Basic Alpha Training For Malamutes
Good, sound training can be the difference between life and death for your malamute!
Now, did that get your attention? The death part, that is? Good, because we're not exaggerating. Malamutes are terrific dogs, but they have special needs when it comes to training. You can meet these needs very easily and humanely at an early age, or you can choose to neglect them and end up with an unmanageable, potentially aggressive dog, who nobody will want to live with. And because nobody will want the dog, he or she will stand an excellent chance of being euthanized. So, if we still have your attention... In order to train a mal successfully, you must understand what makes these magnificent animals tick. Along with being affectionate, playful companions, malamutes are intelligent, independent, stubborn, energetic and dominant creatures with a very highly developed sense of pack hierarchy. These traits were essential for survival in the harsh and unforgiving environment which mals first inhabited, and they continue to be the essence of malamute temperament. If you cherish and respect these characteristics, and are able to work with them in training your pet, you will end up with a malamute who is a pleasure to live with. If, however, you ignore your mals special training needs, or have expectations which are simply not within a mals capabilities, you and your pet will face failure.
We all understand the terms intelligent, independent, stubborn and energetic. But what about dominance and pack hierarchy? Well, dogs are pack animals, just like wolves. Our modern breeds demonstrate varying degrees of pack behaviour and malamutes (along with the rest of the northern breeds) retain a very high level of these behaviours, along with a strong sense of pack hierarchy. In a pack, there is always a hierarchy, or pecking order. Pack members each have their own place in the hierarchy, with the most dominant member, generally a male, assuming the alpha or leader role. A strong, confident leader is necessary to ensure a stable, secure pack. Malamutes, as a breed, tend to possess a very high natural level of dominance, and will be happy to assume the alpha role in any pack to which they belong.
When you bring a malamute into your family, she will regard your family as her pack. It is absolutely imperative that you teach your pet, from day one, that her place is at the bottom of the pecking order; that she is the least dominant member of your pack. This is a relatively easy task, especially with a young pup, accomplished using simple, humane techniques which mimic the way in which your pet interacted with the members of her first pack her mom, littermates and other adult dogs in her moms pack/kennel. Every member of your family, children and adults alike, must apply these methods with love, affection, respect, firmness and consistency. Your pup will return that love, affection and respect ten-fold, will learn to trust all of you, and will feel absolutely secure with her place at the bottom of the hierarchy. Together, you will have laid the foundation for a successful relationship.
Training your malamute will be a labour of love, continuing throughout your pets lifetime. It will be done on two levels. She must learn to accept the human members of her pack as caring, benevolent leaders. As well, she must learn the day to day obedience skills which will make her a welcome member of your family and community. The two levels of training are interdependent, and many skills will be used in both for example, learning to respond to down is a basic obedience skill, but learning to hold a long down is both an obedience skill, and an exercise in pack hierarchy.
While the focus of this brochure is to help you learn how to establish yourself as alpha in your mals eyes, we would also like to offer a bit of advice to help you get started with basic obedience training. We have provided a list of resources at the end of the brochure, all of which provide sane, intelligent information. We also hope (dare we say, insist) that you take some formal obedience classes with your pet. There are many different approaches to obedience training, ranging from the more old fashioned methods, which were often very heavy-handed, to newer techniques, which can rely almost entirely on food rewards or on other rewards which the dog has learned to associate with food (i.e. conditioned reinforcers, for example, clickers). We believe that the best approach for mals is one falling somewhere in the middle. You must be firm with your mal, showing them clearly what you want to them to do, and then issuing commands, as opposed to requests, to perform specific behaviours. But, except for a well-timed correction with a properly fitted choke collar (or, in extremely difficult situations and under professional guidance, a pinch collar), physical punishment has no place in obedience training. And, while food rewards are very useful, particularly while you are introducing a new behaviour or trying to help your pet conquer a task or situation which she finds frightening or stressful, we believe that it is far more useful and productive to reward your pet with praise and positive attention from you. Obedience training is about having a stable, happy, well-mannered dog who is welcome in your community. It is also about having a dog who will respond to you in an emergency (for example, if her collar breaks and she darts out into the street), because she respects and trusts you, and values your praise. Over-reliance on food or a conditioned reinforcer often produces a dog who responds only to that reward in other words, it develops a relationship between the dog and food instead of between the dog and her family.
