Farm Dog in Harness
Farm Dog in Harness

by Anna Edwards

“Man’s Best Friend” is also “Man’s Most Willing Helper”

Most of us will agree that a farm isn’t quite complete without at least one dog. Nothing else seems to be able to quite replace their eager companionship throughout the day and their willing watchfulness at night. Keeping guard against intruders whether human or otherwise. Regardless of the breed (although most of us have our preferences), many families find much wholesome entertainment in training and caring for a dog, while the single or elderly find a canine’s companionship quite satisfying and the ‘extra set of paws’ often convenient.

At home, my folks always had at least one dog and we enjoyed interacting with them very much. My sister Ida Livingston used to say that if you treat your dog like a million bucks, he’ll treat you the same. I am inclined to agree, although it seems dogs never keep track. A dog is typically so devoted to his master that he will treat his master like royalty, even if the master treats him like an afterthought.

The year I was twenty-one I took my first school teaching job, and also obtained my first puppy. I was living alone that winter in a small cabin near my school and my puppy provided some companionship during those lonely evening hours. Being a long-haired Chihuahua, he never did much besides work as my doorbell. I enjoyed him anyway.

Six years later I obtained my second puppy, then living at a different location on a small farm. This puppy was a female Mini-Australian Shepherd-Shih-Tzu cross. And I soon discovered she would not be satisfied to be a doorbell. She wanted something to do!

She came to me at six weeks old, and a couple of weeks later I came across a dog training book on the free pile at a yard sale. I took the book home and used its methods on my new puppy, whom by now I had named Maggie. The book’s title was “21 Days To A Trained Dog” by Dick Maller, and I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting tips in training their dog, whether it is young or old.

Besides the basic command ‘No,’ simple housebreaking, and bonding with your puppy, this book didn’t recommend any serious training before four months of age. And depending on the breed and the pup’s receptiveness, not until at least two years of age. I experimentally began training sessions with Maggie at four months old. She responded well so we continued with daily sessions, sometimes twice daily, but usually only ten or twenty minutes at the most at a time. This was something Dick Maller stressed in his book, to keep the sessions short so as not to weary yourself or you dog. You do not want your dog to get an aversion to this time with you – it is important to keep it pleasant and positive.

One exceptionally memorable happening shortly after I began training sessions with Maggie occurred on a Sunday afternoon. I had been gone for a day and somehow – unnoticed by myself – the door hadn’t latched properly when I left. When I returned that evening, I found both my canines and a feline in the house – “Oh, no! What’s been chewed??”

I did a quick walk-through, and Maggie’s pawprints bore evidence to her presence in every room of the house, and even on my bed. Lots of shoes, laundry, books on low bookshelves, furniture legs, pillows and blankets were within her reach that day but only ONE item was chewed: the book “21 Days To A Trained Dog” that I was using to train her. The covers were thoroughly chewed and bits of it scattered throughout the house. Was she trying to make some kind of statement?

Nevertheless, for the next three months we had so much fun together. Maggie amazed me with her intelligence and eagerness to learn. She was – and still is – at her best when she either has something to do or something to think about. I was able to introduce a new concept to her roughly once a week. I could always tell when she needed something new to think about, for her behavior would worsen as she got bored. She learned about picking things up on command, bringing things to me, dropping an item on command (“out!”), jumping up onto, down off of (and later even through) things like fences, trailers and hoops. She learned about sitting, staying, seeking + finding, trailing, and mousing. She learned how to carry firewood to the house – a chore she still enjoys – and even caught her first opossum in those first three months of training. By then she was seven months old.

Then school started and I was once again preoccupied with teaching children in a one-room schoolhouse. Maggie’s training intensity subsided, although I tried to at least review and practice things she had mastered almost every evening. And there were a few things to work on and perfect on the weekends: lots of opossums and armadillos to catch, learning NOT to chase deer but only to bark at them to keep them out of the yard and future garden, learning to master her fear of heights by ascending and descending stairs and ladders, and staying at home while I was away (I do not tie my dogs). My school children began coming by twos or threes after school to hide and give Maggie practice trailing and locating people.

She even taught herself a few tricks. She began catching squirrels, and I marveled that a pup could manage that. One day I saw her at it. She had discovered that when sitting on my porch steps, the railing disguised her from unwary squirrels. She sat stone still, intently watching the nearest squirrel. When he was positioned just right, with his bushy tail blocking his view from the back, she charged soundlessly up and snatched him. I gave her no training in this area, as squirrel-hunting is not one of my interests. But since squirrels are abundant in my area and can become pests, I let her have her sport.

In the years since, I have discovered that it works best to try to time things so that Maggie produces a litter of puppies during the winter while I am at school. This helps abate her boredom and makes her more willing to stay at home while I am gone. She does very well, but always by the time school lets out she is nearly begging me to come home and work with her. By then her pups are weaned and sold, she has thoroughly thinned the rodent and varmint population, and badly needs something to do.

So it was that last year after school I began rolling around the idea of a dogcart after a neighbor suggested it in passing. After pondering it a couple days, I began to put a plan into action.

Farm Dog in Harness

I started with the harness. No use in devising a dogcart if she can’t be reconciled to the harness. I created a simple imitation harness out of velcro first (see fig. A). Then maybe three or four times a day for about two days I called her to me and put it on her, often repeating the word ‘harness’ and – if she held still for even a few seconds – praising her excessively. She did not like the sound the velcro made when I unfastened it, but after a couple days she trusted me with it.

