For most “mushers” these days, the primary traits desired in their dogs are speed and endurance. That is, unless their sled-dog breed of choice happens to be the Alaskan Malamute.
Then you can add “power” to that list. For, in addition to being fast enough for most sledding activities, Malamutes are the heavy haulers of the Arctic regions. They’re also pretty versatile, as they’ve been successful in obedience, rally, agility, trick work and even dock diving, as well as more traditional activities such as weight pulling, backpacking and, of course, sled-dog work.
Varda (U-Ch. UR01 UWP Winterstarz Lady of Crickhollow BN RN TKN WPD TDC SAM CGC,) one of Alexis Smith’s Malamutes, lives up to the “heavy hauler” description at a weight pull.
When she first started with Malamutes, Nancy Russell had to study Eskimo culture, as there were no books or DVDs available. The first thing she discovered was that in the subsistence culture of the natives, Malamutes were not pets. Dogs too old or injured to be useful were either bear bait or were fed to other dogs. As a result, the breed has a great work ethic.
“Only spring litters survived, and by the first snowfall, the pups were working in harness. So, if a Malamute has no job to do, they can become very destructive,” Russell explains. “They can adjust to almost any activity because their structure is that of a sound animal with no exaggeration of any part. They have feet that can function on any type of surface.”
Living in the high Arctic – with temperatures ranging from minus 70 degrees in winter to 80 degrees in summer, with 24 hours of sun and no trees for shade – their coat protects them in all temperatures. “Thus,” she concludes, “they can work in any kind of dog-sport situation.”
Russell’s dogs – past and present – are Cash (BIS BISS Am/Can/Israeli Ch. Storm Kloud's Corner the Market CGC WTD WWPDX ROM WDX-ROM), Mathew (Am/Can Ch. Storm Kloud's Oomiak CD WLD WTD WWPDX ROM WDX -ROM,) Charger (Ch. Storm Kloud's Good to Go WLD WTD WWPD), Andy (Ch. Storm Kloud's At It Again WLDX WTDX WWPD ROM WD-ROM), Lance (Ch. Storm Kloud's Llook at Me Now WWPDX WTDA), Hugs (Ch. Storm Kloud's Venture West WTDA WWPDX WLD), Echo (Ch. Stormswept's Echo of Storm Kloud WTDA WWPDX ROM WDX-ROM), Jazz (Ch. Storm Kloud's Just Like My Dad WTDA WWPDX), Solo (Ch. Storm Kloud's Can Do It Alone WTDA WWPD) and Ch. Storm Kloud's Kkiss 'N Kill WTDA WWPDX WLD). Some of these dogs were part of Russell’s Iditarod team.
Russell’s team at the start of the Iditarod.
Chelsea Murray loves skiing, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and paddling. So, she needed a dog that was as adventure driven as she is, but could also take a night off to sit and watch a movie with her. The answer, for her, was an Alaskan Malamute.
“Malamutes are confident, curious, active and athletic. They’re also very intelligent and enjoy solving new problems, which makes them great candidates for many different dog sports,” she says. “Our standard includes almost every structural and physical trait necessary for a Malamute to do its job. For me, a real Malamute is one that can succeed both in the show ring and in harness.
“But, with each dog, you have a different relationship and training journey even if, as a handler and trainer, you have done a sport previously with another dog,” continues Murray, whose current Malamute, Lennon (GCh. Int’l Ch. Vykon’s IXA I’m a Dreamer at Ilannak RI BAM BCAT CCF1 CGCA CGCU RATI SAM SIN TKE VAM VHM WPDA WTD), also has multiple owner/handler group placements and wins. “You will often need to adapt your general training plan to the unique dog in front of you. This requires you to be both observant and creative. I enjoy the learning process, but it is essential to always be open-minded and willing to try new things.”
Three of Chelsea Murray’s Malamutes – Jade, Lucy and Lennon (GCh. Int’l Ch. Vykon’s IXA I’m a Dreamer at Ilannak RI BAM BCAT CCF1 CGCA CGCU RATI SAM SIN TKE VAM VHM WPDA WTD) – are accomplished backpackers.
