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Reinstating the Draft

Learn the ropes before putting your Molosser in harness
The history of draft-dog work has not always been positive. In the 1800s, the dogs were quite often abused, and as a result, draft dogs have been legally banned in many parts of the world. You will have to check into your own country’s laws.
The dogs’ comfort and safety must be the primary concern of anyone wishing to start this hobby. With the revival of draft-dog work, there are an awful lot of people out there who plunge in head first, with little or no research, and they are inadvertently causing damage to their dogs. 
Dogs are anatomically different from horses – the first mistake most people make. Secondly, harnesses and carts have to be built and made correctly; otherwise they can cause a lot of harm to your dog. Carting is not a weight-pull competition, nor do dogs have engines – they can only work so long and must have sufficient rest periods. And the possibility of overheating needs to be addressed. Take the time to learn, properly.
Equipment needs to be taken into serious consideration. Remember, the comfort and safety of your dog is paramount, and using substandard or inappropriate equipment is not to anyone’s benefit.
There are many types of harness made for different purposes, but they are not all interchangeable. The carting harness needs to be very sturdy, with padding over the shoulders and across the breast strap. There should be a belly band that fastens around the girth just behind the front legs; D rings or loops that attach to the belly band at the appropriate height for the traces; and hold-back straps for braking and backing up.
The harness also needs to fit correctly. Any downward pressure should be just behind the front shoulders. Pulling pressure should occur on the breast. And the dog should be pulling from the traces, not the shafts.
The next important piece of equipment is the cart, and the most important feature of the cart is balance! Even when loaded, the cart should not exert enough pressure, either up or down on the dog, to cause physical harm or discomfort. To test this, you should be able to lift the shafts with your baby finger with ease, until they are parallel to the ground.
Ideally, the cart should weigh 40 to 60 pounds (18 to 27 kg), and be strong enough to carry approximately 450 pounds (205 kg). It should be about 3 feet wide and 7 feet long, with the shafts tapering in towards the dog. Ball-bearing wheels with pneumatic tires about 20 inches tall and 1.75 to 2.25 inches wide – like on mountain bikes – are ideal. And there needs to be a whiffle tree (a fixed, pivoting spreader bar to which you attach the traces). You can always go with a wagon, and in some instances, the wagon may be what you need, but, the cart tends to be more maneuverable and all-terrain.
As far as training goes, take your dog to obedience classes and teach him basic obedience first. Do not start your dog pulling weights until he is reasonably mature. Eighteen months is generally sufficient for Mastiffs, and avoids causing damage to those growing bones. 
When teaching draft work, always have your dogs in harness, and teach them that they are working. This is the time when they are to stand still – no sitting, lying down or jumping up. The dog should not react to distractions like cats, other dogs or human passersby, and people should not be coming up and patting the dog. The dog is working, just like a seeing-eye or guide dog. Patting is a reward and should be reserved for the handler to dole out to the dog. 
There are just a few basic commands to teach. GIDDYUP; WHOA; GEE (right turn); HAW (left turn); BACK; STAND/STAY; FASTER and EASY (slow). These are traditional drafting terms, and it also avoids confusion with the judge’s orders. Also, when making a tight turn, the word GEE or HAW is generally repeated in quick succession – the faster the repetition, the tighter the turn. 
When we are learning to harness and hitch our dogs, the dog must be on a STAND/STAY. The STAND/STAY becomes very important when we begin to load our cart, as we will be back at the cart. The dog must be reliable and not move or we can have a serious mishap.
Once the dog has become accustomed to harnessing and hitching, we can start pulling an object. Generally we start with something small, light and easy to move – like a child’s sled. Be careful here, as many dogs will panic when they notice something following behind that they can’t really get a good look at, so they may try to outrun it! Always teach with your dog on leash. 
So we will start by teaching them GIDDYUP and WHOA. Standing beside your Mastiff, you give the command GIDDYUP, and start to walk forward – if necessary, you give a gentle tug on the leash. After walking a few paces, give the WHOA command, and stop. Again, if your Mastiff continues forward, give a little tug to stop his moving. Be prepared, however, to put a hand under your Mastiff’s belly to prevent him from sitting – you can even give him the stand command. Dogs generally pick up the difference between obedience and carting commands very quickly. Once the dog becomes accustomed to the sled, we can progress to a shafted vehicle.
For some reason, dogs have a tendency to speed up when pulling a cart, so we have to teach them EASY, or slow down. Also, the turning radius for your dog and cart increases the faster they are moving, so slow them down, particularly when making turns and coming to a stop. Dogs will also speed up when going downhill, due to the pressure from the cart, so be watchful and slow them down.
