I clipped the tether into my dogs harness and then onto my own waist belt, pointed my skis down the snow-packed road and yelled, with gusto, Mush! A Malamute, this dog was bred for pulling freight through the snow. Im freight, were in the snow, whats the problem? Why is he looking back at me with disdain?
Ive seen border collies and Australian shepherds pull better than my Rigby. Ive seen mutts dragging skiers many times their size up the Bozeman Creek Trail. Ive shown my buddy the picture in the Malamute book of a dog just like him happily skijoring with his owner. Rigby was unimpressed.
So, I went back to the book and read about how to teach a dog to skijor. I had done almost everything wrong. The one thing I did do right is get suitable equipment for me and my dog.
The most important item to purchase is a properly fitting harness. If the harness is too big or too small, the dog is going to be uncomfortable or worseget hurt. Take the time to size your canine pal properly.
Next, youll need a tug line (the rope or tether that hooks onto the dogs harness and then attaches to you). A little bungee in the tug line eases the starts, stops and random jerks on your dog.
As a skier, you can wear a fat, padded belt around your waist (with a quick-release snap that the tug line attaches to) or hold the line in your hand. Some folks attach the tug line to a backpack or fanny pack waist belt.
What I didnt do right, was train my dog. I expected him to know instinctively what to do. As it says in Skijor with your Dog, If the dog screws up, its always your fault. What I should have done is started out having him wear the harness without pulling any weight.
Once he was used to the harness, it would be time to introduce a little light weight2-5 pounds. This way the dog gets used to pulling, but without having to work too hard. By pulling a sled with a backpack on it or a small tire while I walked next to him, he might have decided that pulling is good; pulling is fun. Trainers suggest keeping these sessions to 15 minutes and quitting before the dog gets bored.
Professional musher and dog trainer, Rob Greger recommends finding a narrow quiet trail without distractions and to start out on footnot on skiis. Attach a leash to the collar or harness and encourage the dog to run. Speed isnt the main thing; its to encourage the dog to run out in front. If you know someone with a dog who knows how to skijor, Greger recommends using their dog as an instructor. A dog who knows what hes doing can teach your dog a lot better than you can.
Greger thinks of training a dog to skijor in the same way as training a lead dog on a sled-pulling team. The hard part is teaching your dog to be a leadernot all dogs are going to do it. Without other dogs around to show the way or to read cues from, a skijoring pup has to be comfortable in the lead dog position.
Ideally, the dog should know some basic commands (See sidebar). Most dogs will know at least a few general commands already. Even Rigbywho was told at dog school that although smart, was unlikely to follow instructionsknows a few commands. The most important thing is to get your dog to stop when you want him to, and to not drag you off the trail into the willows.
Local skijoring enthusiast, Mary McFadzen did the right thing. When living in Boise she and her hound dog-mix (who she refers to as a Powder Hound), Koda, took a skijoring class. There they learned the basics of the equipment and some important commands. The dogs pulled tires around and practiced on a course without skis.
It was a really casual approach, says McFadzen, but one that seemed to pay off. She and Koda skijored for years around Bozeman. She used to skate ski behind Koda, since he was such a fast dog, That way he wouldnt be pulling so much, McFadzen remembers.
At 13, Koda is retired from the skijoring life, but McFadzen finds the commands they learned useful. When crossing the street shell tell him to hike, hike, or speed up. A long, low whoa can still bring Koda to a stop.
Rigby and I tried again. I still didnt follow the training instructions very well, but I let him run around with a harness on for awhile. Then I hooked him up to a sled with a small Christmas tree on it. I skied next to him, telling him how well he was doing, until he started running and dragged the sled off the road, tipping the tree into the snow. Maybe next time Ill do better.
A few commands all skijoring dogs should know. Teach one command at a time and dont move on to the next one until the first one is learned.
Leash or harness your dog and walk along behind her. Say whoa in a long, low voice and pull back on the leash or tug line until she stops. If the dog doesnt learn this, you can always plan to snowplow or sit down to force the issue.
Easy (slow down)
Leash or harness your dog and run along behind him. Say easy in a long, low voice and pull back on the leash or tug line until he slows. Let up on the rope and pick up speed again.
Hike (speed up)
Leash or harness your dog and walk along behind her. Saying excitedly hike, hike, hike rush up behind her, forcing her to speed up.
On by (ignore distractions or go past a turn)
Leash or harness your dog and walk beside him. When passing a turn or other distraction (other dogs, kids etc), say on by and by pulling his collar, make the dog pass.
Gee and Haw (right and left)
Leash or harness your dog and walk along behind her. Just before you get to an intersection say the dogs name and gee. Walk over to the right where the dog can see you and pull the dog to the right, repeating gee several times. Do the same thing with haw and left turns. Make sure you know your right from your left before starting out.
Want to know more?
Skijor with Your Dog by Mari Hoe-Raitto
Ski Spot Run: The Enchanting World of Skijoring and Related Dog-Powered Sports by Matt Haakenstad
This story was originally published in Carve, a special section of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
January 19, 2007