Does your dog get excited when you put a harness on them? Do they yank you out of the door and down the street? Do you ever wonder why horses, goats, bulls and almost all the other four-legged domesticated animals are expected to draft heavy loads behind them, but you hardly ever see dogs doing this work? Well, here are some answers to your questions.
Dogs have been by our side for a very long time. Since prehistory, they have been a loyal hardworking companion, as well as a compassionate, steadfast friend. At a site termed Ust-Polui, near the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Dr. Robert Losey, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, has found archeological evidence of dogs being ceremonially buried in the same way as humans from the same period. Also found on the site was this carved bone handled knife. The decoration on the handle seems to depict a dog in full pulling harness. On the same site were two dog sleds. This site in particular dates back 2,000 years and indicates that the practice of dog sledding had been around for much longer.
So what are the advantages that these dogs have over horses, or some other drafting animal? Well first of all, horses get cold in these arctic environments. This is a very harsh climate, and since dogs are much smaller, they’re able to conserve their body heat. Secondly, horses mainly subsist on grasses, which much of the year are not available this far north. Dogs eat what we do for the most part, and so their diet can adapt to whatever we’re able to forage and scavenge for ourselves. Thirdly, dogs can double as protector, pulling guard duty. I’ve never heard of a guard horse; maybe they exist somewhere, but I’d bet that a dog is better suited to the job. Lastly, the ice gets very thin, and a heavy horse can pull you and your load down into the chilly brine. Dogs can pull themselves out of this situation though. So even if the ice does break and your whole load goes into the drink, the dogs can make use of their dew-claws to pull themselves out of the water. Check out a video to see labradors doing just that here.
So, for thousands of years dogs were getting good work as the load bearing, tug toting engines for small farmers and hunters alike. There is evidence of dogs pulling loads behind them from all around the world. In pre-Colombian North America there were no horses, and the predominate work engine was the Native American dog.
Another advantage to having a dog pull your cart is that they take up less space and are more maneuverable in many situations. So in metropolitan areas, teeming with crowds and tight alley-ways, the dog became a relatively low-cost; more reliable option for small farmers bringing their wares to town.
So when and why did this all change? In England at the beginning of the Victorian period there was an ordinance passed called the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839. It forbade the use of dog carts within fifteen miles of Charing Cross.
“XXXIV. [Prohibition of Dog Carts.] And be it further enacted, That after the First Day of January next every Person who within the City of London and the Liberties thereof shall use any Dog for the Purpose of drawing or helping to draw any Cart, Carriage, Truck, or Barrow, shall be liable to a Penalty not more than Forty Shillings for the First Offense, and not more than Five Pounds for the Second or any following Offense.”
Rabies, or as it was commonly termed Hydrophobia, was becoming a real problem on the island and in an effort to stamp it out many theories were put forth as to a cause for the disease. A very popular theory was that over worked dogs were more susceptible to the condition, and so fines were imposed on anyone seen employing their dog in this regard.
That was the beginning of the end of dog carting. As we approached the industrial age, dogs were given less and less work and became more a show of wealth and stature. As we needed them less for their pulling talents and more for their companionship they retained the compulsion to pull. So now when you harness up your little canid powerhouse are you seeing just your own frustration that they won’t walk at heel? Or instead are you seeing all their potential? I have taught a great deal of dogs how to walk at heel and many owners how to maintain the leash language of the guided walk at a steady pace. But what if your dog is a massive engine that is meant to pull more than his own weight? In the next part of this series on Dog carting I will go into how to prepare your dog for the exciting, enriching and entertaining world of dog carting.
If you want to read more about the history of dog carting here are some links.