What is Skijoring? Guide for Cross-Country Skiing with Dogs

Skijoring is a great exercise for both you and your dog, and a wonderful sport that lets you bond with your dog and enjoy the winters at the same time.

Skijoring is an outdoor winter activity that combines cross country skiing with a dog on a harness. The cross country skier uses the power from the skis and the poles whereas the dog adds more sliding power by running in the front and pulling the skier. The skier often gives verbal commands to the dog to coordinate with the furry athlete.

Cross-Country Skiing with Your Dog

Skijoring is not a new sport and has been there for hundreds of years. However, it is gaining more popularity these days due to people involving their dogs in their winter activities. More tour companies and races are featuring skijoring which is enabling dog lovers to recognize it as a proper sport that they can take part in along with their dogs. The best part is skijoring does not require much special equipment which makes it accessible to anyone who loves cross country skiing and owns a dog.

Historic Roots

The origin of skijoring dates back to the 1850s where it was a popular activity as well as means of transportation in Scandinavia. The word skijoring is derived from the Norwegian word for “ski driving” as it combines cross country skiing and dog sledding. You can engage from one to three dogs in skijoring. The dog wears a dog sledding harness which is attached by a towline or a rope to a skijoring harness that the skier puts on. If your dog loves to run in the snow and you have a passion for cross country skiing, there is no better win-win activity than skijoring.

The skijoring dog should weigh at least 35 pounds (though 50 pounds and up is even better) and should be able to pull the skier with willingness and energy. The skier will also add to this momentum and force by using his/ her skis as well as poles. Your dog should be healthy and needs some basic training to get started, but the good news is that you do not have to be an expert in either cross country skiing or skijoring to enjoy this activity.

You also do not have to have a Northern breed such as a Malamute or Husky to do this sport. Also, your dog does not have to be a big dog, a medium size of dog will work great as well, as you will be adding to the momentum. Make sure you take your dog for a checkup to verify he/ she is healthy, and you (and your dog) are good to go for skijoring!

Modern Sport and Recreation

Today, skijoring is one of the more popular winter activities around the world and it has become the most loved dog-friendly activity of the US’s winter season. So why not try it? When the temperature drops and the snow begins to fall, take your dog on a skijoring adventure, and you will know why so many cross country skiers are in love with this activity.

Since it’s a great recreational activity for both you and your dog, make sure the equipment used is designed for skijoring purposes. The first rule is not going with metal edge skis. In case you and your dog tangle up or have a collision due to an unmatched pace, the metal-edged skis could hurt the canine, and even you too. Most of the skijoring enthusiasts normally use waxless classic skis; some also use backcountry-style skis. If you plan to ski on groomed surfaces, you can also use skate skis.

skijoring with dogs

If you are new to cross country skiing, it is best to consult someone good at XC skiing before purchasing your skis, bindings, and ski boots. A ski professional can offer you a package at a good deal including the equipment you need for skijoring. But do not worry, skijoring requires minimal equipment but offers tons of fun.

Skijoring is a great recreational activity, but some skiers want more! If you are one of those and are aiming to take part in skijoring competitions, you should talk to experienced skijorers to learn more about this sport and what you should be looking for in the competitions. It is also a good idea to inquire about the breeds that are best suited for competitions. You would also not want your canine to carve his/ her own route and not listen to you. The ideal skijoring dog is the one that ignores the presence of other dogs on the skijoring trail and keeps on running upon your instructed route.

In skijoring competitions, if a dog is distracted by the presence of other dogs or even worse, interferes with others, this leads to deduction in points. Just like other canine events, skijoring competitions and races have crowds of dogs belonging to different breeds. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a dog fight with your cross country skis on!

Best Dogs for Skijoring

If your dog meets the minimum weight requirement (35 pounds), is healthy, and loves to run – congratulations, you have got yourself a skijoring buddy! The best dogs for skijoring have a large or medium built. Although small dogs can also go for skijoring, they may not be able to contribute much to the momentum. In case you have a small dog you is super energetic and loves to run in the snow, there is no harm taking him/ her skijoring with you. The dog can show off his/ her strength while trying to pull you, and you can put in more effort using your skis and poles.

