You have just gotten a Saint Bernard, you’ve heard of the ancient history of the working Saint in the Swiss valleys pulling carts filled with supplies for their family as well as up to the Monastery at the Hospice in the Alps. And now you’re wondering if maybe your Saint is up to “working”, can he follow in those big footsteps?
Well, you won’t know until you try. Some dogs just won’t do it but it can be quite fun for both the dog and your family once you all are safely and properly trained. Your local Saint club, or your breeder may be able to help you find a qualified teacher. There may also be some local Working Dog Clubs for other breeds such as Newfoundlands who hold classes and events in your area. They will also have equipment to lend you and they will help you fit your Saint with the proper harness. And of course you want to be well supervised with an experienced person helping you at first. They have the expertise to help you with your Saint, and will take into consideration the dog’s age, size and attitude.
Once equipped with the proper harness, one of the first steps is to try getting the dog to pull a long length of chain or a strong rope tied around an old tire, always on level ground. You may be tempted to use a sled or the cart on a hill, but don’t! Make sure there is plenty of room behind the dog so it doesn’t make contact with the hind legs. And you must absolutely try this only with a proper harness and not just a collar and lead. The dog should be trained to pull and to work only when in harness, NEVER use a collar and lead – you can risk serious injury to the dog’s neck and trachea.
A word of caution here- if the load on the cart or sled is not secured properly, it can get away and run into the back legs of your dog! This is one of the many reasons we recommend you going to a supervised event to try it out first. These trainers know what they are doing for the safety of the dogs and one of their goals too is to make this a totally enjoyable experience for both you and your Saint.
The first time your dog gets into a harness attached to some restraint, he might not pull it. That’s just natural and also another reason why we use a harness. You can bait the dog with food or toys but that’s just for training. You cannot have food, toys or treats in a real weight pull chute at sanctioned events. But using those tools during training will help develop a positive attitude for harness work.
If the dog gets scared with something tied behind him, then stop and try again later. Offer loads of praise and encouragement. Have the Saint on a lead and walk with him during training to reassure him he is doing okay. Know when it is time to stop the session. You want to help develop the bond between you and the dog; he has to know he can trust you.
Once your dog is used to this, slowly add weight and see if he will continue to pull. Limit this exercise to just around 15 minutes each time. If he doesn’t want to pull, try again later. If they don’t ever do it, well, there’s your answer. Some dogs do and some dogs don’t. And even if this activity is not for him, you still have a wonderful Saint to share your life with.
Pay Attention to Your Dog
I have seen several dogs who seem to know when the weight is too much…… they don’t pull! Period. So listen to your dog, watch his body language and never force him. Can a dog get hurt? YES! That is why it should be done under trained supervision. The SBCA has trained judges as does the International Weight Pull Association (www.IWPA.NET). There are many other “Working Dog” events like Tracking and Drafting to try. Information can be found elsewhere on this website.
Remember, the strong and powerful Saint Bernard was bred hundreds of years ago to do this, it’s in their genes. They are true working dogs.
Ken Cowen, Washington