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RIVERTON, Conn. — Valiant, an Alaskan malamute, dug his paws into the damp grass and surged forward in his harness, determined to pull a cart stacked with concrete blocks weighing 1,000 pounds.
“Hurry!” hollered owner Todd Sheehan, backpedaling as the dog arched his back and extended his body to pull roughly 10 times his weight.
“Let’s go!” Sheehan said. “Work! C’mon, boy. There ya go. C’mon. C’mon.”
Valiant forged ahead, pulling the load 16 feet in less than 19 seconds to nab a first-place ribbon on a recent Saturday for most weight pulled, at the International Weight Pull Association Fireman’s Pull in Riverton, a tiny village along the Farmington River in northwestern Connecticut. Sheehan was a bit frustrated that his 5-year-old, 103-pound dog failed to pull 1,200 pounds.
“He still needs work,” said Sheehan, 49, of Stafford Springs, Conn., who has had dogs compete in more than 100 weight-pulling competitions since 2003. “He’s gotta stop backing up and stepping out of the harness.”
The IWPA formed three decades ago and is one of a host of organizations, including the United Kennel Club and American Pulling Alliance, that sanction dog weight-pulling competitions across the United States. It also has contests in Canada. In the events, dogs are separated by weight class and given 60 seconds to pull a cart loaded with weights for 16 feet without help from their owners.
Owners said the sport helps them build a strong bond with their dogs, giving the animals much-needed exercise, particularly working dogs such as malamutes. But animal rights activists contend the sport is cruel, leaving dogs prone to injuries, including muscle strains and tears. Breeders, they say, will push their dogs to the extreme to sell puppies for top dollar.
“It can be extremely dangerous to dogs, especially if they haven’t been conditioned or trained for it,” said Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “The other concern is when you have owners that are more focused on winning than the safety of their dogs.”
Eighteen dogs, 16 of which were malamutes, competed in the Riverton event. The other two dogs were a Siberian husky and Simon, a 2-year-old white bichon-poodle mix, weighing in at 15 pounds.
The competition was a first for Simon, who pulled a 70-pound cart with ease. When a 50-pound concrete block was added, he paced and barked, unable to pull the load to his 10-year-old owner, Haley Cogley, who was squatting as she cheered him on.
Haley’s stepfather, Ty Poulton, 32, of Winsted, Conn., said Haley plans to keep “pulling him.”
“I’ll tell you what — for the first time pulling in competition, he did really good,” Poulton said. “Just the effort he gave. He didn’t really give up. He kept trying.”
Bonding with dogs
Ashley Paden, 26, of Winsted, a member of the Riverton Volunteer Fire Company who organized the event as a benefit, said she sometimes finds herself having to defend the sport.
An administrator on the Facebook page “Stop the Weight Pull Hate,” she said her mother thinks it’s cruel.
“A lot of people don’t understand it,” Paden said. “You can’t force a dog to pull weight. You pretty much hook your dog up and say, ‘Come,’ and if he doesn’t come, he doesn’t come. It’s all up to the dog.”
Husband-and-wife team Dave and Susan Gallagher, both 48, of Randolph, Vt., took eight malamutes to the event in a Ford E-350 shuttle bus that has been converted into a mobile kennel. They said they started competing more than a decade ago because their dog, Takani, a 12-year-old malamute, was chewing up furniture and needed a job.
“It’s a bonding thing,” said Dave Gallagher, who works for a company that sells supplies to power companies. “Can you force the dogs into doing it? Yeah. Is it the right way of doing it? No. If you bond with the dogs, they’ll work a lot harder than if you force them into doing it.”
The two rewards their dogs by letting them sleep in their bed if they perform well. Susan Gallagher said safety is a priority and the harnesses protect the dogs from injury.
“It doesn’t put any pressure on their back and their hips,” she said.
Dogs not only pull weight on grass but also compete in events pulling sleds on snow and carts on a rail system on carpet. On rails, some dogs have pulled up to five tons. Jane Palinkas of Winsted had a mother-son malamute team, Tiffney and Carhartt, competing.
“My malamutes will pull until they don’t feel safe,” she said. “And once they don’t feel safe, they just stop.”
Some owners, she said, take it too far. She recalled a competition a couple of years ago in Massachusetts in which a pit bull was trembling in the pull area when it couldn’t pull weight. She suspected the dog was being abused, on the basis of its behavior and other information she heard about the owner.
“The dog was p---ing in the chute, and she was shaking,” she said. “She was terrified.”
Enzo Cullotta, 42, of St. Charles, Ill., competed for years with American bulldogs, including in IWPA events, and currently judges weight-pulling competitions for an organization called Irondog. He’s aware of concerns of animal rights groups but said he’s never seen owners pushing dogs too hard, giving them illegal drugs or training them for dogfighting. Aggressive behavior toward dogs isn’t tolerated, he said.
“These people care about their dogs,” he said. “They really do.”
To prepare his dogs for pulling, he had them start dragging chains when they were 4 months old. As they got older and started competing, he hooked them up to his bicycle and run them six miles at a time. He said some dogs enjoy it but others don’t and there’s no sense in pushing a dog that doesn’t want to do it. It’s exciting to watch an American bulldog pull, he said.
“They’re not just a pet,” Cullotta said. “They’re a machine. When they got it, it just makes it so much fun.”
Animal-rights groups weigh in
Rajt said there have been cases of people suspected of dogfighting who used weight pulling as a defense because some of the same training methods and equipment are used. She questions why anyone would be drawn to the sport.
“Why can’t you just value the animal for the companionship that he offers?” she said.
Kay Riviello, a co-founder of New York Animal Rights Alliance America, a New York City–based animal rights activist group founded in 2010, said her organization opposed a weight-pulling competition held a few years ago in Buffalo.
Riviello, who has been rescuing pit bulls for two decades, said she thinks it’s a joke to have dogs pulling thousands of pounds in front of crowds of screaming people.
“It’s become a circus,” she said. “At the very heart of it, it’s exploitation.”
She pointed to a law in New York that says it’s illegal to overdrive an animal.
“How much more obvious could it be that these dogs are overdriven?” she asked. “We want a dog to have rights. Is it really in their best interest that they’re pulling thousands of pounds?”
Is it safe?
There is a risk of injury in dog weight pulling just as there is a risk for humans who lift weights, said Robert Gillette, a veterinarian at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Gillette, a sports medicine rehabilitation specialist, said shoulder sprains, muscle pulls and muscle soreness are common injuries in the sport. The risk of injury, however, can be significantly reduced through conditioning and using a proper harness, he said.
“Malamutes have been bred for centuries to do this type of thing,” he said. “They’re a freight breed. Those dogs are genetically designed to perform these types of tasks.”
Any dog can pull when “prepared properly,” he said. Dogs that participate in weight pulling and other physical activities are less prone to psychological problems, have fewer behavioral issues and develop a strong bond with their owners, he said.
He suggests that before competing, owners take their dogs to a vet for an exam, feed them a medium-fat diet, assess how much weight they can pull and condition them. Gillette recommends taking a dog for a light jog or giving it a massage just before a competition. The more active a dog is, the stronger its muscles, ligaments, bones and tendons will get, allowing it “to do more things with less risk,” he said.
“The activity itself,” he said, “is beneficial to the health of the dog.”