An experienced, professional trainer is an invaluable resource in learning to enjoy life with your malamute. Ideally, you will be able to find a trainer who has extensive experience with northern breeds. Failing that, look for someone who is open-minded, and takes a fairly middle-of-the-road approach to training. Avoid extremes in training methods although short term results can be impressive, over the long term very regimented, militaristic style classes, or classes where excessive use is made of food rewards, tend not to bring out the best in malamutes. Also avoid trainers who say that their method is the only acceptable method, and that it works for all dogs. If such a beast existed, the inventor would be wealthier than Bill Gates! Some trainers have extensive training, while others simply draw on their years of hands-on experience and on-the-job learning. Either can be excellent... or a disaster... Try to meet with the trainer before you enrol in a class, and, ideally, watch one or two of their classes. Class size should be reasonable for the amount of space and number of instructors, and adequate to allow plenty of one-on-one attention for each student. The general mood should be calm and light dogs should be under control, and enjoying themselves. Your vet may be able to recommend some trainers in your area. A local all-breed kennel or obedience club, or local malamute people may also have some suggestions. Now, for the big question. How do we teach our malamutes that we are alpha? Its easy, especially if we start when they're puppies. And while these techniques were designed for puppies, they can certainly form the basis for a mild attitude adjustment with an older dog, as long as you are working with a professional trainer, and are very careful to not push the adult mal too far, too fast. Although we will list these as separate exercises or techniques, over time they will become second nature to you, and simply be the way in which you communicate with and handle your pet.
Gently hold your puppy on her back, on the floor. Pet her, rub her tummy, talk to her and tell her how wonderful she is. She may struggle at first, but persist and don't let her up until she has been quiet for a short time (at first, just a second or two; gradually increase to a couple of minutes). By doing this, you are placing your puppy in a very submissive posture, while you assume the dominant position. But, you are doing it in a gentle, loving, firm and positive way, so she will learn to associate your dominance with friendly, positive attention. In other words, when she submits to your requests, she is rewarded with positive attention. This is also the beginning of teaching your pet to do things simply because you ask her to and because it will make you happy not a concept which comes naturally to most malamutes.
Carry your puppy around on her back, cradling her in your arms as you would a baby. Again, talk to her and tell her how wonderful she is. This is an extension of the previous exercise, and places the pup in an even more submissive position than being held gently on the floor. It won't be long before your pup is too heavy to pick up, but all members of the household who are strong enough to do this exercise safely should practice it until the pup becomes too big.
Please note: Young children who are too small to pick up your pup easily should learn that they must never try to pick her up, to avoid injury to either child or puppy. Your pet will soon be too big for most people to pick up and, in any case, most malamute pups are far too busy to enjoy being carried around like a doll.
When your pup is sitting, crouch behind her and give her a big bear hug. Use your whole body to cover her head and shoulders. As usual, pet her and fuss over her while you're doing this, so that she will learn to associate your dominant posture with good things. While your pup is standing, bend down from your waist and give her another bear hug, with your body right over her shoulders and head. (Okay, this is really bad for your back, but whats more important your back or your dog?) Like the other postures, this stance mimics the posture a dominant dog will assume over a less dominant dog. While you're doing it, rub your pups chest, scratch her chin and tell her you love her. Again, she will learn that you are a kind, benevolent dictator.
With your open hand, gently stroke your mals head, starting with her skull, above her ears, and coming down over her face to her muzzle, gently holding her muzzle for a few seconds. A strange dog could interpret this gesture as being very dominant and threatening (which is why we approach strange, non-aggressive dogs with a hand extended, under their chin), but your own pet should accept it happily. As always, your happy chatter and gentle touch will tell her that she has nothing to fear by accepting this dominant gesture.
These first five exercises can begin within the first days that your pup is with you. Use common sense and don't overwhelm her with too much at once, but within a fairly short time these steps should no longer be exercises, but rather ways in which you handle your dog, and demonstrate your affection for her. And of course, you'll also be doing housebreaking, leash and collar training, and some very basic obedience work during her first weeks with you definitely a busy time!
Meal times provide a wonderful opportunity to reinforce these early lessons about your pups place in her pack. In a wolf pack, the dominant animal eats first, gets the choicest morsels, and then says when, what and how much the other animals may have. Its very simple to translate this into dog/human pack terms. First, your pups mealtimes should be separate from or after your meal time. Never feed your pet immediately before or during your meal times. When its chow time for the little vacuum cleaner, bring her to the designated dining area, where her food dish is ready on the counter. Tell her to sit, and then, while helping her to hold her sit with one hand, place the food bowl on the floor with your other hand and tell her to wait. After she has waited tell her okay and let her start eating. At first, this will be pretty chaotic, with the wait period measured in milliseconds, and a bit of a struggle to hold the starving beast in her sit while you place the food on the floor. Just persist, and be consistent, and within a couple of weeks your little angel should be sitting and waiting all by herself. Once she has mastered sitting and waiting, add the next step. Halfway through the meal (which for some mals means after the first two seconds), tell puppy to sit again (helping her with one hand if necessary), and put the food bowl back on the counter. Then, make her go through the sit, wait and okay routine all over again before you let her finish her meal. The first time you try this, the food may go flying all over the kitchen. Don't worry just be patient, firm and consistent, and in another couple of weeks she should have it down pat. And, she will have learned that you control the food, and that no matter what sort of strange ideas you may have about how and when she can eat, she will always get her dinner, as long as she follows your instructions. Try starting this exercise a couple of weeks after your pup comes home. Some trainers may suggest that you return your pups food with a special treat added. This is not necessary and may even backfire, if your pup gets the idea that shes training you to add the treat. This exercise is about exercising arbitrary control while being gentle and fair about it. Some trainers also suggest sitting beside your pet while she eats, putting your hand in her bowl and even hand-feeding some of her kibble. In moderation, this is a good idea, especially if there are children in your family your mal must learn that any human may do anything they want with her food, at any time. Just be careful not to overdo it some dogs may decide that a human who hand feeds her is a subordinate, there to wait on her hand and paw. The best solution is to have the adults teach your pet the sit, wait and okay exercise, temporarily taking food away part way through the meal, and then have everyone in the family take turns practising the exercise with her.
One more thing, while we're discussing mealtime. Your pup should not get any (well, at least hardly any...) people food. There are good reasons for this. Too many tasty treats can create a very fussy eater a pet who will take great delight in learning to control your actions by refusing to eat whats put in front of her, and who will turn mealtimes into a real power struggle. As well, too many extras can upset the balance in your pets diet and dramatically increase her calorie intake. If your pet is receiving a good quality dry food (she is, isn't she??), then her diet is complete and balanced. Food treats can take the form of small dog biscuits and healthy, low-cal things like bits of fresh fruit and vegetables, ice cubes (yup really!) and tiny amounts of cheese or lean meat scraps. Just make sure that these food treats do not come from your plate, or during your mealtime. Dogs who beg at the table are a nuisance, and more importantly, the pack leader (thats you!) does not share their meal with the underlings.
The tone of voice we use when speaking to our dogs is very important. We often tend to talk to our pets as if they were babies, using high pitched voices and baby-talk. This is a big mistake! At best, baby-talk makes us sound like equals to our pets, at worst, they will think we are subordinates. Talk to your mal as you would to an intelligent person, using a normal, confident tone. If you are pleased with your dog, go overboard in making your voice sound happy and positive (you'll feel like a fool at first, but theres bound to be a certain element of foolishness in living with a mal!). Conversely, when you are displeased with your dog, you should use a very distinctive, unquestionably angry voice your voice of doom. Keep it as low pitched as possible (no shrieking or screaming) and incorporate a growly component. There should be a real contrast between your happy and angry voices, and they, along with all your other voices (calm, loving, conversational) will be very valuable tools as you train your malamute.
Eye contact is also extremely important. It can run the full range from warm and loving to the look of death. Combine your friendly, affectionate gaze with your happy voice and words of praise, and use the look of death with your voice of doom both will make very effective statements, in the same way that your pups mom communicated with her. Further, when your pup has done something really bad, stare very hard into her eyes until she looks away the doggy equivalent of saying uncle. Never, never be the first one to look away. Even if it takes two days...
