I’ve decided that incorporating some new forms of resistance training into my dog’s workout plan makes a lot of sense. There are different ways to practice resistance training, and only recently did I start thinking about carting, mushing, and weight pulling as ways to build a dog’s fitness. These exercises have been around for a long time, but, surprisingly, they seem not to be often utilized. I began trying to learn as much as I could. I asked everybody I knew if they knew anything or anybody who knew something about these sports. I interviewed an Olympic musher, started talking to an “Iditarod guy”, went to meetups for mushers and carting practice. I took a course on weight pulling, watched and read and continue to look for good information and resources on these subjects. It took me a while just to figure out which harness I’d buy first.
I learned some great pointers here and there, and I felt ready to start training beginning dragwork after putting my new carting harness on my dog multiple times. Before thinking about attaching anything to the harness, create a positive association with it by feeding yummy stuff while it is on. I’d put it on, feed her, try to get the adjustments set, feed her in between, then take it off before long. Pretty soon my dog was lingering and hoping to try the harness on again :). That was my sign that we could think about attaching the traces (the straps the dog pulls the load with) and take it to a new location. Had my dog not already felt comfortable with having her legs lifted in and out of the harness, I would have taken more time building up any component piece of the process to get her to like it.
I had to fuss around with trying different items for our first dragging session. I’d hoped I could just clip a pvc pipe on both ends about the distance of a spreader bar, but it fell off and I had a lazy solution of attaching a separate chain (each about 1lb). I let that drag straight behind her on each side. We walked around the yard with this set up and it didn’t worry her at all but she needed to walk forward rather than turn and look at me, which would cause her to step over the traces rather than keeping them cleanly on the sides. Had this dog not had such a vast experience of training different tasks, we could have easily spent a number of sessions on this step alone. But, I felt OK asking for more because she was happy and confident.
Since my dog is always keen for a walk, I thought, perhaps if we headed up the street we could get her to focus forward. My toddler was sitting in a small garden cart that I dragged along, to both transport his royal highness and to accustom my dog to the clatter of the noisy cart (which she is used to as we use it around the house with her running next to it a lot). I was loaded with her dinner kibble and a clicker, and we started off with just the goal of going up and down the street right in front of the house. But, it turned out to be just as easy to head out for a short walk, so we did.
I was clicking her for every little step at first. She must have thought, “Wow, this is great. Easy money!” But, I soon realized I had a logistical challenge of keeping her headed forward enough that the traces didn’t get caught up underneath her as she turned to look at me (both for the treats and because I train this quality of engagement). So, it was imperative I try to reward AHEAD of her, where the “ghost” of her was when I clicked. This required a bit of coordination to get up there fast enough, all while pulling a small child in a cart in the other hand. But, I was pulling it off…I should say we were pulling it off. She’d step over the traces and I’d stop and pull them free many times. But, I was able to transition to shaping her to look forward by clicking when she’d walk and look away from me. This was a fast progression of steps that only a dog with a history of training (and, there was a time recently when I’ve been clicking her for looking forward) that was showing confidence and understanding could rightly be asked for.
We only went for as long as I had enough kibble to feed her for. I wanted her to get a ton of food when the harness is on and none when it came off to give her the idea that wonderful things happen when she’s in harness. We made such a fast progression that I wish I’d videoed it. I expected it to be much more of a trial run than such a huge training success. I’m really excited because I hear that the pulling sports aren’t heavy on the positive reinforcement….And you can understand why. If you are feeding your dog (or giving them a toy), then they are going to turn and look back at you when all these sports require the dog to drop their head and move forward. for some sports, the dog is supposed to head forward while you remain behind. Training any animal (ourselves included) to operate ahead of the director without seeing them (or a focal point) is a very hard skill. I’ve had luck so far and am looking forward to coming up with ways to do this through purely positive means.