As a Newfoundland breeder with a special interest in dog carting I am often asked what criteria I use to select a pup as a potential draft dog. My answer comes in three parts and the second part usually surprises people.
Since the 1800’s there has been fascination with three wheeled draft vehicles for dogs to power. One of the most unique is this tricycle from France in 1875. The back wheels were like giant hamster wheels with the dogs inside of them. Fortunately this didn’t catch on but similar devices were patented in both France and the USA.
Modern day wagons tend to have 10 inch diameter wheels although there are some with 13 inch wheels. The smaller wheels on a wagon means more rolling resistance which causes the dog or dogs pulling it to have to work harder. However the four wheels of a wagon make it a more stable platform and this enables greater versatility both in terms of types of cargo and for jazzing up the appearance.
On land the Newfoundland dog is almost as good as they get as a draft dog probably only surpassed by the Bernese Mountain Dog. However in the water he is in a class all by himself both for strength and endurance.
One of the biggest hurdles for newcomers to carting and other forms of draft work with dogs is the terminology used. For amateur cart builders this is especially so. For example when someone starts to make their own cart for the first time, they see the pivoting bar but not knowing the purpose, may ignore it in their construction. However, if they know it has a name (whiffle tree), they would be more likely to do their research and find out why other cart makers took the trouble to install such a device.
Winter in Canada can be special for you and your draft dog. Our native people developed vehicles for the winter long before Europeans came to this continent. These vehicles have survived to this day both in their original form and in evolutionary forms. When one thinks of a fundamental winter vehicle, a sled often comes(…)
A good way to start dog carting is with a wagon rather than a cart. First it is much less expensive to get a wagon and the wagon has other uses as well. For the handler, less knowledge is needed as balance and tipping are not issues with a wagon. It is also easier to(…)
The regulations under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 give all encompassing access for service animals without them needing to come from a professional service animal institution. This is important as a dog trained for carting or other draft work can easily be taught at home to pull a wheelchair or act as a living cane. Some Newfoundlands even do this instinctively with only some minor practice needed.
Demeanour is not a word normally used in dog training but it has a special place in dog carting. By demeanour I am referring to the dog’s outward bearing. It should noticeably change as the dog is harnessed and hitched to an apparatus. The exception would be for canines that are super calm at all times, who would not be incensed at the sight of a squirrel running across their path or throwing broken nut shells down at them. For the majority of dogs, as you attach them to the cart, they should become visibly aware of a difference in their status and much more alert to their handler.
Ever since I saw a young lady in a wheelchair at the US National Specialty Show in 2003 being pulled all over the site by her Newfoundland dog I have been fascinated by this modern adaptation of canine draft work. This wonderful Newf was a true service dog and I couldn’t have been more proud of our breed.
Hot temperatures have come early to Canada and this signals me to put away the sled and get out the dog cart. It also reminds me that special care must be taken with respect to heatstroke.
Back in the 1980’s I almost killed my carting dog when I let her get heatstroke. We were at a July 1st parade in Toronto as part of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada contingent. Thanks to fellow club members and an emergency vet clinic my precious girl survived.
On Belle’s 14th birthday, Christmas Day of 2011, I wanted photographic proof of what sound longevity really meant. Since there wasn’t much snow here in Southern Ontario anyway, I dug up one of my passenger carts and hitched up my rather young fourteen year old. Belle as always came through for me and took the cart all over the four cleared acres on the property. I couldn’t contain my excitement as this was the best Christmas ever. Not only had I achieved a life goal twice but now I had exceeded it.
When most people think of dog power they usually consider this to be hauling of sleds, carts, wagons and travois but dogs have provided power in other ways. For example on the Island of Newfoundland, the Newfie dogs were used to power the blacksmith’s bellows and the turner’s lathe.
Just when I think that every form of draft/harness activity with domestic canines has finally been invented, along comes one more. This time it is nordic walking with dogs. The name is casual sounding and so is the sport. One person who is taking this up with her Newfs has started called the activity cani-nordic walking but the term does not seem to have caught on, at least not yet.
I still have my original dog cart and it is in excellent shape. Wheels and tires have been replaced, the seat re-upholstered and the wooden whiffle tree changed to a metal one. Of course it has been re-painted a few times. It is my shining example of a good value purchase. While this particular cart is not for sale, I use it to show people that a good dog cart holds its value and you can usually sell it years later for more than what you paid for it. It is also representative of why buying used is a good idea. Of course when buying anything used you need to know what to look for.
The Newfoundland dog is often referred to as the St. Bernard of the Sea. This recognizes that Newfs do in water what the Saints use to do in the snowy Alps. While no one has used the term up to now, I feel that our Newfs should also be known as the Tractor of the Sea.
Many people talk about Newfoundlands working as something from the past but the fact is that they work nowadays in the 21st century more than ever. They are all over the world now and doing more types of work than could ever have been imagined. In the 18th and 19th centuries their work was confined to hauling on land and being ship’s dogs, but they now work in libraries helping kids learn to read, jump out of helicopters in Italy to save lives on the briny, act as crisis intervention dogs after disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and everything in between.
With Spring comes the opportunity to hike with our furry friends in temperatures that are comfortable for both humans and canines. Hiking is even more fun when the dog has packs and carries some of the gear, especially if you are overnighting.
Draft work is a great exercise for dogs and is especially good for our seniors. You can adjust the weight for your canine buddy, even starting with just an empty toboggan. He can walk at his own pace and there is almost no chance of a twisting or other injury. If you have ever suffered arthritis you know that the worst possible thing you can do is not use the affected joints and the same applies to our aging dogs.
