“Hey! Knock it off!” I scolded Johnny as he slapped the harness out of my hand and peed on it. He knows that harness is a good thing. He loves it. It’s his harness and he wants everyone to know it!Johnny’s the boss. He’s the kingpin of the dog yard, or so he thinks. The other males keep their distance from him and they don’t dare cross his path or growl at him. They know he’ll just pin them to the ground. Johnny’s a typical dominating Alaskan malamute with a passion to indulge in a good fight once in a while. With most malamutes, this raging hormonal fighting stage lasts only a year or two, unless of course they’re Johnny, who lingered in that phase for eight years. Thank God he’s finally settled down at 10 years of age! But not all malamutes play this dominate role and have a temperament like Johnny. In understanding this behavior, let’s take a stroll through Johnny’s canine cranium and try to envision his lust for life through his eyes. Johnny sees himself as an impressive malamute specimen. His black and white mask and black coat glistens in the morning sun. Johnny’s deep chest is supported by wide, muscular shoulders and his brushy tail curves perfectly over his back. Johnny enjoys being next to the young gals in the team and feels that no one else should be around them but him. If the other males get close to his girlfriends, Johnny reminds them who they’re messing with through a deep growl. When the other males hear his warning, they back off immediately, leaving the old grump alone. Johnny’s gotten used to be treated so well by others in the team and his ego has grown ridiculously large. Even while Johnny is hitched in the team he’s constantly showing off. A typical day running the team with Johnny starts something like this: I hitch Johnny in wheel position. “Johnny you’re going next to Nikko…and be nice to him.” Johnny recognizes my commanding tone, yet he doesn’t understand all my words and he doesn’t care anyway. Nikko is a younger dog who’s just getting integrated into the team. He stands excitedly next to Johnny, wanting to run. But Johnny’s somewhat intimidated by Nikko, who’s grown up to be quite a large male. So, Johnny anticipates a good fight, or at least he’s looking forward to giving Nikko his best growl so he can watch the young rookie cower. At two years old, Nikko’s powerful chest and shoulders are starting to be a dominating feature of his physique, presenting a threat to Johnny’s domain.Johnny hopes Nikko squares off with him. “Damn I’ve been looking forward to putting a scar down Nikko’s muzzle for quite some time now,” Johnny grumbles to himself. Nikko glances at him. Johnny rolls his lip above his sharp canines and lets out the snarliest growl he can muster. Nikko ignores the snarl, stiffens his legs trying to look taller than Johnny and thinks, “some day, buddy, you will be old, and then we’ll see.” Studying my body language, Johnny watches me approach him. He rolls over and waits for a belly rub. Ignoring him, I walk behind the sled and pull the snow hook and set it on the sled. Johnny jumps to his feet and growls at Nikko, only this time in a softer tone. He’s kind of hurt that I didn’t rub his tummy. “Oh well,” Johnny thinks, “maybe next time he passes by he’ll give me that scratch on my belly that I love.” “Okay!” Johnny hears my command to go and lunges into his harness. This is what Johnny lives for. This is Johnny’s heaven and he loves it even more than fighting. The sled speeds forward then swerves into a tight turn around a willow tree. The gangline forces Nikko’s shoulder against Johnny’s side. Johnny growls loudly and if it could be interpreted into English it would sound something like “Damn you, Nikko! I’ll whip your butt if you touch me again…punk.” But Nikko can’t help it. He’s forced against Johnny during the turn and suddenly the fight is on. Now, many of you haven’t heard the ravages of a full bore malamute brawl. It’s both deafening and shocking. You would think it’s the sound of hell erupting. Quickly, I stop the team and run to the rescue, but to rescue whom? Nikko is standing his ground and enjoying the fight as much as Johnny. Tails are wagging and fur is flying and the rest of the team is watching the magnificent show. With a swipe of my soft, polar fleece stocking cap at the two, accompanied with a few choice words of my own, the two hell-raisers immediately stop. I then replace Nikko with Bruno, who is about half of Johnny’s size. Johnny hardly even notices Bruno and obviously he’s not threatened by Bruno at all. Nonetheless, Johnny pulls with all his might to show Bruno his impressive musculature, and at the same time, relieving his fighting tension. At the end of the day Johnny’s happy and rolls on his back for that belly rub he had missed earlier. Well, this is Johnny’s world.But let’s go back to the beginning of Johnny’s life and see why he’s such a fighting machine in the first place. I had purchased Johnny from a local breeder when he was a year and half old. So, as a puppy he didn’t have the socializing my other malamutes had. When puppies are raised together they learn the pangs and pains of fighting from each other. This “play fighting” is very important. It’s during those times when they learn that fighting hurts! And afterwards the youngsters grow up to be well-behaved adults. But once in a while there’s a “Johnny” and sometimes they never seem to figure it out. By the time the pups are to 8 months old they’re ready to leave their pen and be placed in the dog yard with the rest of the big boys and girls. I prefer to put them on long chains so they can still play with each other and other adults. I occasionally rotate them around in the dog yard so they have a chance to interact with all the dogs. From this time forth they’re pretty good about not fighting. But once in a while I’ll get a couple dogs that just hate each other with a passion, like Boss and Sally. Holy smokes, those two gals terrorized each other horribly as pups. Sometimes they sounded like they were going to tear each other apart. And they were only six weeks old. I had no other choice but to keep them separated. Eventually Boss matured and Sally seemed to stay in her puppy/ adolescent stage longer than a usual malamute. But their passionate hatred for each