Skijoring Offers Winter Fitness Opportunity For You and Your Dog

Mushing sports are not just for large dog teams and can be enjoyed year round

Article by Lynette Confer

Photography by Deb Blair

Originally published in Bend Lifestyle

Winter can present challenges when it comes to staying active, for both you and your dog. Although mushing sports are often thought of as requiring a large sled dog team and expensive equipment, mushing is any sport powered by a dog or dogs, pulling a person or a rig of some sort. Other mushing sports include bikejoring, urban mushing, dog scootering, canicross and skijoring. If you know how to ski, or want to learn, and have a dog that loves to pull and needs a job, you might both enjoy the sport of skijoring.

Thought to have originated in Scandinavian countries hundreds of years ago, skijoring is derived from the Norwegian word skikjøring, and literally means “ski driving.” In skijoring, one or two dogs in harness pull a cross-country skier wearing a belt connected by a towline. It is thought that people long ago used skijoring as a form of winter transportation. Historically a person on skis was pulled by reindeer, a horse, one to three dogs or even a snowmobile.

“The beauty of skijoring is the relationship between you and your dog,” explains Dina McClure, a founding member of Pacific Sled Dog & Skijor Association (PSDSA). “Your dog experiences as much reward in pulling and being out on the trail as you do in knowing the effort in training has made you a team.”

In 1985 while living in Alaska, McClure watched her first Iditarod in Anchorage. “That experience changed me; I was hooked,” recalls McClure. Since that time, McClure has participated in mushing sports from skijoring to running sled dog teams. According to McClure, one thing that draws people to skijoring is that it is similar to running a sled dog team but without the high costs and responsibilities of maintaining a kennel of dogs. Another appeal is the minimal equipment required. To get started, you need a pair of skis, boots, poles, a belt for the skier (at least 3 inches wide), a towrope (7-12 feet long with a quick release snap on the end that connects to the skier’s belt) and a harness for your dog. For dogs with sensitive feet, or when the snow conditions warrant, dog booties are recommended. 

McClure moved to Central Oregon in the 1990’s and founded the Cascade Skijoring Alliance (CSA). She also taught a community education class for a few years at COCC, “Introduction to Skijoring.” In 2007 McClure’s CSA merged with the Southern Oregon Sled Dog Club to create PSDSA.

Most mushers and skijorers begin training with their dogs for the winter season in October or November. PSDSA’s first event of the season is their November Dryland Mushing Event. “In the fall, our activities are on land using wheeled rigs for the dogs to pull,” notes Karen Yeargain, also a founding member of PSDSA and owner of Tumnatki Siberians. “Some of us use quads for the larger teams, but many of us also use dog scooters for 1-4 dogs; this is the pre-snow version of skijoring and is a way to condition the dogs as well as work on their command training. Dog scootering is, in itself, a very popular form of running dogs and really lends itself well to folks with just a few dogs.”

If you are interested in skijoring, there are a few things to know before you start. First of all, it helps to have some experience skiing, even downhill. “Knowing balance on skis is a great advantage since the dog will require training,” says McClure. “Skijoring will come together sooner if the dog doesn’t have to stop frequently for your falls, so if you have no skiing experience, I highly recommend you take Nordic ski lessons prior to training your dog.”

For your dog, the first step is to get them fitted for a harness. Then, before you get on skis, a bike or scooter, begin with leash training on a trail and do some positive reinforcement training. “You need to train your dog with the correct commands,” explains McClure. “Gee is right, Haw is left. You want to use the universal mushing language in training.”

If you have skiing experience and your dog has a harness, training your dog to pull is the next step. Although Northern breeds such as Huskies and Malamutes are often used in mushing sports, other breeds can also be suitable as pulling is a natural instinct for most dogs. “You need a medium build or larger, enthusiastic, healthy dog with energy who can be trained to pull down a trail with a skier following behind,” says McClure. “We recommend your dog have basic obedience training and be at least eight months to a year old before they start ‘working’ due to muscle and bone development.”

To ensure success in training and starting a new sport, it’s important to make sure you and your dog are in the best health possible. “The best thing a dog owner can do is maintain a healthy weight and muscle mass on their pet,” states Kimberly McCreedy, DVM and PSDSA volunteer secretary and veterinarian on hand at events. “Work with your veterinarian to determine what that looks like for your dog. High quality food and adequate hydration are essential.” Training and building up endurance is also important for the skier and dog. Summer hikes and fall dryland training events are perfect opportunities to stay in shape for winter.

McCreedy served as a veterinarian technician for the Iditarod from 2010-2013 and became a veterinarian for the race in 2016. “This sport comprises a unique opportunity for dog owners to satisfy the needs of the breed that they own,” remarks McCreedy. “When you watch a dog get hooked up to a gangline with a dog sled team or a towline for skijoring, the excitement is palpable. The dogs start singing their song in anticipation of the fun they are about to have. Full chills run through my body and I often find myself wiping away tears over the joy the dogs emanate. I love that the mushers generally have the same goal as I do as a veterinarian: they want the absolute best for their dogs.”

If you find yourself drawn to the sport of skijoring or interested in other mushing sports, follow the advice of seasoned mushers and seek them out. “If you have questions, the best place to start is to join a local sled dog club and start attending their meetings and events. Members love to share their knowledge, advice and tips,” says PSDSA President and longtime musher Selina Witt. “Really, you just have to get out and experience it for yourself, even if it’s just coming to watch an event. There is no better way to learn.”

The first weekend of March PSDSA hosts their annual Bachelor Butte Dog Derby at Wanoga Snow Park near Bend. According to the PSDSA website, this somewhat nostalgic event is a “return to racing sled dogs in the Cascade Mountains and an opportunity to experience the splendor of the Cascades and contest one’s dog team on world class terrain.” Skijoring is part of this event. PSDSA.org

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