The Northern breeds of dogs are most commonly seen participating in skijoring. The dogs that have a heavy coat such as the Canadian Eskimos, Samoyeds, Huskies, Malamutes, Chows, and similar ones work best due to the extra cold weather. The pulling dogs such as American Bulldogs, American Bull Terriers, Mastiffs, and Staffordshire Terriers are also great skijoring partners. Moreover, the dog breeds that have fast runners like German Shepherds, Labrador, Grey Hounds, Golden Retrievers, and German Shorthaired Pointers are great skijoring buddies as well.

If your dog loves to pull or do not mind pulling you for a longer duration, your dog could be ideal for this sport. Also, some dogs do not like it if it gets too cold or snowy. While with the right cold-weather gear you can cozy up your dog and try skijoring, positive training also plays an important role.

winter dog skijoring

It is also important that your dog listens and follows your instructions and does not get easily distracted. The last thing you want is to have your dog interfere with other skijorers and not listening to your commands. As long as your dog is healthy, loves to run, and follow your instructions on a consistent basis, you can enjoy skijoring with him/ her no matter what the breed is.

So, is your dog ready to enjoy skijoring with you? The good news is that unlike dogsledding, skijoring races are shorter and your dog has to run from 5 to 20 kilometers. For dogs’ safety, the Skijoring organizations recommend not skijoring with dogs that are under 35 pounds. If you have two to three dogs with similar builds, they can even do skijoring in a team.

To determine the best dogs for skijoring of if your dog can do skijoring, consider the following criteria. While your dog does not have to qualify for all of these, he/ she should be able to check most of the boxes. This criterion is set to determine if your dog can handle extreme winter conditions and have the mindset required for pulling you in open areas between a crowd of people and their dogs.

  • The dog has a thick coat for protection against the cold weather and to prevent harness chafing. In case your dog has a thin coat, he/ she can still do skijoring if they have the right harness.
  • Pulls leash without any hassle.
  • Obeys voice commands.
  • Knows how to stay focused when other dogs and people are present.
  • Has thick and stiff paw hair that does not pack up with snow, as opposed to silky and thin paw hair.
  • Does not have an overly strong drive to chase prey. The last thing you want is for your dog to start chasing a squirrel!
  • Your dog is not too large – which could make him/ her impossible to stop.

Most of the skijoring breeds have one thing in common – they are used to icy terrains. That is why most, not all, skijoring dogs come from the North or areas in the West hemisphere. Some of the most popular skijoring dog breeds are:

  • Eskimo Dog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Greyhounds
  • Alaskan Huskies
  • Siberian Huskies
  • German Shepherd
  • Anatolian Shepherd
  • Seppala Siberian Sled dogs
  • Border Collie
  • Japanese Akita
  • German Shorthaired Pointers
  • Great Dane
  • Karaka Chan Bear Dogs
  • Dalmatian
  • Greater Swiss Mountain Dog
  • Samoyed
  • Norwegian Elkhound
  • Shiba Inu
  • Tibetan Mastiff, and many others.

These skijoring dog breeds have strong paws that enable them to easily move in extreme cold terrains. Though these dogs vary in their athletic build, size, weight, and resistance towards cold, there is one thing that all of them have in common – their love for running, towing, and enjoying the outdoors in the winter.

Necessary Equipment

Skijoring requires minimal equipment, but you need to make sure the skijoring gear has a great quality as you would not want to take any risks with yours or your dog’s wellbeing. You can buy the skijoring equipment as part of a skijoring package where all the equipment come in an all-in-one packaging, or you can choose to buy these gear separately. In some instances, though buying a package is easier and less hassle, buying them separately can save you some bucks.

Pulling Harness

Dogs come in different shapes, sizes, and weights, so it is best to have a custom made a harness for your dog’s exact fit. Having said that, there are great options for dog harnesses available and you can choose the right one for your canine friend. Just make sure you do not pull your dog by the collar as it will put a great amount of pressure on the neck vertebrae and could even restrict your four-legged friend’s breathing. Also, the dog walking harnesses should not be used in skijoring as they are not designed for active pulling.

pulling harness

There are different types of dog harnesses:

  • X-Back or Cross-Back Harness
  • H-Back Harness
  • Half Back Harness
  • Wheel Dog Harness

The Cross-Back or X-Back harness is specially designed with the straps crossed on the dog’s back ending at the tail, hence the name. The tether is attached at the tail end and this type of harnesses is typically used with Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies. The X-shaped design enables a proper load distribution on your dog’s body which results in optimal force transmission.

