YAKIMA, Wash. -- At 40 pounds, Zoey the pit bull doesn’t look all that mighty.
But she’s about to pull more weight than most humans could probably push.
“Work, little mama. Work, little mama,” says her handler, Brad Croach of Spokane, clapping his hands and encouraging Zoey across the finish line as she pulls a cart loaded with 1,365 pounds of concrete blocks.
Zoey, who finished the round at 1,415 pounds, was among a dozen dogs competing Saturday at a regional competition for the International Weight Pull Association. The event was held at the Yakima Valley SunDome in conjunction with the Central Washington Sportsmen Show.
Each dog has up to a minute to drag the cart 16 feet. For each round, competitors can either add weight in 50-pound increments or pass that round and have more weight added next time. Passing gives the dog a break during rounds that the handler already knows the dog can handle.
Points are awarded for the heaviest pulls in each classification.
The Yakima competition is a regional qualifier for the national contest, to be held this year in May in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Croach has been competing for four years, ever since friends convinced him to try the sport. He also owns a second pit bull, Mater (“like tomato,” he says), that weighed in Saturday at 87 pounds.
Croach says he treats his canine athletes as house pets, as if they were his children. Regular training with weight loads keeps them in shape and enthusiastic for time on the track.
“It’s just like throwing a ball. They love to do it,” he said.
Some competitors travel across the country and Canada, making friends they now consider part of an extended family.
“You get to meet a lot of nice people,” said Joey Prater, a Yakima man who was competing with three Brazilian mastiffs that he and his wife own.
Along with Saint Bernards, the mastiffs are among some of the larger weight-pulling dogs, but smaller breeds such as chihuahuas and toy poodles also compete. Weight classes range up to 150 pounds; an unlimited class covers weights above that.
Ray Slish, a Kent man who has attended the Yakima event since it started 27 years ago, said one of his retired Saint Bernards pulled 5,020 pounds, a class record that stood for years until a rule change.
The Yakima event used only wheeled sleds; due to lack of snow, a sled competition was not held.
George Ferrari of Yakima, who has attended or organized contests in Yakima and elsewhere since 1999, said he was glad to see Saturday’s turnout.
Interest in the sport has died down over the years. Winners are competing only for points, not cash prizes. And training and competing takes time and money that younger generations don’t seem to want to invest, he said.
But for those crazy enough to stick with it, weight-pulling is a chance for pet owners to bond with their animals and other competitors.
“It’s something to do with your dog besides going for a walk,” he said.