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Breeder Buzzwords – The Alaskan Malamute

Alaska occupies the northwestern corner of North America, where temperature extremes and harsh living conditions require a particular toughness of its inhabitants – both man and beast. It is in this challenging environment that one dog breed was developed for a life of heavy labor and subsistence living within isolated human societies – the Alaskan Malamute.

The Mahlemut people, a native Inuit (Eskimo) society that historically relied on hunting and fishing to survive, traveled great distances in what is now the 49th U.S. state in search of whale, seal, bear and moose. Their nomadic lifestyle was made possible only through the partnership forged with their very specialized canine companions.

In the 18th century, Russian fur traders and European explorers discovered the “Great Land” across the Bering Sea. The outsiders were in awe of the incredible hardiness of the dogs they found living alongside the local peoples.

According to the Alaskan Malamute Club of America’s Illustrated Standard,“The early explorers venturing to the land known as Alaska discovered dogs of unbelievable hardiness, able to work in the brutal arctic climate, often on starvation diets. These dogs had several functions, including hauling heavy sledges and packing. Although their existence was one of heavy work, the dogs were often part of the Eskimo family, playing with children and sleeping in the shelters helping to keep the family warm.

The Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century threatened to destroy the local people’s way of life in the region as well as the survival of their dogs. To meet the demand for sled dogs, crosses with various imported breeds were made that “all but destroyed” the native animals, according to the AMCA. “However, the Mahlemut people, from whom the breed takes its name, lived a remote, isolated life. Because of this, their dogs remained largely pure.

In the March 1983 issue of the AKC Gazette, the Alaskan Malamute’s superiority as a sled dog was featured in a cover story that recognized the breed’s service as a helpmate and cold weather courier. “When Arctic exploration began, the Mal found another purpose as it aided the explorers – Peary, Cook, MacMillan and Byrd.

Following World War I, Americans in the Lower 48 who became interested in the breed began importing dogs from Alaska that they believed to be Malamutes. Although type differed greatly, the AMCA indicates that several strains were known to exist at the time, including Eva Seeley’s Kotzebue and the M’Loot lines, as well as the Hinman/Irwin dogs. “Those who appeared purebred were used for breeding, others weeded out.

The American Kennel Club recognized the Malamute in 1935, however its service in World War II “all but eliminated the breed.” The AMCA notes that a fancier of the day named Robert Zoller bred select combinations of the 30 or so dogs known to exist at the time. Zoller’s breeding program created the Husky Pak line from which all modern Malamutes are said to descend

The official state dog of Alaska, the Alaskan Malamute remains as tough as the land from which it sprung and as independent as the people who depended on it for survival. The breed retains its hardiness and is still a tireless pack animal with something of a “call of the wild” in its every thought and action.

Registrations in 2012 place this powerfully built sled dog 57th among the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Alaskan Malamute is a hardy and tireless pack animal with something of a “call of the wild” character. Photo by Sergey Lavrentev/Dreamstime.com

An Arctic Sled Dog
According to the AMCA, “To properly evaluate the Malamute, one must understand something of the severe arctic conditions under which these dogs did their job, and their invaluable contributions to the survival of the people who kept them.” The breed’s historic role as an Arctic sled dog is evident in both the breed’s physical and mental qualities.

The Malamute, or “Mal,” as fanciers refer to the breed, is a dog in possession of the “physical attributes necessary for the efficient performance of his job.” The General Appearance section of the AKC standard describes the breed, in part, as “a powerful and substantially built dog with a deep chest and strong, well-muscled body.” This is a real powerhouse performer, distinguished as one of the strongest of the breeds expected to eke out a living around the Arctic Circle.

“The Malamute must be a heavy-boned dog with sound legs, good feet, deep chest and powerful shoulders,” the standard emphasizes. The breed’s job requires a dog with a broad head and “bulky” muzzle, balanced front and rear assemblies, and a harsh double coat.

So convincing is the breed’s physical countenance that even standing still, its stance “gives the appearance of much activity and a proud carriage.” The Malamute is described as standing “well over the pads.”

Of course, the breed is meant to haul heavy loads over long distances, and the illustrated standard reinforces the breed’s usefulness as an endurance dog. “Every Malamute is attractive, but physical attributes must always take precedence over cosmetic traits.”

Physical strength does not necessarily imply extraordinary size, however. “There is a natural range in size in the breed,” according to the standard. “The desirable freighting sizes are males, 25” at the shoulders, 85 pounds; females 23” at the shoulders, 75 pounds.”

The illustrated standard emphasizes the importance of size as it pertains to the breed’s “freighting” function. “The Alaskan Malamute should be heavier and more powerful than the other Northern breeds, yet he should not be ponderous or clumsy…Dogs that are significantly undersized or oversized may lack the strength or endurance to efficiently perform their intended duties.”