Once she recognized the word ‘harness’ and had accepted it, I made a simple yet functional one for her. I used lightweight nylon webbing 1½” wide. You can get nylon and hardware at harness and tack shops, or do as I did and repurpose the nylon shoulder straps from a luggage bag. If you choose to repurpose shoulder straps, most of them have adjustable lengths. I left the adjusting hardware in and planned it so that it came in at the middle of the breast strap and another in the middle of the bellyband so that I could lengthen or shorten the nylon to fit her more comfortably (fig. B, no. 4).

Farm Dog in Harness

The finished harness (fig. B) was ultra basic: one bellyband that fastened over or just behind her withers (so that the bellyband actually didn’t go around her belly but under her ribcage) and a breaststrap, or breast collar, that attached by clips to the bellyband on her right and left side and passed in front of her chest. The bellyband had a small nylon loop about 1½” diameter sewn onto each side just below the O-ring that the breaststrap fastened to (fig. B, no. 3). These loops are for the shafts of the dogcart to pass through.

To harness her I’d call her to me, giving the command ‘harness!’ She would come to me and either sit or stand with her back end to me. I first fastened the bellyband – it needs to be snug enough to not slide around, but loose enough to comfortably fit at least two fingers under so as not to restrict her breathing and body movement. Secondly I’d clip on the breast strap. To unharness, after releasing her from the cart I’d once again give the command “harness!” and she sits or stands as before. I then unclip the breaststrap (usually only on one side) and then unclip the bellyband, hang up the harness, and praise Maggie profusely for a job well done.

Farm Dog in Harness

After a total of about 3 days of practice with her harness, after which period she was performing nicely, I introduced the dogcart. I had fashioned a homemade lightweight rig from an old bike trailer. I took the bike trailer apart until all I had left were the wheels and the square, lightweight steel frame (fig. C). I cut a piece of stout wire fencing/paneling and fitted it to the frame. Then I repurposed a pair of aluminum crutches for the shafts (notice that the emphasis is on lightweight; if the dogcart weighs much at all, you cannot load much onto it for the dog has a load just pulling the cart).

Farm Dog in Harness

The crutches, taken apart, were just the right shape and length with holes bored at convenient intervals along the length. These I fitted to my frame (fig. D) and added a 1”x2” board for stability (fig. D, no. 2). Last of all I added tugs (the part that fastens the cart to the harness) made of stout shoelaces threaded through the existing holes in the shafts (fig. D, no. 1; also notice the note on fig. D, no. 2, and take note of the detailed insert on fig. E). I placed the tugs at approximately 2/3 of the way towards the front of each shaft (I am not including measurements for the cart or the harness because all of them would need to be altered depending on the size of the dog). I threaded about 6” of shoelace through the selected hole, added a clip and knotted it.

Farm Dog in Harness

To hitch up the dog to the cart after she is harnessed, have her stand still. Pull the cart up so that the dog comes between the shafts, placing the shafts through loops on the sides of her harness (fig. E). Clip the tugs to the same O-rings that the breaststrap clips onto. Now she’s ready to roll!

If she’s not terrified of the cart, that is. Maggie was. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to have her on a leash so that I could prevent her from running off and hurting herself. Throughout the whole ordeal I was comforting and encouraging her, not commanding. This truly was a bewildering contraption to her, and to be tied to it seemed like some bizarre punishment. By all means, she needed comfort and assurance that she is a good dog, a smart dog, and I am well-pleased with her.

I put her in the cart two or three times a day for a few days. Only for a minute or two at first and gradually building up to going on short strolls together. The first couple of days she seemed to be humiliated by the cart – ears dropped, shoulders hunched, tail tucked. But once we began strolling our country road and neighbors and passersby would stop to exclaim over her, she realized that this is an exceptional feat and she gets noticed! She drank in the attention and in no time at all went prancing down the road. At first I kept her on a leash, but as she got comfortable and familiar with her cart I let her loose and controlled her by voice commands: ‘whoa,’ ‘back,’ ‘to the right,’ ‘stay.’

That has been a year ago now, and her willing assistance with the cart has saved me a lot of manual hauling. I live in a small rural community with mostly dirt roads and minimal traffic. My main form of transportation is biking or walking, so Maggie helps tremendously with my errands. She regularly hauls feed for my sheep and chickens from the neighborhood feed mill, hauls trash to the dump, groceries, and occasionally even small children. A few times I even loaded my aging Chihuahua on the cart for a ride. He rode along like a prince, but Maggie looked a bit indignant as if she were thinking “He has his own legs to use!” Once she even stopped abruptly, then started with a jerk to topple him off the back.

She has gotten so confident in her cart that I must ride my bike alongside if I wish to keep up – she doesn’t dawdle! Since our area is hilly, I keep a lead rope clipped to the front corner of the cart. If her load seems heavy on the uphill, I help pull with the lead rope. She often pulls loads of 30-50 lbs. Not bad for a dog weighing barely 30 lbs. herself!

Last week I found a set of four dog shoes at a thrift store. They resemble toddler’s hiking shoes – if there is such a thing! However, it occurred to me that, if Maggie could learn to adjust to them for her roadtrips, they could spare the pads of her feet some wear. So we’re trying them out.

Recently my nine year old Chihuahua met with an unfortunate vehicular accident. Now I have a red-tri Australian Shepherd female. She is slightly larger than Maggie and came to me full grown and about to have pups. I named her Myra, and she is a sweet tempered and gentle dog. Once her pups are weaned and she has settled in well, we will see what her abilities are.

Some folks have suggested teaching Maggie and Myra to pull the dogcart together. Maggie and Myra have very different personalities (though both are very lovable) and I am inclined to think I will select separate jobs for them. I think each one could feel her individual worth that way and lessen the need for competition and rivalry between them. However, a team of dogs does hold some appeal, so we shall see.