DEVELOPING A STABLE PACK
Malamutes are like a favorite candy – we aren’t satisfied with just one, or two, or…..
Is it possible to have our Mals in a stable pack situation? Absolutely. However, to get to the point where one can enjoy a pack of six (or more) mature Mals as they wrestle, play, or just hang out together, there must be some considerations, rules, and a lot of thought and planning before the first Malamute "morphs" into a pack. In the over 30 years that I’ve lived with my Malamute packs, I’ve learned a lot about canine communication, managing stable (and at times unstable) packs, and how I interact with the dogs (effectively and not effectively). The following will be some ideas, tips, and hard earned knowledge from the Inharmony pack.
1. What constitutes a pack?
From a dog’s point of view, a pack can be comprised of two or more individuals. This could be as simple as one person and one dog. It could also mean one person and multiple dogs or any other combination. For this article, I shall consider a pack to be comprised of one or two people and two or more dogs.
2. Does spaying/neutering have any effect on pack dynamics?
Absolutely. The hormones that unaltered dogs or bitches have circulating in their systems have a secondary effect to the obvious reproductive functions. Unaltered dogs and bitches are more aware of a pack’s ranking order. Their drive to be at the top of the ranking order is very real. In this area, Malamutes and wolves are very similar as it has been documented that the dominant individuals in a wolf pack are those that reproduce. If a dog or bitch is not going to be bred or is "retired" from show and/or breeding duties, neutering these dogs is a very effective way to maintain a pack’s harmony and decrease the chances of a retiree from being involved in a fight for pack position.
3. Who is the leader of the pack?
In our human/dog pack, it is essential that the human be the pack leader.
The leader of the pack oversees the health, safety, and well-being of the pack. The leader provides food, a safe environment, health care, education, and oversees activities of the pack, and maintains order within the pack. To elaborate, the leaders must provide clean water, good nutrition, preventative health care, and a safe environment (using crates, leads, kennel runs, fences) for the dogs’ physical well-being. For the dog’ intellectual well-being, the owners must educate their dogs. Malamutes are highly intelligent, love to learn, and become "problem dogs" when bored. Supplying various appropriate toys, playtimes, and other activities (such as harness work) fall under both the dogs’ intellectual and emotional needs. It should go without saying that each dog also gets individual 1:1 time with the pack leader. We all need to be validated and feel loved. Malamutes are no different.
5. How does the leader maintain order in a pack?
I will make this very clear – a leader does not automatically become ‘top dog" when he buys a pup. Nor does an owner become a successful leader through fear and/or violent means. A good leader earns the respect of the individuals within the pack through establishing clear boundaries of acceptable/non-acceptable behavior, consistency, fairness, and predictable reactions (to all pack members) when the rules are not followed.
Each pack member learns the basics of how the pack functions, its rules, and how far he can "push" the pack leader during their puppy education. Providing the leader has been fair, consistent, and attentive to the pup’s early education, pups learn the rules and the leader earns their respect at the same time. If there is an older dog(s) in the pack, the pup also learns the all important "canine-speak" and where he ranks within the pack order. During the early puppy education, a thinking leader will have introduced the pup to the delight of tummy rubs and the benefits (eg. treats) of lying down on command. Both of these positions place the pup in the classical submissive postures. Early and consistent use of these two easy to teach behaviors completely take the "need" away for physical confrontations such as the now out-dated "alpha wolf rollover." Also in puppy education, the pup will have learned the various vocal tones of the leader. Judicious use of a squirt water bottle can also be a great deterrent for a pup – and possibly for an adult. (However, I do have a couple of boys who love the squirt bottle and enjoy snapping at the water. These fellows never associated a squirt with a negative reinforcement – just a great game!)
Observing and understanding what the dogs are showing in their verbal and non-verbal communication are the most important skills the leader must develop. The pack leader must always be aware of the extremely subtle and the not so subtle warning signs of a possible disagreement. If acknowledged early, a simple word (eg. "enough") or phrase (eg. "Mind your manners.") may be enough to stop any escalation. As the behaviors escalate, so do the leader’s responses. For instance, if a single word reminder isn’t effective, a louder tone may be used or a squirt from a water bottle.
6. Are their fights in a pack situation?
In any grouping – two-legged or four-legged – there will be disagreements. Fights can and do happen. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20:20. After a fight, I always mentally review why and what was the precipitating reason(s) for the altercation. The most common reasons for fights are jockeying for position in the pack’s ranking order, fights over food/toys, and if a pack member is ill/perceived to be a detriment to the pack as a whole.
Fighting over ranking position is particularly strong with intact dogs and bitches. (Bitches are often very feisty 1 to 2 months before their heat cycles.) As youngsters become more sexually aware during their maturating, they may challenge the older dogs to rise higher in the order.
Fights over food and/or toys are more common with dogs who exhibit any "resource guarding", insecurity, pushy behavior, and/or seeking higher ranking. My solution is to deter these windows of fighting opportunities as much as possible. Each dog is fed in their own individual crates. If one dog receives a treat – all dogs receive a treat. (The entire pack knows this and knows to wait their turn as it will come.) Fighting over a favorite toy can be decreased by having duplicates of the favorite toys.
The third common reason for fights may seem cruel to some people. But, this is where the primitiveness of the breed is really seen. I have had dogs who unexpectedly had a grand mal seizure when in the yard with other dogs around. Immediately, the other dogs tried to savage the seizing dog who was unable to defend itself. Horrific. But it is also Nature’s way of preserving the strength of the pack. Older dogs are also vulnerable to similar attacks as they are literally infirm.
