Carting with Bernese Mountain Dogs

Let us say at the first that these notes are not intended to be all encompassing guide to carting with your dog, as much of the best advice would be given in a practical format, but merely as a summary of the experience gained by us with our Bernese Mountain Dogs since the mid 1980s. This experience has included attending and carting at numerous types of events and activities where dogs in carts can be found this includes, large country fetes and the like where the Bernese carting has been part of a much larger event, dog based large events, down to much smaller type events such as school fetes, school visits or works Christmas parties for children. We were the originators of the current Working Cart course of the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of Great Britain which from its early days has gone on to be established as a major source of enjoyment for Bernese owners and continues to evolve today. In addition to this Jeanette, for around 8 years, was the main carting instructor engaged in starting off total beginner dogs at the largest annual Bernese event, this was usually a back breaking day involving initiating around 30-40 dogs and their owners into the pleasures of carting. We deliberately use the word pleasure because our philosophy has always been that carting with your dog should be fun and enjoyable for you and your dog. A happy carting dog at work is a joy to behold and a source of much pride and pleasure for its owners and if, after having a really good try and taking the right advice and approach, your dog does not enjoy carting and has to be dragged around then you are not being fair to him and may attract some unwelcome attention from onlookers who may feel sympathy for your dog. Whilst our direct experience is all of one breed most of the following advice can be applied to most breeds when starting out in carting but you should contact individual breed specialists if you are not sure or wish to seek specific breed advice.

This then is the basic background to our carting knowledge and we hope that these notes help you to at least make a start into what will be a very rewarding past-time which all the family can be a part of.

Get/Check out your dog

This may seem an obvious statement but a little care should be taken. Pulling carts on long grass and soft earth can be very hard going and your dog should be reasonably fit and sound to begin with. Obviously our breed of Bernese are solidly made and partly bred for carting and generally have no problems but an unsound dog will not be made any better by draught work. It would perhaps be more accurate to say match up your dog and cart to make a balanced outfit, carts can be found in sizes to suit most breeds and there is no real need to overload your dog with an excessively large cart. If giving rides to small children is to be a main activity then one of the large/giant breeds, (Newfoundland upwards), is essential as this task is just too demanding in anything but very short spells for the smaller carting breeds.

Temperament is also important, not so much from the “ability to learn” to cart aspect although at the extreme ends of the scale this is significant, but from the point of view that as a carting dog you may go into situations where you need to be able to absolutely trust your dog to behave. In public places or at specific events a dog in a cart is a magnet for children and adults who will sometimes have other dogs with them and can quickly draw an intimidating crowd and it is important that this will not cause any problem for your dog. A dog in a cart biting is as bad as in any other situation but additionally a dog panicking in a cart can quickly cause injury to people or himself.

Get your cart

Carts come in many forms and sizes. In our breed of Bernese the philosophy of carting is to reflect the origins of our breed taking milk from Alpine farm to village dairy or cheese, basketware and other produce to market. Consequently our carts tend to aim to be antique looking, usually being made of timber with steel rimmed timber spoked wheels. A few Bernese carts have been genuine Swiss antique dog carts imported specially by or for (wealthy) owners, these are usually two wheeled and very rare. Some of our carts are made in the UK by enthusiastic owners who can sometimes be approached to produce a model to order these tend to roughly copy Swiss ideas in design and are usually four wheeled with the front steering wheels being able to turn underneath the front of the cart to reduce the turning circle. These however can be expensive as much work is involved and the most common cart found in Bernese circles is the Eastern European handcart usually converted by the owner. These four wheeled carts, on which the front wheels will usually not turn underneath the main body, are the type you will see outside antique shops, sometimes even advertised (with an eye to the potential purchaser) as “Dog Carts”. Beware, these are very rarely dog carts and are almost always still handcarts with a single Tee handle very much for pulling by human hand and most definitely not by a dog!. In our experience small antique shops are definitely not the best place to buy this sort of cart which we have found can much better be found at any of the large antique fairs at the outdoor showgrounds (e.g. Newark or Ardingly) several times a year. At these fairs you will find several direct importers with dozens and dozens of these handcarts to choose from in an assortment of sizes and you will nearly always be able to knock down their asking price. For around £100 you should be able to buy a cart in really sound condition, free from signs of woodworm or rot. You should pay particular attention to the wheels as they are the hardest pieces to replace. General soundness of woodwork is the key, not necessarily the cleanest or smartest looking, solidity in the frame with good tight joints, not too much play on the wheels or the pivot pin at the front, these are all some of the features to look for. Some have a painted finish which is fine if intact enough to paint over if you want a painted finish but most people require a natural wood finish and paint will require stripping off which can be very time consuming (or quite expensive). You may have much cleaning up to do on most of these carts but it is a job to keep you busy on the long winter nights and restoring it yourself will give an enormous amount of job satisfaction, not to mention the money saved. The timber is usually stripped down to clean wood by arduous and fiddly rubbing down with sandpaper or wire wool before re-varnishing and the steelwork usually requires similar before being restored in black or sometimes replaced with brass or copper for effect.

