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The word "skijor" is Norwegian in origin. It means "ski driving." In this sport, a cross-country skier uses a dog or dogs as draft animals to pull him across the snow.

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of skijoring. The most common belief is that the activity started when a group of Scandinavian adventurers returned to their homeland from the gold rush in Alaska and the Klondike region of Canada.

Bringing home the dog sledding skills they learned in Alaska, they quickly adapted them to the existing sport of cross-country skiing. The first skijoring competitions were held in Europe in the 1930s.

Many of the first skijorers also trained dog sled teams. Fran Plaisted of the New England Sled Dog Club notes that the popularity of the sport quickly grew beyond the sled dog circles.

"Initially, this was the case: the skijorers were primarily mushers that wanted to try this new sport," she explains. "Now there are plenty of skijorers that just skijor. It is a lot easier for most folks to have one to three dogs than to have a kennel large enough to run a sled dog team."

Susie Strachan is the skijoring coordinator for a dog sports club. She adds that the need for fewer dogs has made the sport more appealing to urban participants.

"Skijoring seems to appeal to urban dog owners, who are limited in the number of dogs they can own. Also, skijoring can be done in local parks, on shorter trails. A dog sled team needs a much longer trail to get a good workout."

The number of skijorers is believed to be growing steadily. However, it is very difficult to pinpoint the actual number of participants involved in the sport in North America. That's because only a few are actually members of a skijoring organization.

Bob Brock is the vice-president of the North American Skijoring and Ski Pulk Association. He feels there are even better days ahead for the activity.

"There is just too much joy to be had skiing with a dog and folks will naturally want a part of it."

While there are no hard and fast rules governing skijoring, there is much for the skier and dog to learn. Even experienced cross-country skiers will find the sensation quite different when they have a dog pulling them across the snow.

The dogs need to learn basic commands, such as stop, and directional commands, as well as how to act around other skijorers and their dogs.

Many breeds of dog can be trained as skijoring dogs, but there are a few guidelines to follow. The dogs should be at least 30 to 40 pounds and in good health.

Some dogs -- because of the webbing in their paws -- are better in the snow than others. Other dogs, because of their fur, can get snow matted between their toes. There are small winter "booties" available to help prevent the matting.

The time and effort necessary to train a dog for skijoring depends a lot on the breed and temperament of the dog. Plaisted says some dogs are better suited for the sport.

"If you have a dog that is bred to pull, it comes naturally and you just need to train them to stay in front and take commands," she notes.

"We start training at approximately six months of age -- it is unsafe for them to pull any substantial weight before this time -- and by the time they are a year old, they have the hang of skijoring, although they may still be distracted on occasion as they are still just pups.

"We also use older dogs to train younger ones and this is a much faster method of training a dog than a person training a dog."

Training for the skier as well as the dog is also a good idea, according to Heather Adeney. She is the coordinator of a skijoring club. However, it isn't always easy to find someone to give lessons.

"I'd say if you can find lessons, take them. Not so much to learn to skijor yourself, but to get help teaching the dog to pull and pass other dogs. A class full of other skijorers would be a perfect place to teach a dog to ignore distractions."

Plaisted says overall, the workout is not as strenuous as cross-country skiing.

"The workout is usually not quite as strenuous as just skiing, as you may be able to take more breaks on the flats and on the downhills, while you let the dogs pull you," she points out.

"You do really need to work hard on your uphills to keep [the dogs] focused and to keep them moving."

The physical demands on the dog can be great, according to Plaisted. She advises that only dogs in good shape be used. And you should start preparing your dog well before the snow starts to fall.

"We begin training our dogs in September, by having them pull a bike or an ATV. We start short with one-mile runs and then slowly increase so that when the snow comes we can go on longer runs," she says.

"You should not just take your couch-potato dog out and go on a 10-mile skijor. The dogs must not be overweight and they should have no skeletal problems like bad hips. The dogs should also weigh at least 30 pounds."

Adeney adds that most dogs will only work as hard as they have to. "There's an old saying that goes, 'You can't push on a rope,'" she says.

"The dog is in front of you, and he can do anything from gently keeping the towline tight to pulling like a maniac. As the dogs get in better shape, they will choose to pull harder, for longer."

Larissa Ardis is the co-owner of an adventure company. She says it's a good idea to reward your pet while on the trail. This ensures the activity remains fun for them as well.

"Of course, dogs must be well hydrated, well fortified with a nutritionally sound diet, rested frequently and rewarded on the trail, too," she says. "If you overwork a dog, he won't like doing it anymore. It must always be fun for the dog so he'll look forward to it and be cooperative."

Getting Started

Aside from the cost of a dog, and any cross-country ski equipment, the beginner skijorer can expect to pay about $60 for the necessary gear, according to Strachan.

"As for the cross-country ski equipment, it depends on how much you want to spend. You can pick up an old pair of wooden skis at a garage sale for cheap, or you can spend a thousand bucks on quality skate skis, bindings, boots and poles."

There are very few paid positions relating to skijoring. But there are some. Ardis's company offers a number of activities for clients, including skijoring instruction and tours.


North American Skijoring Association
Skijor racing, equestrian style

Skijoring Information on Sled Dog Central
Lots of great resources here

Midwest Skijorers Club
Lots of great information about training, racing and more

The Skijorer's Source
Contains an extensive photo gallery, and lots of training tips

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