Getting Started

AK9WPA TRAINING MANUAL

      How many weight pullers out there really know how to attain their dog’s maximum performance? What are the key ingredients to being successful? In the following article Julie Hermanns, owner of the undefeated Kiska, guides you toward that goal.

Chapter 1 – The Qualities To Look For

Trainability
    The single most important factor for success is the trainability of the dog. Even more important than the dog’s physical attributes are his general temperament and desire to please his owner. A dog does not have to be broad chested and muscular to be a successful weight puller. All successful weight pull dogs are people oriented - they love their owners and respect them (not to be confused with fear). At weight pulls you can watch the dog that looks to his handler’s eyes asking, “what’s next?”, and be sure that his efforts will be greater than those of dogs who are more independent in nature or less obedient.

    If you have a dog that is independent or nt you will have a harder time getting your dog to pull very heavy weights. An independent dog is not likely to accept training easily and generally won’t acknowledge much in the way of praise. These types of dogs are less likely to give eye contact and often have the attitude of, “I’ll do it if I want to”. It is possible to train dogs of this nature, but without doubt it takes a person who has a good amount of ‘dog sense’ – someone with knowledge on how to keep the upper hand, so to say.

Obedience
    Weight pull dogs must be obedient. They must be able to obey general commands quickly and eagerly. The recall (come), stay, and heel commands are probably the most important obedience issues for the weight puller. Your dog should be absolutely reliable with these three commands anywhere and anytime. 

Confidence
    The dog also should be confident in himself and his owner. He must be comfortable in new surroundings, and still be able to focus on his handler. Most people don’t realize what a huge impact proper socialization and experience outside the home have on their dog’s performance. A dog that is used to pulling/training in one location (i.e., home) will not have the obedience level or experience required to give 100% at a weight pull. At least once a week, training and general obedience work should be done in a location other than the dog’s home – especially for novice dogs. 
There is also a confidence the dog builds in himself as he progresses through training. The more success a dog has the more confident he will be that he can make the pull – regardless of his attitude. That’s why it is really important to maintain the success of the dog early in his training.


Trust
    Trust is also a significant issue in training and competition. The dog must trust that if his owner says to ‘pull’, then he will be able to pull. Training is not the time for testing the dog. It is the time for building confidence and trust. A dog should never fail a pull during training, and if a failure occurs, the handler needs to remedy the situation quickly by reducing the load for an immediate and successful pull. I would discourage handlers who are training a novice dog from letting him pull to a failure at a sanctioned weight pull for at least the first 5-6 competitions, a year would be better. A handler must be able to read the dog’s body language and know when the dog is getting tired or if his attitude is diminishing and adjust the training session accordingly. Essentially, a dog that never fails a pull will never have a reason not to try, but once he has failed to make a pull, either in training or at a competition, the dog may always have that limit set in his mind, and could give up before he reaches his maximum potential.
If you try to force your dog to pull by yanking him by the collar or using abusive means to get him to pull, you should not be in this sport. A dog that is fearful of punishment will never attain much beyond mediocrity, for forcing a dog to pull is impossible. You would break the dog down, rather than build him up, if you him around by the collar or tried forcing him to pull through negative reinforcement. 

Motivation
    There are many ways to motivate a dog. The best motivation by far is praise from the trainer. This can take form in the way of verbal and/or physical praise, such as petting or scratching the dog in a ‘sweet spot’. Sometimes the jealousy of watching the owner work or play with another dog can be a motivator. Another good way to get a dog focused is to separate him from the family and other pets for a few hours before training. This could mean putting him in a kennel or tying him outside to a short chain (6 feet) to be by himself. Food rewards can work for a dog that is food oriented rather than praise oriented. However, they should be used as a last resort. The best way to give a food reward is to walk the dog away from the pull area after he has completed a pull and then give him the treat. Try to condition the dog to a cue such as “treat” or “cookie” when walking to the area you are going to give him the treat. Again, you have to be careful in this situation, because the dog may try to pull the sled in the wrong direction – seeking the reward before the work is done. Also keep in mind that treats and toys are not allowed at sanctioned weight pulls and anyone that tries to use food or toys near the end of the chute or in the pull area will be disqualified. 

