by Pia K. Hansen

So you're walking your pooch quietly down the sidewalk, allowing adequate sniffing time at fire hydrants, low bushes and benches. You're thinking to yourself, "Gosh, I'm so lucky I adopted Cuddles from the pound -- he really is a nice dog" as you glance lovingly down at your shaggy companion. "Who would have known that he would turn out this well? Just give 'em a lot of love and look at what they give back."

Cuddles looks at you with huge moist brown eyes, and you let that warm bonding feeling pet owners occasionally experience wash over you. Let's face it, it's because of moments like these that you continue to shell out big bucks for dog food, worm treatment and squeaky toys.

Here's what's going on inside Cuddles' head at the same time: "Red alert! Red alert! Squirrel entering sidewalk 64 feet ahead. Red alert! Red alert! Must chase squirrel. Urge to chase is irresistible. Must run. Must run. CHARGE!!!"

Cuddles takes off, nails scratching on the pavement, letting out a high-pitched barking noise that's reserved solely for squirrel chasing. And you? You become airborne as tendons and ligaments in your left arm are stretched inches beyond their natural length as you scramble forward, desperately trying to stay on your feet. It feels as if your shoulder is being pulled out of its socket. Cuddles pulls you forward with incredible Puppy-Chow-powered propulsion.

You can scold little Cuddles -- or you can enter him in a dog-pulling competition.

"There's no connection between pulling on the leash and pulling in a weight pull at all," says Devin Crouch, card-carrying member of the Inland Northwest Malamute Association, the club that plays host to this weekend's International Weight Pull Association Championships. "When the dogs are pulling weights, they wear a harness that puts the pressure on the dog's shoulders. Just as a horse knows the difference between a yoke and a halter, so does the dog know the difference between a collar and a harness."

Dog-powered weight pulling is, in fact, a well-established sport, with roots going back to Gold Rush times. Some of the finest pull dogs in North America are arriving at the Spokane Fair & amp; Expo Center this weekend to give their all and compete in the 2004 International Championships.

"Generally speaking, dog pull goes back to the Klondike days in Alaska. People had sled teams, and the pulling dogs were very important," says Crouch. "Dogs were the main draft animals -- they were used as work animals around the homestead. Having a good pulling dog back then was very highly prized."

Today, weight pulling is entertainment more than anything else. Dogs of all breeds will participate in this weekend's show, including a 12-pound poodle named Yip-yip being handled by 85-year-old Morris Hyzer, and a 200-pound English Mastiff mix named Herman Munster.

The dogs are divided into eight different groups based on their bodyweight. Those competing here in Spokane have qualified at regional shows.

The rules for weight pulling are very simple: dog and sled (or cart with wheels) are positioned behind the start line; the handler then walks to the other side of a line 16 feet away. The dog has one minute to pull the weight to the finish line. Weight is added in specific increments, until the dog either can't or won't pull anymore. Most dogs do between five and 12 pulls in a day's worth of competition.

"Once the dog is hitched up, you can clap your hands, whistle, talk, do anything like that to coerce the dog to pull and come toward you," says Crouch. "But you can't use baiting. No tennis balls, no toys, no food treats."

No food treats?!

"No, it's that way to make it as much of the dog's own choice to pull as possible. There's always the option that the dog simply says no," says Crouch, who competes with his Malamutes -- Koluk, Makai, Boomerang and Vader -- who usually enjoy the competition.

"They get all excited when I get the harness out, and if I start loading the crates into the back of the pickup, then -- oh boy," Crouch says. "I can tell if they're in a good mood -- then I know they'll do well. But sometimes they just sit down and pretend that you're not there. And when you're the handler, the 60-second time period you have to get it done in is a very long 60 seconds. Usually, people just take their dogs out of the contest after trying for a little while."

Children and adults compete in the same trials, but there are some special awards for junior handlers.

"Just because it's a 9-year-old kid standing next to you, you shouldn't think you're better," says Crouch. "Last year, at the nationals in the 60-pound class, two young boys won the gold and the silver medals. Sometimes that dog will just do whatever it takes to get to that kid."

It's a mind game, in other words.

"It's all about their mindset and their determination. You want a dog that's enthusiastic about what it's doing," says Crouch. "All breeds can do this, but believe me, there are lazy dogs out there, and they just won't get very far pulling. They'd rather sleep on your rug at home."

Publication date: 04/22/04

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