Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Moral of The Malamute Story As I Know It and Lived To Tell The Tale

I frequently am asked why malamutes?  Why would you seek by CHOICE to have dogs that are so much work and are so "contrary" (or so it would seem to some) in their demeanor?  I guess I would have to admit shamelessly that I simply fell in love; with the breed, with the heart, with a kindred spirit that I see in them (I can be contrary). From the origins of the malamute with the Mahlemuts (Eskimos), according to an invaluable guide I have for malamute owners called Alaskan Malamutes: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual by Barron's, the dogs and their owners evolved together and through their interdependence they were thus assured of their mutual survival.  The Mahlemuts were all about cooperation, team work; work ethic if you will.  The malamute is of a similar mentality.  Of all the dog breeds that I have had the pleasure of owning over the years (tales still to come), the malamute has always been the one that stands out and has now become my most favorite.  A lot of people feel that they are aloof, pig-headed, totally unpredictable.  Of all the breeds over the years that I have trained, I can admit they have also been an exception to almost every rule!  Some people call it stubborness or an inbred refusal to be dominated; I prefer to think of it as an intelligence that is constantly on alert and waiting to be challenged.  They are not content to be animals of pure "surrender." They are not content to be "performers" in the sense that they seek only easy rewards and enjoy being on display as the "well behaved puppet".  I believe just in knowing the ones we have had the privilege to live with that they simply require more than the average dog in terms of socialization and they also require people who are willing to think "outside the box". They require a "job" more than other breeds.  They are not content to be "among their own" and just play in the yard.  They thrive on being part of a family and a social structure.  They also thrive on heavy physical exertion.  The trick with a malamute though is to make sure that there is always an alpha, and that alpha must by nature be human!  They tire easily of being "trick dogs".  I have been to countless obedience seminars and have heard basically the same thing; I have also seen it first hand.  With a malamute, your training sessions for basic commands need to be kept to a minimum; far better to have many repeat sessions per day rather than 1 or 2 long sessions because if they do a command more than once or twice correctly and you continue expecting it to be performed, you are going to get the "special ed" version.  I have come to believe in my own training with the malamutes that they are way too smart for their own good sometimes!  Even in little 4-month-old Griffin, I can see the pattern already emerging.  He will sit for me once, twice in a session.  The third time that I ask it of him, I get a hand shake, a down, or just plain zip.  He looks at me like he does not understand, which I know he does!  Once a malamute has proven to you more than once that he or she knows a "trick" and it is repeatable (in that session) it is time to move on.  You can always come back to it another time but for that session, I truly believe they are just waiting to mess with your head!  (She wants a sit; watch this!  Out comes the paw!)  As an aside though, when pulling, I have never seen them ever exhibit this behavior which reinforces that they are very smart indeed!

I have also had a lot of folks over the years tell us both that if we tried harder, we could train our dogs to be more obedient.  This is generally in terms of the little problem I like to call "jail breaks", which is really associated with the recall.  Yeah.  "Malamutes are not known for their ability on the recall." That would be the understatement of the century!  They are also not known to be the kind of dog you would put out in your front yard unleashed and unattended (if you intended that they would be there when you returned; even if you never LEFT).  I do know some people that have had success with this.  I on the other hand have never had this success and would err on the side of caution as I firmly believe that malamutes are literally born to run.  They do not do it to be bad.  They do not do it to disregard their owners' commands.  They are just by nature pack animals and especially when you have a situation with more than one dog, the situation just became even more interesting to get out and run for all they are worth.  The most amusing thing about that part is that our malamutes can creep up on us as silent as an Indian, put on their "cloaking devices" and slip by us in a heartbeat without a sound made all through the tiniest window of a cracked open door.  They will run as fast as they can as hard as they can while you yell after them to come, chase after them, run the opposite way, etc.  However, if you get into the car and merely follow them, upon seeing the car, they immediately turn and chase after the car, only to jump into the car!  They are delighted to see you and they are even more delighted that you brought the car!  Unfortunately, they probably would jump into ANYONE's car.  They are not particular about who they are socializing with or falling in love with at that moment, sad to say!