Health
    The health of the dog should be a main concern for a serious weight puller because a healthy dog is key to being successful. I have never known a dog to get injured from weight pulling (unless the owner was stupid enough to allow a sling shot run, which is when the dog is hooked to an extra long tug line and given a running start, thus possibly causing back, neck or other injury).

    Weight pulling is hard work and requires a lot in the way of nutritional energy. A good quality food is a must, and if training regularly, a high protein, high fat diet should be considered. Do not starve your dog in order to keep him within the weight of the weight class you want him to pull at. Nor should your dog be overly fat, as this will slow him down. 
If you have any concerns about your dog’s joints – especially hips or shoulders – these should be checked by a veterinarian. Vaccinations should also be updated annually – with serious thought given to administering a kennel cough vaccination as well. 
Dogs of average size should not be asked to pull heavy weights until they are at least one year old. Very large breeds (dogs over 100 lb) should not pull seriously until they are 18 mo – 2 yrs old. The larger the dog the older he should be before serious training begins. With pups over 6 months a very light drag (5 lb) can be used to get the dog accustomed to having something behind him, but that is all. 
An additional health consideration to be aware of is to be sure the harness fits the dog correctly. A harness too small or big in neck size or the use of a regular x-back harness can cause injury to the dog. Always use a properly fitted weight pulling harness for this type of work.

Attitude
    When training a dog for weight pulling it is imperative to maintain the dog’s spirits as much as possible. If a dog is heavily overworked or made to pull too many heavy loads on a regular basis he may start showing a poor attitude. Signs of a dog with a poor attitude can include avoiding eye contact, avoiding the training area, avoiding harness time, biting or chewing at the tug line or harness (dogs should know better), slow response to praise, and a general lack of effort. At this point the handler MUST make a change in the training regimen by adding more praise or taking the resistance level down on the weight/drag. The dog should always show a willingness to walk to the tug line and be hooked up. A good way to test this is to see if the dog will come with you off leash to the pull area. Even a dog that is reluctant to come is saying, “Hey, this isn’t fun anymore”. 
For professional or highly experienced dogs reluctance isn’t such a big deal. They have been trained to a level where they are still going to give good effort (we hope), but even a professional handler should know when it’s time to slack off during training and try to bring the fun back into the game. A poor attitude isn’t the worst thing that can happen, and it can generally be overcome if caught early. Obviously, there does come a time when the dog realizes the loads are getting heavier and his attitude may start to deteriorate –this is when the dog’s obedience and willingness to work for the handler will overcome the dog’s lack of enthusiasm. However, I think we owe it to the dogs to make weight pulling as enjoyable as possible.


Chapter 2 – The Training

    Let’s face it – weight pulling IS work. A dog is not like a person, he does not go to the gym for a workout because he wants to be strong or be a body builder. He is driven only by his loyalty and trust in his owner. If your dog meets most or all of the criteria discussed in chapter one then you should have a great time weight pulling with your dog. You may find that your dog’s desire to please you increases as you get more involved in weight pull training and competition. This is because he has earned more respect for your authority and also because you are spending more time with him. Remember, weight pulling should always have some element of fun for you and your dog.

Beginning Training
    Now that you know what qualities to look for in a weight pulling dog I want to get into the actual training.
Training for weight pulling is like any other physical activity. It takes time, patience, work, and a little money.

Equipment 
Obviously yourself and the dog.
A harness (freight or weight pulling harness)
6 foot leash
Some type of drag (tire, log, sled)
5’-6’ rope tug line with heavy swivel snaps on each end 

Harness time
     If you don’t already have a harness, take your dog to the store where you plan on making your purchase and have someone there help you measure your dog for a correct fit. The neck of the harness should fit so that the ‘V’ on the back sits just at the withers and the ‘V’ on the chest sits just at the breastbone when someone pulls against the spacer bar. The length of the harness is also important. The correct length can be determined by the position of the spacer bar. When pulling against the back of the harness there should be about 4-5 inches between the crossbar and the back of the dog’s legs and the side of the harness should be nearly level with the bottom of the dog’s chest. A spacer bar that is too high will make it difficult for the dog to pull correctly. A spacer bar that’s too low will likely get tangled around the dog’s legs during training and should be adjusted accordingly. Most harnesses these days are adjustable along the side and across the back. When you buy a harness try to get one that has good padding around the neck. This will help prevent chafing on short haired dogs and also be more comfortable for the dog when he is pulling heavy loads.

