Drafting and carting are sports that are open to all breeds of dogs, including mixed-breeds, by several national breed clubs. Pulling carts to help transport items was a task that many dogs were – and still are – trained to do to help around farms. Dogs like to pull – and this gives them an acceptable way to exercise their right to do so! Jackie Phillips and her All-American Dog, Dino, are the first mixed-breed team to earn drafting titles, and in this article, Jackie tells you everything that you need to get your dog started, from the equipment to the training. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the AKC Canine Partners News.
I discovered Drafting/Carting totally by accident one day in early 2013 after putting Dino into his weight pull harness, attaching him to my crate dolly cart and having him bring several boxes to one of my neighbors nearby. He was so happy to be in his harness and pulling. I immediately went online, looking for groups that allowed all breeds in their draft events. I found the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, which states in its rules that it allows all AKC registered breeds, including mixed-breeds. I contacted a local training friend who has Berners and participates in the club events. He invited me to a practice and I started attending regular practices at a local Berner club in preparation for its upcoming Draft test in Scotts Valley, CA. In August 2013, Dino passed the Berner Novice Draft test, becoming the first mixed-breed to earn a Draft title. In November 2013, we passed the St. Bernard Novice Draft Test and in February 2014, we passed two Rottweiler Carting tests.
Here are some of the things you need to know about getting started in this fun sport:
Collar: Most tests require a flat or buckle collar, and most also allow choke chain or martingale collars, but no prong or electronic collars are allowed. Since most of these tests are run by AKC breed clubs, most will follow the standards of equipment allowed on AKC show grounds.
Leash: When a dog is worked “on leash” during a test (usually Novice and Beginner levels), a 6-foot leash is considered standard since some clubs have an on leash “Stay” exercise built into their tests, and the hander must be 6 feet away from the dog. A longer leash also gives the team extra room to avoid “tight leash” deductions or faults during the test. This requirement is similar to many Novice Rally and Obedience tests where tight leashes can become minor deductions or disqualifications.
Siwash: (pronounced like SI-wash): This type of harness has a padded “V” that crosses from the shoulders down to the front chest and then back down to underneath the dog. This provides a lot of freedom of movement for their legs and comfort for dogs pulling weight. This is also the common style of weight pull harnesses; however the Siwash harness will stop at the waist of the dog and then be connected to the cart by individual traces or straps. The harness is custom fitted to the dog and should have multiple buckles or snaps where a proper fit can be adjusted, and then the extra strap can be trimmed off once the size is determined.
Buckle: This type of harness has a type of thick “band” that comes across the chest of the dog from side to side, instead of in a “V” from top to bottom. It is usually a more decorative type of harness and is also called a “parade” harness since they tend to be used more for decoration and to pull a light cart without any weights.
Shafts: All harnesses will connect to the cart through two ways: once to the shafts on each side of the dog and then by the tracers that connect to the front of the cart. Shafts are the bars that run alongside the dog, just past the shoulders and connect to the cart. They can be metal or wooden and are sized to fit the dog exactly. The shafts, usually connected by pins and screws, can be removed from the cart for easy packing. On the shafts are “brakes.” Brakes are pieces that stop the harness from sliding up and down on the shaft, which is especially important when going up and down hills and carrying heavy weights. They are individually adjusted to the dog depending on where his shoulders meet the shafts and how long the dog is in proportion to the cart.
Tracers: Tracers are the lines or straps that run from each side of the harness at the dog’s waist to the front of the cart. These should be individually adjusted to the dog and the harness and the cart. The connection of the traces to the cart is usually a piece of long wood, connected to the cart by an eyebolt, which moves freely side to side as the dog moves side to side inside the shafts. This piece literally moves as the dog moves.
