Do you want to get your blood pumping, your heart pounding and ignite your lethargic winter brain with nature’s wild adrenaline? Skijoring might be the new snow activity to add to your winter repertoire.
This Nordic sport, which has 19th-century Scandinavian roots, evolved when the dog sled was switched out for skis, creating a hybrid cross-country technique that translates as “ski driving.” This winter trail-blazing activity combines the gliding motion of cross-country skiing with the ancestral drive of your canine companion. It’s designed as a mutual workout for both the dog and skier, so don’t expect to sit back and get a free ride.
“Skijoring is about tapping into your dog’s inner wolf and reconnecting with nature,” said Steve Crone, the top dog at New England Dog Sledding. “Skijoring, like sled dogging, pairs genetic capacity with physical reality and creates a Zen machine.”
I’m always looking for new ways to bond with my Labrador, Ted, and get my daily dose of fitness. We hike Portland Trails year-round, and I’m addicted to the rush from downhill skiing. I’ve dabbled in off-leash canine cross-country skiing, but I’ve never harnessed up my dog and gone Nordic. This year, however, I headed out to Maine’s western mountains to meet a skijoring lifestyle mogul and sniff out people who could give me the scoop on skiing with my dog.
Crone could be dubbed New England’s “Dogfather” of canine-related winter sports. Over the years, he has introduced many dog lovers to skijoring, an interactive, dynamic sport that fuses cross-country skiing with the inherent drive and instinct of man’s best friend.
“Dogs are genetically super-stacked to follow their nose, round the bend and chase things. Skijoring is the amping-up of wild genetics,” he said.
Your canine partner doesn’t need to be the quintessential mushing husky. You just need an athletic dog over 30 pounds that likes to run, has a desire to lead and knows basic commands. The two-legged part of the ski-driving team should be a fairly proficient cross-country skier with the ability to skate, negotiate turns and stop.
“The typical house dog is taught to heel, stay and come and will initially end up winding itself around its owner. We need to retrain a dog how to be a lead dog,” Crone said.
One way to begin is by getting your dog accustomed to wearing a harness and maintaining a stand stay with the skijoring bungee line pulled taut. Crone suggests anchoring the canine cadet to a tree as a way of reshaping the obedient habit of returning to their owner’s heel.
Crone assures that with the appropriate training techniques you can avoid your dog reverting to being a leash puller when he’s not geared up in his skijoring get-up. My Ted has the innate desire to pull and loves to run. I’d need to ditch the dog treats that I bring on outward hound excursions to encourage him to return to my heel. The focus will no longer be on me but on the trail ahead and a new reward: the thrill of the chase.
When you first harness your dog and hook in to each other with the bungee line, just mush the trail in snow boots. You need to help your dog master the art of leading without the added complication of skis. Begin to introduce your chosen skijor commands, like “hike” or “let’s go,” “whoa” and “easy,” to get yourselves in sync. Having a lure, like another dog or family member out in front, is a great way to teach your dog how to lead and trail blaze.
When you add skis to the mix, make sure they’re not metal-edged; you don’t want sharp edges around your dog. You’ll want to pick an easy packed-snow trail, take it slow and get your dog used to having you attached.
Crone said the ultimate way to teach a dog this ski-driving sport is to use another well-trained skijoring dog as a trail co-pilot.
“Dogs are intellectual long-distance cardio athletes … Show them what you want and their instinct takes over,” he said.
Crone no longer offers regular skijoring lessons with your own dog, but you can plan an adventure weekend away without your dog at his Telemark Inn wilderness retreat (newenglanddogsledding.com) to immerse yourself in his sled dog world, experience the exhilaration of sledding and skijoring and come home trained and ready to bring out your dog’s inner wolf.
To get the most out of Crone’s wilderness adventures, you might want to roll up your sleeves and pitch in.
“Sled dogging is hard work,” Crone said. “It’s about shoveling poop, watering dogs, unloading and connecting gang lines to get three or four teams of 30 to 40 dogs ready. It takes an act of God and love to pull it off.”
But the end result is worth it. Picture a fully-loaded sled of 30 animated dogs leading the way down the trail with a skijoring team following in their wake and loving the chase.
