Weight Pull training: Part I
By Mark Landers
When I sat down to write this weight pull training article I thought, how do I take a fairly complicated subject like taking a puppy or young dog and teaching someone to train it how to pull. Then I thought, simply go through the same simple steps that I go through when I start a dog.
First let me give some background on how I got involved in weight pulling. My first experience with any weight pulling at all was watching an ADBA weight pull here inDenver in 1984. I had been showing my dogs with some success, but more failure. Too fat, too skinny, too squat, bad bite! The general thing you hear when you have human judgment involved. Then I saw the weight pulling. I lift weights. I feel better and look better when I lift, and I am a lot stronger now than I was when I started. Obviously a positive endeavor. Plus, a dog will either pull the weight or not pull the weight. There are no differing opinions or judgment calls.
My first mistake was following the leaders, which meant baiting your dog. You see, most of the people in Colorado at that time pulling their pits were baiting them. They used hides, toys or whatever their dog would go after. Basically stimulating their prey drive. This did not teach the dog to pull, but frustrated the dog enough to do whatever he had to in order to get his object or prey! At that time I had a house dog named max. He was a jimmy boots bred dog that I had taken through an obedience course. We both learned a lot. He was a very smart dog. I was very surprised how easy it was to teach a dog something with praise and reward.
Anyway, back to my mistake. I had a little black bitch in my yard that was an inbred bad company dog. She was two times gamey and ten times nuts! She would do anything to get at her toys (tire or hula hoop). Simple enough! Put on her harness, hook up some weight, and let her “get” her toys. Oh boy! Success! She won a few pulls. Took some trophies for percentage. I started great, but there was one slight problem. When the weight on the cart got continuously heavier and heavier, she couldn’t pull it. No matter how she jumped, barked, or flat out struggled, she could not get her toys. She became frustrated! That meant snapping at the air, the cart boys, the judges and finally at me. I had not taught this dog to pull. I had teased it’s natural prey drive.
Dogs in the wild learn by many things. But, food is a great thing combined with praise and repetition. Anyhow, at that time I had no idea what I’m telling you now.
I have since gone on to produce several good pulling dogs, and three IWPA international weight pulling medalists. The above mentioned organization is an all breed, pure bred or otherwise, weight pulling organization. It is primarily based in the west and northwest United States. It also has branches through out the continentalU.S. and Canada. It has six different weight classes: 35 lb. & under, 35-60 lb., 60-80 lb., 80-100 lb., 100-120 lb., and 120 lb. and above. You will see everything from little jack Russell terriers to 140 lb. St. Bernard’s. The type of cart used is a wheeled contraption that can be converted to a sled for winter (snow) pulls.
The rules for the iwpa are simple. The dogs must pull the wheeled cart or snow sled, 16 feet in 60 seconds or less, no fouls. Handlers must stand behind the carts first wheel or behind the finish line.
At the time I started pulling, Colorado had very few ADBA pulls every year. So, I was real interested in getting involved with the all breed pulling. Plus, in this area there are several every year. But, there was one problem. No baiting. At this time I started a training program that has proven to be very successful. I used what I have learned in my basic obedience classed to teach myself how to train my dogs to pull weight on command.
Let me start out with a few key points. First and foremost, you as the teacher must be patient and reassuring to your pupil. The dog you are working with may be a natural. He or she might pull like a Mack truck. But, chances are, if you ask too much too soon, you will confuse the animal and frustrate yourself.
Secondly, a dog that won’t even walk on a leash or come to you when called needs some basic obedience work. There are scores of books and plenty of reputable obedience classes in your area. Check the yellow pages.
There are several different conditioning methods to get a dog in shape for pulling. The method I primarily use was taught to me by a good friend of mine, Edgar Eddington from Tulsa. To put it simply we call it “drag weighting”. This consists of going on 1/2 to 2 mile walks with your dog dragging weights behind it. Now let me say in the beginning, you need to do everything step by step in increments. For example: I have a 60 lb. Bitch that can drag 8090 lbs. for two miles on a warm day. Obviously I had to slowly build her up to this. She is also undefeated in the IWPA pulls as a result!
Let’s go over the basic equipment needs. You will need a proper fitting harness, a collar, a lead (6 ft and 16 ft) and a whole bunch of patience! For the dragging weight, you can use a tire with rocks in it. But, the ideal things are window weights attached to a tow chain. Window weights are foot long, torpedo shaped weights that range from 3 lbs. Up to 15 lbs ; therefore, making the incremental increases easily. They have an open end where you can attach a hook to the weight and then attach the weights to the chain. Because of their oblong shape they don’t get caught in shrubs or bogged down in sand. You should be able to find these weights at most junkyards. They are actually the old counter weights used in window frames of older homes.