The X-Back harness is a great harness for skijoring. However, it cannot be adjusted so make sure it fits your dog perfectly. The neck opening of the harness needs to be fit – not too tight that it leaves a mark on your dog’s skin or feels like choking him though. The end piece of the X-Back harness needs to begin at the base of the tail and side straps should be located within the coastal arch, not behind the arch. The harness should not slip when the dog moves, instead, it should move along with your dog.

The H-Back Harness is ideal for beginners in skijoring as the harness can be adjusted giving the new skijorer more room. It also works great in case your dog is new to skijoring as your dog can find the right pulling direction using the harness. In case you have a lean and long dog or one who does not have a typical shape of a sled dog, these harnesses can be ideal for your canine.

The H-shape of this harness can be easily identified from the rest of the harnesses. This H-shape takes the pressure off your canine’s back and facilitates unrestrained breathing of your dog while he/ she pulls you along. In short, the H-Back harness offers you and your racing partner a great balance between running freely and transmitting power to keep up with the pace.

The shorter Half Back Harness is good for deep-chested canine as well as small-sized dogs. It may seem like the harness that you use for leashed walking but unlike the walk-leash, the half-back harness can pull weight. It is not ideal for kick sledding. For kick sledding, it is recommended that you use the Wheel Dog Harness that does not exert any pressure on the hind end of your dog.

Towline

A skijoring towline is specially designed with elastic to absorb the shock from sudden movement or standstill. What if your dog starts running while you are at a standstill? The towline absorbs the shock and should ideally max out between 8 to 10 feet to give room for your skis as well as giving you enough stopping distance so you do not end up having a collision with your canine friend.

If you are skijoring with two dogs, you can get a gear to connect their harnesses into one so the dogs can run alongside each other.

Hip Belt

The hip belt is a wide and padded belt that gives the cross country skier comfort during the skijoring activity. The skier wears it around his/ her hips, and not the waist (to prevent any shock or damage to the lower back). While looking for your hip belt, make sure you measure yourself properly and keep into account the fact that you will be wearing the hip belt on top of your winter clothes.

Hip belts often come with extra features like having a water bottle holder or a treat pouch. They also have loops where you can attach your small gear pouches. In case of an emergency, you should be able to quickly detach yourself from the towline.

Dog Jacket (Optional)

Having a dog jacket for your skijoring buddy is a great idea to protect your four-legged from the extreme cold. Some dogs have a thick coat or a double coat and they may not need a dog jacket. For others, you may need a dog jacket to keep them warm.

Paw Wax

It is also important to protect your dog’s paws from harsh elements such as ice, salt, and sand. The paw protection wax keeps the paws of your dog well-protected. The wax comes in an easy to apply cream and keeps your furry friend safe from injury caused by outdoor winter activities.

Where Can You Go Skijoring?

Not all parks and ski trails are dog-friendly, so you need to find a dog-friendly place to go skijoring. Generally, ungroomed areas that allow dogs are good places for these activities. Many groomed trails allow you to enjoy skijoring with your dog. The best part is, since most of the parks are free for winter activities, once you get your skijoring gear, there is no such cost involved to enjoy the snow with your four-legged partner.

Here are some of the places you can go for skijoring:

