With chest muscles straining into their harnesses, heads down, and nails digging into the earthen track, a group of American bulldogs and pit bulls from all over the West competed in Penn Valley over the weekend to see who could pull the heaviest load.
The dog pull, as it is known, is an international sport that has specially bred and trained dogs pulling sleds heaped with metal and concrete down prepared tracks.
Top dog in Saturday’s competition went to Magnum, an American pit bull from Utah who pulled 2,850 pounds. In the 41-60-pound class, a dog named Autumn pulled the highest percentage of load to body weight, a whopping 30 percent.
The official dog pull record is 5,022 pounds, pulled in 1995 by Gaitor Red.
Hosting the event that brought dogs from as far away as Utah was the 49er Working American Bulldog and Weight Pull Club, founded by Steve and Cindy Lewis of Penn Valley, who are breeders and competitors themselves. Their club is a member of the 20-year-old International Weight Pull Association.
People get involved in dog pulling because they like the excitement. Justin Boxberger, 23, of Cedar Ridge, said his interest in this sport began “because I enjoy working with my dog. Then it turned into a hobby. I like the competition among friends and find the people I meet interesting.”
Yes, but what about the dogs? What do they think about all this? If the tail wagging and excited barking were any indication this weekend, they looked like they want to be there. Talk to the dog owners and they are ecstatic about their dog’s desire to pull.
“He thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world,” said Caitlin Bodine, 24, of Cedar Ridge, about her 109-pound American bulldog Saber.
While most competitors put their heart and souls into the pull, not all of them were enthusiastic, such as first-timer Caesar, who whined his refusal. He nevertheless got a pat, a “good dog,” and claps from the spectators as encouragement for the next time.
Dog lovers don’t have to be concerned about the dogs being hurt in competition.
“They’re bred for it,” Steve Lewis said, “to develop their tendons and muscles.” They’re trained and conditioned from the time they are pups and compete in classes under the watchful eyes of judges who adhere to strict rules.
“In four years, no dog has been injured,” Steve Lewis said.
Although many breeds compete, it is the American pit bull and bulldog that many agree are the best at pulling weight.
“They are working dogs who love to work,” said Steve Lewis. With impressive pedigrees, too. One of his dogs, Shiva, an award-winning female who is also a mother, traces her lineage back to a grandfather who was the young bull dog in the movie “Homeward Bound.”
By the way, said Steve Lewis, “Some of the best (dog competitors) are girls because of their sheer determination.”
Part of the fun of the event was watching the performance of the dogs’ handlers, who do everything from shouting encouragement to getting down on all fours, as Beth Lloyd from Modesto did to get her dog Neo down the 16-foot track in his first pull ever. It is the desire to please that helps motivate the dogs.
For all the dogs’ size and power, many are family pets who share living quarters – even beds – with their owners. The Lewis’ Web site features a photo of 115-pound Gold medalist American bull dog Red Bull sharing a tender moment with Cindy under the banner “Red Bull loves his momma.”
While Steve Lewis said this was the last local dog pull of the year, a big international competition is scheduled in Colorado for the last weekend in April.
To contact the Lewises about their American bulldogs or the sport of dog pulls, call (530) 432-4712, e-mail