I decided this spring that I was going to be ready for a Draft Dog Excellent test in the fall. A lofty goal indeed, as I had never seen a complete DDX test and wasn't too sure what to expect. All I knew that it is a tough test with a very low pass rate. There is also a huge intimidation factor (at least for me) surrounding the DDX - you hear all kinds of horror stories about the courses set by the judges and what is expected. And then there is the whole "handling from behind the cart" that fails many, many teams. Intimidating indeed.
I started my training by going to an informal training session where a couple of experienced draft people (judges) were willing to answer my million questions. The rule book is vague in many spots, so I wanted lots of clarification of what was and was not allowed in a test. I also wanted some help on getting started with the behind the cart stuff. I got some good advise and tips and went home ready to train. Most of my training concentrated on 3 things - behind the cart work, conditioning and backpacking.
Behind the cart work: We practiced this every day that we were out with the cart. I won't lie - it was hard. I used a target and a clicker to get started, but I really wanted to fade the target quickly. In the beginning the whole thing was a disaster. Getting Bosley to walk ahead in a straight line was the hardest - he really just wanted to make a big circle so that he could get back beside me. So baby steps with this - clicking a rewarding for just walking a couple steps in a straight line. I took a trick from agility distance training and would throw a container of goodies in front of him to reward him going straight ahead. Once Bosley had some confidence that he could actually work in front of me, I started adding in the turns. Another disaster. Once he started the turn he wouldn't stop until he was back beside me again. Patience is the name of the game in draft training, good thing I have lots of it. So, I decided to use Bosley's strengths to help with our training (duh). Bosley has an awesome halt with his cart, which is a huge advantage when doing draft work. I started using his "whoa" before and after all turns and it worked - things actually started to come together. It was a bit choppy, but it was getting there. Good enough for a test? I didn't know.
Conditioning: This is a huge factor in draft work. In a test, you never know what the terrain or conditions will be like, so you need to prepare for anything. We would alternate days of hard hill/strength work with days of longer endurance work, always with a loaded cart. By test day, Bosley was easily pulling 80 pounds up and down steep hills, through ditches and over rough terrain.
Backpacking: The dreaded backpacking. When we started training, Bosley hated the backpack. I put it on and he didn't think he could walk. Poor boy. But once we started hiking more with it, he got used to it. He never did learn to love wearing it and every time I increased the weight (he needed to pack 16 pounds for the test) he would walk like he would sink into the ground at any second. The good thing is that I always kept cookies in his backpack, so he knew he would get a treat when we were done and that really kept him motivated.
Five months of training finally came down to the test weekend. I was feeling OK going into the test but still unsure of what to expect. I am the only one of my local dog training friends that does carting work, so I had no feed back on how I was doing or what I could do to improve. I just had to trust that my dog understood his job and that I trained him the best I could. So, all that was left was to pack the car and head off to the test.