Must love dogs

Skijoring offers winter fun for pups and owners alike

In the winter, your options for outdoor exercise are limited. And if you like to work out with your dog, your choices dwindle even more. If this is an annual dilemma, you might want to consider skijoring. The obscure sport has slowly been gaining steam with athletes and dog-lovers across the country.

Dog skijoring is a winter sport that involves a person on skis being pulled by one or two dogs. Think of it like a hybrid of cross country skiing and dog sledding. The sport’s roots can be traced to Scandinavian countries and its name is derived from a Norwegian word that roughly translates to “ski driving.”

When skijoring, the human athlete straps on ultra-light skate skis and a special harness that connects them with a rope to their dog’s harness. Then the athlete strides with their poles while simultaneously being pulled by their dog through a snowy course. These dog-powered skijorers can reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

Rich Kisseloff picked up skijoring as a way to stay in shape once the temperature dipped. In the summer, he often cycled with his dog and wanted to find a way for them to continue their exercise regimen into the winter. He first tried the sport in 2011 and was quickly hooked.

“In the winter time, it’s great cross training,” he says “It’s probably the best all body work out as far as training is concerned. And it’s a better way to exercise the dogs in winter time.”

Now, he travels the world with his dogs, competing in top skijoring competitions. In the United State, the largest race is the National Skijoring Championship in Minneapolis. The skijoring event is part of a larger cross-country skiing festival and is also considered a World Cup Race by the International Federation of Sleddog Sports.

The race can attract anywhere from 50 to 100 competitors, who come from all over with their dogs to compete in the 3k, 5k or 10k events. Kisseloff competes in the 10k, a one-dog race that makes two laps around Lake Calhoun. Last year, he took first place.

While skijoring isn’t as established as other winter athletic activities, dedicated skijorers have noticed a recent uptick in interest.

“Skijoring is getting a lot more popular amongst the masses,” says Kisseloff. “Over the last four years, there’s been a lot more skijor events happening. When I started, competitions would only have three to five competitors. Now we’re getting to the point where those races will have anywhere from 10 to 100 people.”

Though it’s relatively new in the United States, forms of skijoring have been around for centuries. The idea likely arose in Scandinavian countries, where people have been known to combine horses and skis as a way to traverse snowy expanses since the 14th century.

This mode of transportation has morphed into a highly skilled and competitive sport. Both equestrian and dog skijoring events take place across Europe, but it’s yet to develop the global traction of other sports. Skijoring was a demonstration sport at the 1928 Winter Olympics in Switzerland, but hasn’t appeared at the Olympic games since.

Skijoring didn’t hit North America until the 1940s, and it still hasn’t caught on like is has in Nordic countries. But the sport has been steadily attracting attention throughout the country, and even in locally. The Windy City Mushers are a dedicated group co-founded by Kisseloff that promotes sleddog sports throughout the Chicago area.

If you’re ready to strap on some skis and try your hand at skijoring, Kisseloff recommends taking it slow. First, get comfortable with skiing. He also says that roller-skating can be a great way to train your muscles for the movements of skijoring. “It’ll make the experience a lot better for yourself and your dog,” says Kisseloff.

In terms of equipment, you’ll need a harness for yourself and your dog, a line to tether the harnesses together. Those pieces will probably set up back less than $100. You’ll also need skis and boots. Racers use skate skis, but classic skis are fine for beginners going at slower speeds. Kisseloff recommends sticking to maintained cross-country ski trails for the smoothest ride.

Besides training yourself, you’ll also have to train your dog to obey skijoring commands. Basic commands include “hike” to start running, “whoa” to stop, and “gee” and “haw” for right and left. Kisseloff races with specially bred sleddogs, but any dog that’s more than 35 pounds, energetic, and likes to pull will work fine.

Most of all, have fun and enjoy bonding with your canine companion. “The best thing about it is being out there with your dog,” says Kisseloff “It doesn’t matter if you do it competitively, anything that gets exercise for you and your dog out in nature is great.”