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A few weeks ago, I saw something that made my inner child fall in love with dogs all over again. I took Janice and Leroy to a dog park nearby, expecting to see a few friends and to have a nice game of fetch to tire out the pups. That was all going as planned, until a guy pulled up with a couple of kids and a giant Newfoundland. I talked briefly about Newfoundlands in this post, but let me just say that I am a firm believer that training makes a dog dangerous, not the dog’s temperament itself.
That being said, this Newfoundland was quite clearly trained very well. He was happy to be out and about with his family, and I wouldn’t have thought more about it – until the owner pulled out a small two-wheeled cart and a harness. This dog was a drafting dog! After suiting up the dog, the kids took turns being pulled around in the cart, while the dog looked pleased as punch about the whole arrangement. Had I been a child, I may have been running over to ask if I could ride. Instead, I came home and started researching more about dog carts.
When you say a dog is a drafting dog, what you mean is that he or she is trained to pull a cart, a sled, or some other vehicle behind them. Quite a lot of large breed dogs were actually originally bred to be drafting dogs. Newfoundlands are a great example, but you’ll also find Bernese Mountain Dogs and other breeds that share this background.
Historically, this was done to help fishermen, mailmen, milkmen, farmers, and other laborers who needed to haul things frequently throughout the day. Dogs are cheaper to raise and train than horses, and were often seen as more motivated to get the job done due to their attachment to their owner as pets. You don’t hear much about drafting these days because just before the 20th century, it started to fall out of fashion.
These days, drafting, or dogcart pulling, is mostly for either show or fun. Competitive carting is a niche sport in the world of dog events, but it is gaining popularity. Dogs must first learn to be comfortable on a harness, and then with a cart attached to the harness. Then they learn how to maneuver an obstacle course while pulling a cart. And finally, they learn how to do all of that with freight in the cart – the goal being to deliver the goods intact, with no or minimal shifting, and quickly. In some areas of the world, this still translates into real-world applications, such as search and rescue dogs that are trained to pull injured people on a sled.
While some family dogs are perfectly happy to pull a standard red wagon around, to really do a proper job and ensure that the dog doesn’t get hurt, you need to have a cart specifically made for dogs. The most important part of the cart is that it is well-balanced. With a properly balanced cart, 100 pounds of freight is supported more by the axle than the dog, so that the dog is only feeling about a single pound of pressure exerted on her body.
To ensure that a cart will be properly balanced, there are a couple of characteristics to keep in mind:
Those five characteristics will ensure that a cart is created with a dog’s comfort and usability in mind.
The other thing that is needed for a drafting dog is a good harness. There are two things to consider when choosing a harness: first, choosing the right type of harness for your dog and the activity; and second, training your dog to associate wearing the harness with having fun.
The right harness is one that fits your dog and distributes weight evenly across their torso. Remember, it’s not just big dogs that can be drafting dogs. As long as your dog weighs at least 30 pounds, they can pull a cart. (And dogs can typically pull double or triple their own weight, so don’t discount your medium-sized dog! They’ll still be able to pull a child around in a small cart.) Harnesses that are well padded and adjustable are usually the best for carting, because you can get the right fit yourself, and the dog will be comfortable. Ultra Paws is absolutely the leading brand for pulling harnesses, and I recommend them for quality as well. These harnesses aren’t going to break the bank on price, and they last for a good long time. Be sure that you choose the harness size that will fit your dog right now. Upgrade later if your dog grows. (Not sure how big your puppy is going to get? Check out this post.)
Training your dog to enjoy being on a harness mostly just takes patience. When your dog is wearing their harness, keep things light and fun. Don’t expect much the first few times. Offer treats and attention, and only have them wear it for a short time. Then increase the time as you go, until your dog doesn’t mind wearing the harness. With consistency, this could take just a few days.
Now here’s what you came for. You want to know how to build a dog cart. There are a lot of dog cart plans out there on the Internet, and honestly you can make a decent dog cart out of an old stroller if you want. To create a basic two wheeled cart, you simply need a flat bottom, assembled from lightweight materials. For example, I saw one made of a PVC frame and pegboard. Just a simple sheet of plywood could work.
Give that base some sides if you want to be able to hold items on the cart – even two simple sides made of PVC pipe attached to the PVC frame of the body will give you a place to strap down a box or some other little freight. Next attach wheels to the sides – bicycle wheels or wheelbarrow wheels work very well. Now add the shafts. Remember that two bends, one angling upwards from the cart, and one returning the shafts to parallel with the ground for the harness, are important for weight distribution.
DIY dog carts can get very intricate and complex, and that’s great if building is your hobby. But for those who are more excited about their dog learning a new trick, it’s good to know that these can be made without much work or investment. A simple lightweight box on a PVC frame with bent shafts and the axle and wheels in the right place on the cart, is all that you really need.
The first part of why you’d want to train your dog to pull a cart is that it’s fun! He can give kids a ride, he can learn a new trick, and you may even one day compete in a carting competition. The second reason is that it’s useful! I can just imagine being outside with Janice and Leroy, and having one of them pulling a cart alongside me as I do chores. And what if you have a large garden, or a job outdoors? You could train your dog to be your helper and get your work done faster and easier. You may also want to train your dog as a search and rescue dog, or as a service dog. In either case, pulling a cart is a good skill to have.
There are many ways to train a dog to pull a cart. In my opinion, one of the best is to start with a fake cart to get them used to the idea first. The method involves putting the dog in their harness, and then attaching a carboard box for them to pull. Poke holes in the front corners of the box, and use string to attach the box to the harness. If the box is flipping all over the place, toss a jacket or something similar inside to give it just enough weight to stay in place.
Then walk your dog as you normally would, including using a leash if that’s what they are used to. The cardboard box will slide behind. It will take some time to get used to. Your dog may want to stop and look back at what is following them, or they may refuse to pull the weight altogether. If your dog is trained to follow your command to walk or come to you, then you should be able to get them moving with patience.
From there, you’ll need to work on following commands with the box attached. Stopping, turning right or left, and so on, are all important things to get your dog used to. If you want to be traditional with it, drafting dogs were trained to turn right to the command “gee”, and left to the command “haw”.
Some trainers like to have one more step after this one before they introduce the real cart. This step involves using a training rig, which is basically a cart frame without wheels. Your dog will be connected to two shafts as usual, which are each connected to a simple two-by-four running perpendicular between them at the end. This is mostly to get your dog used to the feeling of having shafts attached to their harness.
Finally, you can introduce your dog to the cart. Start with the empty cart, and be sure your dog is fully responsive to all your commands every time, before adding weight. Go slowly and be very confident in your dog’s ability to pull before letting them attempt to pull a person. Until you are sure that your dog will follow commands while pulling, always continue to have them on a leash while they pull a cart. Carting is something that can be fun for both you and your dog, and with patience, it shouldn’t take too long to get everyone accustomed to the activity.
Overall, I think dogcarts are a fun way to introduce your dog to a mentally and physically challenging skill that can be helpful for you as well. If you want to learn more about training your dog to be a drafting dog, I would really recommend the book Carting with Your Dog by Laura Waldbaum. It’s an up-to-date manual for fun and competition training, that helped me learn most of what I now know about this unique dog skill.