Cart: There is so much variation in carts, even just for tests. There is an even wider assortment if somebody wanted to do more fancy events like parades. Many times four wheeled wagons are used more for parades and informal work around a ranch, since they are less maneuverable, heavier and sturdier than two-wheeled carts, which are less weight for tests. For tests, generally two-wheeled carts are used since they are lighter and easier to move on less agreeable surfaces like grass, gravel or dirt. Carts can be handmade or come from a professional cart creator. As long as they are able to perform in the test and adequately carry the necessary weight and maneuver, they can be used. Since the cart’s weight will be in addition to the weight required to pull in the test, which is set inside the cart, most people try to get a lighter weight cart so it does not add to the weight the dog must pull in the test. For example, Dino has to pull between 20 and 40 pounds in a test, so I found a super lightweight plastic cart that only weighs 18 pounds. Plus, the cart is full collapsible and can be easily moved in my car.
Weight in the Cart: A common type of weight used in tests is barbell weights that have the hole in the middle and then the weights go over a stationary pole in the middle of the cart. I have been using bags of bird seed and ankle weights enclosed in a nylon sports bag. This prevents the weight from moving and shifting in the cart since they are tightly inside the bag. The weight required to pull for each test will be different for each club and the level of difficulty being entered. Some Beginner levels can require 20 to 25 pounds or even 40 or more. The more Advanced or Intermediate levels will be higher. The requirements will be clearly stated in the Rules and Regulations for each club
Here are a list and brief description of some common exercises in Carting and Drafting tests. There will be variation in these exercises, in addition to an increased level of difficulty. For example, a common increased level of difficulty would be if the exercises are to be performed off-leash as in an Advanced level. The exercises will remain the same, but some teams will be performing the exercises off-leash. Also, some of the tests are performed in an enclosed roped-off environment, but others will be without ropes. And many tests are held in open public parks with the common distractions of public places on a busy weekend.
Obedience Routines: This commonly requires a “heeling” pattern with a “recall” and a “stay.” Some clubs do this in the same ring as part of the Drafting maneuvering exercises and some do it in a group in a separate ring before the maneuvering exercises. The “stay” exercise is generally with the dog attached to the cart, though I have seen one group do both: a “down stay” without the cart as a group exercise and a “down stay” attached to the cart as a group exercise. Some “stays” will be on-leash, and some will be off-leash from across the ring. Some Advanced levels require out-of-sight stays.
Harnessing, Hitching, Equipment Check: This exercise requires the judge to watch the harness being put on the dog and the dog being hitched to the cart. The judge will then walk around the cart to confirm the harness is properly fitted and the connection to the cart is correct. Most of the time, the maneuvering exercises in the ring will then follow for that dog. There is also a full equipment check at the start of the test without the dog. Before the test, the cart and weight are brought to a designated spot near the ring for the judge to inspect and approve. The collar, leash and weight are put inside the cart for the judge to review. The judge can ask any questions of the handler at that time.
Maneuvering Exercises: Once inside the maneuvering course, the following exercises are commonly seen. Some tests have weight in the cart during these exercises, and some will have the dog pull an empty cart.
1. 90 Degree Left and Right Turns
2. Circle Left and Circle Right
4. Fast, Normal and Slow Speeds
5. Backing up a minimum of a few feet, usually 3 to 6 feet
6. Different types of distractions outside the ring like sounds and moving objects
7. Going through gates of different sizes and widths and heights
8. Serpentines around cones or high stakes like poles or posts
9. Figure 8 around objects like trees or cones
10. Loading and unloading of lightweight objects like baskets or backpacks with another human
Freight Haul: Once the maneuvering exercises are completed by all dogs in that group, a long distance freight haul is also seen in some tests. These are usually done in groups with other dogs and handlers in a line, and the dog is pulling the full designated weight in the cart. There are even specific rules on these freight hauls that must be abided by, like the handlers cannot pass each other, without approval by a judge or a steward. Depending on the location of the test, some freight hauls will be in, out and around suburban neighborhoods or more rural locations and hiking trails. Some tests require a distance of a half-mile, while others require a full mile or longer.
