LAKE PLACID - Laura Lautner never imagined the direction her life would take when she brought an English Labrador puppy into her home a dozen years ago.
The resident of Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo, gave up her career as a teacher to start a dog daycare business, which ultimately led her to the canine sport of weight pulling, and along with it, the hobby of raising the largest breed of dog in the world - English Mastiffs.
Over the final weekend in February, Lautner, her boyfriend John Gordon, and her 200-pound mastiff named Noble made their second trip of the winter to the Adirondack Mountains to participate in the eighth annual Lake Placid Snow Pull. The International Weight Pull Association sanctioned event was held Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 23-24 at the North Elba Show Grounds and drew pulling dogs and their handlers from across New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Lou Reuter/Lake Placid News
Noble, a 200-pound English Mastiff, pulls a sled laden with more than 2,000 pounds of cinder blocks while being urged on by handler John Gordon during the eighth annual Lake Placid Snow Pull on Sunday, Feb. 24 at the North Elba Show Grounds.
Noble is a 3-year-old male and a rookie when it comes to pulling. Lautner got the dog involved in pulling last March through a friend in Western New York. Lautner's passion for the mastiff breed surfaced while she was caring for puppies that two kickers for the Buffalo Bills brought to her doggie daycare known as Caninecapers.
"The team's kicker, Rian Lindell brought a mastiff puppy to my daycare," Lautner said. "He is friends with Brian Moorman (a former punter for the Bills), and he also had me watch his mastiff puppy. At that point, I was taking care of two of them and then the Lindells got a second one.
"I had my dog Nixon, and I was looking for another puppy," Lautner added. "I got to know different breeds through my daycare; a weinerraimer, a german shepherd, and then the mastiff came along. I was hooked. They have a gentle nature, they are calm, they are sweet and I just love that in a dog that has just a massive body."
After being introduced to the mastiff breed through her business, Lautner now has five of her own, and Noble turned out to be the one with a knack for pulling. Lautner said it didn't take Noble long to show he was a strong pulling dog. In the past year, Noble had competed in both wheeled and snow pulls, and his biggest success to date has was an amazing pull of 6,050 pounds on a wheeled sled at an event in Oneida.
"I just learned about this sport last February, and I got Noble pulling a month later," Lautner said. "It's been amazing to see what Noble has been able to accomplish in such a short time."
Lautner recalled Noble's introduction to weight pulling, which took place at a farm in Albion - a town situated between Buffalo and Rochester - where weight pulls are also held.
"They had harnesses and sleds, and I remember putting Noble in the biggest harness they had," Lautner said. "We did tons of obedience classes with him. He's a 200-pound dog and I had to be able to control him. He's really obedient and super motivated by food. Starting out, I held up some chicken and told him to pull. He figured it out. We started adding weight and soon he was pulling 1,000 pounds."
Lautner said she didn't need to use food for very long to motivate Noble, but she did have to bring Gordon into the picture to continue the dog's progression. She said Noble and Gordon built up a relationship that still includes two fitness workouts a week, and when it comes to pulling the heavy weights, Gordon is Noble's handler at competitions.
"Originally, Noble was pulling for a reward of cooked chicken, but now he has that drive. I honestly think some of that comes from what he was bred to do. He's a working dog.
"I worked with Noble when he started out, but there was a point where he stalled with me," Lautner continued. "That's when John took over. I still handle Noble in the early rounds at competitions, but John takes over when the weight gets really heavy. John does a great job has a handler. I think they have this bond that works."
This winter, Lautner, Gordon and Noble have traveled to events just about every week, and their adventures will take them to Alberta, Canada for the IWPA National Championships being held during the first week of May. At the event, Noble will be looking for records in both snow and wheeled pulls.
"The life expectancy for mastiffs is six to nine years, so in Noble's case, there isn't a lot of time," Lautner said. "Dogs have been my passion my whole life, and that's where I spend my time. Instead of spending money on silly luxury things like going to the Bahamas, we go to weight pulls. It's what we do for fun.
"I feel like this is Noble's year," she added. "The only place where you can set an official record is at the national championship, and we are going there to try to break a record. This is the year we want to do it. If it doesn't happen, there's still next year."
In weight pulling, dogs get the opportunity to earn three titles based on pulling certain percentages of their weight. To get those titles, dogs must successfully complete four pulls multiple times their weight at each of the three levels. The percentages vary for the wheeled and snow pulls, with the snow pull being more difficult.
The IWPA is divided into 12 regions across the United States and Canada, with Lake Placid included in Region 5, which covers the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. Noble competes in the unlimited class for dogs 150 pounds and heavier, and he's the only dog in his class in Region 5. In fact, Lautner said Noble is pretty much unrivaled in the dog-pulling world.
A mastiff named Sly owns the current wheeled pull record, a mark of 5,395 pounds set in 1997. The IWPA website lists another mastiff, Riddle, as the snow/artificial surface unlimited record holder with a 2,630 pound pull in 1998. On the final day of the pull in Lake Placid, Noble's top effort was a pull of 2,140 pounds.
Although Noble has been unmatched as a puller, there may be some competition heading his way in the near future, and it could be coming from a family member - his nephew Hercules, which is an English Mastiff puppy Lautner recently brought home from Mexico.
"Right now, Hercules is eight months old and weighs 150 pounds," Lautner said. "He's too young now, but he will be pulling. We will train him until the time when he is actually ready to compete. If things work out, I see Hercules and Noble going at it in 2015."