They are escape artists to the max if you are not prepared for them.  They can dig a trench or a hole faster than you can bat an eye under a fence and even though they are not small dogs, all they need is a miniscule opening to escape.  Case in point, when we moved to Central Oregon, we had a fenced yard.  It did not take Kodi and Denaya but a couple of days to discover that there was nothing under the fence preventing them from digging out.  It probably took them all of 5 seconds to dig an opening to slither through and away they went at 5:00 a.m.  First prison break.  Got them back luckily very quickly and for a week, Bob spent his "spare" time putting bricks all the way around the perimeter of the yard buried but up to the boards.  Quite effective.  We've also heard of people putting in chickenwire and different things that they will hit once they begin to dig, but brick seemed a safe bet; although it has to be brick big enough that they cannot move it!  That was an easy fix; well not for Bob obviously!  True to form though, Kodi found yet another way to bust out and it became a rather long and arduous task in trying to figure out how to cut the prison breaks.  All it took was one incisor to "snag" a piece of fence board.  How he discovered this, I have no clue.  But once he found a way to snag a tiny piece, with his huge, strong jaws, he was able to literally rip a fence board right off the fence and they were home free.  ONE skinny fence board off the fence was enough for the dogs to squeeze through and be free at last!  We had been pretty lucky for about 3 years and their prison breaks had basically been just human error; someone giving them that window of opportunity by opening a door without seeing them (again the stealth maneuver).  However, once they figured out how to pull off fence boards, we were doomed!

For the most part, at first it was relatively easy to get them back.  We live in a small community where people are very kind about trying to help you retrieve your dogs and our neighbors would always help us try and locate them; or someone would call and say they had them, return them or at least point us in the right direction with the car!  They never did any harm; they simply loved the freedom of being able to run to their heart's content.  Having had to give up the running on the scooter, obviously this was making it even more lucrative now to be free because they both were missing their "exercise".  However, this quickly turned into an extremely annoying habit as at any given moment, we would look outside and discover a new hole in the fence and again, no dogs.  The fact that we border on open land did not help much since there is wildlife everywhere and the chances of something happening increased every time.  We also have busy roads nearby, extremely poor night lighting on those roads, and various and sundry ranches with all kinds of livestock on them.  One particular late afternoon, after just seeing the dogs playing together outside, we looked out to discover again the hole in the fence.  We both flew into action, called neighbors, called the police department to alert them that they were loose, and jumped into separate cars to begin cruising.  We were all out in force and after 4 or so hours, not a sign of them.  I had come back by this time to call it in to the vets in the area, to the humane society, recall the police department but nothing was turning up.  Finally by 9:00 p.m. we had to just call it a day and by this time figured they had been gone for 5 hours.  That was a record; still is!  We left the lights on in the backyard where they had made their prison break although the addage is that a malamute does not come back on its own.  We reluctantly went to bed worried sick what could have happened to the two of them.  Upon arising at 5:00 the next morning, the first thing I noticed was skunk; the smell was coming in despite the closed windows (which is not that unusual given the open land) but it sure smelled pungent to say the least.  On turning around to leave the kitchen, I spied Kodi at the back door absolutely shaking.  When I opened the door, he was beside himself trying to get to me.  The first thing I noticed was the smell, the second the WET.  He was doused from head to toe in none other than skunk perfume.  Not knowing what else to do, I brought him in because he was shivering so badly and put him in his crate while I went for help - BOB!  On rushing about, I spied Denaya at the back door, not quite as bad as Kodi, but she likewise was covered with eau de skunk.  I plunked her into her crate and then set about trying to figure out what to do.

