First of all, forget all the myths that Malamutes cannot be trained properly, should never be let off the leash, etc. The success of training a Malamute depends solely on understanding its instincts and psychology.
The two basic things you have to understand is that Malamutes are made of two instincts: pack dog and survival, both averaging at roughly 50%, depending on the mood, situation and environment.
Pack dogs need an alpha (a leader), or they will take the vacant position themselves (and you don’t want that). At the same time, a Malamute particularly needs the alpha to be very reasonable, patient and fair. When a Malamute shows signs of ‘subjective hearing’, ‘temporary canine deafness’ or other types of ignorance towards its owner – it’s a sign, that the alpha situation is not clear at all. Your Malamute will try overthrowing your rule quite often and the best advice on how to deal with that is: be patient, strict (if needed, but never violent), reasonable and hold on.
Survival instinct is strong, especially outdoors, thus make sure you notice, when your dog transitions into the “call of the wild” mode – ignoring everything around and minding its own business only. This can be triggered by a wild animal nearby, strong scents, something eatable, or 100 other reasons. To still have control of a loose dog in such mode, you’ll need to be an undisputed alpha and have the long road of training behind you.
The food lessons
Start the food training at the first day you get the puppy. First lesson – your Malamute should always eat after you, as in the wolf pack. And remember that alpha wolves never share their food until they are finished. When your own plates are clean, put them away and only then give your dog its own food. Teach it to eat stress free by petting it while it’s eating. Normally, at some age, your Malamute should start growling when you get too close while it eats – don’t panic, that’s completely normal. For the next meals, until the growling stops, have a bite of fresh meat (or something else extremely delicious) ready and lure the dog off its plate while it eats; then gradually transition to calling the dog to leave its food and come to the owner – this will also serve as a good training for the command ‘come’.
This is probably one of the most important parts of Malamute training. In order for it to behave well and control its instincts, a Malamute puppy has to get used to other dogs, cats, animals, people, children, traffic, crowds, etc., as early as possible. This should eliminate all unwanted behaviour, such as aggression to other dogs, chasing every cat on the street and jumping on every passer-by. Start off with socialising schools and try to look for a one with plenty of other dogs of different sizes and ages. Take your puppy out to the city centre or other dense places at least once a week and let friendly unfamiliar people to communicate with your dog (there will be a lot of them, so brace for your own socialising session).
Malamutes are very smart dogs and they need a very clear reason to perform any command. At the same time, they need to understand, that their owner sometimes knows best and they have to respond to a command unconditionally. That’s the tricky part and it is the reason why so many professional dog trainers fail at training a Malamute – you can’t use one method on this dog (actually, on most dogs, but that’s another story). The training can start with showing how to perform a command with a treat, but after that, treats should be kept in a pocket for a while: give them to your constantly hungry Malamute every 5-10 successful repetitions and then gradually move towards awarding only at the end of each command’s training session. To keep the motivation, praise your dog generously with lots of love and play every time it succeeds.
All the ‘circus’ commands (sit, down, roll over, etc.) are quite easy to learn and fun to do, so use them as often as you can. They are not only good for the intellectual development, but also serve as a break from more serious obedience training.
The most important commands any dog owner needs and which have to be trained to perfection are ‘come’ and ‘heel’. These commands are lifesavers, as they are the only safeguard you have in tricky everyday situations, such as: passing through another dog or people (heel), your dog running away towards other dog, animal, road, or just running away in a ‘call of the wild’ mode (come). Just imagining any of these situations makes you understand, that there are two training elements which will not help at all: treats and gestures. Therefore these commands have to be patiently trained to perfection as unquestionable voice commands. Confidence and patience are the best friends here – you can use any possible path to train these commands, but your dog should always feel that you understand what you want, that you have no doubts in what you are doing, that you are not panicking if something doesn’t work out, that you are very very very happy when your dog succeeds and, most importantly, no matter how boring it is for both of you, you’ll do it until the end.
Again, there are a lot of myths that Malamutes, Huskies and other northern breeds are not too much into play, which are false. Malamutes can play like crazy and even participate in ‘pitch and go’ competitions, as an example. The only thing you need to understand is how to wake the dog’s drive to play and at this point we should be thinking about the instincts again. 50/50 pack and survival instincts means that the dog wants to do something together, yet if its not too interesting – it will find something else to do. Ironically, the best strategy to make you Mal play with you and retrieve things is to play with yourself: grab a toy (fat rope, tennis ball or anything else), start running around with it, throw it into the air and catch it immediately, throw it on the ground (nearby) and grab it back before your dog reaches it. If the dog manages to get a bite on your toy, growl on it (no jokes here – be an alpha dog!). Ignoring your dog and doing something fun without it will make it enormously jealous and anxious to play. Then, after you’ve got the full attention, suddenly throw your toy far away with a command ‘retrieve’ (or any other word you use for this purpose) and watch your dog running like crazy to retrieve the object and, most importantly, bring it back to you. It worked from the very first time for us, because by playing with yourself and not inviting your dog to do the same you make the dog feel as if it is banned from the pack, but, at the same time, your playing looks way too interesting for the dog to drop attention and find its own activity. And when you finally let your dog into your game, it will continue to play until you stop, as it doesn’t want to be left out again.
Living with cats
If introduced early and trained properly, Malamutes have no problems living with cats. First rule: always, from the very first day, feed your cats first, then eat yourself, and only then feed your Mal. The feeding order helps to understand the hierarchy and even if your Malamute would like to challenge it someday, it will first have to go over you and only then try to conquer the cats. Second rule: let your cats do everything, but control your dog. Meaning, that if your cats will chase your Malamute into a corner and beat the hell out of it – the maximum interference from you can be a loud ‘hey, break up!’, but without a physical appearance and without blaming any side for the fight. But if you’ll notice, that the dog is following the cats too much or is trying to lure them into the corner – interfere immediately, get the dog’s attention and put it to shame with all the ‘who did this!?’, ‘who’s annoying the cats!?’, ‘aren’t you ashamed!?’ phrases. This strategy doesn’t take time and actually works: one of our cats, if followed too much, just turns around and the dog lies on the ground immediately; while the other one frequently trolls the dog into running to catch her, lures it into a corner and… Sometimes they sleep together. Just like that.