    Introduction to the harness generally isn’t a real big deal for dogs unless they are young or nervous in nature. Once you have the harness on you should take the dog for a walk and let him get used to wearing it. Be sure to praise your dog after you have put the harness on. Practice putting on and removing the harness for a couple of days before doing any pulling. 
If you have to fight to get the harness on every time you train, the dog will soon despise to even look at it and you will have problems, so try to make harness time as uneventful as possible and don’t let your temper get the best of you. In the event your dog starts chewing on the harness you need to stop him immediately and reprimand him for it. The best way to do this is to grab the dog around the muzzle and say very firmly, “No, leave it”. Hopefully your dog will come to enjoy the sight of the harness – knowing he will get to have some time with his owner.

The Training Begins

Day 1
    First harness the dog, put his leash on, and walk him around the area you are going to be pulling – hopefully he is familiar with it. Then show him the tire; grab the tug line and pull the tire or whatever you have chosen for a drag for a few feet. Watch the dog’s reaction. Some dogs may show fear at having this object move around so a thorough introduction is necessary. 
Also discourage scent marking on the drag object or in the area you plan to do your training. This can lead to dogs trying to scent mark the sled or pull area at the weight pulls – a big no-no.

    Put the dog’s harness and leash on and walk him to the area you are going to pull. Have your dog stand and connect the tug line (which should be of rope) to the d-ring on the end of the harness. If you find your dog does not like you fumbling around at his back end and tries to turn around or sit down, have someone hold his leash/collar while you snap the tug line on. The more you connect and disconnect the tug line the more your dog will get used to it, but initially, many dogs get nervous about the whole situation. Eventually you will want other people to do the connecting of the tug line to the harness while you hold your dog’s collar since this is how it is done a weight pull competitions.

    Now walk to the front of the dog, grab hold of the harness and try to get him really excited by talking in a high/playful voice. “Hey, you want to go for a walk?” or “Let’s have some fun!”. Then command ‘come, pull’ and encourage your dog to come along with you for 10-12 feet. When you want the dog to stop pulling give a command such as ‘stop’ or ‘whoa’ and use the collar/leash to stop his progress. Most dogs can pull a small car tire with relative ease the first time they are hooked up. A very small dog might balk at this and a smaller drag object might be required. Immediately praise and make a big fuss over your dog. He was successful! Repeat this process several times – until your dog has no hesitation in making the pull. 
These first few sessions are just to get the dog used to the feel of having something along behind him – we aren’t expecting him to do any real work just yet.

    Reactions to this first pull vary with the dog. Most dogs stop almost as soon as they start, turn around, and try to figure out what the heck just happened. Some dogs will resist at first – unsure if they can really move (this might mean you have too much weight to start with). Others get scared right out of their socks – even if they don’t have them on! Some dogs just go gung-ho as if there was nothing behind them at all.
If your dog starts then immediately stops, simply get his attention again by snapping the leash and encourage him to keep coming (Remember when we talked about the dog’s obedience being very important?). As a general rule try not to touch your dog once you’ve given the command to pull. Touching the dog isn’t allowed in competitions so it is best to maintain that routine when training. When the dog completes a pull, then you can pet and praise him to your heart’s desire. Verbal encouragement during the pull is great, but save it for when the dog really needs it. If he gets used to happy encouragement all the time then it will be of no benefit to you when he has really heavy loads to pull.

    Another problem to avoid is allowing the drag to slide into the dog’s legs when he stops. This often scares a dog and if allowed to happen very much the dog will soon learn to dislike weight pulling or having moving objects behind him. If you are going to use a child’s sled or other object that carries momentum, make sure someone is behind it to stop it’s forward movement when the dog stops. 

Day 2 
    Repeat the procedure from day one.

Day 3 
    Repeat the procedure from day one, but increase the distance to 30-40 feet.

