Great! You've seen them on TV, in the movies, or you've been to a dog show or two.
Maybe you just met a pair in the park or a cute happy puppy and said to yourself...
"I want a Malamute!"
Now that you know what you like, you need to ask yourself the question:
"WHY?" ...and please, be honest!
Why do I want an Alaskan Malamute?
Do you just like a pretty dog? Do you want a big dog to impress the neighbors, scare the crooks, or looks like a wolf? The kids talk you into it? Is that puppy in the window simply the cutest ball of fluff? Is it somebody's birthday or a gift-giving holiday?
If you just said yes.... then do yourself a big favor now: run to the nearest toy store and buy yourself a stuffed toy. The Alaskan Malamute is not the right dog breed for you!
But, if you actually took the time to ask yourself "WHY" you are interested in Malamutes and "WHAT" attracted you to this breed, you are off to a good start! It can be difficult to say what first attracts a person to a Malamute, but if you are unwilling to ask yourself these questions - you are probably not interested to learn much about this breed of dog. And believe me, you'll have a lot to learn with this breed to have a happy long-term relationship!
What do I know about Alaskan Malamutes?
There is a lot of history surrounding the Alaskan Malamute. To understand their history is a good start at understanding the breed itself and how to live with a Mal.
Malamutes were used by native Alaskans to pull heavy loads in harsh arctic conditions and to hunt food. The arctic demands a "survival of the fittest" attitude, so Malamutes retain much of the pack order instinct. They needed intelligence and problem solving abilities to make independent decisions about trail hazards, even to the point of disobeying orders from their human companions. Arctic food is scarce. It was highly important to eat whenever the opportunity arose and to get the most energy possible from any food eaten. Mals supplemented their diet with prey caught in the wild. Simply put, they have been physically and mentally molded for centuries and by their original arctic environment . (More history...)
Ok, so what does all that have to do with Alaskan Malamutes and you in these modern times? PLENTY! Malamutes have not changed their behavior to suit suburbia or anything else, only modified it somewhat...
The Alaskan Malamute is a very friendly dog with humans. Mals are not one-person or one-family dogs. There are very few people they will not like, which makes them unsuitable to being good watch or guard dogs. Mals get along well with children, especially when raised with them (but caution is always advised due to their size). Although friendly and often sensitive to their owners moods, malamutes are highly independent and strong willed.
The adult malamute may have a quiet and reserved manner, or may be the perpetual child always willing to play. Mals do love to be the center of attention and will often demand it. They are alert to their surroundings and curious about the world around them. Mals have been described as cat-like in the way they groom themselves, body posture when relaxing, or in their attitude.
Although friendly to humans, Malamutes must establish a pack order within their family - human or canine. Remember - NO DOG should have a placement in the pack that is higher than the lowest human member! Some Mals are content with their place in the pack, other more dominant Mals may challenge their humans for a higher pack placement.
With humans this challenge may take the form of the Mal consistently refusing commands, becoming physically rough or even growling. A grown Malamute cannot be physically forced to obey or respect you, so don't bother using that method with a pup. Early training and a good understanding of dog behavior can go a long way in keeping a Malamute "in line". Mals will respond best to "positive reinforcement" training methods such as "clicker" training.
Alaskan Malamutes are a dog dominant breed. This means that, although a Mal may never challenge a human over pack order, they certainly will challenge another dog. Same sex challenges (M/M, F/F) can lead to serious fights if the dogs are equally dominant or if one is a younger animal seeking to establish itself.
The Alaskan Malamute is an intelligent breed. And a smart dog will become bored and destructive long before a not-so-smart dog will! Never underestimate how much furniture, carpet, books, even walls(!) that a malamute can damage in a small amount of time. Malamutes will choose to "live for the moment" and worry (or not!) about the consequences later.
Malamutes can learn commands very quickly. But if they don't see the point of following the command, they can just as quickly disobey them. Remember that this is part of their breeding and learn to be creative when teaching or practicing commands. They may very well refuse to follow a command that is well known to them, resulting in a reputation for stubbornness or "selective hearing".
