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Weight Pulling
for Tracking Conditioning

By Dennis Helm

Panda showing perfect weight pulling form.

Along with working tracks that are up to 5 miles long, we engage in weight pulling. Weight pulling seems to help with the dog's concentration more than running does. Weight pulling is an introverted activity as is tracking. Concentration and obedience are the essential ingredients to being successful both activities.

For the past 35 years I have run my Dobermans along side my car or van, depending on what I had for transportation at the moment. I have been weight pulling my Dobermans for the past 7 years. Running 4 dogs from 3 to 14 miles, depending on the dog, will take up to 4 hours, 3 to 4 times a week. On top of this we average 170 tracking days per year. A lot of time is spent on training.

This summer I have been weight pulling the dogs over our 100 foot outside track in the early morning. We have not been doing the running. So far I cannot tell any difference in the dogs physical condition although their feet are in better shape now they are off the blacktop. My new 1 year old Dob is starting to have the massive look of my Panda.

Pulling, like tracking, is an obedience exercise; so pulling is more satisfying to me than trying to add miles on to running distance. The AD endurance test is worked with the handler on a bike and the dog trotting along side. When my 9 year old Panda passed for an AD endurance title at the UDC Nationals this year, I tried to keep her speed down to a slow trot. Panda would have none of the slow stuff. She insisted on towing me at about 12 MPH for the 12.25 mile AD test distance. She was moving at what would have been a fast run if she did not have me attached to her.

The combination of running and pulling gave her a stamina I could not hold back. I was luck enough not to have fallen off of the bike. When she came across wild game on the track my staying on the bike was in serious question. Panda gave up the chance for a run through the woods. She was obedient the task at hand. I believe she is the oldest dog to have ever earned the AD title.

Objectives: Weight pulling is used for the physical development and conditioning of the dog. Along with physical development and conditioning, corresponding obedience behaviors associate with weight pulling are taught.

Equipment: The equipment can be elaborate or simple. The amount of equipment required depends on what the handler is comfortable with or finds necessary.

A basic list of equipment consists of the following:

  • Pulling harness
  • Pulling line
  • Plastic sledge
  • Weights

For the handler who wishes to participate in pulling competition, having access to the steel pulling cart which can handle several thousands pounds of weights is handy. Along with the pulling cart there is the necessity of having a corresponding amount of weight.

Pulling sledges with a sandbag and weight on board.

The amount of time and effort invested in weight pulling is directly related to the dogs conditioning and development. Basic obedience is easily taught while developing the necessary pulling behaviors.

The basic behaviors needed are:

  • Stand stay
  • Heal in motion
  • Heal in place
  • Come on command
  • Down and down stay
  • Hand signals

The distance of the pulling track will vary with what your objectives are. If you are striving to enter pulling competition a 16-foot track is required.

The competition pulling distance is 16 feet. For those of us whose only interest is conditioning and development of our dogs any distance can be used.

In harness at a stand stay.

I use a 100-foot track when I am pulling outside on good weather. During other times of the year, a rugged hallway or basement can be used. If the pulling activity is going to take place on concrete, a rubber cover needs to be picked up so the pulling track can be covered. The cover is used so the dog can get traction with his feet.

Getting set up

When the dog is first introduced to the pulling harness with the weight sledge attached by an 8 to 10 foot-pulling line, a period of conditioning to the equipment and what happens when pulling will need to take place.

Not having the sledge to close to the dog is as important as is starting out on a surface which will not make a lot of noise as the sledge is dragged along. We do not want to startle or scare the dog. With some dogs, using a 20-foot long pulling line may be necessary to keep the dog calm. The line can be reduced in length as the training proceeds.

Hooked up and ready.

When I am pulling my dogs in my basement a distance of 20 feet is the greatest distance we can work. When pulling outside we use a 100-foot track.

Weights: The actual weights can vary from sandbags, to water bottles, to weights from a weight lifting set. The starting weight for a 40 to 80 pound dog should be 10 pounds. Smaller dogs can start with 2 to 5 pounds. Training a dog for weight pulling is like training a human in weight lifting. Muscle structure needs to be strengthened and conditioned. The weight is gradually increased in 1 to 3-pound increments.

The Pull

First we are going to go through a weight pull the way an experienced dog and handler would work it. After the idea of what we are looking to achieve is presented, we will work on how to achieve a proper pull while training the required behaviors.

Having the dog lean into the harness with his head down.

After the dog with harness has been hooked up to the weight sledge or weight cart, the handler heals the dog to the end of the pulling line and tells his dog to stand stay. The handler then moves in front of and facing his dog. The handler takes the dogs head in his hands and commands the dog to lean into the harness, at the same time moving the dogs head down toward the ground. The handler moves back to the side of the dog, with the dog by his left hand.