Once again, please read the Rules and Regulations of each club and test to determine exactly what exercises will be used.
Previous training: Carting and Drafting is not a sport for a beginner handler or dog. I would recommend a solid foundation in basic obedience in a show or ring environment where there are a lot of distractions coming at you in all directions. I have seen dogs who had very little foundation in obedience and watched them run out of the ring off-leash dragging a full cart towards their nearest favorite person with their handler desperately trying to get them back. I have found it also to be helpful if your dog has had some previous experience wearing a harness like for weight pull or tracking. Drafting harness are custom-made for the dog and should fit very snuggly to the body, and the dog should be accustomed to standing still while the harness is put on and removed since this is often a part of many tests.
In addition, if your dog has had previous training in weight pull, then that will be one less thing that dog has to become accustomed to: being attached to a cart that moves behind them when they do. The main difference in a weight pull cart and a drafting cart is that in a drafting cart, the dog is literally “one with the cart” between the shafts alongside him and must learn how to turn a solid object whereas in weight pull, the dog can freely step from side to side and the cart still doesn’t move.
I have also found that a good “Leave” cue, and good focus and attention should already be established since it will be necessary to have the dog’s full attention, both physically and mentally, while in a cart. Urinating or defecating while in a cart is an automatic disqualification while in a test, even in a freight haul, and the dog must pay attention to the obstacles on the course and not want to leave the ring to smell some bushes or visit another obstacle, person or animal. Touching or crashing into objects and obstacles in a test is a disqualification and is considered unsafe.
I have discovered the hard way that the single most important word to have in a drafting dog is “Halt” or “Stop.” If anything comes up at any time where immediate control must be established, that single word can be what saves the test or the practice. While practicing in a large public park, I have had children run directly up to Dino and want to pet him and play with him. Luckily, I can get Dino to “Stay” and “Stand” or “Sit” until the distraction passes, but a less controlled dog could send the cart flying upside down. An uncontrolled dog pulling a cart with a lot of weight in it can be a disaster waiting to happen.
Conditioning: Any dog who will be pulling a cart should be in excellent physical shape, and if there are any questions, the dog’s veterinarian should be consulted. The dog should have very good muscle tone and not be overweight. The dog must be able to handle pulling a full cart up and down a hill and at both slow and top speeds and remain under complete control to immediately change direction or speed.
Read the Rules and Regulations of Each Club: Make sure that the rules and regulations of each test and each club are read and understood. They are all different with their own weight requirements and standards. This is where working with experienced people can be very helpful. Before my first test, I asked 20 questions at each practice to be sure I understood exactly what I should do and what is required, in addition to reading the rules and regulations.
Practice: As with any other sport, practice is essential. However, since these tests are set in real life situations and not inside enclosed buildings with secluded rings, the practice must also mirror what the test will be.
If local drafting or carting groups can be found that hold their own practices in public places, that would be best since the dogs need to have experience working around other dogs, especially on a freight haul where there will be dogs very close in front of them and behind them in a single line. My favorite places to practice are college campuses, since there are a lot of distractions with other people and many natural landscapes to practice on like poles, trees, hills, grass, concrete, sidewalks and squirrels running back and forth! These are best on the weekends since you will have more freedom, and often parking is free.
Large public parks are also ideal if there is not an issue with off-leash dogs. I would avoid any public parks or public areas where dogs are not leashed and under control since it will be very difficult to focus on practicing and having to dodge uncontrolled dogs. In a real test environment, there will not be an issue with off-leash dogs, so it is not something that needs practicing.
Entering Drafting and Carting Tests
I have found a few ways of finding out about drafting and carting tests. There is a Yahoo! Carting group, and even though it is very low volume, occasionally news of tests is posted. There is also a Dog Carting group on Facebook that is active with a variety of carting and drafting posts from all over the US and Canada. The third way is to check the breed parent club websites.