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Training an Alaskan Malamute to do anything can be very challenging. It's not that they aren't smart, it's more that they are far too smart for their own good. They can learn to do anything you teach them to, but only if they want to do it. Malamutes have an extremely stubborn nature and tend to do things only when they feel like it. For this reason alone, you need to start training your pup from the moment you bring him into your home. The best way to successfully train your pup is through positive reinforcement, praise, and, of course, plenty of affection. Malamutes are a working dog and need plenty of exercise and stimulation to keep them focused and happy.
The job at hand it is to take all of your pup's energy and put it to work doing what actually comes naturally to the breed, which is to put those strong front legs to work pulling a sled. Before you get started on this type of training, you need to give your pup plenty of time to get used to the pulling harness. The good news is that you can start getting your pup used to wearing a harness from a very young age. This way by the time he is old enough and strong enough to start training him to pull, he is used to it and will be ready to move on. Teaching him to pull a sled will give him an activity that he will thoroughly enjoy and is good for both of you.
The first step is to find a store that sells pulling harnesses. It is important for you to choose one that fits your pup (you will need to replace it as your pup grows out of his current one). In order to get the right fit, you need to take a series of measurements: chest, neck, girth, and length. This is vital as a poorly fitting harness can injure your dog. Your best bet is to find an experienced harness fitter to work with. You will also need:
- A tow rope – To connect your pup to the sled he is pulling.
- A waist belt – To connect to you if you are going to be the sled at the beginning.
- Something to pull – Whether it's you with a waist belt, a sled in the winter or a cart in the summer, your pup needs something to pull on.
You also need to know the commands work on the basics first, then step up to the more complex commands.
- Lineout: Puts your pup in the ready position, which is standing up with some tension on the line
- Hike: Start moving forward
- On By: Instructs your pup to ignore an object or person and move on by
- Gee: Turn right
- Haw: Turn left
- Easy: Slow down
- Whoa: Stop!
You don't have to learn all of the commands nor teach them all to your dog at once; start off with the basics and work on the rest later. You should be aware that a complete pulling harness can be a bit on the spendy side. You may want to see if you can borrow one until you are sure your pup is going to learn to wear one and pull.
The Introduce the Harness Method
Hey, buddy! Meet your harness
Even though you may have taken your dog in to be fitted for his harness, he still needs to be introduced to wearing it. So, go ahead and snap him into it and adjust it to fit properly. Let him start wearing it for short periods of time that gradually increase. In time, he will no longer notice the harness, it seems as though it is part of him.
Start with yourself
Clip a tow rope to your pup and secure it to a training belt around your waist. This way, you can start not only teaching him to pull, but also to obey the string of new commands that are part of being a successful sled dog.
Start off in straight lines
You will need to spend several weeks working on getting him to pull you in a straight line. If he is like most Malamutes, he will expect you to do more than just tell him to go. If this is all you do at first, be prepared for him to just lay there. Some, though, will automatically start trying to run off with you in tow. For those that won't get started, try tossing a treat out in front of them. For those that try to take off, make them stop and sit until they calm down.
Draggin' a line, draggin' a line
Now that your pup seems to feel fine with, or least tolerant of, the tow line with you attached, keep working on the 'line out', 'hike' (or 'mush'), and 'whoa' commands until he follows them immediately. Be sure to reward him with treats each time he follows your commands and lots of praise.
Straight on sled
When your dog has a good grasp of pulling you and following basic commands, switch to an empty sled and keep practicing. Gradually add weight to the sled so your dog can adapt to pulling a load.
Just around the corner
Time to start working on turns, so back to the training belt for a few weeks. While you are walking behind your pup at a slow speed, call out the direction you want him to turn and toss a treat to that side where he can see it. Each time he gets it right, he gets the treat and plenty of praise. Work on this until he will make the turns without the need for treats.
Putting it all together
Back to the sled and working in real life. Start out with an empty sled, putting your pup through his paces. Then, as time goes by, continue building his endurance by adding weight and go for longer runs. Just remember to make it all fun for both of you!
The Slow Build-Up Method
Meet and greet time
Bring your pup's new harness home after having him properly fitted for it. Toss it on the floor for a couple of days so that he can explore it on his own and then start letting him wear for a few minutes a day, working up until he no longer seems to realize it even exists.
Using a tow rope and something for weight, let your pup start pulling it around the house. Over the course of a few weeks, build up the amount of weight. If he doesn't want to get up, try using a treat to convince him otherwise. Then use more treats to get him moving and keep him in motion.
Add the cue
Time to start using the 'hike' and 'whoa' commands while he is pulling the weight along and reward him with a treat each time he gets it right.
A step to the left and a jump to the right
Using the same treat method, work on the 'haw' and 'gee' commands by tossing treats to the sides. It will take him a while, but in time with plenty of treats, love, and praise, he will figure it out.
Hook the cart
Hook your pup up to the cart or sled and continue with your training add more weight and distance over time until he is ready to take on any chore such as hauling your groceries home from the store.
The Gallon Jug Method
Make a start with his leash
Start working on the four basic commands, 'hike', 'whoa', 'haw', and 'gee', while the two of you are out for a walk with your pup on his leash. This way you can work with him in a tightly controlled situation and where you can use the leash to help guide him. Once he has mastered this, time to move on.
In your harness
Go ahead and put your pup in his pulling harness, hook up the tow line and let it drag behind him on the ground. Using a gallon jug filled with water (you can also use a large chunk of dense firewood) have your pup start pulling around the yard. Just let him get used to the idea of having to pull a weight around.
Time for a walk
Start walking beside your pup, just like you were going for a normal walk. When he seems to be comfortable with your presence by his side start dropping back towards the weight. He may not be comfortable with this at first, but give him time and he will get used to this arrangement.
Get rid of the jug and hook up his cart or sled instead. Give him time to adjust to its presence and then go for a walk with him in the 'heel' position at first. Practice the commands as you walk until he masters them.
Assume the position
Drop back to the "musher" position behind the cart and keep working with your pup. Make it fun, go places, add more loads, drop the kids in the cart, anything that will keep your pup happy by doing what is in his blood.
By PB Getz
Published: 02/16/2018, edited: 01/08/2021