Zealot designs a draft test

Newfs were bred for drafting and enjoy it!


Many breeds of dogs were historically bred as draft animals. When I got Zealot, my first Newfoundland, in 1975, books about the history of the breed pointed out that the dogs were the draft animal of choice on the island of Newfoundland because they were cheaper to keep than horses. After helping the fishermen on the boats during the day, the dogs hauled the day's catch to town in carts. Besides aiding fishermen, Newfoundland Dogs delivered milk, mail, etc. across the island.

The Newf's body is designed to perform the duties of a heavy draft animal. The New Complete Newfoundland by Margaret Booth Chern shows a photo in a Yukon lumber camp of an 11 Newfoundland hitch pulling huge downed trees on sledges.

To prove the ability of today's Newfs to do this time-honored job, the Newfoundland Club of America instituted a drafting title of DD, or Draft Dog.

In 1977, thrilled with Zealot, aka Mt. Pleasant's Refraf Zealot, UD, WD, CanCD, and enlightened about the breed's carting history, I decided to try draft work. My research at the libraries was fruitless; I quickly discovered that there was very little written on the subject. I did find out that dogs were used as beasts of burden throughout the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. The harnesses were ill fitting, and the carts were often unbalanced and overloaded. Dogs often were worked to death. During the 20th century using dogs as draft animals was labeled cruel, was cast aside, and very little was written on the subject.

I found one article — “The Cart Dog,” — in the September 1975 issue of Dogs Magazine. It told about a man named Harry Russ who trained Giant Schnauzers, sewed his own harnesses, and built carts. I contacted him, got a lot of training tips, and bought Zealot a Harry Russ custom cart and harness. The cart was balanced so well that 100 pounds placed over the axle would exert a pound of pressure on the dog.

Since there seemed to be nothing written about draft training, I wrote two articles about training Zealot for Off Lead Magazine. Harry Russ was astounded when he was suddenly deluged with phone calls ordering his carts and harnesses after people read my articles.

Rick and I decided to go to the Newf National Specialty in 1977. I was such a novice, I didn't even know exactly what a National Specialty was. I learned that the NCA offered maneuvering carting and decorative carting as classes at the Specialty, and I sent away for the requirements. The rules said the dog must haul forward, make a right circle around an object, a left circle around an object, and back up. This was done first on lead, then off lead. Not wanting to look like a fool in front of all the “big wigs” in the breed, I practiced with Zealot until we had the requirements perfect. Zealot was one of the most trainable Newfs I've ever worked with, and carting was his favorite pass time. If he saw me pick up the harness, he would run and stand between the shafts of his cart. Backing up was Zealot's favorite exercise.

The Specialty was amazing, but when it came time for the carting competition, I was shocked. The decorative carting was combined with the maneuvering and the whole competition was a joke. Dog after dog entered the ring where they were bumped, pushed, and kneed through the obstacles. When it came to the last exercise, the backup — everyone knew that a dog can't back up.

Near last, Zealot and I entered the ring. He did the on lead and off lead effortlessly. When it came time to back up, Zealot ran backwards so fast that he knocked down the ring barrier. The crowd was amazed!

For the next several years Zealot and I became the experts on dog carting. We were at a dog show during the Giant Schnauzer National Specialty where I not only got to meet Harry Russ in person, but where Zealot and I were asked to put on a carting demonstration. They even made Zealot an honorary Giant Schnauzer for the day. They sent me a copy of their newsletter with an article featuring Zealot. It said, “and who was that Giant Schnauzer with no beard and a long tail backing his cart so agilely?”

By 1981, South Central Newfoundland Club was preparing to host the Newfoundland National Specialty. They asked Rick and I to come up with an experimental carting course that could incorporate maneuvers and problems that a working team might encounter while doing draft work. There would be no placements given, it would be pass fail, and mostly give Newf owners a chance to try out a more realistic and difficult course. Rick and I drew up a course ( I still have the dated original drawing) that looks remarkably like the maneuvering course that is one part of today's Draft tests. Our course could be done first on lead, then off lead. It included several circular turns, 90 degree turns, a dead end to be backed out of, narrow places, and a gate that had to be opened, passed through, then closed.

For a judge, I selected Ken Buxton. Ken is an AKC breed and obedience judge who has earned several Utility Dog titles with St. Bernards. Ken came out to my house to see Zealot demonstrate such a course. The Specialty had 10 entrants for maneuvering carting and all 10 passed.

In the following years the draft test was refined into what is today: a full day test that consists of four sections: obedience, harnessing and hitching, maneuvering, and a mile freight haul — all off-lead. Every section must be passed to earn the title Draft Dog, DD.

Other breeds have expressed an interest in such a title, and a few have actually competed in the NCA draft test. With the new fitted harnesses and perfectly balanced carts available today, DD could become a title achievable by most breeds


Draft tests recreate tasks done by early Newfoundlands

The test usually takes an entire day to complete. A walk through the course is usually scheduled the day before. Tests are rare. For us, the nearest test is once a year, two hours away, in Indianapolis. There is a chain of clubs giving draft tests yearly. The weekends of the tests are progressive, through August and September; and each test is approximately 500 miles beyond the previous test. Some wealthy or retired folks make a vacation of entering all the tests and driving the circuit.

Entrants are selected via a lottery system. Receiving more than the limit of entries by a certain date, clubs draw entries out of a barrel, then draw a list of alternates. Most entrants are lucky to make it into one or two tests a year.

All parts of the test are off- lead, and a team shall not qualify during any section if the dog refuses to accompany the handler, urine marks, upsets the draft apparatus, or is guided by handler holding the draft apparatus. The team does not qualify if the handler physically touches or guides the dog or moves in front of dog to enforce a halt command.

