In my last post, I introduced skijoring as a new activity for you to try. So if you’ve got your equipment and you are ready to give it a shot, this article will focus on some tips for success.
How to get started
Setting yourself up for success means planning ahead and putting in a bit of training. If you have never done any pulling sport with your dogs, you need to teach your dog to pull. You might be thinking “oh my dog can pull” but pulling while on a walk is very different than pulling you on a ski track where they can’t just stop to sniff every couple of seconds.
The best thing to do is to find something like an old car tire (heavy and will slide) and tie a rope to it. The rope will be for you to pull. Then you will put that skijoring harness on your dog, tie it to the tire, and help them pull it as you encourage them to run. Start by doing most of the pulling yourself and then slowly ease your dog into taking on the full weight. Once they are happy and comfortable pulling, keep practicing until they think it is the funnest game ever. You want your dog to LIKE pulling. Some of you will always help pulling the tire because all of the weight might be too much for your dog, and that is ok. Skijoring is not about just being dragged along by your dog, you will be a team working together, so they do not have to take your full weight.
Cues to work on
The next thing to work on (or to do so concurrently) are some basic cues for skijoring. The cues I use are, Line Out, Gee, Haw, Woah, and On-By. I’ll explain each in this section and how to start working on them.
Line Out: This cue involves your dog going to the end of the skijoring line. At this point, they are wearing their harness and tied in, it’s the “set” part of Ready, set, go. The purpose is to get the line out so that you can start together and your dog isn’t running from you right to the end of the line. It’s also handy for races! As a bonus, this skill also teaches some self control since your dog will start to get so excited when the harness comes out that this will remind them that they have to focus a bit too. To teach line out, get your dog ready to skijor and find something tough to tie the end of the skijoring line to. Things that work well are trees, hitches on vehicles, sign posts, etc. Then give your dog the cue, “Line out” and lure them (with a yummy treat!) out to the end of the line and say “Yes” (or click) before rewarding. You may want to start this with your line partway out at first, then increase the distance as your dog gets quicker in their response. You’ll be ready to take the lure away when your dog is starting to move ahead on their own.
Gee/Haw: The terms “gee” and “haw” are the mushers terms for right (gee) and left (haw). You can easily pick “left” and “right” for this instead, but some people like to have mushing terms in particular. The important thing here is to start teaching your dog how to turn right or left on cue since they will be leading the way. In order to start teaching this, pick one direction first. Your dog should be standing up, and you will have a cookie to lure this. You should put the cookie at your dogs nose and slowly lure them into turning around towards the right or left (whichever side you decided to pick first). Once they are almost facing the starting direction, click or say “yes!” and give them the cookie. You will have to do this many times, as your dog responds faster, take that lure further and further away from the snout until your dog can just follow your finger. Once you notice them anticipating and turning ahead of your hand, then you are ready to add the verbal cue. So give whichever word you want to use first, wait two seconds, then use your hand signal and repeat as many times as needed until your dog starts to turn on his/her own within that two seconds between your verbal cue and your hand signal. Then your dog is getting it! Once you have nailed these two directional cues, you can use them on the trail, they have taught your dog to turn towards a direction and your dog will know that “gee” means turn right!
On-by!: Your dog will see lots of interesting stuff on the trails. Other dogs, people, squirrels, and so on. So how do you handle it? Well, if you’ve got a really reliable “leave it” on your walks, then you can try using that, but most people do not. So instead, I recommend teaching “on-by!” as a leave-it cue when you are moving fast. I use this with running as well and explained in my previous article on running, how to teach it. So head over there and practice before you get on your skis!
Woah: Stopping and slowing down is pretty important for skijoring. Sometimes there are big downhill sections or conditions are really fast. So teaching your dog “I need you to slow down or stop” is important. I use the cue “woah” which I give in a low and loud voice. This one can be taught two ways. First is on skis which should only be done if you are very confident on your skis. If so, on a flat section when your dogs are running ahead pulling you, say “woah” and start to pizza to slow them down. At first they will usually keep pulling and then slow down a bit and look back, when they do say “yes” or click and that should bring them to a stop for their reward (bring treats). Then repeat until they start to slow down right away. If you are not confident on skis, then you can introduce this while doing some “canicross” with your dogs (that’s using the skijoring equipment while running instead of skiing) and repeat the same steps. There is one important thing, only use this cue for skijoring and not on your walks. This is not a loose leash walking cure. This is to help your dogs slow down their running, not pulling on leash. So please keep this cue for what it is, otherwise your dog will likely get frustrated from overuse and start ignoring it.
Emergency stop: This isn’t a cue so much as a tip. A proper skijoring set up will have an emergency quick release to separate you and your dogs. This is to be used if your dog sees a squirrel and is about to take you into a tree. But I have never used it. Have my dogs had moments of running off trail? Yes. So how did I stop? I did a controlled fall. I literally just sat back onto the ground. If you do this, you may end up with some bruises, depending how fast you are going, but I prefer it to letting my dogs run off. So that is what I recommend, but again, with the caveat that you may, in some situations, hurt yourself a bit.
If you know your dog has never seen cross country skis, then check out the local ski area first and bring lots of treats. It can be overwhelming if your ski club is busy and you want your dog to understand that cross country skiers are just people and nothing scary. If you have a puppy that you are planning to skijor with, then introduce them as early as possible to the ski environment. This makes cross country skiers a normal thing that your dog will grow up feeling comfortable with.
If you have a reactive dog, either reactive to people or dogs, then plan accordingly. You will want to introduce them to the area, skiers, in a controlled environment and not when you are on your skis. You want them to be comfortable with what they see. If dogs are your only worry, then consider utilizing a muzzle as a precaution and bring food. Every time you encounter a dog, stop, bring your dog in closer and reward your dog for calmly watching the other dog walk by. It is common that ski trails that allow dogs often allow off leash dogs, so encountering other dogs is a real possibility, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare, preparation ahead of time can go a long way. If you think your dog can’t handle seeing any dogs, then it’s time to find a good science based trainer and work on the reactivity. A month ago, my senior dog got into it with my neighbours dog and he got badly bit on his leg. Once he was cleared for walks again, I brought treats with me on every walk and was happy to see it hadn’t triggered more reactivity (we have been working to make him comfortable with other dogs since he started being reactive several years ago – yes, dogs who used to love dogs can some day decide they are scary). It seemed we had gotten through it without any behavioural issues coming up. Then we went skijoring. Where he used to just run by dogs without issue, he was now stopping and barking/growling. So I started bringing food with me on our skis and with food and some management (stopping when we see dogs, working on him taking food from me) and he hasn’t had a reaction since.
So there it is, my very short, high level overview of how to get into skijoring. I hope you consider giving it a shot and if you do, see if you have a local club or dog trainer (science based) who teaches skijoring. If not, give it a shot on your own and take it slow. Things do improve, it might take a while for your dog to get it, but you can have lots of fun learning. Good luck and let me know how it goes!