MALAMUTE MEMORIES

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My first dog was an Alaskan Malamute — Totemtock's Omaha Beagle. He was perfect. His vast doggy behavior repertoire was always performed to perfection. Nothing escaped his vigorous enthusiasm. No exercise was executed without creative thinking and considerable Malamutian forethought. He was an indefectible digger, carpet-shredder and dismantler of furniture. He excelled in “competitive” obedience (competing against me) — his specialties being slow recalls, crooked sits, creeping down stays, pulling on-leash and lagging off-leash. But best of all — his forte, his piece de resistance ...running away! Barking was the only below par behavior, but he did “talk” a lot — he grumbled, growled, yowled and howled.

As a pup Omaha posed a daunting prospect that augured ill for my reputation as a “doggy expert”. To this day, he remains one of the most rambunctious, rumbustious, clamorous and pandemonious pup I have ever had the pleasure to train. Looking on the bright side, as a legacy of good breeding and super-socialization, he had a temperament as solid as a rock. As for the behavior and training problems? We took them one at a time.

Behavior Problems

I had difficulty reconciling a ban on Malamute howls. It was not so much the howling that bugged me; it was when he howled — in the middle of the night. Banning Malamute howling altogether would be akin to corking a volcano. Consequently, we instigated a prohibition on in-house howling. To be fair to the dog however, I encouraged howling at other times. In fact, I taught him to howl on cue and would instruct him to howl periodically on walks, skiing, or best of all, in the car. Whenever stymied in rush-hour traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I would invite Omaha to give voice. He would stick his head through the sunroof and let rip with an earth-rending howl, much to the amusement of fellow commuters, many of who howled back from their Hondas.

The above dog-human compromise illustrates the basic maxim for resolving most potential behavior problems: "If you have a problem, give it a name, and train the dog to perform the behavior on cue." Then, the “problem” that previously worked against training now becomes an enjoyable activity that may be used as a reward for training — a natty whammy in dog training. In the above example, being instructed to howl became the reward for being quiet.

We established growling ground rules in much the same way — by establishing stimulus control. Although convinced that Omaha just plain liked growling and did it mainly as a solicitation of play, the growling unnerved other people. Also, it would be courting disaster to allow a dog to indulge uncontrollably in obnoxious and potentially dangerous behavior. Training him to growl on command ("Defend") had many useful applications. For example, standing on his hind legs and happily growling out the window at anyone approaching the front door, he was a vastly superior deterrent than any sophisticated electronic burglar alarm. (I trained him to stand on his hind legs so that he would look larger than life because the inside hall was eight inches higher than the front porch but also, so that no one could see that his tail was wagging.)  However, the primary reason for establishing stimulus control of a problem behavior is to instruct the dog to growl at a time when he has no intention of growling, so that it is easier to teach the more important command, "Shush". Then, once the dog understands the meaning of "shush", the command may be used to instruct the dog to be quiet in stressful and confusing situations.

We negotiated similar deals about digging and chewing. Malamutes must have a misplaced terrier gene. Only, whereas terrier gardens are spattered with holettes, a Malamute abyss shows no evidence of horticultural life. Luckily, Omaha's chasmatizations were limited to the lawn, since boundary training prevented him from violating the flower beds, and a six-inch slab of concrete prevented him from excavating the patio. The answer to his nasty digging habit proved to be a 3' by 4' digging-pit — designed along the lines of a child's sandpit. The pit was located under the back staircase on the shady side of the house. In the California summers I would douse the area with water and on hot days, he was often to be found in his pit, lying in a recently dug cooling-hollow. In addition, I actively taught Omaha to dig in his pit by burying a food treat and then saying, "Dig" and miraculously, he would dig on command. In addition, when giving him bones and outdoor chew toys, he was not allowed to indulge himself until he had first buried the bone in his pit and then dug it up again.   Just in case his digging was purely recreational, the digging pit was kept stocked with bones, chew toys and food treats. Why on earth should he excavate the lawn for roots and corms and worms, when he was assured of unearthing a cow's femur in his digging pit? Why prospect for gold in Georgia, when it has been discovered in the Californian Sierra.