Take a few seconds several times each day to teach your mal to watch me. Tell her watch me, point to your eyes, and reward her with a small treat and lots of praise as soon as she responds. Gradually increase the amount of time she must remain focused on you before receiving her reward. And, of course, as soon as she knows what the words mean, concentrate on rewarding her with praise, and give her a food treat only rarely. This exercise is particularly useful with malamutes, because one of the greatest difficulties in doing basic obedience work with these independent thinkers is getting them to focus on and pay attention to their humans.
Nothing good in life is free. Every time your pet wants anything from you, be it a treat, her meal, some playtime, a walk, a hug or a philosophical discussion, make her earn it. It takes very little effort and even less time to ask her to sit or lie down or shake a paw before she gets something. This is a quick, easy way to sneak a bit of obedience work into everyday life, and it also reinforces your position as alpha.
The long down is a really useful tool. Try introducing it when your pup is between four and six months old. The first few times you try this you will probably curse us, but stick with it the end result is well worth the effort. By the time you try your first long down your mal will know what the words down and stay mean, but she probably won't be accustomed to holding either command for any length of time. Your first attempt at a long down will be for 30 minutes no pussyfooting around! Of course, your mal won't do it not at first. So just park yourselves in front of the idiot box, tell her majesty to down and stay beside you, and be prepared to spend the next half hour telling your incredibly restless creature no, stay and replacing her in exactly the same spot where she started the exercise. When you're not reminding and/or replacing her, pay attention to the scintillating entertainment on the TV, and don't fuss over the dog. After half an hour and after shes been lying quietly for at least a couple of minutes, release her with an okay and praise her. Now, both of you can get up and do something else. Try doing this exercise once every two or three days. It will take a while, but eventually you will be rewarded with a dog who will lie quietly for a reasonable amount of time (e.g., through your meal), until you tell her she can get up. This exercise is about benevolent, arbitrary (to the dog, that is!) control, and gives a very strong message to your pet about whos in charge. Its also really useful to have a dog who can hold a long down. She'll be a lot more welcome when you're visiting friends and family who may not be quite as enamoured of your pet as you are. And the more places she can visit with you, the more interesting her life will be!
Games are fun, and having fun is one of the reasons we share our lives with dogs. Just be sure that you control playtime you establish the rules and duration of the games, and if the game has a winner, its always you. Its fine to respond to your pets invitation to play, but remember to remind her that you're still in charge by making her earn your attention by doing a trick or responding to a quick command first.
A word of caution avoid games which involve chasing, tug-of-war and excessive roughhousing, especially if there are children in your family. This type of game has clear winners and losers, and children (and most adults...) simply don't have the size or strength to win a physical contest with a malamute.
Provide lots of safe toys for your mal. These will allow her to entertain herself and will help prevent boredom, and all of the destructive behaviours which accompany it. Do not allow your pet to become protective or possessive of her toys, though. Anyone in the family should be able to remove anything from her mouth, at any time. If the object in question is something forbidden (e.g. shoe, clothing, garbage, roadkill, a roast turkey...), replace it with an acceptable toy. If its a toy, return it after a few seconds, unless there is a specific reason why she should not have that toy at that time.
Do not allow your mal to jump up on people, unless invited. Teach your malamute to sit in front of people when she greets them. You can also teach her to jump up to give you a hug, on invitation only. And make very sure that your exuberant pet is never allowed to jump up on children shes simply too big and powerful to do this.
Crates are a valuable training tool. Dogs are den animals they like to have a cosy place to curl up in and call their own. Used properly, your mals crate will be her den. It will be a valuable aid in housetraining, a safe haven where children and other pets are not permitted to bother her, and a safe place for your pup to rest and perhaps enjoy a good chew while you're busy with other things. Halters are another worthwhile training tool. These are devices similar to the halters used to handle livestock, and are used when walking your dog in place of a choke collar. They exert gentle pressure around the base of the muzzle and behind the head, allowing you to control your pets head very easily. The pressure also helps to communicate your alpha status to the dog. A properly used halter will reduce pulling on leash significantly a real benefit with our natural-born pullers!
As a rule, malamutes should never be allowed off leash, or left unsupervised in an unfenced area. They are natural roamers, and given the opportunity and/or incentive (say, for example, a plump squirrel or the neighbour's cat), they will be gone in an instant. The potential for problems is enormous. Malamutes will harass, attack and kill neighbouring pets and/or livestock, as well as wildlife. A loose malamute is also at considerable risk herself from road traffic, irate (possibly justifiably so...) neighbours and from predators more efficient than she is.
