Exploring the World of Snow with Your Dog

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Originally published in Cross Country Skier magazine.   Ratchet, the dog, zips down the trail over a white landscape dotted with snow-laden trees. He obeys “gee” and “haw” while exuberantly pulling his human companion behind him. Miles easily pass by, as the pink morning sky turns to blue. For skiers looking forward to gliding on the winter snow, but wanting to share the outdoors with their best canine buddy, skijoring could be the answer. Imagine whisking away using little effort. That’s because your dog is giving you a hand, or more accurately four paws. Take everything you know about skiing and add a dog to it. Whether you skate ski or use the diagonal stride technique, you can go farther and faster than on your own power. Skijoring (pronounced skee-JOAR-ing), which means “ski driving” in Norwegian, originated out of necessity in Scandinavia, where traditionally reindeer pulled a person on wooden skis. It was a practical transportation means on a land filled with snow most of the year. Eventually, necessity would evolve into an enjoyable pastime and spread to the rest of the world. Though people skijor with horses too, attaching a dog to the other end of the line has grown popular. The northern breeds of canines would seem the obvious choice, yet almost any over 30 pounds is suitable, especially the energetic kind. Dogs should be at least a year old. At this point, their muscles and bones have likely matured enough to take the stress of pulling. “If dogs are exercised too strenuously before they mature it can predispose them to musculoskeletal conditions later in life, like bad hips, knees, shoulders or elbows,” explains Dr. Michael Fife, a doctor of veterinary medicine and certified veterinary chiropractor, of the Fife Animal Hospital in Chatham, Ontario. Get a vet’s okay first to make sure your four-legged pal, at any age, is adequately healthy. Once dogs are deemed fit, they then can experience the many physical benefits of skijoring. The exercise can also cure behavioral problems stemming from boredom and pent-up energy. For us, it’s satisfying to encourage them to pull, which is an activity they instinctively revel in.

When you’ve decided your robust pooch is the perfect choice and your skis and poles are ready to go, you’ll need to find some gear: a wide, padded belt (such as a skier’s waist belt), for yourself; a harness (such as those used for dog sleds) for your dog; a towline with a stretchy section to cushion any sudden pulls and a quick release.

Be careful when considering inexpensive pieces of equipment—you want to make sure both you and Fido are comfortable on long hauls. You want a harness made for dog powered sports—made for pulling, not just walking. A proper one cradles the dog’s body to help in proper breathing, which is important in an activity requiring lung power. Padding on these pieces keeps the skin protected from abrasions. Harnesses come in a variety of styles. H-back and X-back are two popular ones. Look for a belt that settles lower on your hips. It’ll relieve strain on your waist, since more strength sits in the butt and hip muscles than in the back muscles. Some people find a climber’s harness with its leg loops more stable and comfortable. Dogsled supply shops carry the proper pieces at a variety of prices. By taking classes, though, you can try out the equipment before investing in your own. Take your time with the training process by letting your dog get comfortable with each step. As in any teaching environment, convey encouragement and patience. Proper instruction is very important to the Midwest Skijorers Club (MSC), who offers in-depth classes.

“All of our training is done on foot. Before you even put your skis on, your dog will be well trained. We usually start our classes in August or September,” states Vicki Valeri, the club’s event director. The dogs are then ready by the time skiing starts in November or December.

Occasionally, when introduced to the skijoring scene, dogs react with aggression. They’re likely scared and stressed because they’ve been brought into an unknown situation and must suddenly perform. Dogs should be socialized and know basic obedience beforehand to help them better handle new situations. Brief voice commands control dogs while skijoring. The words are standard among all dog powered sports, originating from what Scandinavians called out to their draft animals years ago. Besides “gee” –to turn right—and “haw”—to turn left, “easy” and “whoa” respectively mean “slow down” and “stop.” Among additional commands, “line out” asks the animals to pull their lines tight and “on by” tells them to ignore distractions. An important, but difficult obstacle to curb is the chase instinct. You don’t want your dog chasing moose or squirrels that might appear, or bothering other dogs. Beyond attending classes, Valeri suggests people take their dogs for walks in the park, where they can practice “on by” as they pass other people and animals. Eventually, the command becomes second nature.

Once out on the snow, where they’re putting their new found expertise to use, it’s easier for them to maneuver on groomed, hard-packed trails; they’ll be less likely to head off-trail.

Of the two skiing techniques, skate skiing offers a more streamlined movement on these types of trails. Experienced skiers, including competitors, often use this technique, since they can maintain a faster pace, and it works well with strong, speedy dogs. Classic style is easier for people with less experience and works well for slower or single dogs, or for skijorers on a leisurely outing, and is more appropriate for narrow trails and back country excursions. Even with the ease of a trail, expect to fall a lot in the beginning; it’s part of the learning process. Meanwhile, you should both put in the effort of moving forward—you push on your skis as your dog pulls. You are a team after all. It’s about enjoying the activity together. Along with the MSC, there are other clubs, assorted associations and some outfitters throughout the United States and Canada that provide clinics or lessons; or they may just post tips on their websites. Many groups offer information about local events or competitions; and know and have use of the best local trails. A few out there are the Alaska Skijoring and Pulk AssociationEdmonton and Area Skijoring Enthusiasts Club and the Pacific Sled Dog and Skijor Association. Numerous outfitters sell equipment only, but if you don’t have a dog and want to try skijoring, some, like Dogs and Englishmen Expeditions in Alberta, supply their own experienced dogs and run clinics and tours. By looking for dog sled outfitters, you may find skijoring options as they often offer the activity as a sideline. Increasingly, Nordic companies are allowing skijorers on their trails. Since they exist for cross country skiers, the allowance of your pet comes with consideration. As when heading out with fellow skijorers, dogs should be kept under control by leashing them in parking areas and attaching them to their towlines at trailheads, where they should sit and wait to keep from getting tangled around other skiers and their gear. While on the trail, call out common warning signals to others when approaching or passing, along with appropriate commands to your pooch. Skijorers want the privilege of using groomed trails. Their actions dictate whether this allowance continues. The Cross Country Ski Areas Association website lists North American pet-friendly ski trails. Wherever you go, be sure to review the policies beforehand. Skijoring is a great way to explore backcountry that would remain hidden to you otherwise. Make sure the snow isn’t too deep; you don’t want your dog to struggle. On lengthy skijor trips and overnight excursions, a small sled called a pulk is added to the setup. Having your pooch pull you doesn’t have to end when the snow melts. If a cold weather destination isn’t in your plans or your budget, you can enjoy warm weather pulling, too. The members of the MSC head out every weekend with carts, scooters and other means to prepare them for the coming winter season. Other options include bikejoring and inline skating, though they can prove dangerous if you’re inexperienced. An enjoyable recreational pastime like skijoring is bound to end up as a tool for racing since it fires up some people’s competitive streaks. The intense training usually involved in any kind of racing is extended to canines. Practice to improve upon all aspects including endurance and technique is a constant. They must know their commands perfectly. And they need to be prepared for the stresses of race day. Many organizations include assorted types of racing—from fun to serious—in their activities. A division for skijorers is sometimes found in dog sled races, such as the Yukon’s Road Runner 100, put on by the Dog Powered Sports Association of the Yukon (DPSAY). Like other race groups, the DPSAY offers smaller ones that take place throughout the season. Ratchet’s outing, however, was just for fun. Afterwards, at home, he sleeps soundly in his comfy chair. His paws twitch slightly as if he’s dreaming of the white world and when he can next run in it.

 (c) Cheryl Smyth, 2012

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