The first thing you need to do is introduce your puppy or dog to the harness. That’s right. I did say puppy. You are going to gradually build your pup up to pulling heavy weights. Don’t start heavy! Besides, you are trying to teach your dog to pull, not force it. If your puppy has no ailments and is healthy, there is no reason not to introduce it to the harness and light dragging. Start out by putting the dog in the harness for short periods of time, say 15-30 minutes. Play with the dog while he is in the harness. Make him feel that pulling time is fun time. Walk him at your side, back and forth across your yard. At the end of certain distances. 20-30 feet, stop and praise your dog. Do this several times for about a week. Then take the dog on a 1 or 2 mile walk. Let him wander a little, then call him back to you. Again, praise him. Now before you start to continue your walk, pat your leg and introduce a word. Say “work”, “pull”, or “peanut butter”. It doesn’t matter what word you use. This will be the word that you want the dog to respond to. But, whatever word you use, stick with it. Don’t change commands. It will only confuse the dog, and be less likely to imprint in the dogs head. You are going to use this word hundreds of times, until it becomes second nature to the dog. As your dog moves forward with you, pat your leg repeating the command. Then without stopping your walk, praise the dog. Do this several times, stopping and starting. If you are in an area where the leash must be on, that’s fine. Just remember that each time you stop, you start up again with your command. Remember, your dog is in a harness, but no weight is being used. We are just getting him use to starting and stopping with the harness on. At the end of several walks, say a weeks worth, it’s time to go back to the yard and put some weight on. A good time to do this is at feeding time. I don’t free feed my working pups. I use food to help the pup understand he’s done something good. This also insures solid imprinting. Simply act like you have all week. Put the harness on and play for a little bit. Go out to your yard all the time being happy and positive. Everything should be done in small steps, with the end goal being a weight pull team. Have your light window weight, or tire, or milk jug at one end of your yard. It should be a very little weight, 5-10 lbs. is plenty. There is a good chance that if your dog has had fun during your last week of work, he’ll run to you like there is nothing on it. You do not want to scare him at this point. It is critical you go easy the next month or so. Attach the weight to the harness, keeping your dog at your side. Give your command and move forward slowly and at the same time patting your leg. Just the way you did the week prior. It is normal for your pup to look behind him, or to speed up a little. Reassure him and use your command again. Walk your 20-30 feet. Stop, praise him and give him a piece of food. If the pup does not move with the light weight on, put the leash on the collar and give him a light tug. “work, good boy, work.” don’t get upset if the dog acts scared or tries to pull away. Just take it slow and reassure him that everything is ok.
I must reemphasize, this is a key time in your pull dog training. You must do everything in a systematic, step by step slow process. Always being patient. If you force your dog now, you might end up with a dog that will pull, but totally out of fear. If your first week of no weight harness walking has gone well, your dog will probably pull the light drag weight easily. Your natural inclination will be to add more weight to “see what he can do.” don’t be dumb. The whole ideas here is that if you slowly build your dog up in weight he will never quit with a weight he can physically pull. Don’t do any more than about 10 or so back and fourths across the yard. Remember, only use the command word. Don’t talk in sentences. When you come to the stop (20-30 ft.), give the dog a treat and verbal praise. The early training treats encourage the behavior and imprint the command in the dog. Later, you will be able to wean the pup or dog off treats with no problem. Again, do this for a week or so at feeding time. Never more than doubling the weight you started with. Go slow. Be patient. Make it fun. At the end of your training session feed the dog his normal meal. You will be astounded how quick the progress is. After the first week of back and fourths, the light drag weight should not be that noticeable to your pup.
Now it is time to start going on your walks again. I did not mention this earlier but never drag weight your dog on cement or pavement. Find a grass or dirt field. The course I use is full of low hills and dips, which is great for conditioning. On your walks, you should be using a very light weight. If you have doubled your weight on your back and fourths, go back down to your beginning weight for you walks. You want to have your pup keep up with you. Don’t go more than 1/2 mile your first few walks, and make sure it’s not too hot out. You can also do your back and fourths on your walk, always using your command. You can also play a game of sit and stay. Back away 20 feet, give the command, and give him a treat when he comes to you.
What we have done in the past few weeks is twofold. We started to teach our dogs to pull on command, and to condition them into pulling dogs. Build your dog up slowly on his back and fourths and his walks. Keep it fun. Don’t be impatient, or try too much too soon. I like to drag weight every other day for out of shape dogs or puppies. But, experienced dogs in competition I will work daily. Work your dog consistently, and you will have a champ. This is how I did it.