Julia Bergquist – whose dogs are Nero (U-Ch. UWP URO1 Teton & Wintuk’s Over the Moon RN WTD WPD WWPD TKN CGC), Vesta (GCh. U-Ch. UWP UR01 UR02 Anua’s Meteoric Rise to Flam RN WTD WWPD WPD TKN CGC) and Psyche (BOSPSS Ch. Delphi’s Beloved of Cupid TKN WTD WWPD CGC) – adds that she was attracted to the breed because of their sheer physicality.
“Malamutes are physically formidable dogs. Ask them to hike 20 miles with packs full of water and supplies on their backs? What fun! Ask them to run a sled 10 miles in sub-zero weather? How fulfilling! Ask them to dig in and pull a cart weighing more than 1,000 pounds down the weight-pull chute? Absolutely! They can and will do anything. Beyond that, they are really smart. Malamutes get a bad rap for being stubborn, but they really aren’t. They just do not respond well to old-school training styles – namely, rote repetition and punishment-based collar jerks. Training with a Malamute must be varietal, clear, fair and consistent.”
Alexis Smith agrees that rote repetition is not a good practice when working with a Malamute. She notes that while they are large dogs, they are not oversized or lumbering dogs.
“They are quite agile for their size,” she says. “They are also smart and independent thinkers, but are people oriented as well as being highly motivated by food, which makes them quite trainable so long as you don’t work at something until they are bored. This all makes for a dog that can learn to do many different things and actually likes the variety.”
Lucy and Lennon also enjoy time on the paddleboard with their owner.
Smith reminds that most breeds were originally developed to do a particular task or set of tasks, and that is what made a breed what it is.
“If you have a dog that cannot do what the breed was intended to do or some simulacrum of that job, do you really have a dog of that breed, or has it become something else?” she asks rhetorically. “I’m inclined to say it’s now something else, so for me, doing activities with my Mals is a way to show that they are true and worthy members of their breed.”
In addition, what a dog was bred to do is a link to the breed’s history. “There is something special about going on a pack hike and telling people who admire your dogs about how the breed was used during World War II to carry supplies and ammunition,” says Smith, whose Malamutes are Varda (U-Ch. UR01 UWP Winterstarz Lady of Crickhollow BN RN TKN WPD TDC SAM CGC), Sherlock (UWP Winterstarz Tayles of Holms at Crickhollow TKN WTD WPD WLD CGC) and Azirphale (Int’l Ch. Delphi’s Good Omen for Crickhollow RN TKN WPD WTD CGC). “Or, sledding with them in sub-zero temperatures, knowing that their ancestors pulled the possessions of their owners across the Arctic.”
Smith and her Malamutes spend some time doing what the breed was meant to do.
Karina Burger is the victim of what she calls Malamute Accumulation Syndrome. The initial “infection” came from her husband, Tim, who was a vet-school professor. One of his grad students was a dog sledder, and she brought a litter of pups to work every day for socialization. No surprise – Tim bought one after having had them outside his office every day for weeks. When the pup was six months old, the breeders invited Tim to hook the pup into their team, and he was sold.
“Malamutes are like potato chips – you can’t have just one,” Karina Burger says. “I entered the scene when the Malamute count was at two. We currently have 10 and have had as many as 13.”
The Burgers do a lot of things with their dogs. Most are conformation champions or grand champions, and all have working titles in sledding, carting, backpacking and weight pull. Most have rally titles, and they’ve trained several in agility, but have only had time to compete in a few trials. The Burgers also do a lot of public events like school visits and dogsledding demos.
“Malamutes are energetic, athletic and smart. They love to work and learn new things if they are raised correctly. But the default for Malamutes is to ignore you and do what they want – they are not a breed that inherently wants to please you,” Karina Burger explains. “But, with training, when they learn that working with you is valuable and gets them rewards, they are just amazing.”
The mantra for the breed? “A working dog is a happy dog, and a tired dog is a good dog,” Burger says. “If you don’t provide an outlet for a Malamute’s energy, it will be worked out in some other way that typically involves destruction of something you value.”
Lennon, Jade and Lucy have fun scootering with Murray.
For Patrice Herzfeld, a lot of the joy in owning Malamutes is seeing the instincts from generations of the breed shining through as her dogs do what they were born and bred to do.
