Texas – Roman Reign Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs and Lowchens

Starting a Puppy in Conformation

Someone in our regional club asked about handling classes, and I wrote this response.  I thought it might be good to share publicly as well.  Location/person specific information has been removed. Enjoy!

Jennie

I would recommend that you not start conformation classes with your puppy until you’ve tried it without your dog or with trained dogs. It will take you longer to learn how to handle than it will take your dog to learn how to perform in the conformation ring. The danger in taking a puppy into conformation as a first time conformation handler is that the puppy might find it boring or uncomfortable while you are trying to learn. By the time you know what you are doing, the puppy might already dislike conformation.

I would highly recommend that you go and watch a few of the classes first (or watch YouTube videos on conformation handling), do some intense reading (it will be a great investment), and take quality general training classes. Regardless of what sport you pursue, you will need to learn how to communicate with your dog and perform as a team. I don’t think that conformation training is any different from competitive obedience training or flyball or even weight pull. It is still about the relationship you have with your dog and your communication.

Also, all my dogs are trained in competitive obedience and conformation. I strongly believe that they can do both. Many people think that dogs can only do one or the other. All my dogs have been trained to free-stack separately from automatic sits. I wouldn’t discourage training in both if you are so inclined.  You should not limit your possibilities with the notion that a dog can only learn or do one thing at a time.

Here’s a list of books I recommend:

Building Blocks for Puppies by Bobbie Anderson: http://www.amazon.com/Building-Blocks-Performance-Bobbie-Anderson/dp/1577790375
I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. A dog is a pet first. It doesn’t matter what your dog does on the weekends, your dog should find you to be exciting all the time. Your dog should also mind you in and out of the ring. You do have to live with the dog outside of the show ring as well.

All of Pat Hastings books:
http://www.dogfolk.com/puppydevelopmentbook.htm
http://www.dogfolk.com/k9structurebook.htm
http://www.dogfolk.com/trickstrade_revised.htm
I just went to one of her seminars yesterday, and I always learn something new. It is always best to learn about canine structure so that you know your dog’s strength and weaknesses. As a handler, you should learn how to downplay or accentuate those points in your dog.

The Winning Edge Show Ring Secrets by George Alston:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Winning-Edge-Secrets-reference/dp/0876058349
This is a great primer for first time owner-handlers. There are great photos and diagrams along with grooming tips.

There’s many other conformation books out there as well. It might seem like quite a bit of information at once, but I’m of the philosophy of great preparation and learning from other people’s mistakes. Always better to learn before you pay that entry fee.

Lesson: The Back Up In Cart

Lesson: The Back Up In Cart

Many draft tests will require your dog to back out of cart and to back in cart. The length of the back can vary from 1 foot to 5 feet, but just to be safe, teach your dog to back 20 feet. Teaching your dog to back is an unnatural behavior, and there are countless ways to teach a dog to back. I only explained a couple in this video, and I may be updating it with other methods over time.

Lesson: Turns, Side Stepping, 360s, and 90 degree turns

Lessons: Turns, Spirals, Side Step, 360s, and Navigating a 90 degree turn

Teaching a dog to turn in cart is a long process, and I urge you take your time with this.  Pushing a dog further than it is comfortable may cause the dog to lose confidence or spook in cart.  I start teaching turns by making large spirals in the cart.  Sometimes the radius of such spirals begin at 50 yards.  Once the dog is comfortable doing smaller circles (~20 ft in radius), I will start to teach a dog to turn and to perform side steps.  Once a dog can side step, I teach the dog how to do 360 turns.  Here’s two videos demonstrating how to teach a turn and how to navigate a 90 degree turn.

Teaching a dog to turn and perform 360s

Navigating a 90 degree turn

Lesson: Harnesses, Harnessing, and Hitching

Lesson: Harnesses, Harnessing, and Hitching
Here’s a video on harnesses and harnessing.  I may make other videos  with more details, but here’s the basics to get you started.

Here’s a video on hitching your dog from a sit position.  It works the  same way from a stand position.  Mouse just happened to be sitting. 

