Weight Pull Cliff Notes

by Maximus aka the Mouse

I’ll start this article by stating that many of the tips and instructions mentioned have come from a number of sources.  Most of the people who have contributed to my week-long crash course in weight pull training are International Weight Pull Association members with highly trained and conditioned dogs.  I’m extremely grateful for their kindness and generosity during my trips up North.  Since there are as many ways to train a dog as there are ways your dog can embarrass you, try a few of them.  See what works and what doesn’t work

Before diving into weight training, I do have a few words about weight pulls.  There are a few non-Swissy pulls that are recognized by GSMDCA.  One being International Weight Pull Association.  So don’t feel like you must attend Swissy pulls.  IWPA pulls are just as fun and typically huge.  Many people in IWPA only participate in weight pull so they really know their stuff.  At a pull ideally, you and your dog will get into the chute.  Someone will hook your dog up to the cart, and then you will walk across the finish line (IWPA pulls).  Then your dog will pull the cart across the line.  Someone yells “PULL!”  and you’re done until the next round.  Now, many things can go wrong.  Your dog can sit down and wag its tail.  Your dog (like mine) will play bow to the spectators.  Others will bark.  Some will bounce up and down.  Some will get tangled the harness (something the judge will call for the safety of the dog).  Or your dog can pull a Maximus by jumping on the cart behind him and bark, then play bow to the brake person, and then pull while on the cart.  Duh, wrong way.  All these antics are typical for novice dogs.

Weight pull training can be started when pups are very young because half the training is getting a dog used to a harness.  If you already do carting or packing, this part will be very easy.  Weight pull harnesses come in one piece with a spreader bar and will cost anywhere from $50-100.  They MUST be custom fitted when pulling as an incorrect fit will either choke a dog or pinch its neck.  All sites that sell drafting or weight pull harnesses will have instructions on how to properly measure your dog.  The harness itself might be a little confusing to put on at first.  So try it on!  No, I’m not joking.  Figure out how it is supposed work before you submit your untrained dog to twisting, turning, pinching, tangling, and some definitely Kodiak moments.  The easiest way to put on one of the harnesses is to put the head through first and lay the harnesses across your dog’s back.  Then pull each leg through the strap furthest away from the dog.  Then you should have the neck portion (usually heavily padded) around the neck going across the back and the other half going under the dog between the legs.  Spreader bar in back and presto.  You have a dog in harness.

Most dogs get used to the harness quickly, but if you’re having some trouble, use treats when in harness.  Give your dog special attention and praise just for being in harness.  Hold the harness in front of a treat so your dog must poke his head through to get the treat.  Click if desired.  You want your dog to love being in harness.  It will definitely help.  Eventually add empty milk jugs or some other loud object to get your dog used to the item of noise coming from the rear.  Then the next half of weight pull training is teaching your dog how to pull.

One way is to really make it a game.  Have toys, treats, squeakies, or a cat.  Note: no treats, toys, squeakies, or double handling allowed at IWPA or GSMDCA pulls.  This teaches your dog to come to you. Eventually, you will need to wean your dog off of it.  This is a great method, however, it does not really teach your dog how to pull higher weights.

Another method is through obedience.  I have seen some handler’s give their dogs an obedience recall while in the chute.  If your dog is very obedient, this might be the way to go.  However, the dog will need to be trained and conditioned well enough to handle higher weights.  Most dogs can pull 10x their weight effortlessly.  I doubt Maximus even noticed when he pulled 1500 lbs. in Virginia.  However, at higher weights dogs will either dig in and lean into the pull or they will “hit it” (bounce into the harness in attempt to get the cart moving then shove with the hind legs).  Either way works fine.  I’ve seen dogs pull extremely high weights using either method.

The next method is to teach it repeatatively.  Once you have your dog in harness and on leash, hook up to enough drag weights (chains, tire, anything you don’t mind getting scratched up) so that your dog cannot easily run.  You want enough weights on there so they can feel pressure against their shoulders.  Put the dog in a stand-stay or sit stay and walk in front of your dog with leash in hand.  Give the command to pull.  If the dog does not pull, use the leash with the snap on the back of his neck and give a gentle pop.  With the snap on the back, the leash will push their head down getting them into proper pulling position.  Do this over and over again to get teach the pull command.  Do not allow your dog to run with weights – although they easily can.  This does not teach them the proper pulling position.  Sure the dog will be able to pull around 1000 lbs, but when it gets to higher weights, this will not work.  The dog must crouch down and pull.  It is almost impossible to get 3,000lbs moving by running into the harness.

Some people have set up their own chute and practice in there daily.  This is also important because some chutes are prime marking material.  Do NOT ever, under any circumstances, ever allow your dog to urinate or defecate in the chute or close to the chute.  Other dogs will then start to sniff and want to mark it as well instead of pull.

After you teach your dog to pull, you’ll need to condition your dog.  There are two main ways of doing this – strength training and endurance training.  For strength training, have the dog pull heavy drag weights over a short distance (20 ft or so).  Some have suggested a tire loaded with bags of sand or soil.  You also do not want to allow your dog to pull less than 16 ft.  Dogs have an uncanny ability to judge distances and some of the most highly trained dog will stop just short of the 16ft line.  I’ve seen that happen.  The dog just stopped and looked pleased with itself, except that he was about ½ an inch from the finish line.

For endurance training, you’ll want to go long distances (2-5 miles) with semi-heavy drag weights.  This means enough weights (chains are most popular) to make the dog pull and feel pressure.  Some trainers hook up their dogs to a drafting cart and go 4 miles pulling 400 lbs. Keep in mind that pulling with wheels is much easier than drag weights.  Rotate between strength and endurance.  Don’t forget to give your dog a day off once in a while.

Now for odds and ends: When do you actually start?  When is too young?  It’s never too early to start training with a harness and empty milk jugs.  Its just getting the dog used to and enjoys being in harness.  Also, teach your dog to never defecate or urinate in harness.  This will also be most helpful for drafting.  There is no hard rule about when you can start training with weights, but I would wait until they are at least a year old.  My general rule of thumb is: if my dog can easily drag me around, he’s probably ready for a little weight.  Same goes for drafting as once the cart starts moving, there is only one pound of pressure being applied.  I know my own dog doesn’t even notice 32 lbs in his cart.  Do what you feel comfortable with.

Do you pull a dysplastic dog?  Again, do what you feel comfortable with.  My feeling on this is to allow the dog to do it if he enjoys it.  If the dog does not enjoy it or shows signs of pain, don’t do it.  Just because a dog has hip dysplasia, it does not mean he or she should be kept from enjoying life.  When humans have cancer, we don’t ask that they stay at home in bed.  We rejoice when they get out of the house and enjoy doing the things they did before.  Many dogs that pull are dysplastic and spayed or neutered.  They get to go out and enjoy having fun.

Why pass or pull?  Dogs generally have about 7-10 really good pulls before they get tired.  You’ll want to save these by passing on the lighter weights that you know your dog can pull.  Save your dog’s energy for the higher weights where it counts.  And always end on a happy note with your dog wanting to work more.

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