by   David Hancock

Well over a century ago, Professor Reul, one of the founders of the Belgian Club for Draught Dogs, wrote: "The dog in harness renders such precious services to the people, to small traders and to the small industrials (agriculturists included) in Belgium that never will any public authority dare to suppress its current use." But now 'such precious services' are just not visible any more, overtaken by road traffic and its sheer congestion. Dogs in shafts however had served traders and the public at large for several centuries, providing a 'rickshaw-type' service for both short-distance travellers and market-traders. The lighter carts sometimes became involved in cart-races, many of which ended in crashes and temporary chaos at the scene. But the more serious commercial use brought benefits to traders in getting their produce to local markets. To haul a laden carts a draught dog had to be strong!                                           

In his article entitled Belgian Draught Dogs, published in The Kennel Encyclopaedia in 1907, Henry Sodenkamp wrote:

   “A good draught dog must be built on the hackney model. Some of them exceed in height any of the large breeds, having a circumferential chest measurement of 40 inches, and weighing as much as 140 to 160 pounds. There are records of draught dogs taking, uphill, a load of 800 pounds without any assistance when starting.”

A 160lb dog, with a chest circumference of 40inches, having that pulling power, must have been a sight to behold! This is more pony-size than dog-size and the draught dogs were of course work-horses in the small streets of major cities of their time.   The 'Trekhond' in Holland, the 'Ziehhund' in Germany and the 'Chien de Trait' in France became the small work-horses of Western Europe. Bylandt in his 'Dogs of all Nations' of 1904 described such dogs as being: from 26 to 31½ inches in height at the shoulder, weighing a minimum of 112lbs for the dogs and 100lbs for the bitches, rather short-muzzled, with docked tails and usually fawn or brindle with a black mask. These are the colour combinations of the mastiff breeds, which manifested themselves in the matins, a type of dog rather than a breed. The recently-restored Belgian Mastiff or Matin Belge displays such a colour.

Taplin, writing in The Sportsman's Cabinet of 1804 on Dutch dogs, stated that: "...there is not an idle dog of any size to be seen in the whole of the seven provinces. You see them in harness at all parts of The Hague, as well as in other towns, tugging at barrows and little carts, with their tongues nearly sweeping the ground, and their poor palpitating hearts almost beating through their sides; frequently three, four five, and sometimes six abreast, drawing men and merchandize with the speed of little horses."

Many of the large powerful draught-dogs in the Low Countries descended from "matins", once used as boar-lurchers in the hunt. These determined coarsely-bred dogs were used at the kill, so as not to risk the more valuable boarhounds on the boar's tusks. The wild boar is a formidable quarry, with many dogs being killed in their hunting. As boar-hunting lapsed, largely because of the scale of slaughter by reckless hunters, a new employment was found for such strong willing dogs, in the commercial dog-cart market. The Matin Belge, referred to above, a distinct if unrecognized type, is being restored by a devoted group of fanciers, inspired by the admirable Alfons Bertels and supported by Johan Gallant, at the present time.

In the countries where draught-dogs were once utilised, the local authorities regulated their use. In Belgium it was not permitted to: harness dogs smaller than 24" at the shoulder, use old or sick dogs, bitches in whelp or still suckling, harness a dog with another animal, allow the dog to be controlled by someone under 14 years old, convey passengers or leave harnessed dogs in the sun in hot weather. The traces had to be at least a yard long and the collar and any harness in contact with the dog had to be padded. Any vehicle towed by dogs had to have springs and be fitted with brakes. A single dog could only pull 300lbs and two or more dogs 400lbs, including the vehicle's weight.