Balancing this Front Heavy Cart

This cart showed up at a training session, and the owners had a problem.  The judge at the previous test deemed this cart unbalanced.  How could an empty cart be unbalanced?  Upon further inspection, it was noted that the shafts on this cart were particularly heavy, and thus, it put a substantial amount of weight in the front of the cart (in front of the axle).   To balance this cart, we added a counter weight.  That might seem odd, but we added the counter weight BEHIND the axle, thus, balancing the cart on both sides of the axle. 

The best way to do it would have been to measure the weight of the shafts, and then to add that exact weight to the back section of the cart.  This was a quick way to solve the issue for now.



What’s the difference between drafting, carting, and weight pull?

Most people I know use drafting and carting interchangeably. Drafting or
carting is usually pulling a cart, wagon, or travois. These apparatuses have
shafts and brakes so that the rig can be maneuvered through turns. IMO,
drafting or carting (whichever term one prefers to use) is not about sheer
weight, but rather about how well the dog and handler can maneuver a cart to do
everyday farm activities.

Weight pull is the activity that involves heavy duty pulling. During weight
pull competitions there are no shafts, and the goals is to test how much weight
a dog can pull. The weight can be either on a cart(wheels or rails) or on a
sled on snow. Weight pull carts and sleds do not have shafts as the goal is not
about maneuverability, but about weight pull only. For people who do use their
dogs on the farm to do work, I usually hear the terms hauling or pulling. I
only hear the specific term weight pull when speaking about the sport.

Just to make things confusing, it is common to cross train dogs in both sports
to improve both sports. My dogs are active in both drafting/carting and weight
pull. I might have my dog pull a 100 lb load in his draft cart to train for
weight pull for a miles to build endurance. Or I might have might dog
participate in weight pull to build up strength and confidence.

To make things even more confusing, if you look through breed club rules and
titles, most all carting/drafting titles are called Draft titles or Draft tests,
even though people refer to it as carting. ND stands for novice draft. DD
stands for draft dog (the open title in GSMD). There’s also team draft which is
sometimes referred to as brace.

Tackling hills

Tackling hills in drafting is serious business.  While it seems like a simple task, taking a dog up or down a hill in a cart can pose many risks.

bullet Wet ground and loose gravel can cause the dog to loose footing and slip.  Going up incorrectly, a loaded cart can drag a dog down a hill.  Going down incorrectly can have a cart run up on the dog and cause the brakes to fail resulting in serious injury. 
bullet A hill that is too steep can put undue pressure on a dog in either direction. 
bullet Asking a dog to hold a loaded cart on a hill in either direction pointed in the incorrect direction can cause undue stress on the dog either pulling or pushing a dog down a hill. 
bullet I’ve been on hills so steep that even empty carts were rolling down a hill into a pond.  Unfortunately, the organizer of the event insisted that we position the carts parallel to the slope instead of perpendicular to the slope. 


To protect against these problems, hills should always be tacked.  This concept is not new nor is used only in dog drafting.  The concept of tacking, sometimes called switchbacks, is used in sailing, windsurfing, biking, skating, and driving.  In sailing and windsurfing, the operator sails or surfs at an angle towards the wind, not directly towards it.  In biking, skating, or driving, it is easiest to go up a hill at 45 degree angles instead of dead up the hill.  That method reduces the steepness of the hill and makes it easier to go up or town.  If you want to test this theory, just grab a pair of skates and try to go straight up or down a steep hill.  Make sure you wear a helmet and protective gear first.  You’ll quickly learn that you can bleed off speed by tacking down the hill or ease the steepness by tacking up the hill.  In driving, cars with short clearances that need to make it up or down a steep incline should approach at an angle either way.  Here’s some photos to illustrate the concept.
 
If you’re familiar with Lombard Street, here’s a photo of cars tacking down this 27% grade hill.  Read more details here

Tacking a hill (up or down) is pretty self-explanatory and straight forward.  You traverse a hill by going up diagonally at a comfortable angle.  You will be traveling more distance to go up the hill, and it will be at a less steep slope.  More importantly, it will be safer!  I also go up curbs and small hills with my own dogs at angles.  When leaving your harnessed and hitched dog or cart (without the dog) on a hill, make sure that they are positioned perpendicular to the hill.  You don’t want the cart or dog to be overcome by the weight of the cart when on a steep hill to cause a runaway. 

