What do you envision when someone says “draft work“? What probably comes to mind are horses, mules, oxen, and other large “beasts of burden.” Think again. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, dogs have assisted humans by hauling wagons and carts across fields and through towns. Dogs have delivered milk and mail, hauled the day’s catch of fish from boat to town, and even hauled lumber in lumber camps.
This heritage forms the basis upon which the sport of carting was built by a variety of breed clubs. Between the 1970s and 1990s interest in the sport grew; the St. Bernard folks offered their first competition in 1988, and Bernese Mountain Dog fans added theirs in 1991.
The natural inclination of dogs to pull has been literally harnessed by a variety of people through the years. Put backward pressure on a leash and collar, and most dogs will pull forward. Take that “opposition reflex” and a nice, padded harness, and you can see where this is going. Forward, of course!
Sledding. Weight pulling. Sulky driving. Skijoring. Carting. Some of these activities are still used to help humans with important tasks. Sled dogs have delivered critical medicines in the dead of winter. Service dogs pull wheelchairs. And some dogs show off their carting skills during public demonstrations and therapy dog visits. This sport has a very practical aspect to it. If you are creative, I’m sure there are tasks around home that you can find for your carting dog.
In this article, we will focus on “carting,” which involves a dog pulling a cart (a two-wheeled vehicle) or a wagon (a four-wheeled vehicle) with a person walking alongside.
If this sport piques your interest, look at your dog. Is she a large or giant breed who has the size and strength to pull a wagon loaded with 50 to 100 percent of her body weight? Or is she a Pomeranian who has the smarts to learn something new that will be fun to show off to friends and residents at nursing homes? Or does the pure utility of the sport attract you?
Samantha Fogg, a professional dog trainer from Georgia, describes her interest in dog-related activities as “tending toward the practical rather than the competitive.” Fogg, disabled for 15 years, trained two of her service-dog Leonbergers, Fergus (now 12 years old) and Milo (now 8), to pull her wheelchair.
“My interest in carting stemmed from my interest in wheelchair pulling,” she says. “When I started doing wheelchair-pulling training, there was not a ton of information available on wheelchair pulling, but there was a significant amount available on carting. There are some major differences between wheelchair pulling and carting, but there are also a lot of similarities. Wheelchair pulling and carting differ fundamentally in that wheelchair-pulling dogs most often pull from the side, where carting dogs pull from the front. Pulling from the side is much more physically demanding, and thus the dog needs better structure.”
The training for these tasks is similar whether you expect your dog to pull a lot of weight or none. Although there are many opinions about training for this sport (what’s new?), here’s a broad overview of the progression of training.
• Harness acclimation: Get your dog used to wearing the harness. This might take a fair amount of time, depending on how your dog reacts to the sight and feel of a drafting harness. They are quite different from standard dog harnesses.
• Verbal cues: Your dog will need to respond to verbal cues to go forward, speed up, slow down, turn right, turn left, back up, and stop. Teach these before you ever attach your dog to a cart. Train these cues on-leash, then off-leash, and eventually, with a barrier between you and your dog so that you can simulate being a couple of feet away from your dog (out of the way of the cart). For example, you and your dog could walk on opposite sides of a short retaining wall, or with a row of buckets between you.
• Traces: These are two straps that run from the dog’s harness to the wagon. You can simulate traces by attaching two leashes to your dog’s harness (or even to his regular collar). Walk alongside your dog while a friend follows behind holding the traces (as if she was holding the train of a long bridal dress).
Gradually, your friend can exert slight pressure on the traces while you reward your dog for moving forward. When your dog is comfortable with that, attach something light to each trace, such as a small water bottle or a plastic milk jug with a bit of sand in it. For safety, have your friend follow along to pick up the traces should your dog become frightened of something dragging behind him. Gradually, your dog will become more and more confident pulling weighted objects behind him.
• Cart or wagon: There are many ways to train your dog to get in position and pull the cart, including shaping with a clicker or luring your dog into position. Dogs who love this sport are known to run over to their carts and back into position, waiting to be hitched up! When you’re ready to hook your dog to the cart for the first time, ask a friend to help, for safety. Should something scare your dog, you’ll appreciate an extra set of hands to control the cart. While you walk alongside your dog cueing slow, faster, stop, etc., your friend walks alongside or behind the cart, ready to help when needed.
Georgia resident Lisa Rodier started carting training with Axel (her Bouvier) in 1999, when he was three years old. Axel had already received a fair amount of training before Rodier tried teaching him to pull a cart. Axel had his CGC and was a registered therapy dog in Atlanta-based Happy Tails Pet Therapy, and they had dabbled in agility as well.
There are several exercises that people find challenging to train, says Rodier. “The most difficult include training a straight ‘eback,’ especially with the cart; negotiating the narrows (in which the dog must pull the cart through a narrow path); pace changes (fast/slow); and, in general, having the dog able to know and respond to cues in a distracting environment. An out-of-control dog with a cart can be dangerous to himself and others.”