Structured for strength and built for endurance, a correctly made Malamute is certainly capable of “going the distance.”

Distinguishing Face Markings
The Alaskan Malamute’s thick double coat may be of various colors, ranging from “light gray through intermediate shadings to black, sable, and shadings of sable to red.” These color combinations are “acceptable in undercoats, points and trimmings,” as noted in the breed standard. Trimmings are described by the illustrated standard as “shades of gold, cream, brown, buff or red found on legs, ears, tails, face markings and underbellies.” Unlike points, which are clearly defined areas, trimmings are located “around the margins of color where the light and dark shades meet and frequently extend into the color.”

Face markings are a distinguishing feature of the Malamute. They consist of a “cap over the head” and a face that’s “either all white or marked with a bar and/or mask.” Each Mal is stamped with its own original banded coat, and no two dogs will possess exactly the same facial markings.

The characteristic markings of the head and face enhance the breed’s obliquely placed, dark brown eyes and soft expression. White is the predominant color of the face markings, and “a white blaze on the forehead and/or collar or a spot on the nape is attractive and acceptable,” according to the breed standard.

Variations of acceptable face markings are presented in the illustrated standard and include an open face, a mask with a star, a mask with a blaze, a cap with goggles and eye shadow, and a full mask with goggles and bar. Solid white dogs will not present markings of any kind, of course, and “no one color or facial marking is preferred over another. All acceptable colors and markings are equally desirable and no preference should be given in judging.

Pigmentation is black in all colors except reds, where the nose, lips and eye rims are brown.

A Waving Plume
Although the breed’s double coat varies in length from 1 to 4 inches over specific parts of the head, body and legs, nowhere is it more uniquely expressed than on the breed’s signature tail. In fact, the breed’s “waving plume” is a defining breed characteristic.

Moderately set and following the line of the spine at its base, the loosely curved tail of the Malamute is unlike that of any other Northern breed. It is neither too long nor too short, and is “well furred” as noted by the standard.

In a 1992 AKC Gazette breed column titled, “The Standard From A to Z – Part III,” Vicky Jones describes exactly what the Malamute’s tail is and is not. “The tail should appear over the back as a waving plume, not tightly curled, resting on the back, snapped or carried like a fox brush.

The illustrated standard also indicates that the tail should not “drop heavily to the side,” although it goes on to state that it is not uncommon for a Malamute “to relax the tail down while standing or trail the tail behind when working or moving.

Even today, it’s not difficult to imagine the Alaskan Malamute’s magnificent plume resting gently over its distinguished face during those cold winter nights in the “Last Frontier.”


Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.
  • Mike June 30, 2013 at 2:43 PM

    Great article. Growing up I always wanted a Mal. Unfortunately to date I have not had the pleasure. My wife and I vacationed in Alaska a few years ago and was sorely disappointed that the official state dog received no recognition. Everything was husky husky husky and certainly did not resemble the Mal or the Siberian Husky. Go figure.

    • Dan Sayers
      Dan Sayers July 1, 2013 at 10:02 AM

      Thanks for writing, Mike. I know what you mean when you write about your disappointment with your search for a Malamute in Alaska. When I was in Ireland a few years back, I inquired about Irish Water Spaniels only to be told, “You won’t find one of those around here!” I did meet several of the breed eventually, including a bitch used regularly for shooting in the bogs.

      Some of the finest Mals I’ve ever seen were in the ring at an AKC conformation show, and I recently witnessed several perform in a weight pull contest in Pennsylvania. They are impressive indeed!

    • Tracy October 9, 2013 at 10:41 AM

      The legislature in Alaska has finally accepted the Alaskan Malamute as the state dog. Bob Sutherland, Mal rescuer, was instrumental in achieving this. Most of the “huskys” in AK are mixed breeds husky/pointer or hound being the most common cross. Do a searchon “Red Lantern Team” and you should find the team of purebred Mals that are shooting for running the Iditarod in 2015. Quinault Mals I think is the kennel.

  • Nancy Cowan July 1, 2013 at 3:00 PM

    Absolutely and without any question, Arthur Walden did NOT breed Alaskan Malamutes. He did NOT begin the M’Loot line. I have seen probably the same reference you used, but it is absolutely WRONG. There are many breeders of longstanding Alaskan Malamute kennels who know the pedigrees of their lines…and they will, I know, agree with me that Walden had nothing to do with M’Loots. I am just a lowly biographer of Mr. Walden. The dogs he bred (other than accidental matings at his kennels when dogs were assembled there to go on the Antarctic Expeditions) were Chinook Dogs. I am sorry you were led astray by this incorrect information.

    • Dan Sayers
      Dan Sayers July 2, 2013 at 8:33 AM

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for writing and thanks for sharing your knowledge of the M’Loot line of Malamutes. I’m sure our readers would be interested to learn more about their true origin.

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