Here’s a photos of some cars parked perpendicular to the slope (correct).  If you don’t do this in San Francisco on some extremely steep hills, you’ll have some runaway cars.  

Is there a judge out there named Steve? Distance from rear legs to cart.

I recently received a comment on the blog from Steve (also a draft judge) inquiring about distance from the rear legs of the dog to the cart.  He wrote that the guidelines online are vague about the distance so I wrote back to Steve.  Unfortunately, I wrote back to the wrong Steve.  Steve, if you’re out there, this blog post is for you. 

My email to the incorrect Steve:

My trainer said that there should be enough space for the dog to extend their rear legs while in cart, but not hit the cart.  As a quick guideline, it should be an 18 inch ARC (not the direct points when standing) from the foot to the back of the cart.   I’d have to put Mouse in cart to measure the distance from point to point instead of the arc.  The length might also be different for each dog, given the height of the dog and the dog’s hocks. 

There’s nothing inherently unsafe about having the cart much further away from the rear of the dog as long as the traces are snug.  The problems you get when the shafts are too long and the cart is too far away is that it is difficult to maneuver, and the turning radius is much wider.  The shorter the shafts, the easier it is to turn.  However, if the shafts are too short or the dog was placed too far back (move the brakes forward to fix), then the dog’s foot or hock would hit the bottom side of the cart. 

I would not fail a team for having really long shafts as it isn’t unsafe.  It is a mechanical disadvantage that the team will have to work with that may cause them to fail.  That’s the handler’s responsibility and choice to have longer shafts.  However, if the shafts are long and the traces are not tight, I may fail the team depending on how dangerous I perceived the rig.  I judged one particular trial in which almost every single team had really loose traces, even after I warned them of how dangerous it was (it also changes the point of pull).  Anyways, one dog was almost pulled down a big hill when the shafts slid out of the shaft loops.  It nearly gave me a heart attack seeing that happen. 

I would also fail a team the dog’s rear was too close to the cart, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in practice or at trials.  Dogs are usually too far with loose traces.

Preparing for a Draft Test

I got returned from a draft trial just last night, and with the weekend fresh in my mind, we’re going to go over some draft trial tips and info before diving back into training posts. Here are some skills that I encourage my draft students to master before going to a draft trial.

Basic Control – both dog and handler will need to have a solid working relationship with several commands. For basic control, the dog that can qualify in rally obedience should have enough control for a draft test’s basic control.  The dog needs to:

  • sit on command
  • stay in position for 3 minutes
  • heel with the handler (not necessarily in heel position)
  • turn left
  • turn right
  • halt (no sit needed)
  • about turn
  • recall (come when called)

Basic control is NOT scored like competitive obedience and the requirements are not as strict.  The dog does NOT need to be in heel position at all time, and you may talk to your dog during the entire test (except the stays).

Harness and Hitching:  You should be able to harness a dog correctly, and hitch a dog correctly.  In my opinion, harnessing and hitching should not be a jerry-rigged last minute chore.  It is first and foremost, the most crucial part of safety in dog drafting.  Dog drafting is a sport that can be very dangerous to you and your dog if do not do it properly.  Thusly, I am a stickler for safe harnessing and hitching.  While I have not failed someone for minor issues with harnessing, I cannot pass a dog that is in an unsafe rig.  Future posts on that.

Maneuvering course: My rule of thumb is if a dog can master the following exercises with only voice or hand commands and no treats, then they can pass any draft test.  Yes, they are much more difficult than what is required, but I always try to train for tougher than the test. 

  • 360 clockwise pivoting on the inside wheel, but not moving it
  • 360 counter-clockwise pivoting on the inside wheel, but not moving it
  • Back up in cart 10 feet in a straight line
  • Back up unhitched 10 feet in a straight line
  • Pull through narrows that are two (yes, that’s two) inches wider than the cart for 15 feet
  • Pull through high narrows that are two inches wider than the cart for 15 feet
  • Parallel Park with no leash guidance

Freight Haul:

  • Out of sight stay for 5 minutes
  • Properly load and balance a cart
  • Navigate a steep hill up and down
  • Halt a dog
  • Maintain control of a dog that likes to cart quickly

Happy Training!