shadow) were getting more serious and starting to cause minor injuries such as small punctures on the front legs. When dogs injure another's' legs the fighting has become more "serious" and possibly life threatening. He now lives on the opposite side of the house behind a closed door and all of the dogs seem comfortable with this. Shadow gets to be the "only dog" he's always wanted to be. We are fortunate our home is large enough to divide up. As for the others, the pack has stabilized wonderfully and we rarely have altercations of any kind any more. Star is now the "official" alpha bitch and Hoover, like a Prince, is being groomed for alphaness by Homer, waiting for his opportunity to succeed to the throne. Our new addition Holly, has been accepted wholeheartedly and is loved and doted over like a spoiled child by the pack. Hoover is her best friend and caretaker.

Postscript 8/13/02

With the loss of Nova and then Penny our pack is shrinking and the dynamics have changed some. In many ways it has stabilized more since Nova was always Star's "target" and Penny had recently become Holly's due to old age. The group that is left have always gotten along well but pack dynamics will no doubt change with time. Homer, no longer the alpha, must be protected as Penny was because the young, alpha-seeking Holly will take advantage of his age looking for opportunities to "bump him off" so to speak - in otherwords encouraging the other dogs (particularly Hoover) to attack him. Hoover is not an aggressive dog, which has been a good thing insofar as he is not easily provoked to pick on Homer (besides, I think he has a lot of respect for Homer due to Homer's kind and gentle 'grandparenting'). It will be interesting how a new puppy blends into the pack, particularly with Holly and Star - since both are very dominant. As before, Shadow lives on his side of the house as an "only dog" which he will do for the rest of his life. 

Newest update on the new Pack Order.... there's been a major shift in power...

Postscript 5/15/2006

The pack has now split into 2 -- almost 4 distinct packs. Dan having been gone for a year with Gracie, Chevy and Pod returned. The remaining pack has not accepted them back, particularly Gracie. Their is severe animosity between Holly and Gracie (always was) and that is magnified - meanwhile, Holly has influenced Riggs, Mula and Jazzy to "hate" her as well. They aren't too fond of Pod either, even though they played together as pups. Hoover doesn't like Chevy, though Chevy is clueless as to why and would eventually fit into ANY pack because of his personality. Shadow at 14, is a pack unto himself, though he actually likes hanging out with Riggs, Mula and Jazzy, as long as there is a fence or crate between them. The other old folks, Holly and Hoover, though they fit in with Riggs, Mula and Jazzy fine, really prefer to be by themselves. Pod, Gracie and Chevy would love to belong if only the others would let them, but it doesn't seem to be happening as long as Holly is alpha bitch and has some influence. 

Postscript 8/1/2008

Gracie, Pod and Chevy are still not welcome into the main pack.  Holly has become what wolf packs call a peripheral pack member due to increased fights with alpha male Riggs.  She's not welcome into the main pack, but is welcome on the perifery.  We've since lost Hoover and now Riggs considers himself to be the alpha male.  With the addition of Jazzy's puppies, the pack is quite stable with Riggs as alpha male, Jazzy alpha bitch, Mula content to be a beta "auntie" and the two puppies Superman and Mocha.  Holly enjoys playtime with the puppies - is wonderful with them.  We think she's enjoys having a small pack she can be the boss of.  We've tried letting Gracie and Pod have playtime with the puppies as well, but they don't seem too comfortable with them. Riggs has been great with the puppies, letting them crawl all over him and even pull out tufts of hair.  It will be interesting how this develops when Superman and Mocha become of age in the next year and a half..

Maintaining a pack isn't for everyone. It hasn't worked for many people with multiple Malamutes. Much depends on the temperament of your dogs, your Alpha status with them and your housing situation. If you have any concerns, don't put humans or dogs at risk!