Yes, no doubt, but let's avoid stereotypes. The Malamute can be a true beach dandy, as well as a smart member of the jet set. The role he likes best, however, is being a cuddly family pet, as he feels above all a mate and a friend of what he sees as "slightlystrange dogs, with two legs and no tail".
The name Alaskan Malamute derives from the Inuit tribe "Mahlemiut", who began to select the breed in days gone by. In the Eskimo language "miut" means "people", while the meaning of the word "mahle" is unknown. It was probably a place-name, and Mahlemiut would therefore mean "people of Mahle".
This tribe used to live in the Kotzebue Sound territory, between the river Kobuk and the Noatak. At that time Alaska belonged to Russia and it remained in Russian possession until 1867, when the United States purchased it. The Mahlemiuts and the other Arctic peoples didn't even notice the political change: their life went on as usual, as the land they lived in was too inhospitable to interest anyone coming from outside.
In 1896, however, things changed: gold was discovered along the river Klondike and thirty thousand men invaded the Great North, taken in by the dream of getting rich.
As gold could only be dug when roads and rivers were not frozen over, gold-diggers would get bored to death for most of their time. Besides alcohol, the main antidote to boredom was contests
and bets, in which dogs played a significant part. Contests of speed, strength and resistance would often take place, but initially nobody thought of using local dogs, which looked neither fast nor strong. The favourite breeds were the giant ones, as the Newfoundland or the Saint Bernard, or occasionally big mongrels, resulting from the (generally casual) crossbreeding of the giant and the native breeds. Those were the protagonists of the early Sled Dog contests, which didn't include any Northern dog, but things were soon to change. The history of the Siberian Husky states that these little dogs, mockingly nicknamed "Northern mice", easily outdistanced the mongrels in all the competitions based on speed and resistance. Malamutes, instead, soundly defeated them all in heavy sled hauling and weight pull contests. This kind of competition still takes place in America and our breed keeps achieving outstanding results, beating record after record.
Even after the end of the gold rush, sled dog contests remained very popular. In 1923 a young teacher from Massachusetts happened to read a newspaper which spoke about them. She thought a team of sled dogs would be a real attraction in her town's carnival and so decided to get one. Eva Seeley, nicknamed "Short" because of her height, would never have imagined she would fall in love with those dogs and, with her husband Milton, she would become the most famous American breeder of Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes.
Eva got to know all the greatest sled dog champions of the period. It was thanks to her ability as a breeder (and a promoter) that the American Kennel Cub recognized the Siberian Husky in 1930 and the Alaskan Malamute in 1935. That year's "Book of Origins" saw the registration of the first official Malamute in history: Gripp of Yukon, who was to become the first American "Best of Breed" one year later.
"Short" Seeley, since the very beginning of her activity, had bred more Siberians than Malamutes; in fact this breed was already dying out, together with its people. The Mahlemiut tribe lived almost exclusively by hunting and fishing; their main food was the caribou, but this animal had inexplicably moved away from Kotzebue toward the second half of the nineteenth century. Eva Seeley's Malamutes met honour and glory during Byrd's first expedition to Antarctica, and they were later "enrolled" in the army at the beginning of World War II; but they paid dearly for that glory: by the end of the war the breed was almost wiped out. Its story starts again only in 1947, wit
h three different bloodlines:
- The first, called "Kotzebue", derived directly from Short Seeley's dogs;
- The second, called "M'Loot", came from the Yukon territory and had been imported by Paul Voelker;
- The third line, less known than the others, was named "Hinmann-Irwin" after the breeders who spread it. This line had a rather short life, but even so it influenced the development of the breed
Kotzebues and M’Loots were quite different: pure Kotzebues had a beautiful head, but were short in height and were a single colour, wolf grey. M'Loots were taller but had narrower chests, long ears and pointed snouts. Besides, as their rear leg angles were less marked, their gait was not as free as today's Malamutes'. Unlike Kotzebues, M'Loots had a wide variety of colours, including red. Finally, M'Loots' tended to be a little aggressive, while Kotzebues' temperament was sweeter.
The two lines were not crossbred for a long time until Robert Zoller, the owner of Husky-Pak kennels, decided to try and obtained outstanding results. Since then, the two lines have increasingly intermingled, and almost every modern pedigree includes them both.
The dogs of the Spitz type such as the Malamute are quite "wolfish" because man has hardly interfered in the selection of their character. He has erased any trace of aggressiveness, making them meek and fr
iendly, but he has never impaired their instinct of social, strongly hierarchic animals, just like their forefather, the wolf.
When the Malamute covers a few bitches, he thinks he's the one that, among the wolves, is defined as the "alpha" male: the highest in degree and the only one who is entitled to breed. That's why he believes that all the puppies in his pack are his children and feels obliged to be kind to the little pests, who hand down his precious genetic code (...even though a growl sometimes slips out; there's a limit to one’s patience!).
