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One of the oldest of the Arctic sled dog breeds, the Alaskan Malamute (Malamute) has a proud history of working and living in extremely harsh conditions. These tireless dogs are members of the Working Group, and their form and function directly relate to their origin of heavy freighting. They are not racing dogs, but are instead meant to pull hefty loads at slow speeds.

The friendly and devoted Alaskan Malamute may be one of the most ancient breeds of dog. It is thought they traveled across the Bering Strait many thousands of years ago with people from the Arctic regions of Siberia. Once in North America, they lived and worked with the Inuit, who depended on these dogs for their very survival.

AKC Library & Archives

The Native Mahlemuts

The breed name was taken from the Mahlemuts, an Inuit tribe that settled along the shores of Kotzebue Sound in northwestern Alaska. Long before Alaska became a possession of the United States, native people were living on “Alyeska” land when Asiatic mariners visited this northern expanse. Returning to their homeland, the sailors told stories about seeing indigenous people using dogs to haul sledges.

The Mahlemut people are never mentioned in early writings without reference to their dogs. A traveling missionary, who had journeyed thousands of miles by dog team, wrote:

These Malamutes… are peaceful, happy, hard workers, believe in one wife, are able guides, and have wonderful dogs… They have realized that it is important to have fine animals to pull sledges, that without them, means of travel in this sort of country would be impossible at times.

The dogs are powerful looking, have thick dense double coats (outer coat of thick coarse fur and inner coat of fuzzy down lying close to skin) called weather coats, erect ears, magnificently bushy tails carried over their backs like waving plumes, tough feet, colors varying but mostly wolf grey or black and white. The dogs have remarkable endurance and fortitude. The Malamute people and their dogs are much respected among other Inuits.

AKC Library & Archives
Alaskan Malamutes of the famous Chinook line, mid-1930s, with their breeder, Eva “Short” Seely. Photo courtesy of AKC Library & Archives

Malamutes were mostly used for pulling heavy sleds, but other jobs included being pack dogs for supplies, hunting seals and other Arctic mammals, and protecting their people from bears. They did all this in brutally severe northern conditions and, as a result, they evolved to be powerful dogs with incredible strength and endurance. Their affectionate and loyal nature likely came from their close ties to their human family. The dogs often played with the children and slept in the family shelter to help keep everyone warm at night.

There was a huge call for working dogs during the Gold Rush at the end of the 1800s. Different breeds from outside the area were bred with native sled dogs to keep up with demand. This almost destroyed the Alaskan Malamute. However, the Mahlemut people had a remote and isolated existence. Their Malamutes remained largely pure, and it is from this tribe that the Malamute takes his name.

The Malamute should be more powerful and heavier than other Northern breeds, thanks to his heritage. Their face markings are a distinctive feature and consist of a cap over the head with either an all-white face or a face marked with a bar and/or mask.

Alaskan Malamutes Today

The Alaskan Malamute was fully recognized by the AKC in 1935, and the breed’s first championship was awarded that same year. As pets, they have become popular among those who enjoy sledding, weight pulling, skijoring, backpacking, and other winter activities, and Malamutes have earned titles in the obedience ring and at agility trials.

There are still Alaskan Malamutes living a traditional life, but many live as family pets in warmer climates. That doesn’t make them any less athletic, and they are still able to enjoy and excel at a variety of activities such as sledding, backpacking, jogging, or agility with their owner. Another sport popular with Alaskan Malamute owners is weight pulling. These competitions involve dogs pulling a certain weight a certain distance in a set amount of time. In each successive round, the weight is increased, and dogs only advance to the next round if they can complete the pull.

Although they traditionally guarded Inuit campsites, Malamutes are not disturbed by the approach of strangers. Most actually crave attention from people. In addition, expect confidence and independence from your Malamute. This, along with their strong-willed nature, means they may not always get along well with other dogs of the same sex. They also possess sensitive personalities, so handle them with gentle care.

Related article: Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier History: The Irish Poor Mans Dog
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