Mals can be clownish at times and many posses a sense of humor (dog humor of course!) sometimes resulting in the embarrassment of the owner. They can be quite creative at getting your attention or adding a little "twist" to things just to see your reaction. Malamutes can be manipulative when they want something.
Malamutes are great problem solvers and can be quite inventive if motivated. If there is something they want... they will find a way to go over, under, around, or through any obstacle. Don't be surprised if items disappear from shelves, counters, or the top of the refrigerator without any trace of a malamute passing through.
Active & Working Dogs:
The Alaskan Malamute is the equivalent of a long distance runner, and as such needs plenty of exercise. Many are great "couch potatos", which is certainly a holdover from conserving energy in the arctic . However, when they are active they are very, very active.
A large, fenced yard is preferred for keeping a malamute in the city. Even so, they should be walked or given some other form of exercise every day. Although they can readily adapt to apartment living, this means the owner must be very dedicated to providing the proper amount of exercise. Mals that are kept primarily outside the house or on larger property should be provided a sturdy run with a covered kennel or large doghouse.
Since they were bred to run, mals also have a tendency to roam the neighborhood or countryside. Never let your malamute "off-leash" as few are consistently trustworthy to commands (unless they wish to be) and are not particularly mindful to road traffic. In the countryside, they may learn to chase wildlife & livestock, or may be mistaken for wolves (or wolf-hybrids) and killed.
Alaskan Malamutes are still used to pull people, sleds and heavy loads. Today, these activities are done as pleasure sledding and skijoring, as well as the sports of racing & weight pulling. In warmer climates, many accompany their owners on hikes & backpacking, at carting, bike rides, and skating/rollerblading. For the safety of you & your dog, care must be taken to have your mal properly secured and under control when biking or skating. A very determined mal can be hard enough to stop without having wheels underneath you!
Malamutes have also been trained in search & rescue, agility, and therapy work. They are quite adaptable to most activities that are presented to them, love to work, and are good with most people.
Hunting & The Prey Drive:
Alaskan Malamutes possess a strong "prey drive" which is part of the hunting instinct. If it moves or squeals, a mal will chase it - sometimes with dangerous consequences.
Malamutes have been known to kill rabbits, squirrels & birds, as well as neighborhood cats. Mals only do well with cats when they have been raised with them and have also been taught to control their natural instincts. Some mals can never be trusted around other small animals, even when raised with them.
Mals should be taught caution & control around children. Besides their love of humans, they are also attracted to children because of the quick movements and high-pitched voices ( similar to those of small hurt animals - a natural prey ). No small child should be left alone with a large dog of ANY breed. Mals tend to play rough and, due to their size & power, could injure a child without meaning to.
Denning & Digging:
Many animals will create a den for themselves to have their young and as a safe escape from the outside weather. Another reason to dig is to catch burrowing animals such as moles or gophers.
If you have pride in your garden and want a malamute... one of those ideas has to go! Malamutes like to dig. They dig to get to the cooler dirt under the surface, to catch insects deep in the grass, and sometimes they seem to dig for the shear pleasure of it. Their owners often compare malamute "landscaping" to the lunar surface or a mine field. Malamutes can move large amounts of earth in a small amount of time. Some mals can be taught to dig only in "their" area of the yard, but rarely can a malamute be taught never to dig at all.
Most malamutes crate train readily because of their denning instinct, especially when taught as a young pup. Many often prefer sleeping in their crate to other locations. Although one exception may be that favorite spot in the middle of your "oh so comfy" bed.
Food For Thought:
To survive in arctic conditions, a little food must fuel the body for a long distance or time. The malamute metabolism is highly efficient in converting food to fuel. Typically mals need much less food to eat than most other breeds of similar weight or size. Unless heavily active, it is very easy to overfeed a malamute to the point of being fat. Unless old or very inactive, mals do best on an "active dog" formula of food.