The Dalmatian Ladies
Dawn Eliot-Johnson and her friends, however, have figured it out. A vet technician, dog trainer and Lucas Legend Dalmatians breeder who lives in Bryant Pond, she was motivated to try skijoring when her young dog, Lollipop, wasn’t proving to be reliable off-leash on the trails. She initially did short cross-country skiing jaunts with Lollipop on a harness, being careful not to over-exert her new ski buddy or have her pull too much, as she was still under a year old. Vets and breeders often discourage over-exertion of dogs under the age of 2 because of developing growth plates.
Eliot-Johnson and her girlfriends gradually formed their own unofficial skijoring club of black and white spotted trail-blazing Dalmatians. She and her friends do a lot of outdoor adventuring together in summer but in winter their outdoor adventures typically waned. One of her friends started feeling quite depressed, and she attributed this to her lack of outdoor activity in winter.
“We needed a new way to get us all out in winter. So skijoring became our new group winter passion that we try to do most weekends,” Eliot-Johnson said.
The ladies didn’t want their dogs interacting on the trail. They wanted them focused, one behind the other, so they established a trail hierarchy. They picked a pack leader, Eliot-Johnson’s dog, Zen, to be out front, then placed prey-driven dogs next and slower dogs in the rear.
Snowy logging trails or frozen ponds are the go-to trails for the Dalmatian skijoring ladies. Eliot-Johnson suggests starting on a packed, low-traffic snowmobile trail with straight shots so your dog doesn’t get sidetracked off-trail. By heading out mid-morning, her team avoids most snowmobilers who typically rev up their engines mid-afternoon.
On the trail, the Dalmatian-led ladies sometimes look like falling dominos.
“No one wants to hit each other so we all just drop … We laugh at ourselves and just have fun,” she said.
Skijorers talk about the art of falling sideways; you want to avoid falling backwards or on your back, and, ideally, you need to try and relax to cushion your fall – that’s the theory, at least.
For Eliot-Johnson, the trick to training your dog to pull and lead on a trail versus heeling on a hike or regular walk has a lot to do with the equipment. Change their gear and commands and her dogs take on a different job.
“You can hike the trails with your dogs at your side in summer and have them lead in winter. With the right set-up, I can happily hike on the same trail that my skijoring dog led on yesterday. Dogs are smart; they get it,” she said.
Downhill skijoring is Eliot-Johnson’s favorite way to get her winter adrenaline fix.
“We get going fast but if my dog stops, I just open up my legs, unclip and keep going… When I fall, my dog stops, pounces on me and licks my face,” she said.
A Family Affair
Justine Carver owns Barker Brook Kennel, which is Ted’s favorite go-to mountain doggie daycare when we downhill ski at Sunday River Ski Resort. She also breeds and owns golden retrievers with a good work ethic and strong hunting genes. Carver decided skijoring would be a fun family activity to do with her parents and golden girls.
“Heidi is my oldest – 10 next month. She does the best,” she said. “Gracie, 6 and a half, doesn’t enjoy it at all. She gets very nervous, so we usually just put a backpack on her, and we make her carry our waters. Copper is nearly 2 and doesn’t do any pulling yet but enjoys wearing her harness and dragging rope.”
Carver and her family engaged in some fieldwork practice, giving the ski dog cadets a chance to get used to wearing harnesses, dragging a rope or small sled and shadowing a fellow skijorer. Then Carver encouraged her dad, who is a comfortable cross-country skier, to kick it up a notch and skijor a full loop on her family’s backyard trail while she ran along behind.
“Heidi was doing fantastic! Close to a mile from home she and the other dogs (who were not skijoring, just running loose) spotted a squirrel,” Carver said. “Oh boy, did she take off … Full speed ahead, and then at full tilt she dove off the trail into the woods taking my dad with her … While skijoring is a fun job for them they are still squirrel chasers first and foremost.”
These dog-loving skijoring enthusiasts make me want to brush up on my cross-country skiing skills and dive in to this alluring Nordic sport. If you’re out on the trails this winter and see a fox-red cartoon-like Labrador flying along, tongue out, ears flapping, with a determined crazy lady skiing in his wake, yelling “Easy Ted,” it might be me dosing up on some wild-wolf adrenaline.
PAWS AND PREPARE
WATCH AND LEARN
Check out one of the winter events run by enthusiasts like Down East Sled Dog Club (desdc.org) and New England Sled Dog Club (nesdc.org) where avid skijorers and sled dog teams rev up their dogs and compete.