Two of the best gifts you can give to your malamute are a safe, fenced area to call her own, and a retractable leash. The fencing will provide protection both to your pet and your community. The retractable leash will give her a large measure of freedom while you are walking, while allowing you to retain sufficient physical control in case of emergency.
There are a few more issues you should consider when you add a malamute to your family. One of the most important is malamutes and children. Most mals love kids. They are not, however, a childs pet. Mals are just too much dog for a child to handle kids simply lack the stature, presence and tone of voice to be perceived by your malamute as being alpha. And, of course, they do not have the physical strength to manage such a powerful dog. However, it is vital that kids, working under their parents supervision, take an active role in training your pet, so she will learn that although not alpha, children do rank above her in the family social order. Start early, and have your children do as many different training exercises with the dog as possible, being sure to choose only exercises which the child can complete successfully. Moderate use of food rewards is appropriate, but remember that the best response rate is always achieved with an intermittent reward schedule. In other words, once a behaviour has been learned, your children will reward with food randomly, only once in awhile. This will remind your mal that the child is in control of the reward, and avoid the common pitfall of having the dog think that she has trained the child (or, for that matter, any trainer) to give her a reward each time she performs a given behaviour.
One final note about children and dogs all dogs. Young children must never be left unsupervised with any puppy or dog yours or anyone elses! In spite of the childs and dogs affection for each other, it still takes a lot of learning on both sides for them to understand how to behave towards each other. The vast majority of problems involving children and dogs are a result of children behaving like children, dogs behaving like dogs, and parents or other responsible adults failing to provide proper supervision and education.
All dogs go through a teenage phase. In malamutes, this generally happens sometime between eight months and two years of age. Suddenly your agreeable little pup will start to develop a mind of her own, and will challenge your every wish, seemingly forgetting all those hard-earned obedience skills. This is a normal part of growth, and is the time when each breeds adult temperament emerges. If you have laid a good foundation during your pups first months, you should both survive this stage with your sanity intact. Just be prepared, and respond with absolute confidence, firmness and consistency to all attempts at insurrection. It shouldn't be too long before your bratty teenager realises that all of the rules she learned as a puppy still apply, and begins to mature into a happy, confident, well-mannered adult.
Malamutes have long had a reputation for being aggressive with other dogs. Because of their high natural levels of dominance and sense of pack hierarchy, there is an element of truth in this belief. Many mals, especially those who have been poorly socialised with other dogs, feel that they must establish a pecking order with each strange dog they meet. If the new dog is submissive there may not be any problem, but if they challenge the malamute, or refuse to accept her dominance, a confrontation, possibly including a major fight, is certainly possible. And while there are many mals who don't go looking for trouble, there are very, very few who will back away from a direct challenge from another dog.
Proper socialisation and training, which must be ongoing processes throughout your pets life, will go a long way towards preventing problems. Your pup should be introduced to friends, familys and neighbours dogs, with the goal of establishing friendships, or at least mutual tolerance, early in life. Obedience classes are also essential as well as helping you to train your dog, they will provide an opportunity for your malamute to learn to be around, and perhaps even interact with, strange dogs while behaving in a civilised manner. Finally, one of the strongest tools in preventing confrontations with other dogs will be your mals acceptance of you as leader of her pack. If you meet a strange dog, she will be far less likely to feel that she must take charge of the situation if she knows that you are in control.
One of the most controversial issues in dog training is the use of physical discipline. Certainly, we only have to watch a mother dog with her pups to know that dominant dogs do indeed use physical discipline when their subordinates step out of line. The question is whether or not humans should mimic this type of behaviour, and if they should, when. There is no doubt that the safest means of dealing with our pets occasional challenges to our authority are non-confrontational e.g. timeouts, temporary withdrawal of affection and attention, dramatic use of voice and facial expression. If, however, you are interested in learning more about the rare instances when physical discipline may be appropriate, and how to apply it in a sane, controlled manner which will not, repeat not, result in any harm to owner or dog, please refer to the book How To Be Your Dogs Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete (full reference follows). One final note: unless you are defending yourself or another person, or an animal, from attack, it is never, absolutely never, appropriate to hit, kick, throw or otherwise manhandle a dog. They have a very strong sense of what is and isn't fair, and they know that such behaviour is not fair. At best, they will lose respect for you; at worst, one or both of you will be injured.