Day 4

    Repeat the procedure from day three

Day 5

    Now, if things have gone smoothly and your dog has no problems with obedience or pulling you can increase the resistance. This can be done by using a larger tire or connecting another tire to the one you are already using. If your dog is still learning the fundamentals don’t worry. Continue with just one tire until things come naturally to him.
If you are pulling on snow, resistance can vary incredibly depending on outside temperature and snow/track conditions. Therefore, try to make it a habit of checking the resistance every time you add weight.
When increasing weight first have your dog make one or two pulls with just one tire, then add the second tire. This gives the dog a chance to get warmed up and get focused.

    Continue pulling at least 30-40 feet, 4-7 times for each training session. The weight should still be easy for the dog to pull – if your dog has to work much to get the drag moving then you have too much resistance. The first couple of weeks of training are only for getting the dog accustomed to the work and commands, and to encourage a good attitude. Always give lots of praise for success. 

    For the next several days do not increase the weight of the drag. Continue the training regimen given above and have fun with your dog. You should be prepared to spend some playtime at the end of each training session as a reward – this lets the dog know he’s done for the day and keeps him in good spirits.

   Problems that may occur during the first two weeks –

The dog refuses to pull -
    A dog that is refusing at these light loads needs more in the way of obedience training. Work on the recall command daily, making sure you are consistent in your expectations. Work on pulling the dog for shorter distances and keeping him attentive.

The dog won’t pay attention to you –
   If you find your dog sniffing around on the ground or just generally ignoring you, then you need to teach him how to pay attention. This is entirely an obedience issue. If the dog won’t pay attention, snap the leash and say “look” to get eye contact. As with any type of training – you have to have the dog’s 100% undivided attention. 

The dog wants to play - 
   This can be because the dog is too young or the result of an obedience problem. It might also be a result of your actions – so pay attention to what your body language is telling the dog. When the dog is weight pulling – he needs to know it is work time, not play time. This is one reason I discourage the use of toys as immediate reward – especially for young or novice dogs. Save the playtime for when the session is over. Snap the leash to get his attention. Say “no, look”

   The dog chews on the harness, leash, or tug line -
Another obedience issue. Reprimand the dog if he turns around and tries to chew the harness or tug. Be a stickler on this. Use the leash to bring the dog back around so he is facing the direction of the pull. If he tries to chew or bite the leash get one that has chain for a couple of feet – the metal discourages chewing. 

   The dog is turning or spinning in circles-
This is usually the result of confusion or trying to increase weight too fast. Use the leash to keep your dog from spinning as this causes the harness to get tangled up around his legs. It can also surface later in training – when heavier weights are used – so really discourage it now, so it doesn’t become a habit.

   The dog is springing or leaping into the air –
In order to pull effectively and to the best of his ability a dog needs to use all four feet to pull. When wearing a correctly fitted harness, the pressure of pulling the drag forces the dog’s head and shoulders down- thus the hunched look weight pullers have when they are pulling. If your dog is lunging on his hind legs or leaping up it is important that you correct him by snapping the leash and encourage him to keep all four feet on the ground. Some dogs are leapers by nature and it will always be a struggle to get them to keep all four feet down. 

   The dog is scared of the drag -
If your dog is like this, don’t worry. Keep exposing the dog to the drag object, encouraging him to smell and investigate it. Don’t over-protect or baby your dog by talking in a baby voice. Simply stroke the dog and give him calm encouragement. Gradual introduction is best for extremely nervous dogs. Walk the dog back to the tire/drag and get him to relax. Bend down and investigate the drag with your dog. Push it with your hand, show your dog it really is okay, then try again. It is likely you will have to try a few times, but don’t make a big issue of it and definitely don’t get angry with your dog. If your dog still balks after a few tries, unhook him and have a bit of free time. The next day find to something extremely light that won’t make a lot of rattling noises and take the dog on a walk while you drag the object behind you. When the dog accepts this as normal routine then hook it to his harness and let the dog pull it. A piece of firewood or small board would work well for this training.

