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Adventure is out there, and our dogs make it better.
Did you know there’s an activity that combines the thrill of high-speed snow skiing with the joy of walking your canine companion? (No, we promise it’s not too good to be true.) This sport is called skijoring, and it’s growing in popularity throughout the United States!
Here’s your ultimate guide to skijoring with dogs: What is it, who might enjoy it, and how do you and your best friend get started?
What is skijoring?
At its simplest, skijoring is a winter sport where a skier is pulled by a horse, dog, or even a motor vehicle. It combines the velocity of downhill skiing with the more approachable terrain of its cross-country counterpart.
The history of skijoring
Skijoring has roots in dog sledding traditions, though no one is sure exactly how it all began. Here’s a high-level timeline of some important moments:
- Canada, 1000s: Archaeologists believe dog sledding was invented by natives in what’s now modern Canada. It spread to other winter climates throughout the world from there.
- China, Yuan and Ming dynasties: Some historians believe that a form of skijoring where dogs pulled a person on wooden boards originated in China between 1200 and 1644.
- Scandinavia, 1850s: Natives returned from trips to the western United States, where they had witnessed dog mushing. They made modifications (skis instead of sleds, fewer dogs) and popularized dog skijoring as a way to cover long distances.
- Stockholm, 1901: Skijoring behind reindeer debuted on a track at the Nordic Games, a predecessor to modern day equestrian skijoring.
- Europe and North America, 1910s: By this time skijoring with horses was well known in France and Switzerland – it appeared in New York in 1915 and in New Hampshire the following year.
- United States, 1976: Denver, Colorado listed skijoring as an exhibition in their Winter Olympics host city bid. While it never came to fruition, the sport had become recognized around the world.
What skijoring looks like today
You can find pet-owner teams enjoying modern dog skijoring in any environment that gets enough snow.
Many hobbyists have embraced skijoring for a few reasons:
- The barriers to entry are relatively low (athletes in the right climates for skijoring often already own cross-country skiing equipment).
- Dogs are increasingly involved in our modern lives. Skijoring is the perfect way to work them into winter fun!
- The sport can be as intense or low-key as an individual wants. It’s perfectly okay to move slowly in open, remote areas – or to take things up a notch in busier spots.
Recreational skijoring typically uses a classic skiing technique (similar to walking) that might vary from team to team. There are no hard-and-fast rules to casually enjoy the sport!
Dog skijoring competitions
Dog skijoring competitions, on the other hand, are more structured environments where teams race around a track. Here’s what they look like in the United States:
- In American skijoring, skiers use a skating technique as opposed to the easier classic approach, making for higher speeds.
- Dogs are more carefully conditioned. Many teams work closely with vets and canine physical therapists to ensure their pullers are in top shape.
- More training is required. While there’s wiggle room for a few errors while skijoring casually in a public park or along a deserted snowy street, a race track requires dogs and owners to work as a careful unit. Clear communication can help prevent collisions and delays.
- Participants are passionate! While competitive environments can sound overwhelming, most teams are there because they love it.
The purpose of skijoring
While skijoring originated as a means of quickly covering long distances between mining sites or hunting traps, it’s now mostly about having fun with our canine companions.
Anyone who has ever loved a dog can tell you how magical it is to spend time with these amazing animals – and cooperative activities allow us to feel even more connected.
What kind of people and dogs enjoy skijoring?
While dog-owner teams of all shapes and sizes can come to enjoy this adventurous sport, some find it more natural than others.
Skijorers are active and up for a challenge
Skijoring isn’t like running a marathon or entering a powerlifting competition (phew!) but it does require skiers to be in reasonably good shape. While the amount of exertion depends in part on how successfully your dog can pull you, balance and general strength are important regardless of your companion’s size.
On top of the core and leg muscles required for successful skijoring, you’ll also need to have ample time to work with your dog!
Any dog breed can try out skijoring
In general, dogs above 35 pounds have the greatest success pulling their owners on skis – but smaller canines can skijor as long as their humans are willing to provide more additional power.