But why are the little ones so insistent with the adult? To understand that, we have to make a short journey to the neonatal phase of their development: at birth, they are completely blind and deaf. Their only sense is smell, and the only thing they can smell is their mother, whose milk means "food" and "life". A week later, they have changed only in terms of their size: the imperatives are still "eat" and "sleep". After another couple of weeks, things suddenly change; now the puppies are (almost) real dogs, equipped with a hundred new faculties: they can see, hear and walk, but young as they are they couldn't do without their mother or the pack. For this reason Mother Nature has passed on a basic precept to the puppies: "All that you can touch, see and smell during this period of your life belongs to your species". Puppies assimilate this lesson during what ethologists call "the imprinting period", which lasts from the third to the seventh week of life. Therefore, throughout this period man must "bluff", that is, let himself be touched, seen and smelled by the puppies, so as to convince them that we all belong to the same species.
If this didn't happen, when they have grown up, dogs would value us with the only two alternatives known to a wolf: either as predators to fear and avoid, or prey to attack and, if possible, eat. They would certainly never become the tender life and work mates they have always been to us.
Let's go back to the puppies' behaviour with an adult male. The attempt to suck is simply a mistake (one has to learn from experience…), while the leaps and bounces to the snout are neither play nor evidence of love. In fact they are an invitation to bring up half-digested food, as this is the way puppies are fed when they are first weaned. Wolves behave like this, and so do many Northern dogs. Since the act is an admission of total dependence, it has also acquired a meaning of surrender and submission among adults. That's why our dog, to welcome us, leaps toward our face. Showing one's belly is also evidence of submission: th
is action, too, can be met in an adult dog, who performs it to tell us: "I recognise you as my superior".
As you can notice, it isn't difficult to understand the "canine" language, particularly the one used by the most wolfish dogs, which seldom bark and express themselves by means of the body. Barking is a consequence of domestication; in nature it can rarely be heard, because wild animals try to make as little noise as possible. It isn't wise to let predators know where the pack is, while it is admissible to howl if one of its members is cut-off, in order to tell him how to join the others.
To live with a Northern dog is to live with a near-wolf: tender and reliable to the extent that we can safely leave our children with him, yet with a wolf's mind as far as social behaviour and hierarchy are concerned. It follows that, if we want to be respected and obeyed by the dog, we'll have to learn the difficult art of the "leader": a position which is NEVER achieved by force, but through firm, coherent, dependable conduct. It isn't an easy challenge, as the Malamute is a very demanding dog, but if you manage to win his trust you'll know the great satisfaction of an obedient mate who never leaves your side, who keeps his eyes on you, awaiting your order or nod of approval. That means a dog that follows you anywhere without a leash, who rushes to you as soon as you call him…. and is able to control his predatory instincts, content to "watch" what he is not allowed to "touch".
On the other hand, to the man who can't be a good leader the Northern dog will still be kind and loveable but will not recognize the owner's authority and will do anything he likes.
Does it make sense to find an Alaskan Malamute at the seaside or a long way from the frozen lands where he was born? The time has come to deal with the problem seriously. Let's start by saying that the Malamute's coat doesn't cause him any trouble if temperatures rise: his fur has a heat-insulating function, which protects him both from the cold and the heat.
The Malamute doesn't feel the heat any more than an Alsatian dog and he is certainly less susceptible to heat stroke than a Bulldog or a Boxer, although they are shorthaired dogs.
When the skin is not exposed, the thickness of the dog’s fur doesn’t bother him; what matters most is the ability to cool down breathing air through his nasal cavity, which is long, wide and broad in a Malamute. That's why this dog is perfectly equipped to live at all latitudes.
Northern dogs can stand polar temperatures thanks to their natural defences, but that doesn't mean they prefer or even like them! A dog that has to live his whole life in the grip of cold can't be happier than a dog that usually enjoys mild temperatures. The latter will have a longer, healthier life, because he will more profitably use the energy that his arctic friend wastes to protect himself from the cold. The average life of an Eskimo Malamute used to be six-seven years; a modern city dog's is ten-twelve years, and that says a lot about the alleged "necessity" of temperatures below zero.
A longer life, however, doesn't necessarily mean a happier life; it's up to us to see to that, remembering that the Malamute is a dynamic, intelligent work dog. If we can, let's teach him to pull. He loves to, that's what he was bred for. Still, if we live a long way from the snow, let's remember a sledge is not indispensable; we can enjoy ourselves as much by using a cart or a mountain-bike! If we are not the sporty type, never mind: there are a thousand ways to exercise our Malamute and have him release his energy, alone or in company. He enjoys human company, chiefly the one of people who, like him, enjoy playing; but, like all social animals, he also likes the company of his fellow creatures.
If we own a male, it's better to get him friends of the opposite sex (it's the same thing the whole world over…) but the Malamute displays no tendency to ask for trouble when meeting other dogs. He loves human beings so much that he generally doesn't take care of th
em and prefers his owner's attention. On the other hand, if a Northern dog is challenged, he will not pull back; we'd better not take chances.
Primitive and sharp-witted, playful and tender he is a wolf no less than a dog, yet not everyone can live with a Malamute. There will always be someone asking you "what’s the use” of having a dog like that if you don't harness him to a sledge? The poor boys don't know how you feel, with an unspoiled bundle of nature near you; they don't know what it means to look your dog in the eye and feel as if you were flying over oceans of snow, solitude and peace.
It's no use explaining. Those who don't know him cannot understand; but if you love the Malamute, you do understand, that's all. You, too, will feel the spirit of the wolf inside yourself and know that by choosing this breed you won't just "own a dog"; you'll have a brother by your side.