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The Working Malamute
The Alaskan Malamute offers much in the way of companionship. He can be trained to work with his owner as a pack dog, sled dog or weight puller. Sharing these activities with your Malamute will give him the opportunity to prove himself as an eager worker as well as providing help and companionship for the active outdoors person.
The Malamute is the work horse of the sled dog world. Larger and slower than the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Husky, they are built to haul heavy loads over a long distance. The most important attribute of a working malamute is attitude. A dog may possess all the physical attributes needed to be a good sled dog, but without the desire to pull, he has nothing.
Even the best dog must have proper feed when he is working or he will lose weight and muscle. Nutritional requirements for a hard-working dog are several times more than that of a maintenance diet and the onset of cold weather will make them greater yet. Malamutes working long hard days in cold weather require a diet high in fat and protein. Adequate water is necessary to prevent dehydration especially in cold, dry climates.
Packing with your Malamute can be an excellent activity for both of you and is ideally suited for the one-dog owner. It is easy to train the Malamute to pack. The equipment needs are minimal, especially if you are already a hiker or backpacker. Hiking trails can be found almost everywhere and most Mals love to get out on the trail.
The dog should be obedience trained in the basics of heeling (walking by your side). He should know a command to walk in front of you or behind you in the event that you come upon a narrow trail. He should behave in camp and be able to be tied up in camp if needed.
There are a number of back packs available, or you can construct your own. Make sure that the pack goes over the dog's head easily and test the pack fully loaded to see that the dog can move freely, with no binding or chafing anywhere. Your leash can be attached to the dog's collar or a D ring on the pack. If possible have quick release buckles on the pack as they are a big asset when encountering streams or other hazards.
At about six to eight months of age a dog can be lightly packed. Start out with about 1/8 of the dog's own weight. Fill the packs with bulky, light items, giving the dog the feel of a full load with a minimum of weight. As your dog gets into good condition, slowly increase the load to 1/3 of his weight. Be sure that each side of the pack carries an equal amount of weight or the load will shift and be hard on the dog.
Before you head for the hills your dog must be in condition and his feet must be hardened. Conditioning trips can be short hikes, or jogging with your dog. Before you do any serious backpacking, do some short hikes that will take you on a variety of trails. When your Malamute is mature he can carry about 30% of his own weight all day if he is used to doing it and is in good condition. Don't expect a dog who spends the day lying in the backyard to be in shape. When the dog packs are loaded, check that all is in balance. Large items such as tents may not be workable as they shift too much. Don't pack any items that might poke through the pack, and pack all perishable items in plastic bags in case the dog decides to take a swim somewhere along the trail. Plan on extra rations for your hard working dog when he is on the trail. Take a light chain or rope to tie your dog up within in camp and make sure to carry water if it will not be readily available along the trail. Take a break every hour or so to rest your dog, give him a drink and check his pack. Remember to watch that your dog does not disturb other hikers, wildlife or livestock along the way. Clean up after your dog on a trail or near camping areas.
The Alaskan Malamute is by nature and conformation a draft animal. His very size and weight lend to heavy pulling. The sport of weight pulling is popular, because it can be practiced at home in the back yard or urban park, it is something even the one-dog owner can participate in.
Weight pull competitions consist of a dog pulling a given weight a given distance in a set amount of time. Weights are increased for each round, with dogs dropping out when they fail to make the pull. The competitions are divided into weight classes. There are several sets of weight pull rules used, the most common being those of the International Weight Pull Association (IWPA) and those of the Alaskan Malamute Club of America (AMCA). These rules now call for a dog to pull a load a distance of 16 feet in one minute and give you the option of calling the dog from the far side of the finish line or driving the dog from a position behind the dog. Weight pulling may be done with sleds or carts. Rules do change from time to time so it is best to become familiar with the rules before you enter a competition.
You may begin training for weight pulling when your dog is six months old; however, most competitions require that dogs be a year old to participate. Basic obedience training is helpful before getting started because the dog will have learned some basic commands such as stay and come. Start out with light weights on snow, dirt or grass. Make sure the harness is properly fitted and that the weight you are using does not make a lot of noise or that it is not so light that it might hit the dog should the dog spook and start running. A small tire makes a good weight to start with.
Sledding is the Malamute's original job. He helped move camp for his nomadic owners along the Alaskan coast as they moved between their hunting and fishing grounds. Because a dog team consists of several dogs it is essential that dogs have good temperaments and be well disciplined. You can start sledding with your Malamute when he is about six months old. Remember that the young dogs cannot cover the distance or pull the load that a well conditioned adult dog can. Start the youngster or inexperienced dog off in a small team beside a well mannered, hard working dog. Use a light sled and stick to trails that are well packed and not too steep so that your pup can get the feel of running with a tight tug line without being worked too hard. Increase distances gradually and teach basic commands such as hike, whoa, and stay. His first experiences in harness should be positive as this is what he will have to build on as his training progresses. Your youngster will be ready to run with the experienced team his second winter.