The majority of behavior problems are normal, natural and necessary doggy behaviors, which from the owner's point of view, occur inappropriately — at inappropriate times, in inappropriate places, or directed towards inappropriate stimuli. If the dog receives no instructions vis a vis its routine behavior repertoire, he will no doubt improvise in his quest for occupational therapy to pass the time of day. Since it is only the owner that considers the nature of the dog's behavior as inappropriate, (i.e., not the dog), and since the owner invited the dog to live chez lui, then, perhaps the owner should inform the dog of alternative outlets for expression of his basic doggy nature that are considered both appropriate and acceptable in the domestic setting. The problem is not that the dog digs, but that he digs in the wrong places. All the owner has to do is redirect the dog's digging activities to an appropriate location, such as a digging pit. Alternatively the owner might consider driving the dog to the beach, burying his squeaky hedgehog three feet underground and letting the dog have a digathon!  

Chew toys, several hundreds dollars worth, offered a similar acceptable and appropriate outlet for Omaha's chewing proclivities. Owners are often appalled at the cost of chew toys, even though house/garden/car destruction can be an expensive problem. My record case involves a male Akita that accomplished $10,000 worth of damage to the interior of his owner's Mercedes in just 20 minutes.  Although Omaha was not in the Akita league, his chewing bouts destroyed curtains, a couch, a Chinese carpet and a Mexican rug. He even made overtures towards my demonstration dog skull, which, I am ashamed to admit, I still have on permanent “loan” from my veterinary student days at the Royal Veterinary College. Omaha was trained to take hold, to fetch, and to find his chew toys to the command "Chew toy". Training a dog to perform any activity on cue provides an ideal instructive reprimand when the dog strays from the status quo. Misdirected mastications were met with a single word, "Chew toy!” The tone and volume informed Omaha that he was making a boo-boo, and the word instructed him how to make amends.

Training Problems
Routine obedience problems proved to be much easier to resolve, especially once I empathized with the Malamutian point of view. Many Nordic breeds are the quickest learners but unfortunately, they are also the quickest forgetters. They retain only that which is relevant. Thus, training must involve firstly, teaching the meaning of commands and secondly, teaching their relevance. Certainly, these dogs know the meaning of instructions like "Sit" and "Down", but they do not necessarily see the importance in complying. Whereas a Sheltie or Border Collie might be perfectly willing to obediently bob up and down like a yo-yo, a Malamute has other priorities. Tell a Malamute to sit and he sits, tell him to lie down and he lies down, but tell him to sit again and he says, "Didn't we just do that one?" On the other hand, ask him to sit and lie down and sit and lie down before telling him "Go play", "Hike" or "Dindins", and he will happily bob up and down like a yo-yo.

Straight sits were low on the Malamute Training Agenda. I was just grateful that he always sat when told. In fact in one trial, Omaha's front was sooooo crooked that once he ended up sitting dead straight, but facing the wrong direction. However, creeping down-stays were a serious problem and so I trained him to creep to the command, "Grovel" by using a food treat to entice him to crawl under the bed. By alternating "Down-stay" and "Grovel", he learned the difference, which appeared to be a revelation for him, since previously, he obviously assumed the two words to be synonymous. After a good reliable down-stay, I would instruct him to grovel towards me for a hug and a game of tag. Again, the problem became the reward.

A major breakthrough in heeling came when there was an occasion when it proved irksome when he didn’t pull. Exhausted, and seated in sled with somnolent child on lap, I commanded the Great Dog of the North to "Go-on, Pull! — Hike!” and he perfected a stand-stay as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, (which of course, is not at all solid, but instead is honeycombed with beautiful caverns. But then Madison Square Gardens isn't square either. Not that either of these facts have anything to do with the price of onions. I digress...) That familiar adage - "Give the problem a name and train the dog to do it on cue." Back in the sunny Oakland flatlands, waltzing around the block in a meandering apology for Malamute-heeling, a sudden brainstorm prompted me to instruct Omaha to "Pull". Looking at me quizzically, with the wry smile of a male Min. Pin. about to mate with a Mastiff, Omaha issued forth a single, solitary howl and then, temporarily subluxated my shoulder as he shot along the pavement at warp speed with his human in tow. Then, I told him to Sit and Heel and then, to Pull again, and so forth. By alternating heeling and pulling, we had a unique situation: the major problem during heeling, pulling on leash, now became a reward for the dog, and a differential reinforcement for good heeling. Omaha was happy; he could pull on leash. I was happy; he would heel nicely when requested.

