Reminiscent of their Wolf Ancestry, Alaska Malamutes Don't Bark Often... But They Howl!
This beloved family pet has a distinguished history. In an ancestral sense, the malamute was an Alaskan dog, as a descendant of the dogs kept by the Inuit Mahlemut tribe in upper western Alaska, going back 2000 to 3000 years. These so-called "snow dogs" were constant companions to their human masters, living and working alongside them in the very harsh conditions that exist above the Arctic Circle. They are descended from arctic wolves .
They make extremely good sled dogs, and have gone on such notable expeditions as that headed by Rear Admiral Richard Byrd in his trek to the South Pole.
The Alaskan work dog
Malamutes resemble the Siberian Husky , but they're somewhat larger; in fact, they're the largest of the Arctic dogs, and their sturdiness has served them well. In the harsh climate of the Alaskan wilderness, these dogs demonstrate a unique propensity to work, as well as incredible strength and endurance. Packs of malamute dogs have routinely participated in sledding expeditions; in addition to the aforementioned Byrd expedition to the South Pole, they've also been an integral part of arctic life for the Inuit people, because of their sense of direction, keen sense of smell, and tenacity. They want to work, and proved to be an absolute necessity to the Inuit historically, when dog sleds were often the only form of transportation available..
The Malamutes’ sturdy physique made them particularly well adapted to the harsh conditions, easily able to withstand extremely cold temperatures. In fact, they thrive in such conditions, and don't do particularly well in hot weather. Notably, they don't need as much food as you might think, given their size, perhaps another nod to the difficult conditions that were originally home to this breed.
The Alaskan malamute is truly majestic in appearance. Standing 22 to 26 inches tall at the shoulder, they weigh between 70 to 85 pounds in adulthood for females, and 80 to 95 pounds for adult males. The Alaskan wolf heritage is somewhat apparent in both its appearance and behavior. It has been bred for endurance and power, traits that are evident in its countenance and stature. Its thickly muscled, heavy frame is covered with an equally thick and durable coat uniquely suited to arctic climates. It actually has a double coat, with a thick, oily, wooly texture to the undercoat, which can be up to two inches thick, plus an outer coat with coarse hair that stands away from the body and is about an inch long.
The head is held erect and still, exuding a confident, wolf-like, proud yet gentle persona. Notably, the most common expression on the face is one of affectionate gentleness, as long as the dog has been properly socialized. Proud and sweet, the wolf-like face has a long muzzle with a black nose and erect ears. The eyes are usually almond-shaped and brown, although blue eyes may also be present. Dogs with blue eyes are very striking, but this is considered to be a fault in the American Kennel Club breed standard. Alaskan malamutes never have blue eyes if they are purebred.
The fur is generally light gray, but can be black, sable, or shade from sable to red. Other possible color combinations include black and white, wolf sable (dark gray overcoat, red undercoat), red, or wolf gray.
The tail is unique, too. It is long and plumed, held erect over the back. It has a function as well. In the harsh Alaskan wilderness, the tail was a necessary protection against the elements. Malamutes traditionally wrap their tails around their noses and eyes to protect them from blowing snow and ice. Their feet are "snowshoe" feet, wide and perfect for walking across snow without floundering.
Alaskan malamutes are a combination of gentleness, strength and an almost hungry desire to work. They make wonderful family dogs as long as they are properly trained, and they are intensely loyal and eager to please. However, it should be noted that perhaps in part because of their arctic wolf parentage, they are pack animals through and through. They must have strong direction and mastering, but if they are given proper training and interaction, they are affectionate, loyal, sweet, and patient dogs that can put up with physical hardships other dogs may not withstand. Perhaps the one word that describes the adult and well-trained malamute perfectly is "dignified."
It is imperative that malamutes be trained. Although they are very, very eager to please and are not particularly difficult to train, they still must have direction and a clear master or mistress defined if they are to be well behaved. Because of their easygoing, dignified nature, it can be easy to overlook the fact that they need strict training and clear boundaries until it's too late. Dogs that have not been properly trained can become rambunctious and destructive, with expensive consequences indeed. Male malamutes can especially be dominant if they're not properly trained, but if they are, again, they are very, very obedient.
Care should be taken around small animals, since malamutes have kept their prey instinct quite strong; undoubtedly, their close wolf heritage has something to do with this, but they will still generally listen to the master or mistress's firm commands.
It's notable that the malamute is actually a very quiet dog not prone to barking; instead, it prefers to vocalize with a "woo" sound. Malamutes may also have a propensity to howl, again a nod to their wolf heritage.
The malamute is generally quite hardy, with a relatively long lifespan of about 12 to 14 years, quite old for a large dog. Malamutes' only real health problem of great significance is hip dysplasia and bloating. Part of the reason they are prone to bloating is because of their size. Surprisingly, they are actually quite economical to feed. However, loving owners may want to feed their pets larger amounts instinctively, which the Alaskan malamute is only too happy to wolf down. This propensity to "wolf down" their food does not serve them well for their own overall health, although owners can certainly manage this quite easily simply by limiting portions and taking care to feed the appropriate food. Some Alaskan malamutes are also prone to condrodysplasia, or dwarfism, cataracts, and progressive retinal atrophy.
Environment and living conditions
The Alaskan malamute just adores cold weather. Although these dogs can survive quite well in warmer climates as long as they are given plenty of water and the ability to cool off when they need to, what they really crave is cold weather. If you do decide to get an Alaskan malamute and you live in a warmer climate, make sure you take care to keep your pet cool at all times, with plenty of water and shade available. Do not shave your pet's thick coat in an attempt to cool him or her off. That thick coat is a great insulator against the heat, as much as it is against the cold.
Another thing the Alaskan malamute absolutely must have is plenty of room to run and play. They do not do well in apartment living, and must have at least a backyard for room to roam. If you do have a backyard, make sure you fence it securely, with the fence dug into the ground all the way around the perimeter; malamutes are prone to digging, and will likely dig under anything they can.
The Alaskan malamute sheds almost continuously, and must be brushed regularly. Twice a year, the undercoat comes out in clumps so that the dog looks like he or she is molting. Nonetheless, this is normal and aside from the shedding, the Alaskan malamute presents almost no grooming problems. Odorless, it rarely if ever requires bathing, just regular brushing.
Are there any situations where the Alaskan malamute would not make a good pet?
If you don't have a large backyard with plenty of room for your Alaskan malamute to run and play, you should consider getting another breed. These are very well-behaved dogs when properly trained; in fact, they actually make very good house pets. They're not the least bit destructive even indoors if they are properly trained and have plenty of room outside to expend their considerable energy, even with their large size.
That said, if they're not properly socialized and you can't spend a lot of time with them making sure that they know that you are the leader of the pack, they are very prone to misbehavior in that they will simply become large, rambunctious "puppies."
If you can't spend significant time with them and don't have room for them, it's best to choose another breed. If you can, however, the Alaskan malamute makes a loyal, beautiful, striking, and very friendly pet, suitable even for families with small children, assuming proper socialization is done.