Training your dog to pull can be a rewarding experience for both you and your dog. Many dogs love to pull and can become great assets on the homestead. While not every dog is suited for pulling, many breeds can pitch in with chores quite well. Let me share how to get started and move your dog off the couch and into the harness.
The size of a dog does not affect its ability to pull — only the size of the load it can move. Almost any breed can learn to pull, but perhaps the most popular breeds are sporting dogs, some bulldog breeds, some sight hounds and of course working breeds in which you’ll find the sled dog breeds and draft dog breeds. I trained my family’s Shetland Sheepdog to pull a very light sled and she took to it like a duck to water.
While practically any breed will do, the structure and age of the dog do need to be taken into consideration. Dogs under two years old should not pull anything heavy. Training can begin prior to their second birthday, but up until about two years of age, a dog’s bones have not set and serious damage can occur if the dog’s joints and bones are stressed. Additionally, older dogs, dogs with arthritis, hip dysplasia or other joint or back problems should not be considered for pulling. Optimally you should check with your dog’s veterinarian to make sure your pet is cleared for work before beginning.
There are a few types of harnesses appropriate for pulling. Racing harnesses and weight pulling/trekking harnesses are similar to what sled dogs use. These harnesses are made from webbing, or rarely leather, and are generally well-padded. They slip over a dog’s head easily and set back over the dog’s body. Racing harnesses tend to be a bit lighter and meant for speed, while weight-pulling/trekking harnesses are heavier and very well-padded with a rear spacer bar and are meant to move large loads more slowly.
The other kind of harness is the carting harness. These are most similar to miniature horse harnesses. Thick, padded webbing lies across the chest and a girth wraps around behind the shoulders. Nylon webbing attaches to shafts which are attached to a cart or small wagon. (Do not use walking or tracking harnesses.) You can find a variety of harnesses online for under $75 new — and much less used. Just ensure that the webbing and stitching is secure, the hardware is sturdy, and the harness is sized to your dog.
There are a variety of dog cart and wagon manufactures. Dog scootering, in which a dog pulls a person on a rugged scooter, is gaining popularity. There are carts with winter sled runners and of course there is always the dog sled if you live in an area of frequent snow. After you determine what kinds of tasks you’ll be asking your dog to help with you can purchase what you need. If you are particularly handy, you can convert an existing wagon, cart or sled. Various suppliers, cart plans and advice are available online, so be sure to do some exploring.
Training Your Dog
The key to training your dog to pull is patience. Keep your training sessions short and stop before your dog (or you) tires. The goal is to keep your dog having fun and excited about pulling. Begin your training by allowing your dog to get used to the harness. Let them sniff it and place it on them. If they seem nervous, distract them with a toy or a treat until they feel comfortable. This may require several sessions or a “refresher course” at the beginning of each training time. Don’t worry, eventually your dog will become used to the harness and get excited when you get it out.
The next step is to place some sort of light weight on the end of the harness so the dog can get used to feeling resistance. Some dogs may start to walk off and then sit down confused. Encourage them to get up and keep moving, using treats, toys and an excited voice, whatever they find most motivating. Be sure to keep your dog on a leash during training times so you can maintain control.
Continue to add weight to the harness over the next several training sessions. If your dog becomes confused, use lots of praise and enthusiasm and if necessary, lighten the weight a little and start over. Your dog’s confidence will build as he learns his strength.
Begin to use a command when you start off walking with your dog pulling weight. “Mush,” “Hike,” and “Hup, Hup” are traditional, but you can use any command that works for both of you and is unique for pulling. Teach a halt command as well. “Whoa,” “Wait,” or “Halt” are excellent. Use your forward and stop commands every time you start and stop and your dog will begin to pick up on them.
You’ll also want to think about what kind of job you want your dog to do. If you’ll be using it to pull you (some large breeds, or several dogs together can handle this), then you’ll want to encourage your dog to walk out in front of you. Many dogs will naturally go out in front, eager to explore and see new territory. If you have a dog who is a bit reticent, you can try gently crowding them with your legs to bump them out in front. They’ll be a little confused at first, but if you’re patient, they’ll quickly learn that staying out in front works best for them. You can work with a partner, too. Have someone stationed down the road while you tell your dog to go forward. Have the other person start calling your dog as you drop back a little. With training you should be able to eventually walk fully behind your dog. Purchase a longer line with a dog snap on the end now so you can continue to maintain control of your dog while you finish training.
You can start teaching right (“Gee”) and left (“Haw”) commands as well as “line out” (where the dog steps up and pulls the harness line tight, but does not start off).
When you transition your dog to pulling an actual cart, again take things slow and stay close to the dog. It can be alarming to them at first to have a large object following them around. Dogs can also feel a bit trapped when confined between the shafts of a cart. So stay close and work slowly. Break down the transition to the cart into as many small steps as you can to ensure your dog’s comfort. You may also want to ask for a helper to give a hand with the cart so you can focus on your dog. The helper can help control the cart while you focus on the dog, distracting with treats and encouraging with lots of praise. In no time your dog will have forgotten its nervousness and will be pulling with confidence.
Once your dog is pulling well and obeying commands consistently, it’s time for them to go to work. Don’t forget to give your dog a refresher course every once in a while if its pulling gets sloppy. If you change anything, like transition to a sled in the winter, or add another dog to your pulling ensemble, view it as training your dog a completely new step. Start slow, break it down into easily understood steps and stay patient and upbeat. You may find an entire new sport you and your dog are passionate about. Happy Mushing!