Skijoring With Dogs: What It Is & How To Get Started!
By Beth Crane
Skijoring, or “Ski-Driving,” is a winter sport gaining traction and popularity around the world. Skijoring with dogs involves a human (usually a dog owner) actively skiing across flat ground, being pulled along by dogs via a tether. This exciting sport may have surfaced back in the Ming dynasty of China,1 but in modern times it’s been primarily a Scandinavian pastime. Knowing this, you’re probably as intrigued as we were when first hearing about this amazing sport; read on to discover just what skijoring with dogs is all about, and learn some tips and tricks about getting started!
How Does It Work?
The basics of skijoring can be described by a simple visual: A person is strapped into a harness on skis, with their dog (or dogs) attached via bungee cord to their own special “pulling” harnesses. The dogs pull the skier across snow and ice while the skier commands them and propels themselves forward. The skier has to control the dogs with their voice alone; no reins or other devices are used to signal to them. Plus, it’s different from sledding as you have to actively ski to avoid being pulled over!
Skijoring can be a casual sport or highly competitive. Recreational skijoring is paced to you and your dog, starting slowly and building up the skills you’ll need to succeed. Understanding the mechanics and taking your time is key to having an enjoyable experience; it’s best if you have some previous skiing experience (or be willing to learn), but skijoring is open to complete beginners too.
The one thing skijoring can’t be done without is snow! Other forms of the sport don’t necessarily need it, such as bikejoring (being pulled when riding a bike), but skijoring specifically calls for ice and snow.
Getting Started in Skijoring
To get started, you must first decide if skijoring is right for you and your dog. An excellent way to do this is to observe people skijoring in real-time, as the etiquette and rules for safe skijoring can sometimes be missed in videos (some can be very subtle!).
If you’re raring to go, getting your skijoring equipment in order and doing a “dry run” is a great idea. Fit your harness and make sure your dog is comfortable. Attach the bungee cord and go for a run or walk (known as canicross). This shows how your dog will take to the feeling of pulling (most will love this), and it allows you to scout out a good route and practice commands (which we’ll get into later).
Once you’ve decided your route or place of skijoring, load up the ski rack and take your team to the skijoring spot and have fun. Of course, going slow at first and practicing passing other people on the trail or track is important, but it’ll be easy once you get the hang of it.
Are There Different Types of Skijoring?
Skijoring with dogs can be divided into competitive and recreational skijoring. Other types of skijoring involve other animals; skijorers traditionally used horses or reindeer, but dogs, other animals, or even motor vehicles are now used alongside them.
Competitive skijoring takes place on designated tracks and uses a specific skiing technique (skate skiing) to gain speed. Dogs on competitive skijor teams often train just as hard as their owners do. Performing trial runs, training in the “off-season,” and canine nutrition and physiotherapy can be a part of being ready to run.
Of course, human skijorers also train. Knowing your route and staying physically fit are important if you want to win, but knowing how to control your dogs and predict their movements is the most crucial element of skijoring professionally.
A skijoring race is not scored by points but is rather a “who came first” race. Each team is given a starting bay chosen at random, and the first dog whose nose crosses the finish line wins it for their team.
The rules state that a dog team should be no more than three dogs, and the skier’s hands should always be free of the line. In addition, they say that the belt (used in place of a harness; in casual skijoring, either is fine) width should be three inches, and the line used to connect the dogs to their owner should be 7–12 feet long.
- TIP: Passing other skijoring teams safely is an essential skill for both competitive and casual skijorers.
Casual skijoring is much more relaxed and an excellent way for you and your dogs to stay fit in winter while spending some quality time together. The more gentle “classic” skiing style is used, propelling the skier along at a swift but steady pace. Casual skijoring teams can be seen in droves wherever the sport is allowed, and it’s more about fun and comfort rather than winners and losers.
Casual skijoring is relatively easy to get into, as it’s not hugely expensive gear to buy (skis don’t have to be top-of-the-line, just not grippy). It’s an ideal pass time for those who live in an area with good snow seasons and who want to exercise their dogs year-round.
- TIP: If you’re taking your dog skijoring, always pick up every poop!
Where Do People Skijor?
Skijoring can happen anywhere that’s relatively flat, has good snow cover, and within legal limits. Parks, trails, and designated winter sports areas are all excellent choices for skijoring, especially if they’re not too busy for beginners. In addition, Nordic ski centers are opening their doors to skijorers and their dogs more often than ever, so check your local area. Clubs and venues aside, some private landowners offer their land to skijorers to use (usually for a fee).
Historically, skijoring was an essential mode of transport. Skijoring teams (similar to dog sledders) could traverse vast areas of snow and ice much quicker than skiing alone. People in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia soon implemented the skijoring dog teams into their travel.
Skijoring is still a popular leisure activity in these countries as well as the US. Clubs such as the Midwest Skijorers Club make all newcomers feel welcome and help make the sport as accessible as possible.
Now, professional skijoring events are common throughout the country. The biggest skijoring event ever was held in City Lakes Loppel, Minneapolis, in February 2011, as well as the first National Skijoring Championship!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Dogs Can Go Skijoring?
To answer this question truthfully, we have to think about what skijoring is: pulling a human (usually an adult) on skis across the snow. There are certain breeds you’d envision doing this (Husky, anyone?), but others you wouldn’t (such as toy breeds).