Cross Country and Freighting
These are the activities most suited for the Malamute. They are not speed oriented and enable participation by people with small or large teams. There are few activities more enjoyable than packing up your camping gear, loading up the sled and taking off for a few days of solitude in the backcountry. For those just getting started, even a day outing and a winter picnic will make you feel in touch with nature and your dogs. Experience in camping and winter survival is recommended before embarking on a major trip.
A variety of racing events are available across the country. Even though the Malamute is not a racing dog, these events are fun and social. They provide the opportunity to run on some good trails and learn from the experts. A well trained and conditioned team of Malamutes can often place in the middle of the pack. Sprint races are short, with the distances run being dependent on the numbers of dogs on your team. Distances are usually three to five miles for the smaller teams, up to ten or twelve miles for the larger teams. Many of these races include a one- or two-dog class for the peewee and junior racers.
Freight races have become popular, especially where there are Malamute teams. Here, teams pull the driver and added weight over the course. Weight is usually 50 pounds per dog in addition to the weight of sled and driver.
In recent years there has been an increase in interest in the middle distance and long distance races. These races are suitable for a larger team of Malamutes whose owner has the time to devote a season of fall training followed by many miles of training and conditioning once snow falls. The mid distance races are usually 50 to 60 miles and may be run as one heat or dogs may run the full distance each of two or three days. The long distance races such as the famous Iditarod or the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon are seldom undertaken by Malamute owners.
Many of the long distance races have now added shorter distance classes for teams of 7 to 10 dogs, in the 100 to 300 mile range. These races require trail and survival know-how and often require camping on the trail or at check points. More Malamute owners who have larger teams are now enjoying the challenge of these longer races and proving that the Malamutes can indeed run with the racing dogs.
Skijoring and Pulk Sledding
For the cross country skier who owns one or two Malamutes and prefers not to invest in a team and all the associated equipment, skijoring or pulk sledding may be just the ticket to winter fun. The pulk is a small Scandinavian sled suitable for hauling a child or your camping gear. The dog pulls between shafts, not pulling off a line as with traditional Alaskan style sledding. Rather than riding the sled, the driver skis, either ahead to help break trail, or towed behind if the trail is good. Skijoring requires no sled, and only requires a pair of skis, one or two dogs and a tow line with a quick release snap. Some mushers do their lead dog or puppy training while skijoring. Brave skiers who enjoy a fast ride will enjoy skiing behind their Mals.
For fall training or running dogs in warmer climates, many people enjoy carting. A variety of carts are available and some clubs host short cart races. When carting, people must be aware that warmer weather can be hard on the northern dogs and even dirt roads are harder on dogs' feet and joints than running in the snow.
Some informative books are listed at AMCA's Bookstore. They can help you get started working with your Malamutes.
Where to Go
Public lands such as National Forests and state parks provide many opportunities to work your dogs. Most National Parks do not allow dogs off the major roadways. Different restrictions may apply to dogs depending on where you go. Many areas will require that your dogs be on leash. Be a courteous park user and control your dogs, clean up after them and remember that on public lands you may have to share the trail with snowmobiles, hikers, wildlife, livestock or other mushers. Get maps to help you plan your trips and remember to inquire about any restrictions regarding your dogs. Many general books on camping and hiking are useful if you are not experienced in the back country.
In the mid-1970s the Alaskan Malamute Club of America developing a Working Dog Certification program to encourage people to work their dogs. Certificates may be earned for sledding, weight pulling and packing. This is not a competitive program, rather a program that recognizes a certain level of achievement in these fields. Any interested malamute owner should be able to attain certification at this level with a season of basic training and conditioning.
At the advanced level the Working Dog Excellent program recognizes superior achievement in the above mentioned fields. The requirements here necessitate a more intense level of training and conditioning. The requirements are such that it may take several seasons of work to finish all the requirements.
Dogs who have fulfilled the requirements for a working dog title are eligible to compete in the Working Dog classes at specialty shows. Dogs who have earned two working dog degrees or one working dog excellent degree are eligible to enter the Working Dog Showcase event held in conjunction with AMCA's National Specialty Shows.
The Working Dog Hall of Fame award recognizes dogs who have been outstanding working dogs throughout their lives or who have distinguished themselves in some working event. Some of the Inductees into the Working Dog Hall of Fame have distinguished themselves on the Admiral Byrd Antarctic expeditions of the 1930's, one was the first known Alaskan Malamute to run and complete the Iditarod, and several others distinguished themselves as outstanding weight pullers nationwide. Dogs may be nominated for this recognition after they are ten years old, or nominated posthumously.
For more information on these programs, see the resource list which includes the address for the current chairman for the various working dog committees. Also see the list of books and magazines that may be helpful to you.