  • Colorado: Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash has been voted by USA Today as 2019’s best cross country ski resort in the US. It has 75 miles of Nordic trails which are ideal for skijoring.
  • Minocqua Winter Park, Minocqua, Wisconsin, has more than 30 trails for skijoring which varying levels of difficulty. In addition to this in WI, you can find a lot of skijoring options including the Justin Trails B&B Resort (Sparta), Chase’s Point (Orange Trail, Superior), Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area (New Auburn), Indian Lake Country Park, MECCA Trails (dogs are allowed on their untracked areas), Pike’s Creek and Jerry Jay Jolly Trails (Bayfield), Seeley Hills Trail (Hayward), Southern Kettle Moraine Unit (Lapham Peak, Delafield), and Interstate State Park (St. Croix Falls – the park does not have official skijoring trails but have many multi-use trails).
  • Tahoe Donner in Truckee town of California has eight dog friendly XC trails.
  • Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, New Hampshire, offers 15 km of skijoring trails.
  • The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Montana. They also offer numerous dog-friendly luxury homes.
  • Three Rivers Park District in Plymouth, Minnesota
  • North Fork Park in Liberty, Utah, offers 20 miles of groomed cross country trails perfect for skijoring.
  • Nome Creek Valley in the White Mountains National Recreational Area in Fairbanks, Alaska, boasts 250 miles of groomed skijoring trails.
  • Winona Forest Recreation Area in Lacona, New York, offers 40 miles of skijoring spanning across 25 trails.
  • The Confederation Park and Nose Hill Park in Calgary allow you to ski with your dog. This is especially great during the Christmas season.

In Wisconsin, you can take part in many skijoring races including:

  • Barkie Birkie (Haward) – a 4-day event that invites thousands of skiers from around the globe.
  • Skijoring on the (Madison) Square – in the Madison Winter Festival.
  • Merrill Winterfest Sled Dog Race (Merril) – has special skijoring tracks along with many other winter activities including sled dog racing, skating, etc.
  • Three Bear Sled Dog Race (Land O’ Lakes) – premier spectator races in northern Midwest – favorite among dog-owners as well as dogs!

No matter where you are, you can always find a skijoring terrain in winters near you or travel to one with your canine buddy. Before heading out to a proper skijoring trail, it is better to train your dog so you do not have communication issues with your dog. In skijoring trails, your dog will also come across other skijoring dogs and people, so it is important that your dog does not get distracted on trails.

Training Your Dog for Skijoring

It is important to train your dog for skijoring so he/ she knows what to do when you are out in the snow with him. With patience and some dog treats (or many treats, depending upon your dog), you will be able to train your canine easily.


Keep the following points in mind while training your dog for skijoring:

  • Start training on dry land without hooking your dog up to his/ her harness. Once you introduce harness, make sure your dog is comfortable in the gear before you start with commands.
  • Use clicker training and positive reinforcement. Dogs are generally quick learners and as soon as they realize that the harness is linked to their happy time outdoors, they will quickly adapt to their skijoring training routine.
  • If you want to sign your dog and yourself up for a skijoring race, do lots of practice at home, and ideally take help from any local skijoring club.
  • Learn the commands and make sure your dog understands these commands well and differentiates between each command.
  • Keep the training as much fun as possible. When the two of you have fun in training, chances are that your dog will learn the sport quickly and you will not lose patience while teaching him/ her.

If you are not sure about the commands, here are some of the basic sled dog commands that you can teach your dog. Try practicing them with your canine, and reward him/ her when he/ she understand or responds accordingly.

  • Hike, Mush, or All Right: Get moving.
  • Kissing sound: Move faster.
  • Easy: Slow down.
  • Whoa: Stop.
  • On By: Pass a certain distraction or another team or skijoring.
  • Haw: Turn to the left.
  • Gee: Turn to the right.

You need to note that voice commands should not be words that are often used in your common conversation. It is natural for you and your dog to struggle in the beginning. Make sure you use a lot of encouragement and praise. Do not get upset or punish your dog for not getting the commands. This training should be a fun time for both of you.

When starting, keep the training session under 15 minutes and slowly increase the time. It may take a couple of months for your dog to perfectly figure out the commands so be patient. It would be worth it in the long run.

Conclusion

Skijoring is fun – for both you and your canine friend. Make sure your dog qualifies for the sport by being healthy, active, willing to run, and have a minimum weight of 35 pounds. You and your dog must have the right skijoring gear before stepping out. In order to have some fun in the snow with your dog, you need to train him/ her properly and show patience while doing so. The dog should not get too far or lag when skijoring, and keep the pace fluid. Practice voice commands for stopping, turning, speeding up, and slowing down with your dog. Once you are your furry friend are ready for skijoring, you are guaranteed to have a lot of fun in the winters to come.