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For over three decades I have been asked to assess carting potential in dogs. People would say something like “I don’t want to spend money on a harness and cart unless I’m sure that my dog will like it”. All this time I have been dismissing such requests since the number of dogs of all breeds that I haven’t been able to get to pull a cart in about 15 minutes can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

However since a sulky style passenger cart and harness nowadays will cost $800 or more and since I am getting more mellow in my old age I decided it was time for me to develop some sort of initial testing to help canine guardians decide on whether to invest in dog cart equipment and training or to find a better use for their money and time.

The impetus and opportunity came earlier this year when Newf Friends, a rescue group for Newfoundland dogs in Southern and Eastern Ontario, asked me to run a carting event at their first ever public event, Newfstock, to be held on September 17th to 19th, 2010. My first dilemma was to ensure that my carting event did not conflict with those put on by the regional Newf clubs in Southern Ontario. Since neither of the regional clubs offered initial testing, this seemed to be the perfect event as it is something new and since it would encourage people to participate in the clubs’ carting activities.

As I try to avoid re-inventing the wheel, I looked to see what had already been done in initial testing for dogs and only found the Herding Instinct Tests. My initial dilemma was to decide whether I would be testing instinct or something else.

Webster defines instinct as “a specific, complex pattern of responses by an organism, supposedly inherited, which is quite independent of any thought processes”. This didn’t seem to be exactly what we would be looking for, so I looked further and found the definition for aptitude “a natural talent, bent; ability to learn easily and quickly”. This latter seemed to be more in line with what people had been asking for. So I started working on a protocol for Dog Carting Aptitude Testing.

First step was to decide what I was looking for in the carting dog candidate. In the Herding Instinct Test they are looking for three things: INTEREST (sustained interest), TRAINABILITY (willingness to take direction from the handler) and ABILITY TO READ STOCK. The first two items seemed relevant to draft work as well but not the third. Instead I decided to substitute LEARNABILITY. This latter aspect is especially important in dog carting as there are some techniques where the handler forces a situation but the dog has to figure out how to deal with the situation. An example is the tightening of turns where the canine has to figure out that he/she must side step like a dressage horse in order to effect the required turning radius.

Step two was to decide on the order and type of draft activities to subject the dog to. This was the easiest part as I simply based it on my usual training protocol. First the dog would haul a freight toboggan (aka ice fishing sled) on grass, then on gravel. Next would be repeating with a toboggan outfitted with a wagon conversion kit (shafts plus a whiffletree). This would be followed by the pulling of a wagon, again on both grass and gravel. Step seven would involve hauling a cart on a roadway and if the dog showed sufficient aptitude at this point, step eight would be taking a passenger in the cart.

The third step was the hardest part to figure out and this is still a work in progress. I agonized over various scoring systems. However since I prefer to emphasize the positive, I decided to go with comments for each step in the testing process plus an individualized training plan for the dog.

Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979.  In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada.  When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.

Permission is granted for re-publication of the preceding article or excerpts from it as long as the author is credited and the name of the original publication and date of first publication is included.

Newf News

May/June 2010