Real Life Malamute Q & A
Often I get emails from potential Alaskan Malamute owners regarding raising a puppy or dealing with an adult dog. Raising a Malamute can be a challenge and sometimes a 24/7 job! But if you follow a few general rules, you will have a healthier relationship with your dog when it grows up. Always keep in mind you have about 6 months to get it right! After that it's going to take longer to un-do anything you didn't do right initially!
Can I allow my Alaskan Malamute to share my bed and still be considered alpha to him/her?
No, not for sleeping. It is ok to let him up on the bed IF you can tell him when to get off or move. If the dog gets snarly or stubborn, no more bed until the attitude improves. Feel free to get physical and PUSH them off if necessary - it's not ok to ask "fluffy get off, fluffy get off, fluffy pleaaaaaaseeee get off???" - fluffy will not respect you. Tell fluffy off once, and push her stubborn butt onto the floor!
How long should I take off work to stay home with the puppy initially?
The more you're home, the faster potty training will go, as well as establishing your role as pack leader. At least a couple of weeks is good, more if possible. Remember, a puppy can only hold it for as little as 2 hours for the first 2-3 months and a little longer after that. Some puppies potty train quickly, others can take up to a year to be reliable. Make sure your family is on board with the rules. If you allow the dog on the bed and another family member does not, you are going to confuse the puppy and potentially cause aggression from not being consistent. It is better to be stricter when young, than allow some behavior to get out of control (such as nipping and growling). Rule of thumb: If it's not something you want a 90 lb. malamute to do when it's an adult, don't allow it as a puppy! A snarly biting adult is not cute, though it may be cute and funny in a puppy. Correct it or you will have a snarly biting adult. Most bad habits are established in the first 6 months of life.
Do you recommend obedience classes for socialization purposes?
Yes, as long as the trainer does not use yanking and jerking methods. It must be 99% positive reinforcement - praise, treats, pets. Malamutes will either ace the class as a child prodegy, or embarrass you to death. Be prepared for both scenarios! (And remember, the prodegy may come home and get into tons of trouble and conveniently forget everything learned.)
Should I immediately begin bringing the puppy around other dogs to get her used to them as playmates and not enemies?
Yes, look for as many friendly dogs as you can find. Avoid aggressive dogs. Dog parks are a bad idea, since more structure is better. Some good scenarios are being supervised in a neighbor's yard, walking with other dogs on leash, or a puppy kindergarden class. Also, a Malamute should never be off leash in an unfenced area. They are totally unreliable in this way. I have a friend with many obedience titles on her Malamutes and she spent one weekend chasing them around a park because they wouldn't come. Also, make sure all shots are up to date so you don't risk catching something - obviously you must weigh risks vs. benefits and socialization is a huge benefit with a malamute!
Do you recommend free feeding or scheduled feedings?
Free feeding will cause most Alaskan Malamutes to weigh 900 lbs. They are terrible free feeders and will gorge until there is no food left. I have a couple that might be able to do it (Superman and Gracie are really picky eaters!), but most don't do well free feeding, especially with other pets in the house. Put the cat food up high, or they will eat it all. Expect starving desperate looks even if they are well fed, and many have been known to eat whole bags of dog food when it was accidentally left out (terribly dangerous, as the food can swell and they will die of bloat - within MINUTES). They are NOT starving, but will attempt to convince you they are. You must be tough. When you give a treat, give a TINY piece, not a whole biscuit. You do a dog no favors getting him fat. Curiously, it seems the fatter they get, the more they act like they are staving.
What do you feel is the most effective positive reinforcer for good behavior?
Food - occasionally praise. Mostly food. Food. And more food. Of course, the problem becomes, how do I praise a dog that is 900 lbs? You have to find something else that pushes his buttons. Food is a great reinforcer for Malamutes, but if that's all you use - you'll have an obese dog. Every single dog is different. For some dogs it is praise, others it may be a walk, a squeaky toy, or for some it is just pleasing you. You have to get to know your dog to know which buttons work best. For example, Jazzy is a sucker for attention - she likes being first to get petted and lots of praise. She loves being allowed to cuddle on the bed. She likes to feel important. That's her button. She will gladly take food of course, but it is not really as effective as attention for her. With Max it's the squeak of a squeaky toy...we can't give them to him or he'll chew them up - but he loves the sound!
