From time out of mind, native people have depended on dogs as draft power in their struggle for survival. In southern territories, these dogs were replaced by hoofed stock; in the north, where climates are severe and life a constant battle against the elements, these dogs remained an important companion to man far into the 20th Century. Chief among these breeds are the Samoyed and the Siberian Husky, both developed among indigenous people on the Siberian plateaus, and the Alaskan Malamute, born among the Mahlemuit Inuit in Alyeska long before Russia sold this magnificent, brutal land to the US government.
The sturdy, intelligent Malamute was used to hunt polar bears and seals and to haul freight. The Mahlemuit people were kind and gentle to their dogs; the Mals had to contend with harsh climates and periods of food shortages, but they were spared the cruel practices of some other Arctic natives. The dogs were not pampered pets, however; they had to work for their food and shelter. In times of scarcity, the dogs often battled each other for the meager scraps that were available.
Legend says that Mahlemuits sometimes staked out their females in heat for wolves to breed and replenish the toughness and adaptability of the Malamute stock, but legend is disputed by those who note that wolves are shy and secretive, hardly valuable traits for a sled dog.
The Gold Rush at the turn of the century increased the use of sled dogs, and miners held races to emphasize the value of their dogs and to gain prestige throughout the territory. The need for speed jeopardized the Malamute, for this was a heavy draft dog, capable of pulling great weights but not built for swiftness. So the Mal was crossbred with a variety of lighter, faster dogs, and purebreds were almost lost.
Enter Eva B. "Short" Seeley and her husband Milton, New Englanders with an uncommon interest in sled dogs, and Arthur Treadwell Walden, owner of Chinook Kennels in New Hampshire. Through their combined efforts, the Malamute and the Siberian Husky were protected. Dogs and drivers were trained at Chinook for Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition, and the Seeleys remained prime forces in the Malamute breed and in the establishment of sled dog clubs and races in the US.
The Alaskan Malamute gained American Kennel Club recognition in 1935 and in 2004 was ranked 58th in popularity among AKC's breeds with 2187 individuals registered that year.
The most obvious physical traits of the breed are its size, heavy, double coat, plumed tail, and wolfish appearance. The Mal is the largest of the sled dogs. Males are 25 inches at the withers and weigh about 85 pounds; females are 23 inches tall and weigh about 75 pounds. However, the breed standard allows for larger dogs as long as type, proportion, and movement are correct.
The Mal standard (link to http://www.akc.org/breeds/alaskan_malamute/index.cfm) is one of the few that stresses the purpose of the breed as a critical measure of the dog's appearance, and it exhorts judges to bear in mind that "In judging Malamutes, their function as a sledge dog for heavy freighting must be given consideration above all else." This reminder tells judges that heavy bone, powerful build, and steady, tireless gait should be rewarded and that individual traits that detract from this purpose should be penalized.
The dog has the typical thick undercoat and longer, coarser guard coat of the northern breeds. He sheds this massive coat twice a year, and the amount of hair that wafts about the house and scurries under furniture during these times can be overwhelming. Although the coat does not need clipping and trimming, it does need at least weekly brushing during non-shedding periods and at least every-other-day brushing while shedding.
The Mal coat also comes in a woolly form that is not acceptable in the show ring. A woolly Mal needs more frequent brushing to prevent the hair from matting.
It is in color that the Mal most resembles the wolf. His overcoat can be any color from white to black or red; his undercoat can be any of these colors and need not be the same color as the topcoat. The undersides of his body are white, and color shadings can be found in those areas of the body bordering the white areas. He may or may not have a masked face.
The full, bushy tail can be carried over the back or waved like a plume.
A young Mal might be confused with a Siberian Husky, but no one can mistake the adult Mal for its smaller cousin. This is a massive dog, built for heavy work; the Siberian is smaller and lighter, built for speed. Mals always have brown eyes; Siberians can have one blue eye or two.
Because of its heritage, the Malamute is not a dog for the faint of heart or weak of purpose. Although friendly and affectionate, he is also dominant, self-confident, and strong-willed, and can be quite a handful if not properly socialized, trained, and exercised. An untrained, bored 85-pound Mal can be rowdy and destructive - a true terror to behold.
Generally a happy breed willing to please its owner, the Malamute greets most people with gay abandon but may not be so accommodating with other dogs, particularly dogs of the same sex. When confronted by a canine challenge, the response may be fast and furious. The modern Mal also harkens back to ancestral days of foraging in the wild - he will raid trash and steal food if possible; is an able hunter and executioner of small game, including cats; and, if allowed to run loose, can be deadly to livestock. An owner must be prepared to deal with this wild streak if he plans to bring a Mal into his home.
Malamutes need gentle, firm training based on rewards and encouragement, not force. Because of its northern heritage, the Malamute adapts readily to life outdoors, but should never be allowed to run loose or be tied on a chain, tie-out, or trolley. The indoor Malamute needs daily exercise on a leash or in an enclosed area; the outdoor dog needs daily doses of companionship and affection.
Malamutes are exceptionally quiet dogs that seldom bark, but they may utter a surprising repertoire of yips, growls, rumbles, howls, and woo-woo-woos. Some Mals harmonize mournfully in concert with every passing siren, and others seldom or never howl.
Because of the breed's intelligence, propensity for dominance, need for early socialization, and strong prey drive, selection of a responsible breeder is critical to the success of the relationship between the Mal and its new family. Not only must the breeder ethically select breeding stock, practice good management, and socialize puppies, he must also be available to assist the new owners in adjusting to and training the new member of their household and to take the dog back in case the relationship doesn't work out.
Don't look seriously at puppies until you have narrowed your selection of breeders. Most of all, don't buy a puppy because you like the noble, handsome appearance of the adults. Make sure this is the breed to share your life for the next dozen or more years.
Like all large breeds, Mals are subject to hip dysplasia, and they can have zinc-deficiency skin disorders, hypothyroidism, and coat funk, a condition that ultimately ends in hair loss. The breed is also affected by congenital dwarfism. Puppies should be purchased only from breeders who test their breeding stock for hip dysplasia, dwarfism, and hypothyroidism. Mals can also be victims of day blindness, a decreased ability to see in bright light.
Obviously, although it is basically a healthy breed, the Mal is not the dog for everyone, not even everyone who likes big dogs. Although its wolfish appearance inspires awe and admiration, its independence, penchant for dominance, and need for exercise must be taken into consideration before buying a puppy. On the other hand, once you get past the caveats about the breed, the Mal can make a loyal companion, a jogging or hiking partner, or a beloved pet for just the right family or individual.
For more information about the Malamute, contact the breed parent club or the breed rescue coordinator on the American Kennel Club website (www.akc.org). Breed health information is available at http://www.malamutehealth.org/. The Alaskan Malamute Club of America can be found at http://www.alaskanmalamute.org/. For those considering an older puppy or adult Mal, breed rescue information can be found at http://www.malamuterescue.org/
Also check out these books in the Dog Owner's Guide Amazon bookstore:
The Alaskan Malamute: Yesterday and Today by Barbara Brooks and Sherry Wallis
A New Owner's Guide to Alaskan Malamutes by Al Holabach and Mary Jane Holabach
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