First, Malamutes are all about hierarchy, who’s on top, who’s not, who might be on top last week, but might get shoved out of position this week. In the perceived lack of leadership on the part of their owners, Malamutes will attempt to take over the leadership position. And they suck at it.
Malamutes really want humans to be boss. But somebody has to be boss. They want to know the rules, they want to know the rules will be enforced. It makes them happy to have fair structure.
But when things fall apart, when a breeder gets a phone call that their beloved puppy who just left a month ago has turned into a Gremlin, we know it’s not because they were watered after midnight. It’s because something went wrong.
There is a huge difference between aggression, dominance, and assumed-leadership. An aggressive dog loves to fight, same-sex dogs will often trip his trigger. But is he same-sex aggressive or is he anxious because of something going on in his environment, like owners who won’t step up and be leaders? Is he concerned about a hierarchy shuffle because someone in the structure is weak or sick? Is there a small dog problem? A cat problem? A bunny problem?
“My dog is aggressive” is usually wrong and often only the first step in figuring out what the triggers are and how to manage or eradicate them.
Even the most even-tempered Malamute comes from a long history of dog aggression Dog aggression is a problem in the breed, like hip displasia, cataracts, and hypothyroidism. If you’ve talked to a breeder or rescuer, they owe their buyers/adopters a frank discussion of aggression. Yes, there are dozens of examples of people with two of the same sex who live happily for years, or lived happily with a toy breed or a cat. It can work. It so often doesn’t and that’s a failure of their owners or a failure of circumstance — for which the owners are ultimately responsible. Not all Malamutes are aggressive, of course, or situationally aggressive, but it’s a trait of the BREED, like upright ears, curled tails, and harsh double coats. There are examples of floppy-eared, straight-tailed, silky-coated Malamutes, but they are not the rule. Dog aggression is in the breed. We have a lot of control about the DEGREE of dog aggression, but we have to first acknowledge its existence.
WHY are Malamutes historically aggressive? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone does. Siberians pull sleds in the arctic and they are known for the social good-pack behavior, often even with stranger dogs. Siberians were from a settled society, Malamutes from nomads. Siberians from Russia, Mals from North America. It’s probably too simplistic to say that the Inuit (Malamutes) liked/tolerated dog fighting more than the Chuckhi (Siberians) and the Inuits SELECTED for that trait the same way you’d select for dark eyes, dark pigment, big feet, or a will to pull. But the fact remains that Malamutes have a reputation and a HISTORY of being dog aggressive.
Malamutes have historically been known as dog aggressive, specifically same-sex dog aggressive. This is reported in account after account from the first time the European explorers met the Inuit, they brought back tales of big, wooly, aggressive dogs pulling sleds across the ice. To deny this facet of their character is to shamefully and willfully deny a part of their heritage. Like saying that Retrievers never brought back game. Hunters never hunted. Herders never herded. These things are part and parcel of the breed. When you choose a rodent-hunting digger as an apartment dog you should expect behaviors that look like digging and rodent hunting. Malamutes have been, from time immemorial, dog aggressive.
Their are numerous accounts that detail the Malamutes’ love of a good dog fight, they did this as village dogs and they did it once the whites came in and took over large numbers of them. The Inuits managed their dogs in several ways, many of which would be inappropriate in the world today. They knocked out teeth of all but the breeding males. They neutered dogs. They killed dogs that were out of control and refused to listen to their masters. The average life expectancy of a Malamute in his natural environment was about half his life expectancy in the Lower 48 in the 21st Century. Part of that is medicine and availability of quality diets, part of that is because the Inuit didn’t expect or allow their dogs to live out their natural lives. They were considered workers first, a dog that slowed down was no longer useful to the collective. How did the Inuit manage their dogs, even if they wouldn’t have thought of it that way?
The Inuits worked their dogs. A tired dog is an obedient dog (well, more obedient, anyway). Their dogs worked many miles and many hours, and it wasn’t a weekend thing. They worked, and they worked as a team, frequently as a family unit.
The Inuits raised their dogs in family groups. When a puppy is born into a working pack, a team pack, the puppy learns to be a PhD in canine communication. They learn, or die. They learn to approach adults properly. They learn to play with siblings. They learn the hundreds of ways that dogs, who are raised in a group, learn to communicate. So often modern dogs fall into aggression because they would fail basic canine communication Kindergarten. We don’t teach our dogs to communicate, we often don’t let them. We isolate our dogs one-on-one, or two-by-two, and their canine teachers often have no good manners to begin with since they never had to learn pack dynamics.
The Inuits managed their dogs. They neutered their dogs not used for breeding. Sex hormones in dogs, as in humans, are the root of so much trouble. Sex hormones run amuck replace rational thought, any thought. They didn’t tolerate out of control aggression, often with lethal results. And they worked their dogs into the ground to burn off energy. Even if they didn’t consider these things behavior management, a concept alien to their point of view, these things DID work to manage behaviors. We can model our management after theirs in ways — neuter if you don’t plan on breeding, find aggression unacceptable and take steps to stop it, and work them until they are too tired to cause boredom mischief.