Carting training is best accomplished using positive reinforcement techniques. Rodier says that her dog, Axel, reflects the power of positive training in his working attitude: “It’s important to keep it fun and positive. This shows in the dog’s attitude and willingness to work. Watching a dog who enjoys carting can bring tears to my eyes! But it’s very painful to watch a dog who has his head down, is confused and not enjoying himself, while his handler is tense, gesturing wildly, has unclear cues, and gets frustrated. If the dog doesn’t enjoy it, don’t do it!
“Clicker training can allow you to get really creative in teaching skills to use while carting. Standing for hitching is scored in most tests. People often put their dog on a stand-stay and then maneuver the cart around and behind the dog. I taught Axel to ‘ego in’ between the shafts of his cart, turn around, and stand for hitching. Axel’s ‘ego in’ behavior was a show-stopper, because he loved doing it and thought it was fun.”
Your dog should be physically fit and enjoy working. On the human end of the leash is usually someone who enjoys the non-conventional nature of this sport, has a working dog whose heritage involved carting, or someone who simply enjoys the utilitarian nature of the sport.
You will need a harness and a cart or wagon in addition to the standard training tools such as treats and a clicker.
There are three types of harnesses:
• Parade harness: This harness has a padded strap across the shoulders that also encircles the chest and another padded strap that crosses the front of the dog’s chest.
• Draft harness: This model has a padded circle, or collar that goes around the dog’s neck, which allows free motion of the shoulders and legs. A belly strap connects to the shaft of the wagon or cart, while the collar is what attaches to the “traces” that run to the wagon.
• Siwash harness: Similar in look to a sled dog harness, this harness has a series of straps on the dog’s back. There is a padded chest strap that runs along the breastbone and through the front legs.
Select a harness that is comfortable for your dog and, most importantly, does not restrict the free motion of his shoulders and legs. There are many knowledgeable people who can help you choose the best one for your dog and your purpose.
There are an infinite variety of carts and wagons depending upon personal preference, desire to compete, and/or practical use. The most common are carts or wagons with slatted wood sides.
The most expensive part of this sport is the initial investment in a well-made harness ($60 to $300 or more) and your cart or wagon (starting at around $350 and going up and up and up). Some people make their own carts for as little as $100, and many people will let newcomers to the sport borrow a cart until they get their own.
Gas and lodging will probably be your next biggest expense. Competition fees run about $25 per entry.
Most people practice with other people they have met through local or regional breed clubs. Formal classes are very rare so this is not something you have to budget for!
Levels of competition
Each organization that sponsors a competition has its own rules, including whether they allow mixed-breed dogs. For example, the New England Drafting & Driving Club (NEDDC) opens its competition to any dog.
Titles and classes also vary among organizations. The Bernese Mountain Dog Club, for example, has a Novice Draft Dog (NDD) title in which all exercises are performed on-leash and, in addition to other basic control exercises, the dog is required to perform a half-mile freight haul of 20 pounds. The next level up, Draft Dog (DD), is off-leash and, in addition to the other control exercises, performs a half-mile freight haul of its own weight rounded down to the nearest 10 pounds.
There is also a class for two dogs to pull a wagon. This is called Brace Novice Draft Dog (BNDD), and is on-leash. The half-mile freight haul exercise requires a 40-pound load. The Brace Draft Dog (BDD) title is off-leash and the load is based on the combined weight of the dogs.
Beyond these classes, there are additional, higher-level titles.
How to get started
Contact one of the breed or working dog clubs near you and find out where people practice. Go and watch without your dog. Talk to the people about how you might get started.
Check out the books and DVDs listed in “Snapshot of the Sport: Carting” (page 19) to learn about the nuances of carting and how to train for it. Someone will be more likely to mentor you if you’ve done some homework and know some of the equipment and training challenges.
Fogg did a lot of independent homework when she got started. “I had a solid foundation in clicker training, went to a Judi Adler seminar at the Leonberger Club of America National Specialty, read everything I could get my hands on, asked questions of people I knew on-line, and worked with my training partner to teach this. I think that it would have been a lot easier to have started with someone experienced and to have done classes, but if you can’t get to classes in your area, don’t rule out carting!”
Some of the breed clubs will also know about, or sponsor, workshops in your area or you might need to travel to attend one. Workshops can provide a wealth of information because you will be able to see a variety of people and dogs working and be able to talk to people at all levels of the sport.
Carting is a sport with many practical applications. If you think your big dog needs a job, check out this sport! If you would like to perform demonstrations for public audiences, this sport will delight them. And if you need a help around the house, carting is definitely the ticket!
Terry Long, CPDT, is a writer, agility instructor, and behavior counselor in Long Beach, CA. She lives with four dogs and a cat and is addicted to agility and animal behavior. See “Resources,” page 24, for contact information.