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While dogs have been hauling wheeled vehicles like carts and wagons for many hundreds of years in Europe and for the last few centuries here in North America, canine draft work goes back probably 10 thousand years or more. This is because the first humans who came to North America had their dogs carrying packs and for heavier loads, pulling travois.

The Plains Indians developed the travois, an A frame device using two long poles, and this draft apparatus has stood the test of time. After the Americas were rediscovered at the end of the 15th century, the native people had access to horses and used them to haul even heavier loads although dogs continued to be used as well.

The travois’ use has spread to other parts of the world. On one web site from the UK I read how they have goats pulling travois. It has even gone into the future. On an episode of the Star Trek TV series the main characters were stranded on a desolate planet without their technology and the ever logical Mr. Spock whipped together a travois.

Cree dog travois circa 1906

A travois is an excellent vehicle to start draft work. You can make it yourself for next to nothing. All you need are two 12 to 14 foot poles about two to three inches in diameter and some cross pieces along with cord or other lashing material. Just like the Inuit dog sled, the travois should be lashed and not bolted together. Lashing allows flex for rough ground and makes field repairs simple. As a special bonus you put yourself in touch with history; what a wonderful way to teach children about our roots.

Traditional travois

The practical use of a travois in modern times is to go where wheeled vehicles can’t. However, unlike the Plains Indians, most of us use them on narrow trails in wooded areas and so a modification of the traditional A frame design is helpful. The usual and simplest modification is to put the poles parallel so that the apparatus is only slightly wider than the dog. The poles can be kept to the shorter length of 12 feet to facilitate manoeuvring.

No matter how good a device is there will always be those who want to make improvements. Some have even registered patents with the US government. Such inventions usually involve adding one or more wheels to the draft apparatus which would mean that they are technically no longer travois.

Travois with curved ends
Wheeled travois

The usual modification for the more traditional types are to put curvature at or near the rear end of the poles. Of course Newfoundland dog fanciers are in this group. Re-inventing the travois in the 1970’s was Dr. Roger Powell, a zoologist who used his Newfs to haul in the wild when he did his weasel research field work. He was the first person that I am aware of to use poles with curvature. He also went with tubular metal poles along with nuts and bolts rather than the traditional wood and lashing. In addition his load was hung from the poles, although not entirely new as some of the old Indian travois did this as well.

Another Newfoundland draft dog eccentric to play around with the design of the travois is yours truly. In 1981 I came up with a new design inspired by the Powell travois but retained the wood poles and lashing. Under the poles I lashed a curved piece made by bending conduit. For the load area and to stabilize the poles I used a backpack frame. This design allowed me to shorten the poles to a mere eight feet in length without putting any down weight on the dog which meant even better manoeuvrability.

Maniate travois

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

July/August 2010