So what now defines mushing? Well unlike dog carting, there are no shafts and usually a single trace rather than the double traces normally used for carts and wagons. The biggest difference is that instead of walking the draft dog in the heel position and on-lead, a mushing dog runs, not walks, ahead and is controlled only by voice commands.
I so enjoy taking a dog that the owners have told me is kinda dumb and can’t accomplish very much to giving rides in a matter of minutes. This enables me to tell the doubting guardian that their dog is terrific and his/her only handicap is the owner, followed by “you have to believe in your dog”.
While dogs have been hauling wheeled vehicles like carts and wagons for many hundreds of years in Europe and for the last few centuries here in North America, canine draft work goes back probably 10 thousand years or more. This is because the first humans who came to North America had their dogs carrying packs and for heavier loads, pulling travois.
For over three decades I have been asked to assess carting potential in dogs. People would say something like “I don’t want to spend money on a harness and cart unless I’m sure that my dog will like it”. All this time I have been dismissing such requests since the number of dogs of all breeds that I haven’t been able to get to pull a cart in about 15 minutes can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Trust however goes well beyond backing up your dog with a towed vehicle. The most basic feature of dog carting is hauling forward while harnessed in shafts. When so configured your dog feels more vulnerable to attack by other animals. Most of his defensive capability is now compromised. His periferal vision is somewhat limited as he can’t look as far behind or as far down; his flexibility is severely limited by the hard shafts and the mass of the vehicle he is attached to. Now he is unable to effectively protect his human or himself.
In my last column I described carting as the best exercise for a canine and now I am taking it one step further and declaring that draft work is the best type of exercise for the senior dog. Dogs as old as 12 years of age can and have been started in carting; they have also earned CKC draft dog titles.
While there are many ways to exercise your canine buddy, many involve risk. For example letting Rover run loose in an off-leash dog park can result in a twisting injury especially if he is trying to keep up with a smaller dog who can make much sharper turns.
A walker dog takes the place of a walker or cane for a mobility challenged person. Even those of us who are not mobility impaired may make use of our giant dogs. Many a time I have used one of my Newfs for support when getting on my feet. I correctly put my weight over the legs, either front or rear and never on the centre of the back; this is something learned from carting and backpacking with dogs.
Usually I try to stress how much fun dog carting and related activities can be; however a little knowledge of the science behind such work will ensure that it is always fun and safe for your dog.
While many folks put their dog carts away for the winter, if you have a Newfoundland or a northern breed, then this is the best time for draft work. Unlike horses, dogs don’t have sweat glands on their body, making the coated breeds perfect for cold weather work. Just like you winterize your motor vehicle, you can and should winterize your draft dog.
Snow is not far off and for Newfoundlands and the northern breeds and some of their guardians, winter is the best time of all. At one time, carters would put their draft dog gear away for the season but more and more, the fun of cold weather draft work is being appreciated.
While dog carting was once important in helping farmers and merchants transport their products economically, it is now a way of connecting to the service heritage of our canines in a delightful fashion; in other words it is a fun thing to do with your dog.
Newfoundlands are well established all over the world. While the majority are living as loved family members, many are still working. Both France and Italy employ them as lifeguards, some of them dramatically leaping out of helicopters. In Canada and the US, Newfoundlands can qualify for titles of Water Rescue Dog and Water Rescue Dog Excellent although their abilities as lifeguards has not yet been utilized by any government agency in North America.
Based on practical experience of carters like myself who have been doing this for decades, light hauling as early as 12 months of age, seems to be a safe age to start. Light hauling includes wheeled vehicles on hard surfaces and sleds or toboggans on hard packed snow with total weight (vehicle plus load) no more than the dog’s weight.
In my class there was a young student, Alex, who didn’t talk at all. Alex was an elective mute – he refused to speak to anyone while at school. When I brought Kody’s Water Rescue ribbons and medal into class for Show and Tell, he was very interested in holding them. I gave him a picture of Kody to keep and promised that if the class worked hard, Kody would bring his cart to school at the end of the term and give them all rides in the playground. Alex who didn’t smile very often was very excited about going for a ride. I explained to him that Kody loved to take kids for rides, but in order for Kody to know that he had done a good job, we all had to tell him “Good boy, Kody. Thanks for the ride.” Alex just nodded.
While dog carting is a relatively new sport in Canada, its roots go back to at least the early 1800’s in Europe. Part of the fun of carting your dog is making this connection to the past and understanding our roots a little better and from a novel perspective. In the early part of the 19th century dog carts were commonly employed in Belgium, Switzerland and Holland. To a lesser extent, they were also found in England, Alsace, France, Italy and Germany. The breeds used varied depending on the location. For example, in the little town of Rottweil in the southern mountainous region of Germany, farmers used Rottweilers to aid in their milk deliveries.
I was fascinated to read how Newfs would pull their carts in Newfoundland up to age 13. At the other end of the age scale, Newfs are no less amazing. The exercises for the water rescue dog tests are fascinating to watch at any age, but even more so when they are being done by a four month old Newfoundland puppy. This includes the exercise that involves towing a boat with two people in it.
When someone I know loses a human member of their family, I usually offer to take care of their Newfs until things settle down for them. Very few people have ever taken me up on this type of offer; this is when they want and need their furry pal more than ever. Over the years I have heard first hand from many Newfie friends how their Newf helped them through their time of crisis.
Newfoundlands are a winter breed. Not only are they great for people who enjoy being outdoors in winter, they are great for getting families out in the cold weather. Sometimes it is just for the evening walk – but this alone will make the handler much healthier than the usual hibernation of a couch potato.