Wondering how and where to ski with your dog? Check out my complete guide to skijoring in New England!
My German Shepherd Roscoe is obsessed with snow. When we go for walks in winter, he avoids the ploughed sidewalks and instead bounds through the deep banks of snow off to the side. As a young, 70-pound working breed, he has endless amounts of energy and loves to run. He desperately needs a “job” to do, something to tire him out…without tiring me out too much in the process.
My husband and I both love skiing, and always lament that Roscoe has to stay home while we hit the slopes. Then we discovered skijoring, a cross-country skiing meets dog sledding hybrid in which your dogs pulls you over the snow on skis. Given Roscoe’s stubborn tendency to pull us on his leash despite years of training otherwise, it seemed like the perfect fit!
Skijoring is a great way for you and your canine companion to burn off excess energy, explore wintry landscapes, and develop a closer bond. Read about our first encounter with this exhilarating sport, and discover where you can your paws on the right resources to try it for yourself this winter!
What is Skijoring?
The concept of skijoring, which translates literally to “ski driving,” originated in Norway in the 18th century. For hundreds of years, riders on skis harnessed themselves to reindeer as a basic mode of transportation across the vast snowy landscape. By the 19th century, military units in Nordic countries were using horse-pulled skiiers as a means of delivering dispatches in remote regions. Introducing dogs was a natural evolution of switching out the dog sled for skis, creating a hybrid cross-country technique.
Skijoring made its way to New England in the early 1900s. It first appeared as a recreational activity in Lake Placid, New York and later became a regular pastime at the Dartmouth Winter Carnival in Hanover, New Hampshire. Skijoring with dogs has risen in popularity in recent years across the country, both as a recreational and competitive sport. There’s even a widespread effort for it to be considered for the Winter Olympics.
Where Can I Learn Skijoring in New England?
While my husband and I are avid downhill skiiers, we’ve never been cross country skiing and certainly have never tried it with our dog. So we head to the Outdoor Center at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, New Hampshire. Here, instructor Jane Carpenter has been introducing skiiers and their dogs to skijoring in New England for over 15 years.
The Outdoor Center offers all of the equipment you need for rent or purchase. Carpenter sizes Roscoe into a cross-back harness, similar to what sled dogs wear. We step into a waist belt with leg straps and two loops to hook into a 8-foot bungee leash.
After chatting about Roscoe’s temperament and training, Carpenter walks us through a list of commands. Some are used by dog sled mushers: “gee” for right turns, “haw” for left, and a classic Cowboy-style “whoa” for slow to a stop. Many are useful commands to practice and use in Roscoe’s regular training. Others are ones he (should) already know, like “leave it,” important for staying focused on the trail rather than the small critters off to the side.
Then we head out to the beginner trails where Carpenter teaches us old dogs some new tricks. Since neither of us have cross country skiied before, we start by giving it try without Roscoe. Carpenter shows us how to match her easy glides, slide to a stop, and (most humbling) get up off the ground after falling.
Once we are comfortable, we swap into snowshoes so we can maintain more control while introducing Roscoe to the trails. Roscoe’s natural inclination to pull takes over immediately, and I have to jog in my snowshoes to keep up. I quickly shed some of my warm layers – this is going to be a great workout.
Finally, we transition back to cross country skis, this time hooked up to Roscoe. “Are you ready to work?” Carpenter asks Roscoe, and you can tell that he innately understands and is eager to get going. He leans into the harness and takes off, not needing much encouragement, but appreciating Carpenter’s well-timed praise and treats all the same. “He’s a natural lead dog!” she shouts, as Roscoe trots ahead down the trail with my husband in tow.
It’s an adrenaline rush. After a few easy laps, all three of us are grinning from ear to (big) ear. We call it a day, thanking Carpenter for introducing us to such tail-wagging good fun. We’re already planning our next skijoring adventure in New England.
Is Skijoring Right for my Dog?
The idea of being tethered to your pup while wearing skis is enough to give most people
paws pause. Before attempting skijoring, you should not only have an open mind to adventure, but also some level of comfort on skis and control over your dog.
The common misconception is that this sport is only right for a certain type of dog. While sled dogs like Siberian huskies, hounds like German Shorthaired Pointers, or working breeds like, well, German Shepherds may display a more natural tendency to take the lead, any dog can be trained to skijor. Jane Carpenter has enjoyed skijoring both with her 80-pound yellow lab and her much smaller Jack Russell terrier. She’s given lessons to skiers with dogs of all sizes, from Beagles to Border Collies.
The most important prerequisite is a desire to run down a trail and pull, which is instinctual for most dogs. Smaller dogs won’t be able to provide as much assistance. But since it is up to the skiier to provide much of the power, any enthusiastic dog can participate.
Roscoe loves snow, loves to run, and insists on being the lead dog, so he took to skijoring right away. You know your dog best – make sure it’s an activity that you both can enjoy together. At the end of the day, it’s all about building a better bond with your dog.
What Equipment Do I Need?
- Harness, Waist Belt & Lead: Your pup will sport a cross-back harness, similar to what is used for dogsled racing. This will distribute the weight evenly and harness the full, pulling power. The skier wears a wide waistband with leg loops to keep it in position and a hook for attaching the lead. Usually at least 8-feet long, the lead should have a section of bungee cord to absorb the impact of the dog’s forward motion or a quick stop by the skier. We purchased the Non-Stop Dogwear Starter Kit in a size 6. It includes all three and came highly recommended by Carpenter.
- Protective Gear: This is optional, but depending on your dog, you can add booties for keeping paws protected over harsh surfaces, a waterproof jacket for keeping them warm and dry (and fending off wet dog smell), and doggles for protecting their eyes for harsh winds, sun glare, and snow.
- Skis: You’ll need a pair of cross country skis or snowshoes. Skate skis allow for greater speed to keep up with uber-athletic pups, like mine. The important thing is not to use skis with metal edges, which can cut your dog if you accidentally collide.
- Other Ways to Ride: You can do variations on skijoring in any season using the same equipment. Try bikejoring, in which your dog’s leash is clipped to a special attachment on the front of your bike, running, called canicross by serious dog drivers, or roller skating, if you’re bold like my husband.
Where can I Go Skijoring in New England?
There are several cross-country centers around the state that allow leashed dogs on some or all of their trails. These include Notchview Nordic Skiing Center in Massachusetts, Mountain Meadows XC Ski and Snowshoe Center in Vermont, Gunstock Mountain Resort or Bretton Woods Resort in New Hampshire, and Carter’s XC Ski Center in Maine. Always check which trails are dog-friendly before you head out, and remember to pick up after your pup!
What do you think, are you ready to hit the trail with your pup? Leave a comment below!
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