One of the things that can be most difficult to train, especially if you are starting out on your dog powered sports adventure with a dog who has lovely leash manners, is the idea that your dog is permitted to pull. This blog post will address a few ways that you can teach your dog that in this context, pulling is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!
Method 1: Introducing a drag
A good way to ease into pulling training is to have your dog pull a light drag weight while you walk her on leash. This accomplishes a few things. First- that pulling is indeed permitted while in harness. It also teaches the dog that having something dragging behind them is not scary. Remember that outside of weight pulling competition (which is not the type of training that we are covering in this series), your dog rarely has to pull a lot of actual weight. Even a large human on a dog sled does not take an extreme effort to pull, once in motion, as long as the sled is on a reasonably groomed surface. So using a light drag of gradually increasing weight can be a very good way to approximate what the pulling will feel like during your sport of choice.
What you will use as a drag weight will depend on what kind of surface you are using it on. I encourage you to try out the drag yourself, first, to get an idea of how much effort it takes to pull. On a dirt trail, something like a fireplace sized log is appropriate, however that might be too little resistance if your dog will be pulling on a very well packed snow surface. Ideally, you want them to have to try to initially get that drag moving, but only feel like pressure once it’s in motion. Don’t choose something that is too light or it will bounce around and cause more noise than pressure (you can do that a little later if you think your dog needs more practice ignoring noises behind them). Don’t use something that is so heavy that your dog has trouble moving it out of a stationary position or struggles to keep pulling it once he’s going- this is not a weight pull competition. Figure out how you can attach the drag so that it is at least 6-8 feet away from your dog when attached to his harness.
Walk your dog for short distances and stop to reward. Once they seem comfortable, work up to having the dog pull the weight on your entire usual walk route. Don’t use your leash to pull the dog forward- they need to be making the choice to pull it. You can walk beside your dog or if they volunteer to walk a little ahead of you, better yet! Please don’t insist on healing or loose leash behaviors when your dog is learning this stuff, or you will be countering what the primary goal is for this exercise. If your dog is going ahead of you fast enough that you need to wildly run to keep up, you’re probably ready to abandon this exercise and move on (or choose a slightly heavier drag weight). Watch your dog’s body language to ensure she’s having fun and isn’t worrying about the drag weight. Keep your language up beat, feel free to use food or toy rewards (while in motion and pulling, whenever possible) and show her that pulling is fun!
Method 2: Recall
Here is an exercise you can do with a friend. Load your friend up with tasty treats or your dog’s favorite toy. With your dog in harness, and you at the end of the leash, which is attached to your dog’s harness, start out about 15 meters apart. Aim your dog at your friend, and as her to line out (your friend can get her attention by saying ‘hey hey! I’ve got your cookie!’ if your dog is unsure about where to line out. Alternately, you can use a single loaded target plate as per your line-out practices. Once your dog is lined out, give your forward cue, and have your friend start calling vigorously. Maintain tension on the dog’s line until she arrives at your friend, who will deliver the reward. Repeat this a few times and gradually increase the distance. Since you are working on encouraging your dog to pull, make sure that you are only moving forward towards the reward-holding friend if there is tension on the line. If your dog is uncertain or stops, you will stop too, ask for another line out and proceed forward with tension. Be sure you are not carrying any rewards on your body or reward your dog personally during this session- the rewards need to come from out front.
If you don’t have an assistant that can help you with this exercise, you may be able to modify the previous line-out training suggestions to fit. What you’ll do is, rather than having a baited friend calling your dog to reward, is gradually move the 2nd target plate further and further away with each repetition, and only move towards it when there is tension on the line. I would reserve this as my 2nd choice for this exercise though, as you’ll lose out on the enthusiasm from a calling friend that helps add a little oomph to your dog’s pulling.
Video: Using the Recall Method (the first few clips of this video show the Recall Method, while the last half shows the Rabbit method, described below:
Method 3: The Rabbit
The 3rd strategy for improving pulling involves a bit of a chase game- but don’t worry, we’re not using any actual rabbits! The ‘Rabbit’ in this case refers to the person travelling at a parallel pace but ahead of the dog and musher. This could be a walker, jogger, bike rider, snowmobile driver- depending on your trail and how fast your dog likes to travel, as well as what is available to you. The goal here is to get the dog so excited about chasing ‘the rabbit’ that they stop worrying about whether or not pulling is allowed. You’ll likely need to start out with your ‘rabbit’ close enough to your dog that they can call and cheer them on. Once your dog is getting into pulling (likely after several repetitions) you may ask your rabbit to begin moving further away. When you are feeling comfortable that your dog is feeling self-motivated with the pulling, you can ask your rabbit to depart before you do, and run/ride the course so far in advance that your dog can’t see them at all. Note: if you’ve been struggling on getting your dog to pull, don’t expect to accomplish this all at once! Let your dog keep the motivation of a visible rabbit for as many runs as you can to build the habit.
Pro tip: Once you are running a ‘course’ in this manner, cap your runs at one per day. Even if the distance is much shorter than what you and your dog are used to running, it is helpful for the training that your dog realizes that they don’t need to leave something in the tank for the next run. Keep it short and sweet and gradually extend the distance as your dog is able to maintain pulling for the entire run. Even though it may not seem so, pulling does require mental focus- more so than just jogging along beside you- so that mental stamina needs to be built up in the same gradual manner that you’d use to build up physical conditioning and it is deleterious to your goal if your runs are so long that your dog feels like they need to stop pulling out of fatigue.
Ace and Chester, the reluctant pullers, demo the magic of the rabbit method. I don’t know where these dogs got it, but neither one of them was a natural puller (unlike most labs). Watch how they gently prance along at first. They aren’t really pulling anything, I am pushing the sled. But once they are motivated by Tim on the ATV ahead of them, and a few times accidentally start pulling- they notice they can run faster if they pull and they get positive feedback from their musher (a double reward!) so by the end of this run, their pulling is a little more consistent and they are having a lot more fun.
Video: Ace & Chester, run 1:
Video 2: Run 1, from the Rabbit’s perspective:
Starting with one dog is definitely easier than trying to train two at the same time. In the following video (run #2 for Ace & Chester), they are both really getting the hang of it, but the set backs happen when one dog decides to slow down (ie around 27 seconds in when Chester stops to shake, Ace has to stop too, and their momemtum is squashed- that is way easier to deal with if you’re only running one dog).
Video 3: Run 2, Ace and Chester:
But, you may be saying yourself, I DO NOT WANT my dog to be running that fast! Don’t panic upon watching these videos. Running fast requires good pulling, but solid pulling skills does not require running fast.
Even if you don’t want your dog to run at warp speed, you do still want them pulling steady. Trust me, a dog that is pulling steadily is much easier to canicross with than one who is pulling and then slacking off, or running with a slack line all of the time. You can control the speed, once your dog is comfortable pulling, by having your rabbit travel slower, or by just going slower yourself (if you are canicrossing, you can lean back to slow your dog and/or use your hands on the line to help keep them from going faster than you choose. If you are using a bike/sled/skis- use your braking system- gently! Don’t slam your dog into a dead halt.
Questions? Comments? Let me know if any part of this lesson was unclear or didn’t work for you.