The command stand stay is given and the handler then walks to the end of the pulling track, turns, and faces his dog. After a few moments the handler calls the dog and offers encouragement as the dog works to pull the sledge/cart to the handler.

As the dog approaches the handler the handler can reach down and catch the dogs head in his hands. The dog is to remain standing.

End of pull

To get to the point where a dog and handler become a weight pulling team, there are a few basic training behaviors to be mastered.

Conditioning the dog to the pulling harness and weight sledge is the first step in weight pulling. Once the dog and sledge, with a minimum amount of weight on board, are hooked up the handler needs to keep the dog on a leash. The leash is to keep the dog under control during the beginning of its pulling experience.

With leash in hand and the dog on your left side, walk the dog to the end of the pulling line and tell the dog to stand stay. If the dog is inclined to sit down, place your hand under the dogs flank and cause him to stand. Tell the dog to stand stay and move in front of and face him. Take the dogs head in your hands and have him lean into the pulling harness with his head down and tell him to stand stay.

The behavior we are teaching at this point is the stand stay. The down and down stay will be taught at the end of the pull when the dog is taken off of the leash so the sledge can be turned around. The heal command is taught as the dog is brought to the point where the pulling line is attached to the harness. Hand signals can be worked in anytime.

Catching the dog at the end of a pull.

Move a few feet away and call the dog. Again catching the dogs head in your hands as he reaches you, and pay him for working. Some dogs will try to pull right past the handler so catching his head in your hands will keep him from going by. If the handler has some food in his hands, stopping the dog will be easier. Repeat this exercise over and over until you can back up to 16 feet without the dog moving.

Additional help for the dog new to pulling

The dogs first reaction to pulling the sledge may be fright leading to flight. Calm your dog while eliminating his flight option with control of the situation through the leash. The only option available to the dog is to be his compliance.

Guiding a new pulling dog down the track.

Start with a 10 pounds or less in the sledge. Once your dog is standing calmly, tell him to heal and start walking. It is normal for the dog to be concerned with what is going on behind him, so keep control though the use of a leash and reassure him that everything is fine. The dog is to pull at a steady rate; not a panicked run. The fright/flight phase must be mastered before the dog can progress with his proper weight pulling training. Walk along side the dog as he pulls the sledge over your designated course.

You may need to repeat walking along side of your dog while he becomes accustomed to the pulling harness and the sledge being dragged behind him. The dogs confidence needs to be developed.


After the fright /flight phase is over, and the flight option has been eliminated, again heal your dog to the end of the pulling line and tell him to stand stay. Step in front of your dog and face him. Take his head in your hands and tell him to lean forward, causing the dog to lean into the pulling harness with his head down and back hunched up in proper form. Stand up and go back to the dogs side and order him to stand stay. This is to be repeated until the dog does not move.

Walk to the end of your pulling track. Turn and face you dog without moving for a short time, and then call him through verbal command and hand signal. The dog should have already learned to come through verbal commands. In pulling competition the verbal command are used but this is a good opportunity to teach hand signals also.

When the end of the pulling track is reached cause the dog to stand stay once more. At this point give the dog a spoon full of liver sausage or something he likes. My dogs receive a few pieces of dry dog food for their efforts. We want the dog to associate the pulling experience with something enjoyable. Your dog is working hard and deserves to be paid.

Once the dog has pulled the track, detach him from the pulling line, and place the pulling bar of the harness up on his back so it does not interfere with the dogs walking. Down and down-stay your dog so it can rest. Now turn the sledge around so the dog can make the pull in the opposite direction. When ready give the dog the command to heal. Heal the dog to the end of the pulling line and give the command to stand stay. Hitch the dog to the puling line. Move the dog forward until the pulling line is tight and start the process all over.

The start of a pull

With a heavy weight on the sledge, the dogs front feet may come off the ground as his back legs push off to get the sledge in motion. It is important that the dog be set up properly at the start of a pull. The dog needs to be leaning into the harness with his head down as shown.

When pulling the weight cart the hardest part of the pull is getting the cart in motion. The sledge is a different situation, as the level of resistance for the dog remains consistent for the distance of the pull.

Working the pulling track

Repetition is what builds and conditions the dog. Our target objective is to work the dog through 3 sets of 5 pulls with the dog pulling 3 to 4 times a week. As the weight increases and the dog is starting to have a hard time with the pull, reduce the weight considerably and increase the number of repetitions. Start building the weight up once again. The dog needs go be given a few minutes rest between pulling sets.

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