Malamute scratching its headIs this the Breed for You?

When someone buys a dog, they can reasonably expect to live with it for anything up to fourteen or fifteen years. That being so, it makes sense to ensure that the particular breed of dog is suited to the household where it will live, and there are few breeds that need more careful thought than the Malamute. This is partly because it is not an easy breed in the first place and partly because Malamutes rarely settle well into second homes, or worse, third ones. Conscientious breeders therefore go to enormous trouble to make sure the intending buyer is really suitable and will, as far as possible, insist on meeting anyone who wants a puppy.

Books always give the advantages of the various breeds, when what really matters are the snags. Let me give you a simple example : it is a fact of life that, with the exception of the hairless breeds, every dog either moults or needs clipping, stripping or trimming, and some do both. Only you can decide what will bother you the most. For the record, Malamutes moult. I have heard it variously described as being like a mattress coming unstuffed or like an exploding thistle. The carpets turn grey and soup gets a garnish of hairs - unusual and not always appreciated by visitors. Will that bother you?

Many people are attracted to Malamutes because they want a guard dog. Malamutes look ferocious because, to the uninitiated, they look like cross-bred German Shepherds. Furthermore, several non-specialist dog books say that they make good guards. They do not. The average Malamute will not only not warn of an intruder, it will welcome one with open arms, a cup of coffee, and the safe combination.

Having said that, I have yet to hear of a burglar prepared to risk it, and I have myself twice had break-in attempts at different houses foiled by the sudden appearance of a couple of friendly, tail-waving Malamutes. Even my neighbours, who know my dogs well, say they would not be prepared to enter the house in my absence. I have only ever come across one Malamute who gave warning of strangers about, which she did only at night. If you want a dog which is a visual deterrent, then a Malamute is fine, but if you want one which will attack, look elsewhere.

Malamute fencingAllied to this is the fact that Malamutes don’t usually bark - quite an asset in built-up areas. This does not mean that they are silent, however they howl. The single dog will only do this in rare circumstances: to join in with a police siren, an ambulance or a fire-engine.

 If you live in the country, you would have to face the fact that Malamutes are not safe with stock, especially sheep, poultry and game. Nor are you likely to be able to train them to be. There are occasional exceptions to this general rule, and those dogs need no training, but they are few and far between. This means that if you are going to let the dog off lead, not only must there be no stock in the field in which you are, but also none in any of the neighbouring fields: the dog has only to set up a rabbit and chase it, to end up in a flock of sheep.

If you live in a town you will have different problems. Malamutes have a regrettable tendency to aggression with other dogs. Unfortunately it is likely to be something small - like a Yorkshire Terrier, or a Jack Russell - that hurls abuse at the Malamute. Most Malamutes will immediately retaliate and, unless you are very careful its a case of "Look no Yorkie." Needless to say, it will be the bigger dog that will get the blame. So you will have to exercise you dog on a lead except when you go out at the crack of dawn (few people are exercising their dogs at 6 am and the casual open-the-door-and-turn-them-out brigade aren’t awake at that time) or when the rain is lashing down.

This tendency makes the breed a difficult one to keep if you have other dogs, unless they are kept as kennelled dogs. A Malamute will almost always get on with a dog of the opposite sex, especially if the other one was there first. Quite often - but by no means always - a bitch will get on with her daughters provided they have never been separated. This togetherness may not last beyond the daughter’s adolescence and probably won’t survive the separation necessitated by either of them having a litter.

The whole question of trainability is vexed one. It is not always realised that intelligence and trainability are not always synonymous. Malamutes are highly intelligent but not particularly trainable in general, although most litters contain a "biddable" puppy which, in the right hands, will achieve a moderate level of success. However, the precision work need in competitive obedience work is unlikely to be achieved with a Malamute. I gather that one sticking-point tends to be the retrieve: puppies love retrieving, but there comes a point in most right thinking Malamutes’ lives when they take the entirely rational view that, since you threw it, you can fetch it back.

I am not suggesting for one moment that it is not a good idea to take a puppy to training classes - in fact I encourage it. But do not expect to reach too dizzy a height. I have heard of some Malamutes being used for agility and I have a feeling this might be an area of activity that they might well enjoy - provided the dog could be prevented from rushing off after a dog in the crowd.