Further to these “standard” types of cart there are sometimes specialist types designed and built for specific purposes, one in particular coming to mind was used at a hospital by its Doctor owner for her Bernese to give rides to disabled and handicapped people. It had a large low platform floor, four soft rubber wheels for stability and smooth travel and a seat with straps to secure the rider in a fixed chair.

Shafts

On a hand cart the pulling handle will need to be removed and replaced by a pair of shafts. These are best made from a strong springy hardwood such as Ash which again can be quite expensive to buy. Enough to make a pair of shafts will be at least £50 or more and may require some tracking down but if possible persevere as softwood shafts will probably break sooner or later and a well made set of shafts from quality timber should outlast you and your carting interest. A set of shafts to copy or a template to cut from to incorporate a little shaping is advisable but the key is to make sure they are long enough to give clearance to your dog’s hind legs when he is striding out. It is also a good idea to make them wide enough to accommodate a good size dog even if your current dog is not the largest. If the carting bug bites you may be looking for a larger male in the future! A further point which you will quickly become aware of is, for the sake of your shins and calves, not to have too much shaft protruding in front of the dog. It is worth making a good job of the joints of the shafts as all the power when moving is passed through them so more money may be needed to pay a joiner to make these, again there will be several hours work involved if a nice shaped set is to be produced. Steel reinforcing plates can be hidden on the bottom surface across the joints for additional strength although be wary of making these too thick which will add needless extra weight. The connection to the cart itself should allow up & down movement over uneven terrain and should be at a reasonable height for the dog pulling, the ideal being a slight upward tilt of the shafts to the dog. Some people employ a long brass rod with threaded ends or split pin securing, some have separate bolts on each side but whatever the connection means it should be strong enough to pull and steer the cart. Of course if you have a two wheeled cart then the shafts tend to be integral or solidly connected to the main body of the vehicle. The last point to remember is that, whatever type of cart you have, your shafts will probably need to be easily removable for transport and storage.

Other breed’s carting activity sometimes reflects different origins, e.g. Newfoundlands pulled fish laden carts from the harbour side, and the carts they pull today are sometimes influenced by this and you can only obtain this knowledge by knowing the breed or contacting breed activity groups. Sometimes the larger breeds particularly have carts purely made for giving rides, these often resemble small pony traps and sometimes specifically made or adapted carts mimic a particular theme, e.g. a brewery dray wagon.

In breeds without a carting tradition, carts are sometimes made from little more than old pram wheels and planks and although you will not generally see these in processions or displays they can still perform a function at breed events or around the garden or for practice.

Harness

After finding your cart and shafts you will need to connect it to your dog, the usual means being by a leather harness which attaches to the shafts. These harnesses if made properly of good quality materials will last a lifetime and give no problems. Other materials are sometimes seen, such as heavy canvas, but leather is the traditional material for such purposes and is difficult to better. Occasional maintenance with saddle soap to prevent cracking and maintain a good finish should ensure longevity. Any harness should be well fitting with no pressure points or loose areas to rub against the dog. A broad strong chest band is essential for the dog to pull against and this is usually padded out with thick felt type material for extra comfort. The better quality harnesses are generally made from saddlery leather, usually in black or dark brown and whilst there are a few enthusiasts able to make their own, this job is best done by a proper saddler and most regular carters have their own contact locally.

Harnesses are fitted to the shafts in two places the front and the back, the front by means of straps on the harness passing through small metal fittings on the shaft and the back via the adjustable tresses of the harness in 2 main ways, either by a brass hook on the shaft through a hole in the leather or sometimes a clip is fitted to the end of the tress and this fastens into a ring on the shafts. Whatever method is used it should be secure and strong to enable the dog to pull evenly balancing the load between the front and back fastenings.