Some of the breeds used abroad as draught dogs became recognised and are still with us. The Swiss breeds are probably the best known, with even the St Bernard finding employment in this way. The St Bernard was widely used as a draught-dog in Alpine villages and prized for its calm temperament and determined but relaxed willingness, two key attributes in dogs used in such a role. The Swiss made most use of the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, now being introduced into Britain, and the Bernese Mountain Dog, now rightly a firm favourite here. In Brussels and Antwerp a century ago, a good draught-dog could be bought for the equivalent of £4. The dogs were fed on a mixture of stale bread and horsemeat. Some enthusiasts would course their dogs over two or three miles, with the public able to place wagers on each contestant. In Portugal and Spain dog-carts were utilised to deliver the casks of grapes from the vineyards and the cork from the forests. The dogs used resembled today's Estrela Mountain Dog in Portugal and the Spanish Mastiff in Spain. Their ferocity, so valuable in the hunt, had to be bred out but their natural protectiveness was valued. 

In Britain too, draught dogs were widely used, until, because of the huge increase of traffic in London, compounded by the widespread ill-treatment of the dogs, led to this practice being forbidden by law. Dogs were used instead of ponies to pull the carriages of some eccentric sportsmen in the 19th century. In Lawrence's The Sporting Repository of 1820 there is reference to a man who "exhibited a carriage drawn by six dogs. These were the largest and most powerful which we have ever witnessed." Another man boasted of the pulling feats of his 'Siberian Wolf-dog', which pulled a dog-cart unaided. In Shropshire, Squire Danville Poole used a pack of black and tan terriers to keep the local curs away from his horse-drawn carriage. I could imagine many of the working terriers I see at country shows relishing such a task. Much more valuably, dogs were used in WW1 to pull ammunition carts and wheeled casualty trolleys.

Draught dogs were not only cheaper to employ than horses but were much more manoeuvreable. Importantly too, their drivers were not required to pay tolls. Despite this, the use of dog-carts was never widespread in Scotland, perhaps because of the long distances between towns. When the railways came, dog-drawn carts were used in the south of England to carry fish from the ports to the railheads. Some made the journey from Brighton to Portsmouth in one day, returning the following day. Humanitarians argued that dogs' paws were never designed to cope with hard sharp-stoned roads, whatever their widespread and indispensable use over snow in Arctic countries. Some critics suggested that dog-carts frightened horses and vets even cited such use as a means of spreading rabies! The use of dog-carts in England was ended by piecemeal legislation. In 1839 a clause in the Metropolitan Police Act denied the use of dogs as beasts of burden within 15 miles of Charing Cross. This alone resulted in the destruction of more than 3,000 dogs. When an anti-dogcart bill was being introduced in 1854, the Earl of Malmesbury stated that in Hampshire and Sussex alone there were 1,500 people earning a living from dog-carts.

In the debate, Lord Brougham spoke of a dog-cart driver who had ripped up an exhausted dog and given its entrails to two other dogs for food. The Earl of Eglington, opposing the bill, forecast the destruction of between 20,000 and 30,000 dogs. The Bishop of Oxford stated that ill-used dogs had been traced for distances of up to 20 miles by following blood trails on the highway. He claimed that it was not unusual for a dog to be driven 40 or 50 miles on a hard road until it could just not continue, when it would be destroyed and replaced by a fresh dog. The bill went through.

The Newfoundland was utilised in its home country to pull fish-carts, while Dogue de Bordeaux crosses were employed as cart-dogs in the south of France. The Leonberger, the Rottweiler and even the German Shepherd Dog, have all been used too in this way. In Britain today the pulling power of Bull Terrier crosses is often tested by their owners, using rubber-wheeled trailers. Some of the so-called Irish Staffies putting in quite remarkable feats of pulling, for their body weight. It would be satisfying too to see working tests for big dogs, designed to test their strength and application, but also to employ them, help them to feel useful, develop their spirit and counter the sheer boredom of most of the daily lives. Dogs long to be active, to have a use, to share activity with us and, whilst their pulling power may no longer be utilised, their willingness to work with us and for us deserves employment of some kind. Lap-dogs always look so desperately bored!