by Anne Lively
Gloaming Wood Collies
My friend Debbie King and I are at a draft dog workshop with Zuzu (Southland Christmas Carols, Am./Can. CD, RE, NDD, BPDX, HIC, VCX) and Nova (Crispin’s Dream Believer, CD, CGC, RN, RA, BPD, BPDX, TDI). Dottie Bell, our instructor, stresses that the dogs should understand basic obedience commands. The last thing we want is a dog running out of control with the cart bouncing along behind. And she says over and over that it’s important to introduce our dogs to carting in slow steps. She’s not going to let us move to the next step until our dogs are comfortable.
The first step, Dottie tells us, is to introduce the dog to the harness. We can’t simply hitch a dog up and expect to trot merrily up the road. Most important is making all steps positive experiences. She encourages us to be happy and to get our dogs happy. Our pockets are filled with treats. First I let Zuzu sniff the harness. Then I put it on her and we walk around with its nylon traces dragging behind. Treats and praise! When Zuzu is comfortable dragging the traces along, we attach an empty milk jug to each and walk her along. Some of the dogs seem a little nervous about the jugs following behind, but Dottie says not to pat or baby them, just to pause and start again, praising each confident step the dogs take forward.
Then we attach two 5-foot-long, wooden dowels to either side of Zuzu’s harness. These simulate the shafts of a cart and will get her used to feeling the poles bumping against her sides. We walk in straight lines at first, then do wide arcs. This seems to be the hardest part for Zuzu to get used to but treats and praise win her over. That’s enough for the one day, Dottie tells us, and sends us home with instructions to keep practicing and to add commands for starts and stops, and right and left turns. (“Walk on” and “Whoa” are what I use and for the turns, I simply use “Turn right” and “Turn left.” Just forget about “Gee” and “Haw” . . . I don’t need to confuse Zuzu by being confused myself about which command means which direction!)
One week after the workshop:
I order a Siwash style harness which is suited to carting. It’s padded with fleece for comfort and is adjustable for a good fit. Deciding on a cart is harder. I study dog cart websites trying to decide what to get. Should I get the one that costs $10 less, but weighs 5 pounds more? Should I get wood shafts or aluminium? Should I get BMX tires? (What in the heck ARE BMX tires anyway?!) I am frozen with indecision. In the meantime we’ve had an early snowfall so I invest (okay, not THAT much of an investment at $15) in a child’s plastic toboggan.
Debbie and I get together to practice when we can. There’s something motivating about working with someone else and it’s good to have someone to bounce ideas off of. When our girls are comfortable with the toboggan scraping along behind them we add a few pieces of firewood for a little weight. My goal is to get Zuzu trained enough so we can deliver Christmas cookies to our neighbors via dog-drawn sleigh. On December 20th we make the cookie rounds to our three neighbors. “That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!” exclaims our neighbor Ellen.
Nearly every day I hitch Zuzu to the sled and we go out to the wood pile for firewood. What would have taken me three trips on my own only takes one with Zuzu and her sled.
Deb calls to say she’s ordered a cart for Nova and, while she was at it, ordered one for Zuzu, too. Thank heavens! I might still be agonizing over what to get! I am so smitten with my new cart, an easily maneuvered competition style with two wheels, that I keep it in the kitchen for the first two weeks so I can look at it.
I begin training with the cart by leading Zuzu while Debbie pulls the cart along behind. By now, Zu is used to things following behind her, so she doesn’t worry at all about the cart. I put her in a Stand-Stay and snap the harness traces to her cart and the cart’s shafts to her harness. “Walk on!” I say in a happy voice and walk on we do!
Debbie and I have an incentive to practice daily because a Maine dog club is offering draft dog classes at an upcoming match, giving us the opportunity to get our feet wet. Our girls make us proud. Zuzu had been having trouble backing up straight, but at the match she puts it all together and backs the required distance nice and straight. When I look at the judge’s score card I see that she has drawn a smiley face next to Zu’s perfect backing score. Deb and I have both learned a lot about what will be expected in serious competition.
This is our real test! I have entered Zuzu in a Bernese Mountain Dog draft dog test open to all breeds. The test involves an obstacle course, distractions, loading and unloading the cart, crossing a narrow bridge, backing, and a “cross country” trek with all the dogs and their carts going as a group. While the Novice test is all on-lead, one tight leash and it’s all over for us. Of the 21 dogs entered in the test, only seven qualify and I am proud as anything that my collie is one of them!
Of all the things I’ve done with my dogs, carting is probably the most fun, and is certainly the most useful. Debbie and I smile because both Nova and Zuzu seem pleased with themselves when they’re in harness. I mentioned that to friend Barbara Corriveau and she said “Yes!! I think it makes dogs proud to have a skill!”
About Anne Lively
I grew up reading Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. When I was thirteen my parents got a collie for my sister and me and that’s what I’ve had ever since. The collie temperament, beauty and versatility just suit me. Our dogs do both conformation and performance – I’m a big advocate of having titles on both ends! I am a member of several dog clubs, including CCA, a tracking club and the American Working Collie Association, for which I serve as Conformation Coordinator.
When I’m not fooling around with the dogs I’m editing “The Cassette,” a publication for Collie and Sheltie fanciers or painting at my easel.