Putting it all together

Having acquired all the equipment, dog, cart, shafts and harness it is time to try them out and this is where the help of someone with some experience will be invaluable. Every experienced carter will have their own way of “starting dogs off” and these will vary enormously. The key points, as in most dog training, are plenty of encouragement and reward at all times, never try to intimidate the dog into accepting the cart behind him as this is asking for trouble at a later stage. Another important point is to have helpers, preferably known to the dog so as to help him relax, you must be able to stop him bolting if he tries or panicking if he is not happy, as always safety is of paramount importance. Many dogs, admittedly speaking now mainly of Bernese, are absolute “natural” carters and within minutes of first trying on a harness are happily pulling a cart around a field with a happy owner attached, some take a little more work and a very few fail to achieve some level of success. At general events, as well as the obvious larger breeds, we have had labradors, cavaliers, collies and mongrels carting so with the right sized equipment, virtually any breed can have a go. Whilst not absolutely essential, previous basic obedience based training is a big help, if only to have taught the dog to behave at certain times, a dog which is generally unruly and ill-trained is not likely to improve just because he has been attached to a cart.

It is important to find a flat, level grassy area preferably quiet with few distractions, hard ground should be avoided at first as the noise made by the wheels of the cart can be really disturbing to a beginner dog whom you are trying to give confidence to. The grass should be as short as possible and the ground not too soft in order to minimise the drag of the cart which should not be loaded in any way. It is also important for the area to be as large as possible and certainly enough to allow the dog plenty of room to turn the cart around with a large generous turning circle to avoid causing the dog to push unduly against the shaft sides.

The dogs owner should stand in front of the dog and talk to him in an encouraging fashion and maybe give the odd treat, the dog should be put in harness first and if this appears to cause any reaction then keep it on for a few minutes and then take it off. This may need to be repeated several times in rare cases. The harness straps should be adjusted on the dog for a firm and comfortable fit but not too tight, the chest band should be across the chest and not the throat or the legs and the side straps running through to the tresses should line up from this. Remember, the harness sides will lift up when under stress as the straps pull tight. Once the dog is happy with the harness, and this may occur straight away, the cart should be brought up behind the dog by an assistant with the shafts raised, NEVER reverse a novice dog into the shafts. Gently lower the shafts over the dog with the handler still reassuring the dog. Once in position the front straps should be fastened and then the rear tresses attached. The dog is now secured to the cart and where he goes the cart will go and yet he cannot turn round to investigate as he is stuck between the shafts. This is obviously a strange sensation to a beginner dog and should be handled carefully especially when the first movement is attempted. To assist with this the assistant should take the weight of the pull of the cart by holding firmly the harness over the dogs shoulder so that when movement begins the dog does not initially feel the cart pulling. The owner should now be giving lots of praise and encouragement whilst the assistant is actually pulling the cart, only very slow progress should be attempted initially until you are sure that the dog is relaxed and care should be taken to ensure that the cart does not catch up with the dog and connect with his back legs. Slow gentle movement should be the order of the day as much as possible and jerky movements kept to a minimum. Gradually as the dog gets used to the cart being there the assistant can reduce his pulling and let the dog take over until the dog is doing all the work.

Some dogs will now be happily trotting confidently pulling the cart whilst others will require more encouragement, some of these may freeze refusing to move with the cart behind them and some will try to bolt to escape from the cart and this is when the owner must be able to restrain the dog and have enough assistance there if they themselves cannot cope, the dog cannot be allowed to bolt with a cart as it will be a very dangerous situation likely to injure himself and anyone who gets in his way. Even though they may go through this stage most dogs are quite capable of becoming competent draught dogs if you persevere with them, as with everything else little and often will be better than occasional long sessions stopping frequently to allow the dog to learn that the harness and cart are not permanent fixtures and giving him chance to relax. As with all training it is better if you can finish each session on a win, however small, rather than allow the dog to think he has been released because of his undesirable behaviour.

An alternative addition favoured by some before the cart is attached is to have a period with the harness and shafts only on the dog and allow him to move around with someone holdling the shafts behind him. The handler should be in charge of the dog in the presence of an experienced and sensible carter if at all possible and some people are very good at starting off new dogs.

After the initial stages most dogs progress quickly and become calm and confident carters but you should still exercise care and be aware of your dog at all times in crowded and public places.