7. How do I stop a fight?
Stopping a fight between two dogs is relatively easy with two people. Each person grabs a tail (and possibly a hind leg as well) and holds. When the dogs readjust their bites, then the dogs can be pulled apart. Do not pull the dogs until they relax their jaws as you can cause more damage. It is extremely important to never grab for the dog’s collar or nape of their neck when trying to separate fighting dogs. That will almost guarantee a bite as the dog will not recognize a human’s grip in the heat of the moment and interpret it as another dog biting. After the dogs are separated, then check them over individually for damage.
With one person, it is more of a challenge! My first reaction now is to RUN for the vinegar spray bottle. (I use a dilution of 75% vinegar/25% water.) I aim the spray at the dogs’ mouths at the same time as grabbing the aggressor’s tail and holding. When the dogs separate, the vinegar spray also deters the dog I’m not holding from re-attacking. Of course, the dogs also hear loud and strong alpha voice commanding them to stop the fight (not those exact words, though!). Crates and doors are useful to separate the dogs. If there are more than two dogs fighting, then it’s vinegar for all as I start pealing dogs apart. Hitting the dogs (with anything) or spraying them with water has no effect on fighting dogs.
Over the years, I’ve had various fights between dogs, bitches, and combinations. Fights between the boys are considerably easier to stop! Bitch fights are nasty. The girls just don’t quit easily.
8. What about after a fight?
The first thing I do after separating my scrapping dogs is to have a loud verbal tantrum. They all know that fighting is a major offence. Each dog is individually checked for damage (and stitched or stapled as needed) and eyes rinsed with a sterile eye wash. I have been known to leave the dogs in their crates, slam the door to the room where they are and then ignore them for up to an hour. Malamutes hate being isolated like that. Physically punishing the dogs doesn’t have the same effect as the isolation. During their "time out", I’m mentally reviewing the reasons for the fight and what were the warning signs that I obviously missed. After an hour or so, the dogs will be let out of their crates – after they are all shown the vinegar spray bottle and hear the no-nonsense tone of my voice. The instigator of the fight is usually put on a lead for the first while. Again, this is a punishment (being treated like an 8 week old pup/grounded) that the dogs understand. My coolness to the fighters also reinforces my displeasure. Do note that all of the above happens within the first 1 to 2 hours after a fight. (If the dogs are not brought together after a fight, they will possibly nurse their grumpy feelings which will lead to further fights down the road.) I’ve found that by doing this re-introduction to each other so soon after the fight and reinforcing that I will not tolerate any kind of negative behavior from any of them cools down the fighters relatively quickly. Of course, they are on heightened observations for the next day or so afterwards.
Dogs do not understand if their owners are cool to them, for instance, the next day after a fight. That only increases their anxiety and may escalate further pack unrest – into another fight. Remember that dogs live in the present moment. Thus we must also interact with them in the present moment and not "hold grudges" about past behaviors. In looking at a mother dog’s discipline of her pups, it is immediate, effective, then it’s over. She also doesn’t withhold food from her misbehaving pups. We can only aim to function up to Momma dog’s efficiency!
9. I have one Malamute now and want to get another. Does it matter what sex?
The questions that should be asked in response to the above question are: Why do you want another Mal? What are your plans for the new pup? What sex is your present Mal (male/female; altered/ intact)? How old is your present Mal? What is your present Mal’s personality and temperament?
There is so much more to consider when adding a new furry pup to the family. Generally speaking, it is easier to place the opposite sex into a home – eg. have a male, place a bitch and vice versa. Depending upon the temperament and sexual status of the first dog, placing another of the same sex could be risky. This is extremely true with intact bitches. If the bitches are close in age, you can be guaranteed of bitch fights in the future. I have found it easier to add another female to the pack (from another kennel) if there is at least two years difference between the youngest pack member and the pup.
10. What about getting/keeping littermates?
First, let me be perfectly clear. Keeping or getting two pups at the same time is a tremendous amount of work! This should not be even attempted by someone new to the breed (or dogs in general) and only considered by very experienced handlers who are willing to put the extra hours into the intense education of two pups.
If the decision is to keep two pups (and I will admit to doing this more than once), be certain that they are not the same sex. The pups will be fine until they are about 3 to 4 months of age then their puppy scraps become more intense. By the time the pups reach puberty, the battles are very serious. Keeping a pup of each sex – even if the dogs are kept intact – is considerably easier. Their battles for pack-ranking rarely – if ever – happen.
11. What about keeping a pup from my bitch?
Provided that the mom and pup are allowed to remain together, this can be a delightful way to add to the pack. This is particularly true with a mother-daughter pair. I have enjoyed observing the special relationships that evolve between mothers and daughters. I have even seen relationships between grandmothers and their granddaughters. If a bitch is separated from her female pup – even in the same household – that precious bond between mother and daughter will be broken. Without daily interactions as the daughter grows and matures, when these bitches are together at a mature age, there is an increased risk of a bitch fight.
12. So is there a magic formula for developing and maintaining a stable pack?
Ultimately, the answer rests with the owner/leader of the pack. In point form, here are some considerations that I use with my Malamute pack.
a. Have a clear understanding of each of the dogs’ personalities, temperaments, and their pack