Love Winter Sports? Try Skijoring, Cross-Country Skiing With Your Dog
Many dog owners dread winter as the time of year when it’s hard to get their dogs enough exercise. Try skijoring, though, and you may do a lot more than solve that problem.
"It’s a phenomenal opportunity to deepen your relationship with your dog," says John Thompson, co-author of Ski Spot Run: the Enchanting World of Skijoring and Related Dog-Powered Sports. "It’s true teamwork."
What Exactly Is Skijoring?
Skijoring is exercise for both of you. Instead of sitting on a sled and letting the dog do all the work, you’re on cross-country skis, propelling yourself along. The dog is out in front on a harness, attached to you by a long line, sometimes adding momentum — and companionship.
What Breeds of Dogs Can Try Skijoring?
You don’t need a Husky or Malamute to try skijoring, and some possibly surprising breeds are good at it. Trainer Louisa Morrissey of High Country Dogs in Colorado says serious skijoring racers often have Pointers. "That’s how I started," she says. "I had two Pointers and needed to get them more exercise."
In fact, while the lower size limit is traditionally around 30 pounds, Morrissey will allow almost any dog in her skijoring workshops as long as the human’s expectations are reasonable. She’s taught a number of Pomeranians and even a Shih Tzu. "The woman just wanted to putter around on cross-country skis," she recalls. "Her dog trotted in front of her, and they were absolutely happy together."
How Can You Prepare for Skijoring?
The dog is only part of the consideration, though — the human needs to be ready as well.
"As far as the dog sports go, it’s one of the simpler ones," Morrissey says. "Most challenging is probably the human part. A lot of people underestimate cross-country skiing."
Morrissey recommends that you have at least a couple of cross-country skiing lessons — downhill doesn’t count, because the feel and technique are different — to learn a few basic skills before taking your dog along. "You need to be comfortable gliding, be able to stop, and stay up on your skis, say, 80 percent of the time," she says.
What Will Your Dog Need to Stay Safe and Comfortable?
When it’s time to include your dog, short-haired breeds like Pointers will probably need coats. On the opposite end of the spectrum, once it gets above freezing, you’ll need to watch that thick-coated northern breeds aren’t getting too warm. But, in general, exercising in the cold can be safer than in the warm weather, when dogs overheat easily because they can cool themselves only by panting.
"Winter is perfect for a dog-powered sport. The air is really keeping the dogs cool every time they breathe in and it blows across their tongue," Thompson says. "They can run longer and pull harder."
You do want to make sure your dog drinks enough, because dehydration increases the risk of hypothermia, and keep an eye on their feet.
"Some dogs get cold feet, and some don’t," Morrissey says. "If you notice them picking up their paws, they’re either cold or nervous." To keep ice balls from forming, trim fur from their feet, and use musher’s wax. If trail conditions are rough and icy, your dog should wear booties.
And the sport obviously calls for specialized equipment, such as a harness specifically designed for skijoring that doesn’t put pressure on your dog’s neck.
What’s the Best Way to Start Skijoring?
With any new exercise for your dog, you want to check with your veterinarian first to make sure he is healthy and capable of taking on the sport, and start slow. "Temper your enthusiasm, make the first outing short, and stop before [you and your dog] get tired. Err on the conservative side," Thompson says.
But basic training shouldn’t be difficult. Certainly the pulling part comes naturally to many dogs. "How many times have you seen a dog walking down the street pulling the arm off the owner?" Thompson asks. (And maybe you’ve even been that owner.)
Some dogs do need to be coaxed or focused — or assured that it’s OK to pull in this circumstance — because like in any other training, different dogs need different approaches. Julie Draguns, who skijors with her Golden Retriever, Sage, and her mixed breed, Winnie, says their initial experiences were quite distinct.
Sage was young and distractible, more interested in head-butting Draguns’ skis and poles. "Then [Sage] found something interesting in a tree well and jumped into it and left me face down in the snow," Draguns recalls. "It was hard to get her focused and get her going, but she did get it by the end of that session, and she had a great time."
Winnie was the opposite. "As soon as I put the harness and skis on, she was ready to run," Draguns says. "She took off and ran till she couldn’t run any more. She was so excited to get to run as fast as she wanted to."
Is Advanced Training Needed?
Morrissey suggests that your dog know some basic obedience to start, but otherwise you’ll learn the commands you need, like how to turn right and left and to stop, in your first skijoring lesson.
The training is straightforward, Thompson says. "We set the dog up for success — attach that command to an activity that they’re already doing," he says. "Walk down a trail that only turns 90 degrees to the right, then give the command ‘Gee,’ then they associate the command with that behavior."
Put it all together, and it’s a workout for both of you — not the sort of wild ride that some initially fear. "It’s not that the dog is pulling you everywhere; you’re working as a team to move forward," Draguns says. "While there are times when the dog will increase your momentum, it’s more about staying on pace with one another."
Trainers are quick to reassure that letting most dogs pull in skijoring isn’t going to make them drag you down the street when you get back home. "It’s very easy for the dog to differentiate," Thompson says.
For safety, there should be a quick-release on the line attaching you to your dog, in case you get tangled. And if you’re worried about going too fast, there’s a simple solution if all else fails, Thompson says: "Normally with one dog, if you just sit down on your skis, you’re not going anywhere."
You can, in fact, do skijoring with more than one dog of similar size, although you should work with them separately at first. This may seem dubious, given what happens when a lot of people try to just walk two dogs, but Morrissey says skijoring with more than one dog can actually be simpler. "The dogs have a job, and when you give a dog a job, things get easier," she says. "You give them a focus."
Where Can You Go Skijoring?
Maybe the most challenging thing is to find a place to do it, because like other outdoor spaces, not all ski areas are dog friendly. There are cross-country centers that rent equipment and give lessons, but don’t expect to do skijoring just anywhere that you can ski. Morrissey says that in Colorado, out of probably more than around 620 miles of groomed trails, there are only about 30 miles where dogs are allowed.
But enthusiasts say skijoring is worth seeking out, because you’ll get more than just a dog who’s tired at the end of the day.
"The best moments in my life have been out on the trail with my dogs," Thompson says. "They’re having a blast. Maybe some light snow is falling. It’s quiet. You’re in the outdoors, you’re with your best friend, and you’re having fun."
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