“That is truly why we breed, to see that instinct and athleticism,” she says. “I’ve found that a good understanding of the breed and my individual dogs has been the key to success in training for any sport with them. Malamutes were developed to be independent thinkers, so I train with the understanding that this instinct can be a plus rather than a minus. All my dogs have had their own strengths, weaknesses and speed at which they learn a new task.”
Mira (GChB. Winterstarz Stella Mira BN RA NAP CGCA TKA), one of Patrice Herzfeld’s Malamutes, has started doing dock diving.
Patience, positivity and accepting that all dogs are individuals has helped her overcome most of the training difficulties they’ve encountered.
“The old saying that handler error is 90 percent of the problem is generally correct,” admits Herzfeld, whose dogs are Mira (GChB. Winterstarz Stella Mira BN RA NAP CGCA TKA), Calvin (OHBIS GCh. Catanyas Ice on Fire RN CGCA TKN) and Rocket (Winterstarz Rocket J Dog RI CGCA TKN). “Good mentors have helped me understand the best way to accomplish my goals, sometimes in spite of myself.”
Rocket (Winterstarz Rocket J Dog RI CGCA TKN), another of Herzfeld’s Malamutes, is beginning to do agility.
One of Herzfeld’s dogs was a worrier, even in breed-specific activities, and understanding this made her deal with his training differently – with patience, mentor insight and a slow, positive approach.
“Did it take him longer to accomplish a task? Yes,” Herzfeld says. “Did I enjoy the journey less? A very definite NO. I just cheered longer and louder.”
Russell reminds that it is very important to make sure the breed doesn’t lose the characteristics that allowed it to survive and work in Arctic conditions.
“The only way to ensure these are not lost is to do weight pull and sled the dogs, preferably in conditions as close to that of the Arctic as possible,” she says, adding that it was the reason she wanted her dogs to run the Iditarod. “I wanted to see if my show dogs could go back and survive and work in their native environment.
“All of my dogs seem to take instinctively to weight pulling, and they’ve all loved sledding, but there I ran into dog fights,” Russell continues. “Picture six adult Malamutes hooked to a sled, all in one big ball of fighting dogs. I swear Malamutes love a good fight, and a lady I know called them the ‘barroom brawlers of the dog world.’”
While she thinks some of this love of fighting has been bred out over the years, puppy socialization classes are a must for Malamutes.
“They play like wolves, not like other dogs, so they need to learn as puppies what are friendly gestures from other dogs,” Russell explains. “They also have a strong pack instinct, so early socialization with other breeds and other Malamutes makes a big difference in their ability to not react aggressively to other dogs.”
Charger (Ch. Storm Kloud's Good to Go WLD WTD WWPD) at 10 weeks on his first hook-up, and his grandmother, Andy (Ch. Storm Kloud's At It Again WLDX WTDX WWPD ROM WD-ROM), both Russell’s Malamutes, having a little fun. Charger eventually became a great lead dog, while Andy was one of the youngest dogs on the Iditarod team.
Mira (left and the smaller of the two) and Calvin (OHBIS GCh. Catanyas Ice on Fire RN CGCA TKN) do some traditional Malamute work.
Russell notes that a couple of issues arose with her Iditarod team of show dogs. “We wanted to get photos of them working, so I was standing at a crossroad to get some shots. When the dogs saw the camera, they stopped and posed,” she remembers. “I finally had to go to various spots along the route with the camera so Jamie Nelson, who was handling the team, could insist they continue pulling. But they never stopped looking at the camera as they went by.”
A veterinarian at one of the checkpoints also told her a humorous story: When he came up to the team, they were all down resting. So he decided to start his routine exam with the leaders. However, when he put his hand in his coat pocket to get the thermometer, the whole team jumped up and started wagging their tails. “He said it took him a few minutes to remember that these were show dogs, and they thought he was getting out bait!”
Bergquist says there is something special about running a Malamute in harness. Even with minimal training, they instinctively lean into the harness and have the drive to keep going down the trail.
