How Draft Carting with My Dog Helped My Injured Back
I met my dog, Taedyn, more than four years ago at the SPCA. The intensity of our bond struck immediately and caused me to burst into tears when she asked for a head rub -- she was the only dog who made me cry during my search. I tried to approach finding my next partner in a pragmatic fashion and decided not to adopt her despite my tears. After all, she was classified as a “counter surfer” -- a 6-year-old dog with a puppy’s abundance of seemingly unlimited energy. After the third time we met and the third time I burst into tears, emotion took over, and Taedyn and I went home together the next day.
I won't tell you that working with Taedyn was a walk in the park in those first few months. In fact, we could barely walk to the park because her insatiable excitement for the world and everything within it drove her to try to reach everywhere simultaneously, making it virtually impossible to get anywhere. But I directed that energy toward the work she needed to do for me, and her curiosity was funneled into a driven passion for work.
Taedyn and I work together, play together, and help each other whenever we can. We’ve taken road trips across the United States several times and are rarely parted. She accompanies me every day on Muni (public transportation in San Francisco) and slumbers at my feet while I work. We have a doggie backpack so we can share the load. When my back went out -- preventing me from being able to carry even a purse -- we awkwardly modified the backpack so Taedyn could bring my laptop and other essential items to and from work.
Once we moved to the city and I abandoned my car, we encountered an increasing number of situations where she was simply unable to help me. Grocery shopping, laundry, and a pro’s quantity of photography gear -- a mere backpack just wouldn't hold it. I had a thought: “What if I could put some stuff on wheels so she could pull it?” And that is when I discovered dog draft carting.
Anyone competing for titles with a Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland, or Swiss Mountain Dog has probably taken up dog carting. Owners of powerful dog breeds also engage in weight pulling to help their dogs enjoy the thrill of using all their muscles to moving a heavy load (I picture this as much like the thrill bodybuilders achieve when they competitively lift weights). Some take up carting as a fun activity while being a part of a parade, or taking small children for a ride. The object being pulled can be a cart (two wheels), a wagon (four wheels), or a sled (on skis). A simple cart could support one or two plastic crates, or -- my favorite -- a collapsible crate. A more sophisticated cart could be designed like a carriage, with a seat to fit a small child.
There's more to draft carting than throwing a set of wheels on a crate. Carts are carefully designed to distribute the weight so it is not front- or back-heavy.The shafts should shift along with your dog’s canter to give negligible force against the harness. The job of the harness is to transfer the force of the pull onto your dog’s chest and shoulders. It's best to use a harness made specifically for drafting if your dog is going to pull any significant amount of weight.
Steve Diers of Draft Carts for Dogs in New Hampshire made this collapsible custom cart for Taedyn, while her exquisite harness was made to measure by master craftswoman Martha McCormick of All Things Bright and Biothane. The siwash harness is adjustable, so I can use it with any future canine companions.
Steve and Martha resurrected the collapsible crate cart after Martha discovered the original version was no longer available. Steve strengthened and optimized the original design to create a cart that comes apart -- wheels, shafts, crate, and all -- and makes it easy to store or put in the trunk of a car.
Taedyn’s siwash harness, the most versatile type, has wide straps; shorter-haired dogs probably require padding along the chest and shoulder straps. It has three straps meeting at the front of the chest -- two over the shoulders and one under the chest that splits into two and attaches on either side of her abdomen to the shoulder straps and the traces that attach to the cart. The chest strap goes just behind her armpits and provides a brake for the cart so it stops when she stops. The cart’s shafts rest loosely in loops attached to the sides of the chest strap that are large enough for the shaft to slide back and forth, but too narrow for the brake to fit through. When the cart does brake against the loops, the chest strap prevents the harness from slipping over Taedyn's head.
Training your dog to pull a cart is straightforward if you are accustomed to dog training, so Taedyn and I got started right away. She was comfortable enough, but she didn’t immediately understand why this thing was following her, and she was a bit peeved at having her mobility hampered by the shafts when she tried to check what was behind her. By the end of the first evening she was padding up and down, watching me intently for more treats.
The next step is working on turns. With her two-wheeled cart, Taedyn needed to turn with extra care. The quickest way to start turning is to go wide, but for more narrow turns, your dog must learn how to pivot around the cart. Check out this video for a good example:
The final step is backing up, which is important when training your dog for more utilitarian purposes. Fortunately again, Taedyn already understood that “back” means "take one step back." During a random clicker training session, I had rewarded her whenever she got frustrated and backed up to display her impatience. Very quickly I shaped the word “back” to that behavior and she has stuck with it ever since. On our very first trip, I brought her inside to drop off the laundry, and she was able to back right up and out the door like a champ.
During our first trip, Taedyn looked up at me quizzically several times. For what arcane reason were we travelling far from home in this confining device? Once we dropped off the laundry and turned back, her demeanor changed. She had that same proud look and lightness in her step when she accomplished something that took a lot of work -- like finding a ball hidden in a drawer at home. Once she saw me drop off the laundry, I think she put the pieces together. She has watched me struggle and groan on countless occasions as I heaved the bag of laundry down the street, limped home, and then sprawled across the floor whimpering about my poor back. She might have realized that her work had just saved me that discomfort. What working dog wouldn’t be proud of that?
I think we might be the only dog carting team on the streets of San Francisco. So far, fellow pedestrians have let us pass while frequently commenting what an awesome dog Taedyn is. Yup, Taedyn is awesome. Engaging in dog carting been one great step forward to improving our work together.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources: