Dog Breeds – Learn more about your favorite type of dog.
The Alaskan Malamute is a large northern dog breed originally bred for use as an Alaskan sleddog.
The AKC breed standard calls for a natural range of size, with a desired freighting weight of 75 to 85 pounds (34-38.5 kg) and a height of 23 to 25 inches (58-63.5 cm). Heavier individuals (100+ pounds) and dogs smaller than 75 pounds are common–there is often a marked size difference between males and females. Weights upwards of 140 pounds or more are occasionally seen; these dogs are uncommon and are produced primarily by breeders who market a “giant” malamute. These “giant” sizes are not in accordance with the breed’s history or the AKC standard. The coat is a dense double northern dog coat, somewhat harsher than that of the Siberian Husky. The usual colors are various shades of grey and white, sable and white, black and white, red and white, or pure white. Eyes are almond-shaped and brown; blue eyes are sometimes found, but will disqualify the dog in shows. The physical build of the Malamute is compact with heavy boning. In this context ‘compact’ means that their height to length ratio is fairly even, unlike dogs like Great Danes which are longer and lankier in their ratios. One of the more serious faults in malamutes is the tail carriage, you should be able to fit your hand through the circle created by the tails curl, it should not lie flat against the body of the dog or hang down one side.
According to the American Kennel Club, the primary criterion for judging the Malamute in a show is its function to pull heavy freight as a sled dog; everything else is secondary. As many an owner has found out, the pulling power of a Malamute is tremendous, and if this trait is lacking in a show dog, it is enough for a disqualification.
Lots of people mistake them as the Siberian Husky
While a few Malamutes are still in use as sled dogs for personal travel, hauling freight, or helping move heavy objects, some are used for the rapidly disappearing recreational pursuit of sledding mushing. However, most Malamutes today are kept as family pets or show dogs. They are unable to compete successfully in long-distance dogsled racing against smaller and faster breeds, and their working usefulness is limited to freighting, traveling, or helping move heavy loads over short distances. Their heavy bone and muscle structure put them in an entirely different class than the lighter boned racing dogs, such as a Husky. By definition the common Husky is a mixture of several different breeds, and it would be difficult indeed to find a Husky which did not have the endurance of a Malamute bred into it’s line somewhere in the not too distant past.
The Malamute is one of the most “unaltered” of breeds, retaining its original form and function. Responsible breeders will want to preserve this heritage of the Malamute’s working abilities. They are widely regarded as handsome, affectionate toward humans, particularly loyal to their family, very intelligent, extremely resourceful, and exceptionally hardworking. Their affectionate nature does not make them useful as watch or guard dogs. Their breeding was for an entirely different purpose, and expecting a Malamute to become a good guard dog goes against thousands of years of breeding. It would be like expecting a Lhasa Apso to pull a heavy sled. The Lhasa was bred as a guard dog, and the Malamute was bred to pull a heavy load for a long distance. It is unkind to any dog to expect it to preform a task which it may be incapable of preforming. This is why it is important to understand the underlying reason a breed was developed and the characteristics of that breed. This is why so much space is devoted to the history of a breed. The history gives a clue to the underlying character of a dog breed and the things it might or might or might not be expected to do.
The Malamute is also noted for independence of thought, and many a ‘musher’ has had their life saved by a Malamute refusing to obey a command because, for what ever reason, the dog can sense a danger of which the driver is completely unaware. Because this streak of independence is vital to survival in the wilderness it is difficult if not impossible to tame. A Malamute kept as a pet should never be off-lead in public.
The ability of this dog to think independently is often characterized as ‘stubborn’ by people who do not understand this breed, and this may prove very difficult and frustrating for a beginning dog owner. This is even more true if the owner is not aware of why this dog was bred to use it’s own senses and instincts and to ‘disobey’ it’s driver. A Malamute is completely aware of the sound and feel of the micro-cracking of ice packs while pulling loads across Arctic ice that may crack or break under the sled, or the sound of wilderness streams buried under snow which can have the snow collapse into them and swallow the team and driver, or the imperceptible sound and feel of one layer of snow moving over another that may lead to snow slippage or avalanche that could bury the team and driver, or the sound or smell of a bear around the next corner which could mean death to the team and the driver. All of these and more are the reason that a Malamute has been bred to think independently of the driver. And this is the exact reason a Malamute can never be thought of as ‘trained’. The Malamute will do what is best for the team and the driver, even if it means disobeying the driver. This is one reason that this bred is not for everyone who finds it’s beauty and smile irresistible.
If a dog owner cannot cope with a dog that will not comply with the owners every wish and command, no matter how beautiful, magnificent, or noble the dog looks, a more compliant breed should be selected. This independence of thought extends from it’s ability to survive and care for it’s driver in wilderness conditions, and living in modern cities for a tiny fraction of it’s genetic history should never tame this quality. and it hasn’t.
Because this dog has a long genetic foundation of living in the wilderness with man surrounded by other domesticated animals of approximately the same size, it should be watched very carefully around smaller dogs and animals and this is why it should never, ever, be off-lead in public or around smaller animals. The instincts of this breed are very strong and until another animal is accepted as part of it’s ‘family’ group, it is better to be safe than sorry.
This dog also needs a great deal of exercise to be happy. Any sled dog is never happier than when pulling a sled. This is as true of a Malamute as any other Sled dog. While a Malamute can feel absolutely at home in an apartment, a tent, or buried comfortably in the snow, it will never be happy unless it gets several very long walks a day, and most love a run of a mile or more every day. To a Malamute, a day without a run is a day without joy. This is a very old and primal breed of dog, and it’s needs are simple, but primal. Food, water, and a run. It’s simple, but often more than just anyone can give. Sometimes it’s better to get a dog that fits your life style, than to get a dog to try to live your life style.
