Dog Sports to Try: Skijoring and Bikejoring

If you’re looking for a fun new way to get outside and have an adventure with your dog, you might want to check out skijoring (if you’re into snow sports) or bikejoring (if you’re a cyclist). In these two “mushing” sports, you and your dog are connected by a tether so that your dog can help pull you to beautiful places. It’s a great way to cover a lot of terrain, obey local leash laws, and learn to work together. The best part is, virtually any healthy dog that weighs at least 30 pounds can try it.

Canadian mushing enthusiast Kevin Roberts has been skiing since he could walk, and he also loves dogs, so skijoring was a natural fit. He first started 18 years ago with his dog Old School, a shepherd/collie cross. “I was hooked right away,” Roberts said. “Once you get into it, you’re tapping something primal.”

Roberts started skijoring competitively and placed second twice at the world’s largest skijoring race at the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival in Minnesota. He also started teaching skijoring lessons, leading workshops, blogging and selling mushing gear through his company, Oxford Dogs. Today, he enjoys skijoring with his dogs River, a 10-year-old border collie mix; Belle, a cattle dog/Lab mix; and Burger, a German shepherd mix.

In addition, Roberts has become passionate about sharing advice for getting started in the wonderful world of skijoring. “It’s a steep learning curve,” he said. “I’m still learning every time I go out, and the gear has changed so much – there’s been so much innovation. Everything has come so far.”

So what gear does a skijoring novice need to get started? Here are tips from Roberts:

  • Mushing harness. Every distributor of harnesses will have a guide on their website as to how their particular harness fits. It’s important that the harness is not too big or too small in order to keep from injuring your dog. “A properly fitted harness sits so there’s enough room to not block the windpipe. It also fits just above the shoulders so the dogs still have motion to move up there – I liken it to hefting a backpack on.”
  • Gangline. When skijoring, we’re attached to our dog by a gangline, a rope with an internal bungee. Roberts recommends a gangline with brass snaps to attach to the dog’s harness because any other type of metal will freeze in temperatures that are minus 40 degrees. (When I quipped to Roberts that if it’s minus 40 outside, you’re probably not going to go outside, he begged to differ. Apparently lots of people skijor in Winnipeg in minus 40 degrees because otherwise, they wouldn’t get to go out as often. Hardcore!) He also suggests a bungee that is tied into the line, not sewn in, to prevent tears.
  • Skijoring belt. This is the belt you’ll fasten around your waist or hips, depending on your preference. Some have leg straps – another matter of preference. “A waist belt needs to be thick enough to not put any pressure on your back and strong enough to support the pull of the dog,” Roberts advised.
  • Clip. There should always be a clip or other device connecting the gangline to your belt so that you can disconnect from your dog quickly in case you fall (or in case they decide to run through your legs before you’re moving).
  • Helmet and ski gear. Roberts suggests a snowboarding helmet because it covers and protects the back of your skull. He also recommends a decent pair of ski boots and cross country skis. Slightly longer ski poles will give you more leverage to push with your arms.

Once you’ve mastered skijoring – and you and your dog are addicted to the thrill of the sport – you can try bikejoring. Roberts offered insight that with a bike, you’re up a lot higher and have a lot faster speed. So, while bikejoring is great, it’s not where you should be starting. The mushing gear for bikejoring is the same, just make sure to attach the gangline to the stem of the bike – never the handlebars.

So where should you try these sports? Roberts offered these safety tips and etiquette pointers:

  • Don’t skijor on trails groomed for cross-country skiing. “Look for a place that’s flat, wide-groomed and a multi-use trail.”
  • Never run a dog on pavement when bikejoring. It can tear off their paw pads, cause them to overheat, and damage their joints over time. “Look for a nice dirt trail in the woods. They’ll love it!”
  • Get your dog used to the harness in the backyard. Before strapping into skis, practice together in the backyard while you’re on foot.
  • Find a mentor, take lessons, or read a book like Skijor with Your Dog. “There’s so much to learn.”

Roberts said that the effort to learn about skijoring and bikejoring will definitely be worth it because of the excitement of the sports and the way they strengthen your bond with your dog. “You are tethered and literally working as a team,” he said. “The endorphins will be flying as you tackle a hill or fly across the terrain – you will be bonded.”

Link to Loppet: http://www.loppet.org/
Link to Oxford Dogs: http://www.oxforddogsgear.com/
Photos by Kevin Roberts