Getting outdoors with your dog can be daunting on dark, winter days, even if this is often a working person’s only chance at a foray into nature during the week.
But if you’re a cross country skier, or interested in becoming one, there’s a much more fun, fast way of getting fresh air while exercising your four-legged friend: skijoring.
A sport originating in Scandinavia, skijoring (from the Norwegian skikjøring, or ‘ski driving’) involves strapping on skis and harnessing yourself to your dog for an added boost of energy when flying down the trails.
EDGE spoke with professional canine-companion and skijorer Tia Hanna of Happy Pooch Grooming and Pet Services about the ins and outs of getting yourself and your dog started, and the upcoming skijoring races at this year’s Long John Jamboree.
Finding the right canine
When it comes to skijoring, not just any dog will do. Even so, the sport is not limited to northern breeds like huskies. According to Hanna, who has been skijoring for around five years with a variety of dogs, it really comes down to size and enthusiasm.
“They usually say you want a dog around 50 pounds or more,” she says. “One of my dogs is 40 pounds, but it’s better to have a bit of a stronger dog. Some dogs, if they feel too much of a pull, if they don’t have enough power to get a forward momentum going, they’re going to stop. So a little bit bigger is better.”
While northern breeds tend to take to dog skijoring most naturally, all sorts of working dogs like to get in on the action, from German shepherd mixes to herding dogs like border collies to sporting dogs like German shorthair pointers.
If you don’t already have a dog, the NWT SPCA is currently at max capacity and full of sled dog mixes that would be perfect for skijoring.
Everybody gets some exercise
Skijoring harnesses are available in Yellowknife from Overlander Sports as well as online from places like Tanzilla. Hanna says she orders special harnesses from Howling Dog in Alaska that work well for dogs new to the sport.
With those harnesses, the dogs are clipped only to the line by the harness and not the collar, and are easier to direct.
“If a dog should become entangled or doesn’t know what they’re doing yet, they can’t pull out of it, and it attaches closer to their shoulders so you can steer them a little bit. For dogs who don’t know any of the commands, who don’t know anything about pulling, you can start them off skijoring really easily,” Hanna says.
On the human end of the equation, there are different belts one can choose from. There are the regular belts that strap around the lower back, but also ones that mimic rock climbing harnesses with straps that go underneath the legs. Hanna tends to go with the latter, which help when she’s pulling more than one dog or a pooch with some power.
“For me, I find if you have a powerful dog and you have it on your lower back, you can get some stronger pulls on your lower back and get some pain later, so keeping it more on your hips is safer,” she says.
If you’re a first-timer
If you’re still figuring out how to ski yourself, no worries. Hanna says beginners can use the experience to bond with their best friends, even if it means falling down. Still, there are some ways to make it an easier and more pleasant experience.
“If you’re just learning, go without poles,” Hanna advises. “If it’s your first time and you have a dog that’s going to be able to pull you, it’s better to not have poles so you can hold the line in front of you and keep it from getting tangled and from snapping too much. Then you can keep your balance more, bend your knees, get low. Poles just kind of get in the way.”
While you’re ditching the poles, it’s also best to wear regular cross country skis instead of backcountry ones, as any metal edges could endanger you or your dog if you fall.
If your dog is a first-timer
Hanna is used to newbie dogs thanks to her dog walking service at Happy Pooch. During the winter, she’ll often harness a dog or two during the pack walks and let the momentum of the group keep them on track.
“When there’s a lot of dogs running around them, they get very focused and run straight,” she says. “Having loose dogs, even though it sounds counter-intuitive, can keep up the excitement factor for the dogs so they don’t feel like they’re working.”
In the end, everyone gets more exercise.
“If I go faster, then everybody runs faster, and the dogs that are pulling will get more of a workout,” she says.
Skijoring dogs don’t have to be huskies
Burning energy, building bonds
Apart from giving you and your canine a great workout in the winter, Hanna says skijoring is an excellent way to train your dogs in other areas by helping to burn off their energy.
“If you have a dog that you want to work on off-leash or any kind of training, skijoring them first can really help to get a bit of the edge off, to bring their energy down a little bit, so if you take them off leash they’re not going to bolt from you, and when you’re trying to teach them to sit and stay, they’re going to listen to commands better.”
It’s also a great way to bond with your dog, Hanna says.
“It’s like a really fun game where everybody’s running and somehow the human that you love is still with you too!” she says. “We’re all together and everybody’s going so fast. It really ups the excitement for them.”
Where to go around Yellowknife
Though cross country ski club trails with their set tracks are often off-limits to dogs, getting out of the city and onto some easy-to-ski trails with your pet pal is easy.
Beginners: If you’re a complete newbie, have a dog who doesn’t listen very well and expect to be wiping out a lot, your safest bets are the golf club and the Fred Henne trails. “There’s some really well-used snowmobile trails back there [at the golf club] that are fairly wide… If you stay out on the golf club itself, it’s really flat, open, safe,” Hanna says.
Intermediate: For people who have good control of their dog and skis, but want to get some practice with speed and trails, the Grace Lake Loop is the place to be. The trail is marked and maintained, making it a great teacher for dogs. But it’s is also where mushers take their dog sled tours, so a good level of control is needed.
Advanced: The Burwash Trail is a favourite among skijorers in Yellowknife, who can be seen frequenting it nearly every day. A beautiful, but windy and narrow trail, it requires a strong level of control on curves and hills in order to avoid the risk of injury to you and your dog.
Long John Jamboree Skijoring Races: What better way to get in the skijoring spirit than to join in a fun, friendly race at Yellowknife’s annual winter festival? The Long John Jamboree skijoring races feature a category for solo skiers with their solo pooch, as well as an open category that has seen children pulled in toboggans by their dogs race against husky-powered kicksleds. The race raises money for the NWT SPCA and every team takes home a prize.