Now we can start teaching our turns. Right turn is GEE and left turn is HAW. When you teach these commands, stand on the side of the dog that corresponds to the direction you want him to turn in. Practice a number of right turns in succession, with the dog on your left side. As you step away from the dog, gently tug on the leash to have the dog follow you, while repeating the word GEE. And, as you practice a number of left turns, have the dog on your right.
Sometimes we need to go over a small curb, or up an incline, so we want to gain a little speed to help get us on our way. In these instances, we teach FASTER. Pick up your speed, moving out in front of your dog, and give a light tug, while commanding him to go FASTER. Remember to go over bumps and up inclines at right angles; otherwise, there is the potential to have the cart go over, and possibly take your dog with it.
The final command is BACK – probably the most difficult command, because the tendency for the dog is to sit, lie down or brace against being forced back. I find it easier to teach this early to dogs before you even get to the stage where you are pulling anything – before they are 18 months. Put your puppy or young dog in a narrow corridor, give him the BACK command, and stomp on the floor or ground in front of him. Quite often they back up, because they are not sure what on earth you are doing! You may need to push your dog, but they will generally brace against you. You may want to have a helper behind the dog who tugs on the leash when you give the BACK command. And, finally, you may have to go to lightly bumping his chest with your knees, or lightly bumping his toes. In each case, with any and each step back, praise, praise, praise!
If you are getting a consistent sit or lie down, enlist the help of some friends. Pass a strap or towel under your dog, and when you give the BACK command, and the dog attempts to go down, your friends will prevent this from happening.
Some pick the BACK command up faster than others, but it is never a favorite. Dogs don’t like to back up since they can usually just turn around, and particularly where they can’t see. When you start this exercise with the cart, make sure you are on level ground and there are no obstacles that your dog may bump into or that can impede the cart.
Now you have all the commands, and you must progress to the point where you can do this off-lead and strictly by voice in order to get your Draft Dog, (DD) title. 
Before we start the test, all equipment and dogs are checked for safety. Then we proceed to the DD test, which is divided into three parts.
The first part is the control exercises, which consist of basic off-leash obedience. There is off-lead heeling; a timed stand/stay; and a timed group down.
The second part is the carting exercises. We have to demonstrate our ability to harness and hitch while our dog stands still. Next we have to maneuver within the ring, right and left turns, and a figure 8. And finally we have to do a back-up – all with dog and cart, and all off-lead.
The third and final part is the field work. We have to take our dog, with cart, along a trail that includes turns, narrow parts, changes in footing, inclines and downgrades. At some point we have to stop, load something onto the cart (40 pounds) and secure it with the dog on a stand/stay, then continue on our way to a point where the item is unloaded with the dog at a stand/stay. Then we unhitch and unharness our dog. All of which is done off-lead.
The Draft Dog Excellent test is also divided into three parts. 
The first part is the carting exercises, which are all done with a loaded cart and off-lead. The handler will harness/hitch and load the cart (60 pounds) with the dog on a stand/stay. They will then do a straight back-up. And finally they will do ring maneuvers. First maneuvers are done with the handler beside the dog, and then, with the handler behind the cart.
The second part is the freight haul exercises. This is much like the field work for the draft-dog test, except the load is heavier, and more awkward; the terrain is rougher, the course is longer.
And the final part is backpacking. Included in the backpack should be two days’ worth of dog food, as well as items that may be required for a two- to three-day trip. The backpack should carry 1/6 of the dog’s weight up to a maximum of 25 pounds.
The dog will stand/stay as the handler loads the backpack, and then proceed (off leash), over a rough course with natural obstructions and narrow trails. There shall be a distraction of another dog (on leash), with a handler, at some point. And it finishes up with the dog on a stand/stay while the handler unloads the dog. 
Both these tests may be done as a brace, as well.
What are the practical purposes for draft work? Your dog can haul the garbage out to the end of the driveway. You can enter parades. You can take handicapped children for rides in the dog cart. Your dog can haul the groceries home. Your dog can haul the Christmas tree out of the bush and home. Whatever you can think of!
But more than the practical side is the bond you create with your dog. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years, and I have come to a greater understanding of each of my dogs through my draft-dog training.

About the Author

Beverly Molloy has been involved with Mastiffs since 1978. A founding member of the Canadian Mastiff Club and a member of Canadian Kennel Club and Mastiff Club of America since 1983, she breeds under the permanently registered kennel name Banda. A Draft Dog judge (a recognized CKC title) as well as a Canine Good Neighbour evaluator, Beverly is working toward becoming a Rally Obedience judge.

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