So, there you have it the basics of malamute training. Now, what are reasonable goals to set for you and your pet? Many people believe mals to be untrainable, but that simply isn't true. Granted, they do not respond with the speed and accuracy of some other breeds, and they are not ones for slavish devotion to their families. But if you are firm, patient and consistent, and make training an ongoing part of life, rather than just a series of boring exercises, you should enjoy reasonable success. If you deal early and successfully with the dominance issues which confront every malamute owner, you should have little difficulty in teaching your mal to be a happy, well-adjusted member of your family and community.
Choosing activities which are suited to your mals temperament and physical abilities will also help to ensure success. Keep in mind her original function hauling freight for long distances, day in and day out, under harsh conditions. Anything involving pulling (including sledding, weight pulling and skijoring), hiking, running (with you running, on a bike, or on rollerblades) and agility training are generally good choices. Some mals learn to enjoy swimming, if introduced to it early in life, but they're not water dogs so don't be disappointed if yours doesn't want to get her feet wet. Obviously winter sports are great fun, but your northern pet will prefer less strenuous activities (like napping in the shade...) during the heat of summer. Mals love to hunt as long as they're doing it for themselves! But as for flushing out game for you, or worse still, retrieving it forget it! These are instincts and behaviours which were simply not developed in this breed heck, most mals aren't even interested in retrieving balls or Frisbees for you! Mals are also terrible protectors of home and hearth. They are far more likely to invite burglars into the house, offer them a drink, show them where the good stuff is and make sure they're gone before you get home. Or, sleep through the whole thing... Of course, its a different story if an unknown dog dares set paw on their turf. Finally, although a well-exercised mal is happy to curl up with you in the evening, mals are neither lap dogs nor couch potatoes by nature most find too much inactivity very stressful. In fact, lack of exercise is a leading cause of destructive, inappropriate and generally difficult-to-live-with behaviours in dogs.
So, arm yourself with as much information as you can. This brochure and the following list of references will provide a starting point. Talk with your veterinarian and experienced malamute owners. And above all, get yourself and your mal to obedience class. Find an instructor with whose methods you are comfortable, ideally one who has had some experience with northern dogs. Start with puppy kindergarten, and progress through the different levels as your mal matures.
If you run into any problems, or just have some questions (remember, the only dumb question is the one you don't ask!), please contact us. Its almost inevitable that you'll run into a few minor difficulties, and its so much easier to resolve them as soon as they occur, rather than waiting until you have a full-blown crisis. We will do whatever we can to help you find a solution or, if need be, refer you to professional help.
Now quick go hug your malamute! Thats an order!!
Benjamin, Carol Lea, Dog Problems, Howell Book House, New York, NY, 1989. ISBN: 0-87605-514-5. Down to earth solutions to common behaviour problems.
Benjamin, Carol Lea, Mother Knows Best. A practical, humorous guide to basic obedience training.
Benjamin, Carol Lea, Second Hand Dog, Howell Book House, New York, NY, 1988. ISBN: 0-87605-735-0. A guide to helping your adopted rescue or shelter dog become a happy, well-adjusted family member.
Dunbar, Ian. Numerous booklets and videos dealing with all aspects of training and problem behaviour. Available from many veterinarians and dog trainers, or from James & Kenneth Publishers, 2353 Belyea Street, Oakville, Ontario L6L 1N8. Tel: 800-667-8531.
Evans, Job Michael, People, Pooches and Problems, Howell Book House, New York, NY, 1991. ISBN: 0-87606-783-0. An excellent guide to understanding and dealing with problem behaviours includes sensible, non-confrontational meals of establishing correct pack hierarchy.
The Monks of New Skete, How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend, Little, Brown and Co., 1978. ISBN: 0-316-60491-7. Excellent basic training manual, discussed obedience, discipline, sensitivity exercise, canine environments, basic problem solving.
The Monks of New Skete, The Art of Raising a Puppy. Little, Brown and Co., 1991. ISBN: 0-316-57839-8. A complete journey through your puppys first year even better than their earlier book!
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