The question I am most often asked is whether the breed is good with cats and/or children. Lets take cats first. I have never had any problems with my own cats. My puppies are always brought up in the kitchen where the cats - we have several - soon teach them due deference. No dog I have had from puppyhood does more than bounce at our cats but they have killed litters of newly-born kittens when by accident, they get into the same room. They are not safe with other cats which they may meet either in my garden or in the street.

Obedience classThere is only one possible answer to the question "Are Malamutes good with children?" and that is "Are your children good with dogs?" Children, especially young children, think that puppies play all day. They do not. They sleep. If a child keeps waking a puppy up to play, sooner or later the puppy - and this applies not only to Malamutes, but any puppy will snap. The child must be taught - and be made to learn - that dogs, like people, have the right to be left alone sometimes. If you bring up your children to understand and obey the word "no" , and if your children are obedient and well-behaved, you will have no problems. If you believe that it is wrong to stop a child expressing itself; wrong to thwart it; wrong to "repress" it, in other words, wrong to bring it up to be a civilised human being, then you should not have any kind of dog.

Assuming your child is a paragon of Victorian virtue, there is just one more thing; a Malamute is not a dog you can give to a child as its own, to look after and exercise. Malamutes are far too strong to be handled by children except under strict supervision, until the child is in it’s mid teens and is demonstrably responsible. 

Malamutes are strong willed, cussed animals. To keep one successfully, you have to be stronger minded and more cussed. It is very important that you go to see Malamutes in the flesh before making up you mind. For one thing, they tend to be both taller and heavier than you think, a situation not helped by the fact that books do not always give the correct size. It is not important at this stage to look at puppies, which are always irresistible, anyway. You need to see what they will grow into, to have a long chat with the breeder and then go away and think about it.

After I have detailed all the snags to potential owners, there is often a long pause before they say "If they’re as bad as that, why do you keep them? It is not an easy question to answer but I suppose it is because, for me and a lot of other, people, the good points outweigh the bad and the bad simply make the breed more interesting. Malamutes are friendly, extrovert companions, their intelligence coupled with their independence of spirit - no lick-spittle lackeys in this breed - makes them a constant source of interest,

All in all, it is a breed for people who like a real challenge. But deciding whether the Malamute is the breed for you does not end with knowing the snags. When you have satisfied yourself that you can accept the snags, you must give thought to the suitability of your circumstances.

If you work, you must be prepared to accept three problems: first it will take much, much longer to house train your puppy, secondly, while the puppy will sleep for most of the day, when it does wake up it will be bored to tears, and amuse itself by testing its teeth on anything lying around, form skirting boards to chair legs to upholstery; and thirdly, you must make arrangements to get home at mid-day to feed the puppy for a least the first two or three months. Do not consider relying on neighbours, friends or family to do this: it is not their dog and they will have no compunction about leaving it unfed when it happens to be inconvenient to do otherwise.

If you cannot cope with these three problems, then do not consider having a Malamute. A flat, however large, is quite unsuitable unless it is on the ground floor and has a large garden attached. I should have thought the reasons were obvious, but I once had a long argument with a would be owner who thought she could train a Malamute to use a litter tray. Maybe she could, but to think she had any idea of how much of the kitchen floor would have been taken up with litter tray, even if she could have bought one big enough.

A well fenced garden is a must. The size of the garden is not important - in fact, I would rather sell a Malamute to someone with a small well fenced garden, who is prepared to exercise the dog properly, than to a person with four acres which are unlikely, due to cost, to be dog-proof - and who thinks it is perfectly adequate to turn the dog out there for exercise. What constitutes good fencing? Chainlink, overlap or solid boarding. Hedges are no good unless the bottom is well reinforced with close-mesh chicken wire because any self respecting dog will push through the bottom, the weakest part of any hedge/strands of wire will keep cows out but they will not keep dogs in and Malamutes just walk through large mesh chicken wire; dogs can rip their bellies open jumping chestnut pailings.

In general, Malamutes do not jump, so, while I recommend five or six feet for a good fence height, in practice four feet will be adequate in most cases. (There are the occasional Houdini-like exceptions - of course). Gates must be as high as the fence, of course, and as escape proof. It pays to put springs on them so that they close automatically. Gardens with shared access are never suitable for dogs. You must be prepared to exercise you dog properly.

An adult Malamute can take as much exercise as you can dish out. If you are not prepared to take your dog out on a lead for a brisk two mile walk (ie. half an hour) morning and evening no matter what the weather, then forget it.

If all the problems outlined are superable, I am delighted for you, and I hope you have as much pleasure from your Malamute as I have had from mine.