The Inuits corrected their dogs. Not in a way that many of us find acceptable. But the opposite of capital punishment is no punishment and those are equal evils as far as good management is concerned. Dogs are NOT children. DOGS ARE NOT CHILDREN. Thinking of dogs as children means they get privileges they have no inherent right to. When we think of our dogs as children, we hesitate about corrections, because so many of us have failed in our leadership of our children as well. Dogs need leadership. Leadership implies clear guidelines, swift corrections, and equally swift and lavish praise. Failure of leadership is the root of almost all misbehavior. Dogs need to understand the rules so clearly that they understand wrong before it happens. That is our duty to our dogs. Once they get the rules, THEN you can correct their misbehavior, and not until. That’s training 101 — teach the behavior you want before you correct the misbehavior.
All Malamute owners should learn what the breed IS, accept what the breed IS, and educate yourself so you can educate your Malamute. They want leadership, they want clear and fair rules, it’s up to us to provide them.
How can I prevent it?
Consider that aggression is 1 part genetics, 1 part early socialization, 1 part continued socialization, and 1 part management. The last two are solely up to you. You can not have a properly social dog without WORK and management — your work and your management. The breeder hopefully has done her job with selecting a social pedigree and early socialization in the whelping box. But you have to keep at it for the LIFE OF THE DOG. How do you do that?
First, educate yourself. These are NOT Golden Retrievers, don’t buy a puppy expecting ANYTHING you see in the movies. Movie dogs are intensively trained by personal experts and get to make repeated takes. Malamutes are some of the most trainable dogs on the planet. They merely look for a motive. Pulling is its own reward. Selection for thousands of generations has made sure that pulling is as much of a reward to a Malamute as tennis balls to Goldens or running to sight hounds. Pulling = joy.
As an aside – they can not be taught NO-PULL. There is no such thing as NO-PULL. But there is a wonderful thing called loose leash walking. Loose leash walking is a mutually exclusive behavior from pulling, they can’t do both at the same time, they will have to choose which one to do. In the same way, that you can’t teach a puppy not to jump on you, there is no such thing as NO-JUMP. There is a mutually exclusive behavior called SIT. Puppies all across the world are taught to pull and to jump, because their owners focus on correcting the behavior without giving a mutually exclusive behavior and REWARDING the puppy for doing the mutually exclusive behavior. It’s called MOTIVATION.
Find what motivates them, use it. Besides pulling, which is hard to serve as a reward in obedience training. But Malamutes have another crutch — Will Work for Food. Use what works to motivate them. Once you have figured out how to motivate them, than use that to motivate them in directions and ways you approve of — sitting for attention, walking on a loose leash, and waiting at doorways. One of the chief side benefits of training is a REDIRECTION for aggression.
Select the opposite sex puppy of your current dog. If you have an adult female, get a male puppy. If you have an adult male, get a female puppy. No matter the breed. Your adult may ‘get along with everything’ but when the puppy hits 18-months-old, there will be a reckoning because the Malamute is all about hierarchy, who is in charge, who is not. If you have laid a proper foundation of training and socialization, you will have an easier time of it, but 18 months is that time frame where teenagers are teenagers and parents want to pinch their little heads off. This is not a 100% rule, because their are no 100% rules in anything, but you will have less trouble and less work if you get an opposite sex puppy to add to your adult dog.
Don’t buy siblings. I raise siblings every chance I get, but I can put the sibs in separate groups as needed. Most people don’t have that luxury. If you buy siblings you will have a couple of problems to sort out. First, there is no age-induced hierarchy, so they will have to figure out their own. This manifests itself in sibling rivalry, which can escalate to aggression. Second, you will have to socialize them separately. That’s as simple as on Saturday, leaving one at home and going to the petstore, leaving the other at home and going to the park, an hour with each and you’ve gotten individual socialization AWAY from their sibling, which helps build the human bond — so critical in avoiding aggression problems later. So if you’re going to do this, be prepared for extra work.
Neuter your puppy if you are not a breeder. Hormones can make a well-behaved dog act inappropriately. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about leaving your dog intact. Much of the world does keep their dog intact. But much of the world WORKS to have a well-behaved dog, and so many Americans can’t get past that Constitutional Amendment about the Right to Own a Dog. Owning a dog is not a right, it’s a privilege. Owning a dog with hormones just means that your problem behaviors will be more problematic. It can also lead to unplanned pregnancies, which carry their own host of aggression landmines. If you’re having trouble managing their behavior with hormones, than by neutering, you remove one of the triggers. You do NOT fix the problem, you just make the dog not worry so much about sex-driven issues, which means you can have more energy to fix the behavior in the first place. I can say that my intact dogs are 10x more likely to start trouble than my neutered dogs. The intact ones are 100x more likely to start trouble over an in-season female.