“Puppies placed into the team for their first run seem to know what they’re supposed to do,” she says. Surprisingly, her biggest difficulties have come with the mushing titles. Working team dog (WTD) and working lead dog (WLD) require four 10-mile legs to be completed on natural surfaces. Unfortunately, most of the trails in her area are paved. Loose dogs are also rampant, and controlling an entire team when they’re being harassed or even attacked by loose dogs makes for immense stress.
“The conditions also have to be right,” Bergquist explains. “The ‘sweet spot’ for my team seems to be minus five degrees. Any warmer, and they tend to overheat. Fresh snow can also create drag on the sled, but sometimes the only way to beat the snowblowers that maintain the trails is to get out in the midst of a snowstorm.”
Bergquist says some people don’t think that Malamutes require positive reinforcement because they are hardy working dogs, but they absolutely do. “For example, one of my dogs was stellar at rally. He consistently won Malamute-specific and all-breed rally trials. Then, one day, at a UKC trial, he left heel to sniff at some distraction and I told him ‘Leave it’ in a stern tone,” she recalls.
That was it: He flat out refused to perform for the rest of the trial.
Humbled, Bergquist had to take a major step back and rethink how to proceed. “First, I gave him a lot of time off, and when we resumed, it was back to square one, as if he was a puppy with short repetitions, many treats, positive tones, easy tasks and FUN,” she says. “Rally needed to be reinvented as a game again as something that excited him.”
Psyche and Vesta join Sherlock and Azirphale in backpacking for their owners.
Repetition can be a problem with Malamutes, according to Burger, as the dogs think they must have done something wrong when asked to constantly repeat something.
“We had two dogs that didn’t see the point of weight pull and only earned the basic level title. I think what happened was that they just couldn’t figure out what they’d done wrong, that we hooked them up again and it was confusing to them,” she explains. “The same in agility class when the instructor wants to do drills where you run the same sequence over and over, trying shave off time. I’ve learned not to do that with our dogs. They’ll do it great one or two times, and then it becomes comical and unproductive as they try to figure out what the ‘right way’ is.”
Nero, Psyche and Vesta also are called upon in the summer months to tow their owner around.
Like many breeds, the Alaskan Malamute faces some significant issues. A major one is the decline in the number of dogs getting working titles.
“In 2009, 87 working dog titles were issued by the Alaskan Malamute Club of America. In 2019, that dropped to 57. The greatest decline was in team dog titles,” Russell says. One of the problems is the increasing difficulty in find places to live that allow multiple dogs and have trails available for mushing. As a result, most of the working titles in recent years were earned by dogs in Alaska, Canada or England.
“The number of weight-pull dogs has also declined,” she notes. “At the 2000 National Specialty Weight Pull, we had 103 dogs, but in 2019 there were only 39.”
Cash (BIS BISS Am.Can. Israel Ch. Storm Kloud's Corner the Market CGC WTD WWPDX ROM WDX-ROM), one of Nancy Russell’s Malamutes, pulling 3,000 pounds at an Alaskan Malamute Club of America weight pull. Russell says his correct structure made pulling this load easy.
Another issue is when breeders only consider show-ring wins in deciding which dogs to use in their breeding program; as a result, many traits necessary for survival in the Arctic are disappearing from the breed.
“We are losing large snowshoe feet and heavy bone with good leg coat. We are seeing too much stop, which collects snow, and over-angulation in the rear, with bent hocks flying out behind the dog,” Russell says. “This is so inefficient. Judges and breeders really need to go watch a weight pull to see how the hock must extend on the ground and under the body to produce the force forward needed to move a load.”
Bergquist adds that another problem is that too many people get a Malamute for the breed’s beauty but are unable or unwilling to meet their physical and mental needs as working dogs.
“They do not put them in harness or challenge or simulate them in a comparable way. This is not a breed to live indoors as couch potatoes. They need to be outside, and they need to be active.”
Nero (U-Ch. UWP URO1 Teton & Wintuk’s Over the Moon RN WTD WPD WWPD TKN CGC), Vesta (GCh. U-Ch. UWP UR01 UR02 Anua’s Meteoric Rise to Flam RN WTD WWPD WPD TKN CGC) and Psyche (BOSPSS Ch. Delphi’s Beloved of Cupid TKN WTD WWPD CGC), Julie Bergquist’s Malamutes, take their owner for a ride on a winter day.