Chapter 3 – Phase two

    Now that the introduction to weight pulling is complete you can start requiring more work from your dog.  For the next few weeks you should stagger training sessions to include longer distance pulls using a light drag (this distance should be gauged on your dog’s physical ability somewhere between 100 yards to 1/4 mile). Going the longer distance will increase your dog’s stamina and give him a change of pace from the mental work required in the pull area. On the other days, you should make 6-8 pulls starting with a light drag and working to a heavier drag, then going back down to the light drag. For example I might have the following training routine for my dog: first pull - one tire; second and third pulls - two tires; fourth and fifth pulls - three tires, sixth pull - two tires, seventh and eighth pulls - one tire. (This is only an example – your dog’s training regimen should be based on his ability) About once every other week try adding a little weight until you can see the dog is giving good effort to pull. There should be no question in the dog’s mind that he can’t make the pull (you are not going for maximum weight – actually you should be nowhere near it), you are simply asking him to work a little harder. When you find the amount of weight that is right for your dog – weight he can pull 4-5 times with some effort and not get overly tired – stick with it for a couple of weeks, then try a little more weight. After several weeks of this type of training you should be ready to build on the confidence, trust and obedience your dog has acquired. 

Fine tuning your dog

    Now is also the time to get your dog used to the cues ‘break’ and ‘put it away’.  When you are at a weight pull you can (and should) request the sled handlers break the sled free before you ask your dog to pull. Your dog is allowed to begin pulling once the sled is no longer moving. During training sessions you should get into the habit of saying ‘break’, waiting a few seconds, then commanding your dog to pull. I also use like to use the cue ‘put it away’ to let my dogs know they are pulling for the last time that day. This has always worked well with my dog, Kiska. She seems to give even more effort if she knows she is going to be done once she finishes the pull.
Another bit of advice is to teach your dog the commands ‘fast’ and ‘slow’. I do this during the long distance training, saying, “go fast”, and getting the dog to run, then saying, “go slow”, to get them back down to a trot. Remember time can be an issue in weight pulls. If two dogs fail the same pull, the time from the previous pull is used to determine the winner.
When dogs start pulling really heavy weights, they often need to be able to use physics to their advantage. A heavy sled is easier for a dog to start if he can learn to pull at a little bit of an angle rather than trying to pull it straight. Many times in competition a dog will not get a sled started after the handler has released the dog or if it’s very heavy he may stop pulling. (remember - no touching the dog once he’s been given the command to pull). You can teach your dog to take directional signals so he can break the sled free on his own. To do this, use your arms, body and leash to direct him. Start by hooking him to a medium load that will take a little effort to pull(this keeps him from going too fast to make directional changes). Rather than holding his harness before commanding him to pull you are going to ask him to stay while you take a couple step back (obedience, right?). When you command him to pull, point one arm in the direction you want him to go while you lead him in that direction as well. Stop him after he goes a few feet and repeat the process for the opposite direction. Praise him for following your lead. Once he understands what the arm signals mean, try to get him to change directions (zigzag) without stopping. Having the ability to follow your lead is also important so you can change his direction if he starts pulling toward a hazardous area – one where the sled will be harder to pull.

    I think the hardest thing for novice weight pullers to do is to read their dog and know when to call it quits. You take your dog out, hook him up, and call him to come while continuing to make obeying the command more and more difficult - this IS a tough mental game. If it takes your dog (novice) more than 20 seconds to get the sled moving do not increase the weight and immediately drop the weight for the next pull. You would simply confuse him if you kept asking him to come and pull when he really didn’t think he could do it. We all want our dogs to do a good job and make that extra effort, but in weight training you have to teach your dog how to put out the effort, it doesn’t come naturally. Effort comes only through successful pulls with resistance raised in gradual increments. Remember, it is incredibly easy to break a dog’s confidence and much more difficult to build it up. 


Chapter 4 – advanced training

    The only thing that really changes when you get into advanced training is the expectations you have of your dog. By this time he should be consistent to the commands you give him and should not question your authority. Expect 100% effort from your dog from now on (not to be confused with pulling him at max weight).