Well, in retrospect, PROBABLY not the wisest move of all time bringing the dogs indoors.  I was caught between a rock and a hard spot though was my defense and it still is (although now I think should have moved the crates outside; again with the 20/20 hindsight).  There was still a gaping hole in the fence and did not want them taking off again.  The garage had our 2 cars inside and was afraid that we would never get the smell out of them had I stowed them there.  The laundry room with the crates at the TIME seemed like the best option.  Whew; not really so much.  It literally took weeks for us to get the smell out of the house.  It took hours for us to clean their crates over and over with every chemical we could find, every spray.  Their collars were completely ruined as were all of their dog tags, all the blankets.  What a total mess.  As it happened, it had to be a cool time of year too so we had to literally wait out the sunshine and warmth to get them outside in order for Bob to bathe them in the special solution link for skunk treatment I had pulled off the internet but luckily my neighbor had all the ingredients at the ready.  Poor Kodi had apparently taken the brunt of it in his face and eyes and he was miserable for at least 3 days recovering from that little escapade.  One would have thought that maybe that would have been a lesson in what happens with a prison break but unfortunately, it only intensified both of their delight at breaking out.  We came home one day to find a gaping hole in the front fence and although thankfully they had not gone out into the open land, they obviously were long gone.  Again we tried to circle the wagons and go out looking for them to no avail.  When we finally gave up and came home, Bob was working on repairing the fence (yet again; it is obvious that my husband is a saint!) when Denaya appeared in the front yard.  Again, who knows why she came back but she was a bit bloodied and looked a little worse for the adventure, yet no Kodi.  While we were busy checking her over, the phone rang and the SHERIFF was on the line to let me know he had Kodi and he likewise was a little worse for wear (Kodi not the sheriff).  Before he could tell the whole tale, I was already babbling about was he hurt, what happened, did he get hit by a car, etc.  The poor sheriff finally asked that I please be quiet so that he could get a word in edgewise and then proceeded to tell me that both dogs had been trying to get in a llama pen; and I do not mean Fernando Llama.  (For anyone who does not know, a llama apparently can kill a dog, any dog, easily.)  So off we went to pick up the escapee and calm him down.  He was nearly hysterical (Kodi not the sheriff) as he had been slimed by something from head to toe (the sheriff was under the impression it could have been wild dogs or coyotes perhaps AFTER the llamas).  He reiterated, however, that we were "dang lucky" that one of the ranchers had not shot them on sight since they were messing around where they ought not to be messing and their "look" was enough to bring out the sharpshooter in these parts!  Great news!

Obviously, lecturing my precious darlings was not doing any good.  Obviously, nothing was doing much good at all now that they had learned this neat trick of getting out.  Being a person who refuses to give up, I decided to go to the internet for help and searched for several hours coming to the only logical conclusion available in this situation.  The electric fence.  I hated to do it but unfortunately, I felt we had no choice now.  According to all the data that I could accumulate, once the "artic" breeds discover a way out, you basically have lost the fight and they will continue to press it for all its worth.  At first, it seemed cruel on some level but then on so many other levels, it just seemed the only safe and/or smart thing to do!  If we did not break the behavior, one of these times, it would have ended up in a disaster of some nature for one or both of them and heartbreak for us.  Bob did not like this idea.  Bob did not like the idea of putting an electric fence all the way around the perimeter of our yard and charging it up (it seems Bob is always getting the labor parts).  He had been through this years ago and someone (usually me) was always going out, seeing the fence unplugged and meaning well, plugging it in when he had specifically turned it off.  He had already been tagged by the electric fence while pushing the lawnmower into it and while watering when he had specifically turned it OFF.  I think he did not trust ME was the problem (I have to admit I can see why).  However, after a lot of begging and a lot of printing off of articles and discussions with breeders, etc., I finally convinced him that this was the only way we would ever have peace of mind again and the only way we could stop this potentially deadly behavior.  Up went the fence. 

