Picture this: you’ve got a pair of skis strapped to your feet and a harness around your waist, which is subsequently attached to one or more dogs that are going to pull you through the wilderness—all that’s used to control them is your voice.
Skijoring, a term derived from the Norwegian sport skikjøring (ski driving), cannot be claimed by any one country when it comes to origin, as dogs have a penchant for pulling when leashed and they tend to do it without regard to homeland. However, competitive skijoring is believed to have originated in Scandanavia as a contemporary twist to the more traditional sport known as Pulka. The sport has steadily gained popularity in North America using dogs as well as horses or even motorized vehicles. Mad Dogs and Englishmen Expeditions in Canmore offers regular skijoring clinics (plus dog sledding excursions) throughout the season.
“Skijoring offers visitors a chance to take part in a unique winter activity. Mad Dogs and Englishmen offer private lessons and two-day comprehensive clinics that give visitors a chance to safely try something new and exciting,” says Tulene Steistol, director, marketing and communications for Canmore Kananaskis. “We have had a lot of interest in the sport and as the winter season ramps up, we are sure we will see more visitors, locals and media wanting to experience it. We are lucky to have this great activity in our backyard and also a local business that can teach people the fundamentals in a safe way.”
While sports such as dog sledding favour breeds like huskies, Mad Dogs owner and founder Russell Donald, notes skijoring can be done with nearly any household breed (within reason—obviously hooking a toy poodle up to a harness isn’t going to work) that is willing to run.
“It’s very much a relationship that you develop with the dogs,” says Donald, who has been skijoring since 1992 and competed regularly—including a World Championship in 2001, before the birth of his two daughters. “When you first get involved with skijoring, the dogs are trying to learn you as much as you’re trying to learn the dogs.”
The key is patience and perseverance, Donald notes, explaining not all dogs will take to skijoring due to the skiers close proximity behind them. The dogs will also try to read a skiers’s ability and confidence level. When Donald teaches newcomers to the sport, he assesses their skiing ability and assigns dogs accordingly. What that means is less confident dogs will be paired with more confident skiiers who will be able to guide them, while more confident dogs are paired with less confident skiers, as they’ll tolerate them falling down and getting the hang of the sport for much longer.
“You do sometimes find that the domestic dogs, the house pets, they will take to the skijoring a little quicker just because they’re that much more used to the distractions you might get on the trail, whether it’s birds flying over the trail or whether it’s cross-country skiers on the trail,” Donald says, noting skijoring is a beneficial form of exercise for pet owners and their dogs during the winter months. “They’re used to those distractions because they’ve been socialized that much more, but the kennel dogs, they’re not in the public eye as much, or as much on a regular basis, so they’re a little bit more aware, a little bit more curious of any other distraction.”
The sport is also cost-effective, Donald adds. Minimal equipment is required—just skis, poles and a harness, which attaches around the skier’s waste and is linked up to one on the dog’s back. Of course, there’s the matter of nothing to steer with but voice commands. Donald says it doesn’t take long for dogs to catch on, particularly kennel dogs used on Mad Dog excursions, as they’re already well-trained to follow commands.
“The dogs learn by association with an action, so anything you’re doing with the dogs you try to harness natural abilities and natural instincts,” Donald says, using slowing down as an example. “The action to slow down is to really create some resistance, so you’ll shout your command and you’ll reinforce that command with an associated action, and that associated action will be a snowplow.”
In Donald’s experience, the majority of people getting into skijoring are in their late 20s to early 30s, but he encourages adults of all ages to give it a try. It helps to have some skiing experience in order to spend more time actually skijoring rather than practising ski drills, too. If you’re unable to make the trip out to Canmore, but are looking to get started in the sport, Donald recommends asking around at local sled dog clubs, as many of the members will often skijor as well. Sled-equipment suppliers will also be of service when it comes to finding harnesses and proper skis.
If you’re going to go it alone, Donald advises checking local trail regulations to ensure dogs are allowed.
“Various ski areas, especially those with ski tracks and grooming on the trails, obviously there’s a consideration that they are first and foremost cross-country ski trails and it’s worth checking with any specific authority there that you are OK taking your dog out, and that’s just respect,” he says. “Be responsible for your own dogs. Certainly when your dogs are running on the trail, clean up after yourself. There is a code of etiquette there to look at and it really is based on common sense.”