How do you balance showing your dog unconditional love while at the same time maintaining your alphaness?
Make rules and stick to them, dogs don't want unconditional love - that's a people thing. Your dog wants to please you because you are the boss. So act boss-like (be confident, follow through when you ask him to do something, no wishy-washy commands). Make the rules, enforce rules, expect obedience (not that you will get it - one can only hope! LOL). He wants to serve (when he doesn't have his own plans). He doesn't want you fawning all over him for nothing. If you give unconditional love, you will never get it. Your dog must do something for every pet, every tidbit, every thing you do with him or he will think he is the alpha and never respect you. If you want to give unconditional love, give it to your kids.
How do I deal with people (and children) who are afraid of my Malamute and how should I react? (this was a very complex question but generally, the children and adult in the house had no "dog sense" and needed some guidance in diffusing a potentially dangerous situation).
One thing you must consider is that malamutes will toy with afraid or fearful people (which are often children). They have no respect for someone afraid of them, therefore will have “fun” scaring them – and if they find love nibbles terrify someone – they’ll do it all the more and it CAN escalate into full fledged aggression. (read my story about Shadow – that’s how he got screwed up – his owners’ wife was petrified of him and he milked it for all it was worth). A confident child is usually never a problem – but they pick up on every ounce of trepidation in adults or children.
A malamute is a large, powerful dog and should NEVER be unsupervised with strangers or children without an alpha in the room. Common sense. If you have any doubt at all - keep him away from kids outside your immediate family – especially fearful, shy or timid ones. A confident child will usually not elicit this response – and if he does, then I would begin to wonder what is going on with the dog. Be aware that some lines do have problems with fear biters and aggression with children. While the vast majority of malamutes are wonderful with kids, fearful ones and aggressive ones are not. Put a shy or fearful child into the mix and it’s not a good thing….A mal with it’s own children can be very different dog than a mal with strange chldren. Scared, hyper or screamy children require correction in the dog's opinion. They should not be behaving that way. You need to stop this behavior because mals that are not sure what to do with them, and in their confusion, may bite.
Also, a fearful response can escalate the problem – by freaking out and running it gives the impression something is “wrong” and may escalate the problem as well. You should always act quickly, but CALMLY and authoratively. Take the dog’s collar and remove him from a confusing situation. In other words, if the adult or child is eliciting an unfriendly or confused response from the dog - remove the dog from the situation. Do NOT wait until the dog bites or growls. Do not "wait and see" what happens if the dog is showing signs of aggression (stiff posture, ears up). If you are not sure how to react yourself in a specific situation, you need the assistance of a qualified dog behaviorist that is familiar with northern breeds. Someone that can help you react properly as well as someone that can evaluate the dog. It’s not a “bad” dog by any means, he’s behaving like all dogs do - but mishandled, you can escalate the problem.
Ok, so say we have a miixture of freaked out kid (with bad dog skills… ), confused malamute, overreactive adult… The solution is more structure. Put up a baby gate because first, this is a malamute and most people expect them to be WAAAAAY too obedient. (This person expected the dog to remain in another room with the door open and no barrier when visitors came over). Put up the gate or shut a door when visitors come to your house if your mal is not the kind that immediately rolls on it's back for a belly rub. A tall gate is really better than a solid door though because he can still see what’s going on, yet gives you a margin of safety. Expecting him to just follow rules without you present or because you expect him to is unrealistic. Once you realize this dog will love confident, friendly kids…will listen when it suits him…and will not be nice to people he doesn’t like or trust…you’ll be halfway there…
Owning an Alaskan Malamute is a step up from the average dog - it means you will need to learn more about pack behavior and hierarchy than you planned. However, the benefits are enormous. Malamutes are intelligent, funny, and a very special breed. As I get other good questions and respond, I'll post them here.