Alaskan Malamutes are highly food motivated. This is a holdover from the scarcity of food in the arctic. This also means that most malamutes cannot be trusted around food as they will steal it when the opportunity arises. The majority of mals cannot be "free-fed" as they will not stop eating until they can't fit any more food into their stomach which can lead to bloat. Mals are very good at begging food and some have developed quite advanced techniques of "mooching" food from their owners.
One benefit of this fixation on food is that mals do well with motivational training using food as the initial motivator. But... there is a fine line between using food as motivation and your malamute teaching you to bribe him into obedience!
Coat & Hair:
The Alaskan Malamute's double coat of fur has evolved to insulate it from the surrounding environment. The outer guard coat is a coarse medium length, slightly oily to the touch and is the first layer of defense to repel dirt, snow, or ice. The shorter undercoat is a thick dense wool which blocks out the wind or cold. "Woollies" are malamutes that have a long (often soft) coat. The texture and excessive length of a woolly's coat does not provide good insulation from the weather, but it does not hinder them from being good pets.
Malamutes are adaptable to warm climates, but their coat will not be as thick as dogs raised in the cold. In warmer areas it is not advised to exercise your malamute during the heat of the day and to provide extra water at all times. Mals in very hot temperatures, or not used to the heat, should be kept indoors during the day to avoid problems such as heat stroke. It is not recommended to shave a mal's coat since it provides some insulation from heat as well as cold. Very long coats (such as a woolly's) may be cut/trimmed to a more moderate length.
Twice a year the malamute will shed it's undercoat. A more common term is "blowing" coat. The amount of hair lost in a few weeks is staggering and can fill several garbage bags. In a full "blow" the undercoat may actually come out in many large clumps of hair. In warm climates, mals may shed all year long with a heavier shedding period twice a year. If you like a very clean house or do not like dog hair, you should consider another breed.
Malamutes do not have the strong "doggie" odor which may be noticed in other breeds. A few may develop a sour smell if the coat is not fully dried after being wet. This is due to water being trapped within the undercoat and allowing a breeding ground for bacteria and the like. Mals take a long time to dry after a bath or swim, even with a high-powered dog dryer. Malamutes are clean dogs and will groom themselves much as a cat would. Dirt and water that does not make it into the undercoat will usually come out under your brushing or their own grooming.
If Dogs Could Talk:
One of the most endearing (and sometimes exasperating) characteristics of the Alaskan Malamute is the fact that they talk. Their "Mala-talk" is usually sounds such as "oowoo", "roowuf", etc. Be warned, if they talk... they will also "talk back" to you just as a arguing child would. Owners have often found themselves in full conversation with their mals and both parties understanding what is being said.
Malamutes will also howl (or sing, depending on your point of view). In a group of dogs this is a form of communication and pack unity. Singlely, it may be a call for someone to communicate with or to answer a passing siren. Mals will howl when they are happy as easily as other breeds howl when they are lonely.
Most malamutes are not prone to barking. If raised around other dogs that do bark, they may pick up this habit. Even so, their bark is more a combination of a bark/yip and rarely to the amount of excessive barking.
Now that you know a little more about the Alaskan Malamute, you will be better able to decide if a malamute is a breed you can live with. There is still much more to learn about the Alaskan Malamute and it is in your best interest to learn all you can before bringing a Malamute into your home.
Remember that this is a large and physically powerful breed, with a strong will and an independent nature. This is not a breed that you can truly own in the normal sense. This is a breed that you can form a lasting relationship with.. provided you are willing to adapt & compromise, be creative, learn as much as possible, and work hard at that mutual bond.
Before you make that final decision to bring an Alaskan Malamute into your family, here are a few more topics that you should be interested in...
Should I choose a breeder or breed rescue?
Picking a puppy you can live with.
How to evaluate a breeder.
Motivational and clicker training techniques.
Dog, wolf and pack behavior.
A printable version of this article is found on the Publications Page.