Being malamutes, they had to test it out.  I guess they figured the first time or so it was a fluke.  What surprised me the most was that Kodi really got it instantly.  In retrospect, he was never one for pain or discomfort, unless it involved his "girl" Denaya.  I think he only attempted a couple of times to even remotely get NEAR the fence after he was tagged with a pulse.  Denaya on the other hand apparently thought she was invincible as we heard her screaming and wailing about it at LEAST half a dozen times or more.  They finally began to understand that the fence was a "bad place" and at last there was peace at the Kirchner Hacienda.  The funny thing is that now we do have it turned off (I so hope Denaya does not get on-line and read this).  Griffin is still a pup and after talking with the breeder, we decided it might terrorize him and make him afraid before he is old enough to understand what the zap is for.  At present, Denaya watches him bouncing around the yard and she sees him TOUCHING the fence wire in all different situations.  When I watch her, she is literally watching HIM with her mouth hanging open as if to say "how is he DOING that?  Why isn't HE getting shocked?"  I'm hoping she thinks he is blessed somehow and thinks he has magical powers; BUT she is not willing to go check it out herself!  This is a good thing.  I still have no doubt that she was the brains behind the prison breaks and Kodi was the brawn.  Pretty much the same thing in the scootering.  Kodi did the majority of the hard work and little Princess Denaya ran along looking pretty.  I sometimes thought she was worried she might work up a sweat or muss her hair!

On the surface, it would seem that malamutes are a lot of work!!  They are and they are obviously not meant for the faint hearted.  They require a great deal of attention but the rewards are amazing.  They also require you to get inside their head a bit and figure out ways to get their cooperation and their respect.  I thought I had it all figured out when I taught them to pull/run on the scooter; then with the advent of Kodi's illness and having to give it up (Denaya absolutely would not do it alone), we had to look for different venues to give them the exercise that they crave.  They do play and wrestle, chase each other all day long; I call it kangaroo wrestling as often you will see them up on their hind legs "boxing it out"; but it is usually completely silent.  Still, they love the challenge of running and unfortunately their human family was too old and not in a position to jog with them.  We finally figured out an alternative which worked very well for them both.  We would drive them to a small ballpark here in town armed with tie-ups, a few treats and each other!  We would stand in the baseball dugouts thus blocking a "way out", tie up any loose gates that could be escape routes, and then turn them loose.  Usually they would run insanely around the field for at least 30 minutes and totally enjoy the freedom of being loose as a goose!  In the snow, it was a delight to watch them; occasionally if someone else brought a dog on the walking trail behind where we ran them, they would run the fence barking and carrying on with the dog and that was good as well.  At least they were in a contained environment where they could run to their heart's content without any pulling weight on Kodi's bones. 

Obviously, we have had very unique situations with very unique dogs.  However, to me the delight has been to try and figure out what works and to make it as painless as possible, although in saying that, you have to know your limitations and your dog's limitations as well!  (And it seriously does not hurt to have a devoted helpmate such as Bob has been!) You have to live within the breed and you have to live within your own comfort zone.  Thankfully, between Bob and I we have had a blend or adopted a blend that works with our specific animals to make it work in as painless a way as possible; but the bottom line is we simply loved the dogs.  We were willing to make the effort and think outside the traditional box; and even when faced with adversity, we knew there had to be a way to get it to work without too much pain for all involved.  In retrospect, rather than scootering, I wish I had discovered carting, as perhaps for ME it would have been less hazardous! About any breed again can do it; it is all about the weight and training them and this will probably be our new endeavor with the Princess Denaya and our little Griffin when he is old enough to pull weight.  This link to carting shows the range of breeds that are suited to it as well as the scootering.  This site link to dog play as well shows many ways to bring happy times to your life with your dog including cross country skiing (skijoring when you do it with your dogs) which I personally would also love to do (and hope to avoid trees; you can almost SENSE Bob's excitement); the possibilities are limitless and my feeling is that with malamutes or any breed that is properly trained, you can only enrich your life and open your heart to the gifts that our pets give so readily and so easily; no strings attached.  More tales to come!

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