While dogs in the working and sporting groups tend to enjoy running and pulling more than others (northern breeds and pointers are often particularly adept) each dog is an individual. It’s less about what breed your dog is and more about whether they’d really enjoy the activity. Even your toy poodle can give the sport a go if you’re both excited about it!
Your dog’s bones should be fully developed before they pull you
If you have a puppy, you should wait until their bones and joints are fully grown before encouraging them to do any intense exercise. This can mitigate the risk of hip dysplasia and other injuries down the line!
“Full grown” can vary a bit from breed to breed (your veterinarian will be able to help you make the right decision). In general, it’s safe to give your dog more rigorous exercise around 1.5-2 years of age.
Make sure your dog is in good physical shape
To skijor successfully, your dog needs to be agile enough to run through snow and strong enough to pull some of your weight while they do it. Here’s how to see if they’re up to the task:
- Pay attention to your dog’s gait. Never ask them to pull weight if you see any signs of pain or unevenness.
- Receive regular vet care. We recommend taking your best friend in for a physical exam before starting any skijoring work – let your vet team know your plans and follow their recommendations to make sure you’re ready!
- Encourage muscle growth. Consider increasing your dog’s calorie intake on particularly active days.
How can you and your dog start skijoring?
Skijoring might sound a little overwhelming at first – but if you’re willing to put yourself out there, you and your dog can be charging through the snow (or maybe even racing around a track) in no time!
Get some basic skijoring gear
Overview of the gear required to skijor, especially highlighting the importance of a harness meant specifically for pulling
Skijoring equipment for you
- Warm, weather appropriate clothes. It’s best to dress in layers.
- Skijoring belt. This is what will attach you to your dog’s tether.
- Cross-country skis. Most skis work just fine for recreational skijoring (just avoid ones with metal edges).
Skijoring equipment for your dog
- Skijoring harness. It’s important to get a harness specifically designed for pulling! Wearing the wrong equipment can increase your dog’s chance of muscle soreness, injury, and even long-term gait problems.
- Bungee lead to connect to your belt. This should be around 9’ (longer than a standard 6’ leash) to give room around your skis.
Find a safe place to practice skijoring
Most flat terrain is a good option for skijoring, provided there’s enough snow cover – but many cross-country skiing spots (both official tracks and nature loops) either don’t allow dogs entirely or restrict them to certain times. Chances are you’ll have the best luck with multi-use, dog-friendly trails or fields!
Can’t find any public parks well-suited to your new hobby? You might be able to find a Sniffspot that’s perfect for skijoring practice. Some of our hosts provide private areas that are plenty big enough to give it a go.
Understand good skijoring etiquette
A little respect goes a long way. Here’s how you and your dog can practice proper skijoring etiquette:
- Always follow the rules of the space you’re in.
- Pick up your pup’s waste.
- Call ahead to announce your presence before passing anyone from behind. If possible, make space to give a wide berth around other trail users.
- Never let your dog approach a person or dog without permission.
It’s particularly important to be polite in shared public spaces. When we give our canine companions a good name, more environments stay dog friendly!
Make sure your dog is comfortable with your skijoring equipment
New things can be a little uncomfortable – especially to our dogs. We can’t explain to them what skijoring is all about verbally, so it’s only fair we take things slow to make sure they’re ready to hit the snow with us!
Slowly acclimate your dog to his or her skijoring harness
If your dog is already comfortable wearing a harness, they might adjust to a skijoring setup more quickly – but it’s still important not to push them too far. Here’s what to do:
- Never force the harness on your dog. Instead, associate its presence with good things (like a favorite treat or toy).
- Once your dog is comfortable around the harness, you can lure their head through the opening. Reward them often and keep sessions short!
- Slowly work your way up to putting the harness on and adjusting the straps.
- When the harness is on, make things fun! Playing games like tug and fetch can be a great way to help them feel comfortable moving in their new gear.
- If your dog seems unsure at any point, take a few steps back. Consider reaching out to a professional force free trainer for guidance!
Expose your dog to your other skijoring equipment, too
Many dogs have never been around skis or poles. Here are some tips to see how they feel:
- Set your gear on the floor and let your dog investigate at his or her own pace. Don’t move on to the next step until they seem completely unbothered by the equipment’s presence!