Decoration

On the subject of decoration for your cart the biggest influence on this is the history of your breed and any relevance to the carting dog. Our own breed‘s history involves, as mentioned earlier, Swiss farm work taking milk and cheese to the dairy and thus milk churns and large cheeses, (usually plastic), are often featured as well as many coloured flowers which the carts were decorated with when taking part in village processions and festivals. Basket weavers also used Bernese to transport their wares to market and wicker work makes an excellent medium to support additional decoration being light and easy to attach things to. When you add in the noise made by small cow bells, the impact of colourful Swiss costumes for the handlers, the beautiful friendly dogs themselves it is easy to appreciate the popularity of Bernese carting. However these are not the only guises in which you can find Bernese carts and many of the rest could apply to any breed. There are theme classes at club events where the cart, and often dog and handler too, are used as a means of illustrating assorted themes, e.g. “Fairy Stories” or “The Movies” and you can let your imagination run free. Over the years carts have been seen illustrating or disguised as hot dogs, brewery wagons, fire engines, boats, fairy story houses and scenes, the list is endless and possibilities unlimited. Also if attending a children’s party Christmas is an easy theme to illustrate and find decoration for. If collecting money for charity at an event relevant publicity pictures can be fastened to the sides and a collecting bucket in the centre. The possibilities are mainly limited by your imagination but safety for the dog and audience has to be remembered and this means that any items have to be capable of being secured. This especially applies at outside events where parading on uneven and bumpy ground can quickly make surprisingly light work of inadequate fastenings. Also at these events the weather has to be considered, not only rain but the potential effects of any breeze and also the total weight of the cart may have to be taken into account.

Where to go

Firstly it is perhaps worth mentioning where you cannot go, i.e. on the public highway, it has been illegal to have a dog and cart on the roads in the U.K. since the 19th century when it was outlawed, primarily due to the cruelty of the street traders with their carting dogs. Another issue to consider if asked to attend an event is insurance, if you were to be involved in any kind of incident would the event insurance cover you, if not just consider your position beforehand. Most significant events nowadays do have good insurance but you should ask in advance, it may be too late afterwards. Some Bernese carting groups have their own insurance and may be able to suggest insurance companies who may be able to help you if you contact them.

Events at which to cart are more numerous than you may think, if you belong to a breed like ours there are many carting events throughout the summer and several carting groups to organise your attendance, breed enthusiasts would be able to advise on contact numbers. Additionally these breeds will often have their own events at which carting will occur and possibly offer training and advice. If you are “on your own” however there are several types of opportunity you could explore. Many organisers of small local school fetes, country fairs, garden parties and the like are usually looking for new attractions and a decorated cart and friendly dog can be a big interest item.

The link at the end of this article is a good starting point in finding carting events of all kinds.

Rides

The question of giving rides to children at events is one that different carters will have different opinions on. The insurance aspect is one you may wish to consider but others object to this practice on the grounds that carting can be tiring enough for the dogs without the extra work of pulling children around, usually on soft ground. Obviously if you wish to perform this function then it is even more important to be sure of your dogs worthiness to cope with the workload. Just sit a small child in a cart and pull it yourself on a grassy surface to see what hard work it can be. Short shifts are the order of the day to give plenty of recovery time and most people are quite strict on the size of child carried. Your dog must be in excellent well exercised general condition to undertake this task. Obviously if giving rides is a main intention then the bigger and heavier breeds are more desirable and a well balanced specialist cart with a firm seat and usually (2) large wheels will be of help to the dog.

School visits with your dog and cart can be fun but the help of an assistant is preferable to keep an eye on children around the dog. One of the most enjoyable events we have done is the work’s children’s Christmas party when the dogs are kept out the way until the arrival of Santa who brings in the dogs and carts loaded up with presents. Obviously for the latter 2 items an absolutely “bomb-proof” temperament in your dog is even more essential than usual and one potential panic causing event which can occur at the party is balloons bursting, (burst a few balloons to test your dog beforehand if you are not sure how your dog will cope). Most dogs just adore the attention they get though and give a wonderful impression to children and their parents. At one works party we attended for a second year we were surprised to see almost as many parents as children but were told that they’d come to see the dogs that they’d heard all about the previous year!!.

Summary

We hope that if you were thinking of carting with your dog of any breed then you have found the above of some use. As we said at the onset our direct experience is all with one breed but many things are common to all dogs. If you feel we may be able to help further then by all means contact us and if we’ve helped to convince you to have a go then we’re sure that with the right practice, advice, encouragement and some good events and company you’ll be able to take great pleasure and pride from your carting, not to mention the great friends and social life you’ll collect along the way!.

Most importantly of all your dogs will enjoy it too.

Happy Carting!.

Jeanette and Stephen Green
Lane Farm, 49, Carr Road, Deepcar, Sheffield, South Yorkshire. S36 2PR

If you have come to this page cold and wonder what on earth we’re talking about then it is suggested you go to the report pages on this web site ands look at the Garden Party and Working Day reports particularly where you will find lots of photos of Bernese carting in all its forms. The links below will point you towards lots of more useful information.

Useful Links

Finally, these are all links to excellent and informative sites from carting groups in the UK. You can find places to ask for further guidance and events where the carters will be parading where they will be pleased to meet you and show you their dogs and carts and give you direct good advice on how you could start carting.