other has yet to subside. At three years old, Boss was promoted to lead dog and Sally stayed in wheel position. Things were fine as long as there was plenty of distance between the two rivals. But once in a while their unyielding desire to kill one another would spark up. I’ll always remember the time we were running on the sea ice and Boss was in lead alongside two other leaders. Boss suddenly decided to turn around and growl at Sally, who was pulling in wheel. Now, I have no idea what started this, but I suspect pure boredom had something to do with it. I am sure Boss thought, “Boy, a good fight would be a blast right now to break the monotony.” Of course Boss’ turning around and growling stopped the entire team and set the stage for the world’s biggest malamute brawl. Sally returned her growl then pulled the wheel dogs towards Boss. Little Boss managed to drag the other two leaders along with her to battle Sally. Well, the result was that the team dogs were sandwiched in the middle of the war. It happened so quickly, almost as if it were planned telepathically the evening before while Boss and Sally stared each other down after feeding time. Within seconds I had an unbelievable malamute fight on my hands with 22 dogs tangled up in a giant knot and Sally and Boss lunging over the pile of growling dogs trying desperately to kill each other. It was kind of hilarious in retrospect. Amidst the growling thunder of malamutes were those two gals with their tails wagging, having the time of their life in a fierce battle that looked like the malamute fight from hell. I bet Sally and Boss someday will sit down with their grand puppies and tell them about the legendary brawl they had started on the sea ice 5 miles off the Arctic coast of Alaska. But don’t get me wrong. Fights are dangerous and are not for the fainthearted. It takes a ton of effort and years of working with these guys to ward off fights, yet sometimes they just trigger for one reason or another.Malamutes generally communicate by growling at each other and I find myself ignoring it most of the time. But, I don’t encourage the growling by giving them the attention they are striving for. Oftentimes when two dominant males are growling at each other, if I walk toward them a fight erupts. They seem to be encouraged in some instances to fight, maybe in a twisted way of showing dad (me) how tough they are. And I believe my malamutes do perceive me as a dad. They do not see me as an alpha dog in any way whatsoever. They just love to please and respect me and this is the mutual bond we share with each other. After a certain age, Boss and Sally will forget about their rivalry and probably become best friends. I have seen this behavior many times before and it just takes time, patience, and work. And hard work is an important element in a malamute’s life. Malamutes have a strong passion for work and they have a mountain of energy within. Yet at the same time, they are calm dogs and make great house pets. Some of my malamutes will take over the couch in our house quicker than you can imagine, then the same dogs are explosively powerful pulling freight across the arctic divide. But they need to have a balance and that is key in the fighting dilemma. There’s a time to play and a time to work and malamutes love both, but without opportunities for them to indulge in both activities they get outright irritable with each other. Malamutes were designed to pull freight and that’s what those guys and gals love. They consider that fun work, and racing around on groomed trails with light sleds is nothing but child’s play for those guys. Although many malamutes do well with that lifestyle, my malamutes get testy with each other if they’re running on fast, groomed trails for very long. Working malamutes are, in general, naturally aggressive animals and they prefer aggressive activities, like pulling freight. It’s just part of their balance. They can be both babies in temperament and Hercules in harness.Previously, I mentioned my soft fleece stocking cap breaking up a fight. It sounds like magic, but the hat is just a symbol of my displeasure and that’s how my malamutes see it. Yet, if I try to pull them apart with my hands they seem to be encouraged to fight even more and are probably thinking that dad’s involved in the fight! The secret to breaking up a fight is to never incorporate your physical body in breaking up a fight or any kind of disciplinary action. Malamutes respond to objects, even something as benign as a stocking cap, but not to “hand-to-hand combat.” It seems the theory of alpha domination doesn’t go anywhere with these guys. Malamutes will lose respect for you if you resort to personal, physical discipline. Once they lose respect for you, it’s all over. In the past, several rescued malamutes have been brought to me. Some of these guys were so aggressive that they had actually scared the hell out of me. I mean, I have been around dogs of every make, model and temperament for 40 years and those guys sounded like grizzly bears growling and they were growling at me! Luckily, I have been able to pull several of these bad boys through and turn them into purring little kittens, but it had taken years of work with earning their trust. And I’ll admit, some of these bad boys turned into outstanding malamute citizens, like Johnny. Johnny’s ten years old now. He and I have been through rough times, but all in all the work and effort has paid off handsomely. Johnny’s nick name used to be Johnny the Terror. But his new name is Gentleman Johnny. Yes, it’s true; sometimes he starts feeling his oats again and causes a few problems. Otherwise he’s quite an outstanding member of our kennel. Although he’s caused my voice go hoarse several times and I’ve invented new cuss words because of him, I feel blessed for the opportunity to be in the same team as Johnny and the others. Joe Henderson has been working with Alaskan Malamutes for over 25 years. He and his team of 22 malamutes conduct remote expeditions on the North Slope of Alaska. Clients from all over the world join him on the expeditions to enjoy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his Alaskan malamutes. Please visit his website at;


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