- See if your dog is comfortable walking next to you while you carry your poles.
- Try the same walking exercise holding your skis.
- If possible, have your dog off leash (a Sniffspot would be a great place for this!) or on a long line the first time you wear your skis around them. This way they can easily make space if they feel uncomfortable.
- When in doubt, take things slow!
Start teaching your dog skijoring skills
Skijoring is a blast – but it can also be dangerous. The sport’s high-speed nature demands clear communication between you and your dog!
Your best friend should know how to:
- Pull into their harness. We spend a lot of time working on our dogs’ loose-leash skills, but we want them to lean into the resistance while skijoring.
- Follow basic directional cues while moving. At minimum, your dog should be able to start, stop, and turn left and right on cue before you embark on any intense runs. Racing skijorers often say “hike” to start running, “whoa” to stop, “on by” to run past another skijoring team or distraction, “gee” for right, and “haw” for left – but if you’re not planning to compete, you can use any words you want (as long as you’re clear with your dog about what they mean).
- Wait while you set up your skijoring gear. No one wants a tangled line because your pup can’t sit still while you get everything in orderâ€¦ or worse, a dog who takes off before you’re ready to go yourself. A strong stay cue, called “line out” in skijoring races, will keep everyone safe!
- Stay focused even around other dogs or prey animals. Impulse control is a valuable skill for our pets to have in daily life (like when we need them to leave all those tantalizing chicken bones on our city sidewalks) and it’s absolutely vital for successful skijoring! Your puller needs to be able to run by interesting smells, squirrels, and more.
A humane trainer can help you train skijoring behaviors
Even if they don’t specialize in skijoring, a good force free trainer will be able to help you teach your dog some key sport skills. A private lesson program might be the perfect fit – each session will be tailored to your individual dog and goals!If you don’t have access to an in-person trainer in your area, you might consider ways to get involved virtually by following hashtags like #skijoring on Instagram or finding a pet professional who offers video lessons.
Set goals – and adjust along the way
Many owners skijor just for fun
Today, most dog owners start skijoring simply because it’s something new to do with their companions. If your goal is nothing but fun, that’s fantastic!
Some dog-owner teams want to compete
You might be interested in actually entering a skijoring competition, though, and that’s really cool too. They’re the cousins of sled dog races: high-speed cooperation between human and dog with more of your own power added in.
The best thing you can do before committing is spend some time at competitive skijoring events (without your dog at first). This will help you see if you and your pup would enjoy the environment – and give you the opportunity to chat with people invested in the sport!
Fun should come first
What matters most is enjoying the time we get to spend with our pets.
It’s okay to adjust our goals over time. Maybe your dog will be a complete natural – and you’ll realize competing would be a blast! Or maybe you’ll scrap your skijoring race dreams because they feel like too much pressure. (After all, while competing together can be a great joy, it’s good to remember our pets have no concept of track awards or prize pots.)
But what if there isn’t any snow where I live?
If you don’t have access to frozen terrain but love the idea of skijoring, don’t worry – you can still experience the thrill!
Consider similar sports like canicross (your dog pulls you while you run) or bikejoring (they pull you on your bike). These are great fun on their own and make perfect skijoring practice in the off season. If you ever do find yourself in the ideal winter environment, you and your best friend will be ready to go!
Similar equipment and health needs apply to canicross and bikejoring. You won’t need skis, but you’ll still need a harness that’s safe for your dog to pull into – and if you opt for the bike route, you’ll want to make sure your setup is secure.
As always, it’s important both you and your dog are feeling physically and mentally ready to tackle a new adventure.
Skijoring is popular for a reason – get out there and have fun!
If skijoring has piqued your interest (and pricked your dog’s ears) there’s no reason to hold back. With the right knowledge, attitude, and just a few pieces of equipment, anyone can give it a go!
Remember these top tips for a successful skijoring experience with your furry best friend:
- Focus on enjoying each other first!
- Don’t be afraid to take things slow (for you and your dog).
- The right equipment can make a world of difference.
- You can never be too prepared – but remember to keep training sessions short.
- Regularly check how your dog feels (and don’t forget about your own wellbeing, too).
- Did we mention to have fun?
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