Taking your dog for a walk after a fresh snowfall, you wouldn’t be the first to wonder what it’d be like to strap that puppy to a sled and go coursing off across the frozen tundra, Iditarod-style. Only that is patently ridiculous. The Iditarod is one of the more grueling tasks known to man, a week-plus-long trek across a 1,000 frozen miles behind a 16-strong team of elite super-dogs. For something a little more human-speed, consider the less taxing and complicated but still very awesome sport of skijoring.
Also known by the more direct (and less interesting) term ski driving, skijoring involves you harnessing your best canine friend (and even a few of his buddies) and have him pull you while wearing a snowboard or skis. There are a few crucial variables to consider before getting started, including the size of you and your dog. For an average-sized guy, you’ll want a larger (minimum 35 pounds), high-energy breed to produce enough power to pull, and having two or three dogs at your disposal is ideal. Another factor is your dog’s demeanor – if he/she isn’t inclined to pull, then the whole shebang is a non-starter. A good way to determine if you have a natural puller is to take him out on a bike using a leash and collar. Once you build momentum, the dog should charge ahead, in turn, pulling the bike.
Using a bike is also the best way to pre-train your dog before heading out into the snow, including getting your dog to understand and obey your commands (otherwise, he may pull you into danger, like onto water that’s not fully frozen, or a cliff). There are specific commands for avid skijorers, but you can be creative and make up your own: At a minimum, you’ll want your dog to understand when you want to turn right, left, run, stop, and avoid distractions (such as squirrels, rabbits, moose, or deer). You can get the commands ingrained in the dog’s brain by using the bike in an open area, like a parking lot. Once he starts moving with your voice without any guidance from the leash and collar, it’s time to hit the trails.
Equipment for skijoring is relatively minimal: skis (regular or cross-country) or a snowboard and a harness, skijoring belt, and tow line. Note that a garden variety pet store harness doesn’t cut it, and can even injure your dog, so opt for a proper mushing harness (both REI.com and BackCountry.com sell them). Then simply latch one end of the towline to your belt and the other end to the dog’s harness (and be sure to use a quick-release disconnect for when you fall).
Skijoring is a great way to stimulate your dog physically and mentally in a not so forgiving climate. Just be sure to bundle up and bring snacks and water for you and the dogs. And as tempting as it may be to start out on a decline, beginners should skijor on flat surfaces, otherwise they may go too fast too quickly and lose control or injure their pups. Parks or any open spaces with snow are suitable places to start your skijoring adventure. As you become familiar with the sport and get a better handle on controlling the dogs, you can try your hand on a more complex course or cross-country trail. For in-depth info on training, proper care for your dog, as well as races and skijor classes, hit up mushwithpride.org and sleddogcentral.com.
MensJournal.com contributor Taylor McKenna is the head trainer and a co-founder of The Confident Dog in Brooklyn, New York.