How to Start Skijoring: Dog Commands, Equipment, Safety Tips

A Sport Involving Cross Country Skiing With Your Dog

Man and dog skijoring

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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Skijoring is a winter sport that is described by many as a combination of cross-country skiing and dogsledding. When you skijor, however, your dog (or dogs) don't pull a sled. Instead, they assist in pulling you while you are on cross country skis.

Skijoring has been around for centuries but has not been widely practiced in the U.S. until fairly recently. As its popularity has increased, so has the prevalence of skijoring races, competitive events, training, and support organizations.

Many skijoring resources and events are located in Alaska, the Midwest, and the Northeast where outdoor winter sports are commonly practiced.

The sport offers a wide range of benefits and can be an exhilarating experience if both you and your dog are well-trained and well-prepared.

What Is Skijoring?

Modern skijoring is believed to have originated in Scandinavia, although there are differing reports about when, where, and how the sport truly developed. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the term "skijoring" can refer to different (albeit similar) sports.

Skijoring can refer to any activity where a skier is pulled by an animal or animals (horse, dog, reindeer, or elk), or an engine-powered vehicle (such as a car, a snowmobile, or even an airplane). The two most common skijor activities today involve either a horse or a dog.

The word "skijor" has Norwegian origins and means "ski driving." According to a history of skijor provided by Skijor International, there are reports of animals pulling people on skis dating back thousands of years in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia.

Equine Skijoring

In the early 1900s equine skijoring—where a skier is pulled by a horse—became popular in parts of Europe including Switzerland and France.

Eventually, the sport found its way to the United States and Canada where it is still practiced today. Skijor USA and Skijor Canada are both equine skijor organizations that support competitive events throughout North America, particularly in the mountain states (Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana).

During an equine skijor race, a horse might travel 40 miles per hour or more while pulling a skier who navigates jumps and other obstacles along a course.

Dog Skijoring

Skiing with the assistance of a dog is called canine skijoring, dog skijoring, or dog skiing. There are reports that suggest that this variation of the sport also dates back to ancient China where skiers may have been pulled by 10 or more dogs.

Today, skijoring usually involves just one or two dogs. A skier and the dog are connected by a springy cord, called a towline, and the dog provides assistance when they run and pull but they do not do all of the work.

The skier can be on classic cross country skis but is more often on skate skis (especially if they are participating in a competitive skijor race).

  • Classic skiing is the more traditional variation of Nordic skiing and looks like walking on skis. This style is easiest for beginners to learn because it mimics movements that they already know.
  • Skate skiing is a newer discipline that involves movements that look more like ice skating. It requires a little bit more balance and technical prowess than classic skiing and can be trickier for beginners to learn.

Today, the sport of dog skijoring is gaining popularity across the Midwest and the East Coast where snow sports are popular. Skijor participants might enjoy a workout on trails through the woods or might participate in any one of the many skijor races available throughout the winter.

Health Benefits

Cross country skiing is a great way to stay active in the winter, burn calories, and keep your muscles from getting stiff during the colder months.

During a 30-minute workout, a 150-pound person is likely to burn about 286 calories during a moderate skiing session. You'll also increase strength and endurance in muscles throughout the entire body.

But there are other substantial health benefits as well. One study of 2,087 middle-aged men in Finland found that leisure time cross-country skiing was inversely and independently associated with all-cause mortality (i.e., death from any cause).

And another study published in 2019 found that cross country skiing may reduce the risk of adverse cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality by reducing inflammation, improving cardiorespiratory fitness, and reducing other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

But many who participate in the sport of skijoring say that the benefits go far beyond physiological factors. In fact, most participants say that the value of exercising with your dog is immeasurable. "The bond that grows between you and your dog is deep," says Kevin Murphy.

Murphy is a skijor expert who has been participating in the sport for 14 years. He is also a skijor race organizer, promoter, and founder of K9 Powered Sports, a resource for those who participate in or want to participate in the activity. He says that when he first started skijoring it helped him manage seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that can affect people who live in areas where it gets very cold and very dark in the winter.

"Skijoring helps you look forward to winter," says Murphy. "It helps you to avoid getting trapped in your house during the long winter months. Now when it snows, I feel like I'm 8 years old again."

And because you don't need to be an expert skier to participate, skijoring is accessible to anyone with a desire to learn and a healthy dog.

How to Start Skijoring

To ensure the safest and most enjoyable experience, both you and your dog should be well-equipped and well-prepared for the sport. You should probably be comfortable on cross country skis before attempting to skijor.

There are some people, like Murphy, who learned to ski and to skijor at the same time. He says, however, that most people have a background in skiing before they begin.

Safety Tip: You don't have to be an expert skier to start skijoring, but it is best to have a basic knowledge of essential skills like turning and stopping.

There are other things you can do to prepare yourself and your pet for a great experience.

Know Your Dog

Not every dog is well-suited for skijoring. Most experts say that the dog should weigh at least 35 pounds and should be comfortable running and pulling. Most skijor dogs are medium to large athletic dogs that enjoy the snow.

Cold-weather breeds (like Siberian Husky or Alaskan Malamute) are often seen at skijoring events, but any dog that loves to tug and pull on a leash can become your skijor partner.

