SkiJor: At one with your dog
Strap on your skis, grab your poles, harness yourself to your dog and go.
According to Debbie McMaster, it’s the latest trend in cross country skiing. Skijoring, a Norwegian term that literally translates as ‘ski driving,’ in this case, is a collaborative effort between a cross country skier (classic or skating) and his dog.
Simply put, skiers strap themselves to their dog and ski while being pulled.
“Most dogs have the natural instinct to pull,” McMaster, a skijor instructor who holds clinics at many of the area cross country centers, said, “so any type of medium to large sized dog can participate.”
All that’s required, as far as a dog’s ability to participate, is that it weighs at least 35 pounds and has a willingness to pull and the capability to learn a few new commands.
There is some basic equipment that is required.
To begin, a skijorer needs a sled dog harness for the dog. McMaster has an race harness for her dog that straps around the dog’s chest. There are also less expensive recreational harnesses available.
Connected to the harness near the dog’s tail is a skijor tow line. The tow line is made of bungee material so that when the dog slows down and speeds up, it allows the person being towed not to be jerked around and vice versa.
The tow-line connects to a cable that hangs off the front of the skijor belt. The belt is four inches wide and made of neoprene. The cable sags from hip to hip and the tow line is connected so that it can be easily detached should there be a situation where quick release from the other half of the team is necessary. The hip to hip sag allows the dog more freedom to move side to side.
Any type of cross country ski is acceptable for skijoring.
Once all the equipment is assembled, there are some basic commands that the dog must learn.
“Line out” is the first command, and signals that the dog should get out in front of you so that the tow line is taught. You can say “hike” or “let’s go” to get the dog to go and “easy” to get it to slow down. Stop, McMaster jokes, happens naturally, with the phrase “whoa.” McMaster utilizes “gee” to have the dog go right and “haw” to have the dog go left. “Come around” tells the dog to stop and go back in the direction in which it was going and “on by” is a command to keep the dog from chasing things.
McMaster emphasizes that experience on skis – the ability to balance and ride on cross-country skis – is absolutely necessary.
Once you have had some outings with your dog (it’s rare that dogs will pick it up right away), McMaster says that the experience is “pure joy.”
“It’s so fun to be connected with your dog,” McMaster says. “To see them running just for the joy of running is fantastic. You are at one with your dog.”
McMaster will be conducting three different skijor clinics in the upcoming month. The first is scheduled to be at Royal Gorge on Sunday, Feb. 27. Another clinic will be held on Saturday, March 11 at Diamond Peak. The final clinic of the season is on Sunday, March 12 at Tahoe Cross Country. Contact the the areas for information.
For people interested in pursuing skijoring as more than a casual hobby, there are also skijor races. California’s sled dog club is the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers, which holds skijor races in conjunction with their sled dog races in February and March. For information on California races, interested parties can visit the SNDD website at http://www.sndd.com or call race secretary Kris Sihler for entry forms at (831) 336-1104.
In two weeks on March 5th there will be skijoring in Incline Village. Appearing will be the 98 and 99 International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA) Gold Medalist and Kings Beach resident Mike Callahan. Also skijoring will be former German Olympic XC ski team member Michaela Endler-Probst. To round off a mostly local field of contenders will be Mark Wellman on a sit ski pulled by his red hot Alaskan Husky. For more info call Mike Callahan @ 546-8459.
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