Plan on training, lots of structured thoughtful training. Training happens every day. Training happens whether YOU know it is happening or not. If you trained your child to be spoon fed by you until he was 20, the child would not develop skills to feed himself. If you trained your dog to walk on a tight leash until he was a year old, the dog would not develop skills to walk on a loose leash. Training is about habits. Habits are habits, they have no intrinsic value. We decide what are good habits and bad habits based on our preferences. Do we want our couch cushions chewed? A good way to make that happen is to leave a puppy unsupervised in the house. Do we want our carpets ruined by soiling? A good way to make that happen is to fail to teach house manners. Do we want our dogs to be unsocial, afraid of strangers and strange situations, and reactively aggressive to strange dogs? A good way to make that happen is to keep them at home. The only way to socialize a dog is away from home.
Plan on outings — away from home. This covers both formal classes and weekly adventures. I ask my puppy people for a puppy socialization class, a beginners obedience class, and a weekly outing for the first year of the puppies life. The first two are not as self explanatory as you’d think. The puppy socialization class teaches a puppy to learn, it teaches a puppy to play with others, and it teaches a puppy SOCIALIZATION. You can not socialize a puppy at home — many many people believe the myth that they have a well-socialized dog when the dog belly-crawls into the vets, is afraid of the car, hackles at visitors, or offers unprovoked aggression to strange dogs. These are signs of LACK of socializing. The weekly adventure should be to a new place where they meet a new person, every week. Puppy class counts the first week only. The vet visit counts the first week only. But you can socialize by going to Sonic for a lick of ice cream, go through the bank teller for a dog biscuit, go through a drive-through for a chicken nugget. It’s better to go to a PEOPLE park and practice sitting for strangers, but drive-thrus are a world better than sitting at home. (Dog parks are a great place to teach fear aggression in a young dog.)
What can you do about aggression?
Get help. It’s a question that really can’t be answered without knowing so very much more. Is it situational aggression — crowding at a doorway. Or toy aggression — mine, you can’t have it! Specific to a food bowl? Specific to another dog? Another sex of dog? Another color of dog? Another size of dog? Towards small animals? Towards men? Towards children? Red-headed boys about 10 years old wearing suspenders? Aggression triggers can be that specific. In order to work through any aggression, the owner has to do a couple of things first.
- Identify the behavior. Which aggression is it? What triggers it? Is it all the time, sometimes, when mom is supervising and dad is away?
Manage the behavior. While you are working on a desensitization program, keep the dog and the trigger away from each other. This is so simple and so many people fail to follow this one thing — keep everyone SAFE while you work on fixing the problem. I had a puppy buyer whose boy-girl siblings were aggressive at feeding time. He didn’t want to crate feed, which is the simplest thing to do to AVOID the problem, but doesn’t SOLVE the problem. So we attached the dogs to leashes, the leashes attached to immovable objects like doors or eyebolts screwed into baseboards and wall studs behind them. This eliminated the aggressive behavior while you worked on desensitization. There was a bad habit of fights at feeding time. Everyone knew it. Everyone got tense. Tension/adrenaline escalates the most innocent behavior into aggression through fear. When the dogs physically couldn’t get to each other, they both relaxed.
Correct the behavior. Once they were eating calmly restrained, then they could be allowed to be closer and closer together. The whole time they were strictly supervised. A human stood between them with a vinegar bottle at the ready. Aggression was corrected with a spray of vinegar. The correction was IMMEDIATE, UNPLEASANT, and UNMISTAKABLE. Good behavior was rewarded with eating, it’s own built in reward. Bad behavior was corrected. (You can try this by standing between them and stomping your foot, yelling, etc. But you need to be able to reach out and TOUCH them when they are being aggressive and the vinegar bottle works.) Over time, the two can be allowed loose in the same room to eat unmolested, because a good foundation behavior was built that kept them both protected. This was a very situational, very specific aggression. Once it was identified, over time the behavior could be MANAGED and CHANGED. This does not happen easily or quickly. Bad habits take a while to become habits and they take a while to change. Ask an ex-smoker.
Dog-dog aggression is not that simple. Especially same-sex aggression. The concepts are the same, identify the unwanted aggressive behavior, manage the behavior, correct the behavior. But there are some girls who will not be safe with another specific girl. Some boys who will have a hate-on for another boy no matter what we do. These behaviors CAN be corrected with expert help and due diligence. But you need the expert help before you start.
Prey drive, cat-aggression, small-animal aggression. I would like to say this was easily fixable. But this is another one that may never be fixed, depending on how entrenched the behavior is. The phrase ‘fighting like cats and dogs’ was not created because they have a history of getting along. Sure, some dogs and some cats, especially when raised with that cat, will get along. But asking a dog who never met a cat before to suddenly like the kitty you bring home is asking for trouble. It happens, sure. But it also happens the other way as well.
Malamutes have a long history of dog aggression. Aggression can be managed. Aggression is a four-part equation.
- Genetics, a pedigree chosen for social dogs
- Early socialization by the breeder
- Continued socialization in the new home
- Flexible management by the owner
If you continue to socialize, you should not end up with aggressive behavior — you will have safely exposed the dog to the things they might have become aggressive about, and you will have laid a foundation of trusting you.
But if you do end up with aggression, the behavior can be modified through identification, management, correction, redirect, & refocus. But it takes work, lots of work, and possibly expert help to figure out how you can help your dog understand the rules.