Your dog should be well-trained and responsive to your commands. You and your dog will be connected by a towline, so if your dog doesn't obey the basic skijor commands, then you may find yourself being pulled after every squirrel or rabbit (or another dog) on the trail.

Get Skijor Equipment

Your skate or classic skis should be in good condition. Take your equipment to a local ski shop if you haven't used it in a while. You'll also need boots (that work with your ski's bindings) and poles. Then you'll need skijor-specific equipment to fit you and your dog. You may be able to find complete systems at your local ski store if you live in an area where the sport is popular, but many people are more likely to find it online.

Skijor System

A complete skijor system includes three key parts:

  1. A hipbelt that wraps around your hips. It is padded and it may have leg loops to keep the belt in place. It may also have a pocket to keep dog waste bags and a space for a water bottle. It should have a quick-release system to release the towline.
  2. A shock-absorbing towline that connects the hip belt to the dog. For skijoring, the line is usually 10 to 12 feet long.
  3. A harness that fits your dog and connects to the towline. It is important to note that a skijoring harness is not a collar or a typical harness that is used for walking your dog. Instead it is designed specifically for the sport. The harness fits over the dog's torso and provides padding to distribute pressure evenly so that the dog stays comfortable when running and pulling. The dog's shoulders and legs should be unrestricted and there should be a snug fit throughout the body.

Buy Outdoor Gear

You'll also need basic outdoor gear for both you and your dog. You'll want to layer your body with moisture-wicking clothing. Depending on the temperature, you may need a thin base layer, an insulating mid-layer, and a wind-blocking outer layer. Warm wool socks are essential, as well as a hat and gloves.

Your dog may also need gear. Some dog-owners provide a warm jacket for their animal, depending on the dog breed and thickness of their coat. If you participate in a skijor event, the jacket will help to keep your pet warm before and after the activity.

You may also want to provide booties to protect your dog's paws. Many pets find boots to be clumsy so you can use Musher's Secret instead. Musher's Secret is a wax balm that protects your pup's paws from the elements.

Learn Skijor Dog Commands

Training your dog may be the most tricky part of your skijor journey. Plan to take some time (both on and off skis) to teach your dog basic commands.

  • Line-out: This command is used at the beginning of your event or workout. While you remain in place on skis, the dog moves away from you and takes any slack out of the towline, then waits for a command to begin running and pulling.
  • Hike: This is the command that tells your dog to go. When you yell "hike!" the dog begins to run and pull.
  • Easy: This command indicates that you want your dog to slow down.
  • Whoa: This command tells your dog to slow down to a full stop.
  • Haw: If you want your dog to veer left (around a curve or a bend in the trail) you'll yell "haw!"
  • Gee: This command tells your dog to veer right.
  • On-by: You'll use this command if your dog is distracted. Yelling "on-by" is similar to "leave it!" a command that tells your dog to ignore a squirrel, a rabbit, or another dog and refocus his attention on the task at hand.

While some coaches say that you don't necessarily have to use these exact words, these cues encompass all of the basic movements your dog will need to understand when pulling you.

But Murphy says that there is nothing magical about these specific commands. If your dog already responds to different commands (such as "leave it") you should continue to use those words.

Tips to Improve Safety and Enjoyment

There are a few other things you can do to make the skijor experience better for both you and your pet.

Choose Your Location Wisely

When you're first getting out on skis, choose a training zone where your dog is more likely to learn. Murphy suggests that dogs often respond better if they are on a designated narrow trail, rather than an open space like a park or a frozen lake. He says that a trail gives the dog a clear path to follow.

But before heading out, find out if dogs are welcome on the trails that you intend to use. Also, know the rules of the road before you ski on a trail where there may be other skiers.

Follow proper etiquette; stay on designated trails, and don't bring your dog into a clubhouse where animals are not allowed. Most importantly, bring waste bags and always pick up after your pet.

Make Good Health a Priority

Both you and your dog will get a workout when skijoring. So both of you need to be fit and in good health. If you haven't been active for some time, you might want to check with your healthcare provider to make sure you are healthy enough for vigorous outdoor endurance activities. You might also want to check with your dog's vet to be sure your pet is ready to go, as well.

Also adjust your food intake and the dog's food intake as needed. Make sure to bring water for both you and your dog when you go out to train.

Take Your Time

For some people, easing into the sport might be the best approach. Some endurance training will be helpful for both you and your dog so that you stay healthy while you learn the sport.

In addition to learning commands, you and your dog should get out and participate in cardiovascular workouts that gradually increase in length. Take your dog along with you during training runs to get him used to running consistently.

Also, temper your expectations when working with your pet. Murphy says that the learning process is highly variable. "Some dogs need to be convinced that it is okay to pull," he says. But others get on the towline and naturally know to run.

Train in the Off-Season

Start to familiarize your dog with skijor commands in the offseason when you are involved in everyday activities. For example, when walking your dog, use the "gee" and "haw" commands to get them to turn right or left.

And you can also find groups to train with in the snow and off season. Murphy says that dogs love chasing and running with other dogs, so it can be helpful to be in a group when you begin to acclimate your dog to the sport.

There are even related sports such as canicross (running with your dog) and bikejoring (biking with your dog) that can help familiarize your dog with the experience of pulling.

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Article Sources
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