A dog willing to learn, has the drive to run, and has a thirst for adventure can participate in skijoring. Still, most skijoring associations recommend that pulling dogs be over 35 pounds in weight for their own safety. On the other hand, smaller dogs might be raring to go, and small dogs can participate in skijoring if they can keep up; they’ll just need another dog there to do all the heavy pulling for them.
What Dog Breeds Are The Best For Skijoring?
As you might expect, some breeds are historically known for their pulling ability and use as sled dogs. Breeds such as Huskies, Malamutes, Samoyeds, and Chow Chows have great strength and pulling drive, which make them excellent skijoring companions.
Other dogs who have different strengths are also favored, such as Mastiff breeds for their power and Labradors and German Shepherds for their energy and focus. However, any dog can be a great skijoring partner; the dog has to have the drive to pull, the energy to run down tracks, and the intelligence to listen and react to commands. Luckily, all three of these factors come naturally to most dogs!
What Training Does a Dog Need For Skijoring?
Basic training is required to safely go skijoring with your dog, and not just for their sake. The safety of yourself and others on the trails comes down to how well your dogs follow your commands and how quickly you give them. Most skijorers like to use simple, one-word commands that are shared by dog-sled teams for their ease of use:
|Line-out||Get ready, pull the line out until taught, then stop|
|Hike!/Let’s Go!||Go! Onwards, it’s ok to run and keep pulling|
|Get Up||Pull faster|
|Easy||Slow down but don’t stop|
|Whoa||Stop immediately (useful if you take a tumble to avoid being dragged)|
|On-By||Go on by, don’t get distracted by what’s going on around you|
|Gee Over||Move over right|
|Haw Over||Move over left|
|Good Dog||Well done, good job!|
You can also use your own commands if you like, but they’re best off being short, sharp, and not easily confused with other words.
Learning to pass other skijoring teams is paramount to safety. Your dog must heed your directions and slow down or stop as other skijoring teams will do, as it can be frustrating or even dangerous if your dog slows down or stops to approach another dog team. In addition, some dogs will try to nip others in greeting as they pass, which isn’t good. This can also tangle lines or start fights, which is a big hazard.
- TIP: Dogs who are anxious, fear aggressive, or dog aggressive should only be taken out skijoring once they overcome these traits, as it’s dangerous to other skijoring teams and the dog itself.
Do Owners Need Any Training to Go Skijoring?
Yes! Owners will need to pay close attention to their dogs and surroundings. Owners should recognize when their dog is tired as every dog has its physical limitations; many dogs will over-exhaust themselves if given a chance, which can cause injury. Owners need to know when to feed their dogs after skijoring, as feeding them too soon after intense exercise can cause vomiting and discomfort. This can also help owners to time their dog’s poop breaks (particularly important in competitive skijoring), as poop not only sticks to skis but also makes a mess for other trail users.
Skijorers must also know the proper etiquette when wanting to pass or being passed by other skijoring teams. For example, if you’re approaching a team ahead and want to pass them, you should shout “trail” to them, letting them know to move. Using the “On-By” command will also keep your dog focussed and moving, and make sure you keep your ski poles tucked closely in to avoid accidentally injuring any member of another team.
Likewise, knowing what to do if you’re going to be passed is just as important. Get in line behind your dogs, slow them down with the “Easy” command, and stop skiing until you’ve allowed them to pass with a wide berth.
What Equipment Do I Need For Skijoring?
There isn’t much gear needed for skijoring, but the few bits and pieces you will need are essential:
- A pair of skis, non-grip waxed and not edged in metal.
- A harness or a belt to wear. A climbing harness can be worn for this if casually skijoring.
- A bungee cord for a tow line. This should be shock-absorbing and between seven and 12 feet in length.
- If you’re skijoring with more than one dog, neck lines should be used to attach them to each other and keep them together in formation.
- A good quality sports harness (a “pulling” harness). A pulling harness is essential, as a normal harness could easily break or cause damage to your dog’s shoulders and hips as they pull you.
- A water bottle or collapsible bowl, treats, and poop bags.
- Snow boots for your dog for long-distance runs, and warm clothes for you!
What Kind of Skis Are Best for Skijoring?
This depends on what kind of skijoring you plan to do (casual vs competitive) AND the type of terrain and snow conditions involved.
Common wisdom holds that most people stick to cross-country skis. Downhill skis are unsuitable because they’re not designed for kicking and gliding; they’re for turning and high speed. However, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to use one of three variations of cross-country skis: Classic, Touring, and Skate.
How Will I Know My Dog Will Like Skijoring?
It can be tricky to know how your dog will take to skijoring without giving it a go, but looking at their behavior outside of the sport can be a good indicator. Does your dog:
- Pull with abandon?
- Listen to commands?
- Love to run?
Is your dog:
- Healthy and fit?
- Big enough to pull weight comfortably?
- Energetic and motivated?
If the answer was yes to these, chances are your dog will love skijoring with you! Get strapped in and go for a jog with your dog to see how they adjust to the feel of weight on its harness. Jogging is good for practicing commands; you can see how your dog enjoys it. If they’re running to their harness, it’s a good sign they are ready to go!
- TIP: Make sure your dog is ok in the cold!
Skijoring has been around for a long time and is a winter sport that will only continue to gain popularity. It’s an excellent way to keep your dog fit throughout the winter, and it can be a great way to get out and meet new people while your dog has the time of their life. Of course, skijoring can be fiercely competitive or comfortably casual, but whichever style you decide to try, we hope our tips and guide have given you the confidence to get out into the snow and have fun with your pup.
Featured image credit: Lopolo, Shutterstock