At some point during the moving exercises, an intriguing distraction appears in front of the dog. This is usually staged in addition to any natural distractions such as squirrels , rabbits, hikers, joggers, etc., that may appear. When the distraction appears, the dog may stop what it is doing or shift its position to watch but is not allowed to divert from the course it is following. If the cart is stationary, the dog may not move it in response to the distraction.

In draft tests RG (Ch. Spillway’s Refraf Argonaut UD) and I encountered a pen of geese, and we came around a bend on the freight haul to discover the camp’s owner, four feet off the path, playing tug-of-war with his Chow. In Spirit and Redi’s ill-fated draft test last fall, the park was teaming with hikers, kids, and people walking dogs as natural distractions. A badminton game in progress distracted the dogs on the freight haul.

The handler may speak to his dog with instructions concerning the distraction, and may interact with the diversion enough to maintain safe working conditions. When the distraction has passed, the handler must instruct the dog to continue the exercise.

The draft apparatus can be a cart or wagon, a travois, or a toboggan.


The four-part test

Part 1: Basic Control: The dog must heel, then do a straight recall and a group down-stay for three minutes with the handler out of sight. In the Newfoundland water titles, a dog with a Companion Dog title automatically passes the obedience part. Not so in draft work. All Newfs, even those with obedience titles, must pass the basic control portion of the test. The rule committee reasoned that a dog “out of control” out in the water is not as dangerous to spectators and property as a dog “out of control” while hitched to a cart. RG had to also do a one minute stand, which has since been eliminated.

The first time I entered a draft test with Redi, he failed this portion of the test. The handler before me called her dog on the recall. Her male dog ran right passed her, and urinated on the pole directly behind her. Next I had to call Redi in the exact same spot. It was obligatory (in his doggy mind) to mark the same spot.

Part 2: Harnessing and Hitching: The dog must accompany the handler into the ring, and stay in a designated spot while the handler walks to get the equipment from a point 20 feet away. The dog must then cooperate with being harnessed.

When instructed by the judges, the handler must command his dog to back up. The dog must back a distance of at least four feet, preferably backing into a position in front of the cart. When the dog is completely hitched to the cart, the dog and handler move to the center of the test area. The judges inspect the cart and harness to make sure the dog is hitched properly and that the harness fits correctly. Hitched to an empty cart, the dog must haul forward at a reasonable working speed; change speed (slow down for a fast working dog or speed up for a slow working dog); stop; back at least one foot; and remain one minute in any position the handler chooses with the handler out of sight.

Part 3: The Maneuvering Course: The maneuvering course includes as many natural features as possible. It is at least 150 yards long and incorporates circular patterns, broad curves, at least two 90 degree turns, narrow areas, a dead end area to back out of, and a removable obstacle. The handler and dog, hitched to the empty draft apparatus, are to traverse this course.

The handler may be positioned in front of, beside, or behind the dog, or any combination of these positions. The dog has learned commands to go left, right, back-up, speed up, slow down, and position himself in preparation for this part of the test.

The removable obstacle is an obstruction through, or by which, the dog could pass if not hitched. The dog is to wait for the handler to move the obstacle before passing and for the handler to return the obstacle to its original position after passing. The handler may touch the draft apparatus to guide it only in areas where negotiation of certain maneuvers exceeds the dog’s natural abilities. Once such areas are passed, the handler must release his hold on the apparatus. The handler must request, and receive permission from a judge to touch the draft apparatus.

In the last test Rick and I entered, both of our Newfs failed this area of the test. Spirit thought this was an agility course, with the prize going to the dog that ran it the fastest. He would not slow down, and I couldn’t keep up with him. Redi and Rick got into trouble on the dead end. Rick backed and fell over the partition, and Redi obediently followed him over the barrier.

Part 4: Freight Haul: This is a cross country course of at least one mile to be traversed by the dog hauling its loaded draft apparatus and accompanied by its handler. Once again, the course is done by voice command; handlers may not touch the dog or apparatus without a judge’s special permission.

The handler chooses and provides the freight load and places it in the cart. The load must be appropriate, in the judges’ opinions, to that particular dog and apparatus. Loads must be 5-20 pounds for dogs pulling travois, 15-50 pounds for toboggans or sleds, and 25-100 pounds for carts or wagons. The load must be tied down so it will not shift. A heavier load makes a more stable cart. The team will fail if the handler overloads the apparatus; the handler loads freight in an improper manner; freight load is such that, in the judges’ opinions, the dog cannot comfortably move the apparatus; the handler finds that he must alter the weight of the load after the dog has begun to move the load; the apparatus is upset; or the dog refuses to move the loaded apparatus. The course will contain no obstacles other than natural objects such as bends in the trail, potholes, or bridges. The dog and handler may stop along the course as necessary for details such as removing obstructions on the course or getting water on a hot day. A handler may, with judges’ permission, correct the placement of the load if it has shifted a modest amount. At the conclusion of the distance, the judges observe that the dog will cooperate with unhitching. The distance freight haul is usually done in groups of four. Every team should be in sight of at least one judge at all times. Dogs may be grouped according to working speed regardless of catalogue order, if the judges wish. At specialties, clubs may add “specialty cart and wagon” class, which involves running a maneuvering course on and/or off lead; and “decorative carting” which is a pageant of elaborately decorated carts. Competition and prizes may be offered in these classes, but no title can be earned.

Zealot did a tremendous amount to create this test. Sadly, he died of old age a year before the title became official. In my mind he will always have an honorary DD. [More on Newfoundlands]

Ozzie Foreman

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