While a Malamute is, as a strong rule, extremely gentle with people, and very loyal to every member of it’s human family, especially after it’s reached adulthood and settled down, until you know the exact nature and disposition of a specific individual dog, it must always be watched around smaller animals, even those in the same household. Only time and experience will tell you when a specific dog can be left unwatched with other household pets. It is never safe to assume that because a given dog is comfortable with your other pets it will be comfortable with the other animals in the neighborhood or with pets of your friends in your house or in their house. One of the alluring traits of this breed is it’s strong instinctual sense and almost uncanny awareness of the world around it. But that very trait that is alluring, is also dangerous to smaller animals. Until you are completely familiar with a specific individual dog, never assume that you have ‘trained’ it. Because only a tiny fraction of the breeds life has been around ‘modern man’, it is still more of a working dog, bred to haul heavy freight long distances in harsh conditions, than a ‘show’ dog. It’s relationship with it’s owner and it’s ‘family’ is deeply personal and devoted, but it is not a dog bred for large cities of thousands of people and thousands of other dogs. It doesn’t think that way. It can’t.
A Malamute is generally a quiet dog and seldom barks like other dog breeds. When it does vocalize, more often than not they tend to “talk” by vocalizing a “woo woo” sound (the characteristic vocalizations of Chewbacca in the Star Wars films are based upon a Malamute named Indiana, once owned by George Lucas). They may howl like wolves or coyotes, and for the same reasons. When they howl, the howl is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from that most ancient ancestor of all dogs, the wolf. Anyone who has heard a Coyote yip, has heard a Malamute yip. Anyone who has heard a wolf howl, has heard a Malamute howl. This, too, is one of the alluring traits of this breed.
Malamutes need plenty of exercise. Understanding Malamute behavior requires understanding life in an aboriginal Arctic village.
Malamutes were originally bred to think and act independently for the sake of protecting the sled team. Hazardous and unpredictable Arctic trail conditions rewarded the ability of a Malamute to rely on its own senses and, when necessary, override the sled driver’s judgment and commands. As such, the breed is notorious for displaying a highly independent streak that manifests itself as stubbornness. Malamutes are sometimes downright insubordinate toward their human handlers and may ignore commands, particularly when young.
At the same time, Arctic life required that Malamutes be bred to behave as consummate members of the sled team, family, and village community. Therefore they are usually very affectionate to members of their own pack – human and dog members alike. A Malamute may take glee in greeting a returning family or pack member after a period of separation, and howl in protest when it feels ignored, neglected, or excluded from group activities. Also, Malamutes are usually friendly to other humans outside their own pack, often demanding their attention and affection as well. The Malamute’s gregariousness and tendency to openly, unreservedly give affection make them highly attractive to many dog owners; these same qualities make a Malamute a poor guard dog.
The harsh conditions for which Malamutes were bred rewarded a strong prey drive, as food was occasionally scarce. Consequently, Malamutes may instinctively attack animals such as house cats, squirrels, rabbits, chickens, quail, and even deer (however, many households enjoy harmonious, mixed “packs” of cats and Malamutes). Historic competition for food is also a reason why Malamutes may regard dogs outside their own pack or team with disdain or hostility.
Malamutes dig for food when required, and digging is now a common way in which Malamutes deal with boredom. It is not uncommon to see a Malamute digging madly in pursuit of a mouse, mole, or gopher. Malamutes may also dig to escape a fenced yard, and have been known to dig escape tunnels underneath houses. This tendency to dig can be particularly frustrating to owners who maintain yards or gardens.
Owing to the Malamute’s independent nature, physical strength, and its high levels of energy and intelligence, most experts on the breed advise that Malamutes not be adopted by people who:
- are inexperienced in training dogs
- lack the time, energy, and space to exercise them, or
- lack the patience and stamina to repeatedly engage in contests of willpower with a large, powerful animal without becoming angry.
Health issues in the Malamute are hip dysplasia, inherited polyneuropathy, chrondodysplasia, and the usual northern-breed eye problems (particularly cataract and progressive retinal atrophy).
While Malamutes have been successfully raised in places such as Arizona, their dense coats generally make them unsuited for hot climates. When the weather gets hot, they – even more than other dogs – need plenty of water and shade. Also, being a winterised breed they will grow a winter coat and subsequently, come spring, shed it again.
The Malamute is a descendant of dogs of the Mahlemut tribe of upper western Alaska. These dogs stood prominently on equal footing with their human companions – working, hunting, and living alongside them. The interdependent relationship between Mahlemut and their dogs fostered prosperity among both and enabled them to flourish in the inhospitable land above the Arctic Circle.
For a brief period during the Gold Rush, the Malamute and other sled dogs became extremely valuable to recently landed prospectors and settlers, and were frequently crossbred with imported breeds. This was often a misguided attempt to improve the type, or to make up for how few true Malamutes were up for sale. This genetic dilution seems to have had no long standing effect on the modern Malamute, and recent DNA analysis shows that Malamutes are one of the oldest breeds of dog, genetically distinct from other dog breeds.
The Malamute dog has had a distinguished history; aiding Admiral Richard Byrd to the South Pole, and the miners who came to Alaska during the Gold Rush of 1896. This dog was never destined to be a racing sled dog; instead, it was used for heavy freighting, pulling hundreds (maybe thousands) of pounds of supplies to villages and camps in groups of at least 4 dogs for heavy loads.