I similarly realized that there were times when heeling off-leash, that I did want him to forge ahead — when he was lagging behind, and there were instances when I wanted him to lag — when he was forging. These problems were in dire need of labels, or commands, and then each could counteract the other. We practiced the three gears of heeling — Slow, Normal and Fast, heralding each exaggerated gear-change with the relevant command: "Hustle" for changing-up and "Steady" for changing-down. Following "Hustle", I would give it some Wellie and explode in a twenty-yard dash, and following "Steady", apply lead to the brakes and dawdle at a funeral-slow. When heeling at a steady pace, the new instructions produced the desired corrective response. And in addition, "Hustle" provided an effective instructive reprimand for moribund Malamute recalls.

Running off was another matter. It upset me because basically, there are only two reasons why a dog runs off: either there are better things to do elsewhere or he doesn’t want to stay by the trainer, i.e., me. With Omaha however, it soon became apparent that he did like his trainer but also, he did not appear to be running away to do anything in particular but rather, it was running off per se that he found intrinsically enjoyable. One day in the Berkeley Dog Park, I watched Omaha gambol up to a Springer Spaniel, assume a play bow with hindquarters moon-bound and tail furiously a wag, then he let out an ear-fluttering, playful "Grrrrwooooooooo" and then dashed off like a cat possessed, only for the Springer to hastily retreat in the opposite direction. Omaha was a dog just dying to be chased. The resulting contract — between Alaskan Malamute, Totemtok's Omaha Beagle, hereinafter known as “dog”, and transplanted Englishman, Dr. Ian Dunbar, hereinafter known as “trainer/companion” — was simple and effective:

If, hereinafter, notwithstanding and forevermore, dog will always come immediately when requested and perform various obedience commands with precision and panache, owner will periodically instruct dog to "run-off" and moreover, owner will always give chase.

The above contract prompted a quantum leap in my perception of living with a dog. I no longer found training a chore of necessity (as did Omaha) but instead, we both found training an activity of choice. The successful integration of recalls, sits, downs, stays and heeling with games of tag made it difficult for either of us to distinguish between play and training — the training was fun, but the game had rules. Certainly Omaha was no paragon of style, but he sure was eagerly reliable when off-leash. And this reliability afforded him the opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest. You can see him at the end of the SIRIUS® Puppy Training video.

For me, a Malamute makes the ideal companion, conformation/obedience dog, jogging/skiing partner and draught animal. However, my personal bias does not leave me breed-blind and I am the first to admit that Malamutes are not for everyone. Moreover, as with all dogs, without the requisite socialization and training, a Malamute can be a dangerous menace that is unsuitable for anyone. Omaha required much time and energy but it was well worth it. He was a good teacher. His lessons were instructive and delightful and he taught me a lot about dogs. In particular, he emphasized the importance of owner and dog striving to achieve common ground that is mutually acceptable and enjoyable for both parties. Every dog is a good teacher — do not be embarrassed by behavior, training or temperament problems. The quest for solutions provides many insights and many happy and comical moments. Cherish them.

The only sad note — the deeper the understanding and the closer the relationship, the more you miss them when they leave. The snow and the mountains are not the same without that dear old moose. His memory is special.  For those of you who are sharing this article with a dog, or dogs, give them a hug from your heart, and above all, try to acknowledge and respect them as dogs. Offer empathy and education. They will not be with us forever — Enjoy them now!

This article was based on Dr. Dunbar's monthly Behavior column in the November 1988 issue of The American Kennel Gazette. Reprinted with permission of the author and The American Kennel Club.

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