    It is a good idea to keep records of how your dog does in his training – the track conditions, temperature, the dog’s attitude, and what the dog pulled. Keeping records like these gives you an overall idea of how your dog is progressing. 
Do not make the mistake of trying to train your dog on a daily basis once he gets to this level – three to four training sessions a week is plenty, especially if you decide to continue the longer distance workouts. Overworking a dog is the number one reason dog’s attitudes go downhill. 

Training at Maximum Weight
    Once your dog reaches a high level of maturity in his training and you have built up his confidence and obedience levels, I think it is okay to start requiring your dog to make one or two pulls that are close to his maximum weight once a week or so. If your dog is never asked to pull this much – then he will never know he can. I have found the best way to do this is to use a scale that measures the amount of resistance of the sled/drag. I will add weight in small increments and measure the resistance level each time a change is made. (Generally in five pound increments if possible.) This is the only time I will pull the dog to a failure. Once I know what the failure point is I can back down a couple of previous weights and use that as a guideline for training on maximum pulls.

    When you have the knowledge of just how much your dog can pull, you can put more pressure on your dog if he does not seem to be putting out the effort you know he is capable of. This is especially true for an experienced dog that might be trying to pull a quick one on you. Training at maximum weight every once in a while is important because it increases your dog’s obedience, confidence and trust, but care still must be taken not to overwork the dog.

    You also need to realize that a heavily weighted sled is very hard for a dog to get started without someone breaking it for him first. Try to have someone there to help break the sled out before you ask him to pull. (breaking is simply pushing the sled side to side to get it moving easily – they tend to freeze down if left for a few minutes)


Chapter 5 - Competition

    So how do you know if you are ready for a competition? Here are some guidelines I suggest. First, your dog should be completely through the first 2 weeks of the training method given above. He should be comfortable in harness, be comfortable in new places, be relatively obedient, and be healthy. Alaska K-9 Weight Pullers Association (AK9WPA) allows dogs in heat to compete – but I don’t suggest you bring a dog in heat unless you can control where and when she pees. Nor should you bring a dog that is sick or has been around other sick dogs.

    Don’t overdo it for the first few weight pulls unless you really have a dog that is confident and well trained. Let the dog get the experience of competition under his belt. There is no reason to pull your dog to a failure during his novice career. If you really feel you must win a ribbon/prize then wait to enter your dog until later in his training. I am not saying this to keep folks from competing, I just like to see new dogs be successful and build their confidence up. You would not ask an inexperienced sled dog to go out run 300 miles, would you?

Your dog will be considered a novice dog under AK9WPA rules as long as he has not won money in a competition. Once your dog has won money – you are considered a pro and your dog can no longer compete in novice dog only events. This can be a good thing toward the end of the weight pulling season, but if your dog is still progressing in his training you may want give serious consideration about letting him finish in the top three of his weight class if he is going to win money. Not only will you lose valuable training competitions, but novice dogs are allowed to be on leash for the first pull they make, something the pro’s are not allowed to use.

In Conclusion
    With all I have said in this article, there is one thing I want everyone that reads this to know. What I have written above are guidelines for you to use. Every dog is different and will train differently. Some dogs are natural workers, but most aren’t – they have to be taught how to work. Some dogs would rather lay on the couch all day than have to be hooked up to a sled and made to work. There is nothing that says your dog will not be ready for professional competition in two months time, nor is there a guarantee your dog will be ready for one in 6 months time.

Some extra tips
    Always be consistent with your commands and expectations.  Don’t ask a novice dog to pull something he thinks he can’t pull. Read your dog!  Be prepared to reprimand a well trained dog for failure to put forth good effort.
Don’t ever reprimand a novice dog for failure to complete a pull – but don’t reward him by babying him either.  Use good judgment in planning your training sessions and be flexible enough to change them if necessary. 
Don’t allow your dog to stop pulling without hearing your command (‘stop’ or ‘whoa’).  Once the drag starts to move it should remain in motion until you give the command to stop.  Always use a leash.

 

 

 

Weight Pull or Freight Harnesses are available at some local stores (subject to availability) and various websites, some offer Custom made Harnesses for a nominal fee.  A well fitting harness is imperative for weightpulling.

 

Jeff Nelson jrnelson@mtaonline.net

www.harnessesbycarol.com

http://www.winmorkennels.com

http://www.pulldoggies.com

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