We recently worked with our Ambassadors Devin, Pat and Bella to get started with Skijoring with dogs. Devin has distilled down her experiences so far to help you get started Skijoring with your dog. Enjoy!
There are many perks to being a Backcountry K-9 ambassador, the obvious one being that we get to test out all sorts of cool dog gear and report our experiences back to people who want put their hard-earned money towards only the best and most appropriate pieces of gear to their specific dogs and adventures. However, being an ambassador has also helped us try new activities with Bella, discover what is possible, and further strengthen our bond with her.
This winter, thanks to Bella, I’ve decided to pick back up with a sport that used to be a big part of my life. Growing up in Northern Vermont, my high school (fun fact, I attended the same high school as the son of fellow ambassador, Sheila!) didn’t have a football team, but we did have a hockey team, as well as an alpine ski team and Nordic ski team. Since the school was right along the statewide VAST (Vermont Association of Snowmobile Travelers) trail, students sometimes rode their snowmobiles to school during the snowiest months. I joined the Nordic, or cross-country, ski team when I was in middle school, and continued on racing through my undergraduate career at Syracuse University in upstate New York. At the height of my racing days, I skied for the Vermont high school team, and traveled to compete with teams from other states. The majority of general population doesn’t know much about Nordic ski racing, but I loved the speed that could be achieved under your own power, the camaraderie with other athletes participating in this obscure sport, and the level of physical fitness it demanded. It required me to toughen up when I didn’t feel like going out into the frigid Northern Vermont winters, and kept me in excellent shape during the shortest winter days, when most people chose to hibernate inside. After moving to Colorado, I discovered that Nordic centers were a fairly long and icy drive from my home base, as well as little more expensive than the Nordic centers in Vermont, and pretty soon graduate school and teaching took up most of my winter weekends.
This past fall, as we were backpacking Aspen’s Four pass Loop with Bella, I couldn’t believe how determined she was to pull me up and over each mountain pass with her Ruffwear Roamer Leash and Approach Pack. I thought, “I wonder if I could channel this urge to pull in a productive way?” I then thought about the extra time I would have this winter after graduation, and about how much I missed Nordic skiing. I thought about the coordinated skijoring teams I had seen practicing at the Nordic centers in Vermont, enthusiastic dogs pulling their enthusiastic owners along beautiful, snow-covered trails. I took my epiphany back to Backcountry K-9, and soon we were set up with Ruffwear’s Omnijore Joring System. The setup includes a pulling-specific dog harness, human hipbelt and harness with a safety quick-release, and towline. As expected with Ruffwear products, the gear is rugged and very well made. I was particularly surprised by the comfort of the human harness, which feels very similar to a rock climbing harness. The padded hip belt incorporates mesh for breathability, and small stash pockets and a water bottle holder on the belt ensure you and your dog can hit the trails well-prepared. Optional leg loops keep pressure off of your lower back, and keep the belt in place low on the hips. I was excited to have the gear, but knew that Bella and I needed an education on skijoring basics before we hooked up with skis. What follows is a brief overview of my initial steps of training with Bella.
Step 1: Research
I purchased a couple of books on Amazon and began reading little sections in between study sessions for school. Before I knew it, I had read them both cover to cover. One of the main takeaways I’ve discovered in my research is that you don’t have to be a skilled Nordic racer, or have the Nordic skiing background that I do to enjoy skijoring with your dog. While you want to have a basic comfort level on cross-country skis and should probably take a lesson or two before starting out if you don’t feel confident on skis, skijoring is a sport that can be enjoyed by almost anyone with access to snow, and nearly any dog over 30lbs can be trained to pull someone on skis. I’d recommend that anyone starting out with skijoring for the first time first reads a good book. I enjoyed both Skijor with Your Dog, by Mari Hoe-Raitto and Carol Kaynor, and Ski Spot Run by Matt Haakenstad and John Thompson. These books are both filled with great descriptions of the sport, training tips, troubleshooting support, explanations of gear, and much more.
As part of my research, I also asked questions of seasoned skijorers on social media and contacted my friend Caleb, who races sled dogs in Canada. Caleb and I worked together for several summers as horse wranglers, and he now works at Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours in Alberta. Here are Caleb’s helpful first timer suggestions:
“The easiest way to train her is to find another dog that knows skijoring commands so it can teach her. Barring that you’ll probably want to start Bella on a track or some really well defined trail where she can’t easily drift off and can keep her concentration going forward. A big first step is getting her to run forward ahead of you and keeping a constant speed. First step towards this should be getting her used to pulling in a harness. So every time she puts on a harness, you should make sure she stays in front of you and that there is some tension, be that you pulling back a bit, or have her pull something small that is attached to the harness just to get used to the feeling. Another important step is getting her to respond to tone of voice… really high energy when you want her to go, and really low and calm when you want her to calm down and stop. A good harness fit rule of thumb is that where the tug line meets the harness should be about the base of the tail.”
Step 2: Practice Basic Commands
With a basic understanding of the sport, we started integrating commands into our daily walking and routines:
- HIKE or LET’S GO to get started
- EASY to slow down
- WHOA to stop
- GEE to turn right
- HAW to turn left
- GEE OVER to run on the right side of the trail
- HAW OVER to run on the left side of the trail
- COME AROUND or COME BACK to turn around
- ON BY to pass another trail user or object of the dog’s interest
- LINE OUT to get the dog to tighten up on the towline prior to starting you ski
Although these are the traditional commands used in skijoring, we found that we could still use commands Bella was already used to from her day-to-day experiences, such as “leave it” instead of “on by”. We already use “let’s go” when running, so that was an easy transition for her. Currently, “let’s go” is really the only command Bella performs consistently!
Step 3: Get your dog comfortable with pulling
This is probably the most challenging part of initial training so far. Most people, ourselves included, spend a lot of time teaching their dogs not to pull when on leash. Teaching Bella that the skijor harness is different has been a challenge. Since we don’t already have a trained skijoring dog, we have used Pat as our “rabbit,” having him run or bike ahead and call to her. This, along with a lot of positive reinforcement with voice and small training treats, has helped. Additionally, we learned the hard way that Bella won’t pull when it is warm out. We have to be patient and wait for cooler weather, and ideally, some snow, to really get her energy and pulling drive up.
Step 4: Introduce the skis
We discovered that Bella was hesitant with skis at first. She initially barked at them and ran to the side, rather than in front. We found that starting out only with fresh snow, rather than older, icier, and louder snow helped her feel more confident. Currently, we are at the point where I can double-pole behind her, but not full-out skate with my skis. After about 20 minutes on the trail with skis, I could tell that she was much more comfortable with the noises and motion of the skis, and was able to run ahead of me with some encouragement.
Step 5: Sign up for a clinic
I’ve signed up for group two lessons in Frisco, Colorado, with an accredited dog trainer. I’m hoping that the lessons will help us refine commands and skills and that having experienced dogs around will help Bella with her training. Next year, maybe we will even be race-ready. However, just getting back on my skis with Bella is exciting enough, and I can’t wait to bond with her even more over this fun winter sport! Stay tuned this winter for updates on our training and skijoring clinic experiences.
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