Tuesday, February 9, 2010

winter 2010: skijoring

I had tried to start ski-joring with Vanya the first winter I got him, but he was too hyper, so I put that idea on hold. This winter, I figured I'd try again. Juneau had been a wonderful ski-jor dog, and she hadn't ever really needed training. With Vanya, because I'd spent much of the past 2 years training him NOT to pull on leash, teaching him to pull in harness was challenging.  But a blast! He is proving to be a champ at ski-joring, and we have a wonderful time doing it. 

Here are a few basic things we learned along the way:

1. PULLING: First and most important, ski-joring is NOT really a weight-pulling sport; it's a running sport. You ski the whole time, and friction is minimal with the snow, so the dog pulls only a tiny fraction of your weight. Somewhere I read that it takes less than 20 lbs of force for a dog to pull a 200 lb skier, but I can't find the citation, so don't quote me on that. This means that when I've done the drag-training ground work, I've rarely gone up above 8 lbs (a gallon jug filled with water). 

2. WARMTH: Equally important, dogs don't need thick coats for ski-joring, and sprint dogs are nearly always short-haired pointers (or pointer mixes). The thick coats are needed for mushing dogs who do the long races, since they sleep out at night, but skijorers rarely have to worry about that. A long coat is actually problematic for ski-joring dogs (supposedly it makes it harder for them to cool off during a sprint, but that sounds odd to me, because the paws and panting are where a dog cools off).

Staying warm: Vanya's coat doesn't get very thick in the winter, so we use this coat if the temperature is below 25: 

It's very well made, a great price, a great company, and it's easy to put on and off. I put it on when we're getting geared up, and if he starts to warm up too much when we're running, I can take it off in a flash and store it in my backpack.

3. FEET: A pit's feet are actually pretty well designed for snow, since they don't have enough hair between the toes to form ice balls. Still, I always carry booties, and if the temperature is below 25, I put them on the dogs. These booties have worked the best for us:

Thin cordura nylon seems to work a lot better than fleece (unless it's below 5 degrees, in which case fleece might be needed for the warmth.) Booties are cheap and they wear out after 100 miles of running. You need to pull the velcro a bit tighter than one usually thinks is necessary, but not so tight they cut off circulation. Fancy, thick, expensive booties sold by RuffWear and other companies aren't good for skijoring or other winter sports--too thick, too uncomfortable.

Mushers Secret can help for conditioning the pads, and TuffFoot is good too. But these two products don't provide protection against cold, so they don't replace booties. Lots of treats got my dogs used to the booties quickly.

4. HARNESS & GEAR: x-back harnesses aren't great for skijoring, since the angle is too steep up to the skijorers belt. And pits don't really fit the x-back harnesses all that well. Most skijorers I know use something called a "Distance harness" (scroll a third of the way down the page): 

Again, since this sport is about running rather than weight, the harness requirements are a bit different than for weight-pulling. 

The skijoring belt and tugline made by Howling Dog are great, but a bit pricy. I love them: (scroll to the bottom of the page: 

People have good things to say about this skijor belt and tug, which are less expensive: 

Their trekking belt is inexpensive, but if you're doing much skijoring, the more expensive belts really do take a lot of the pressure off your lower back, so I think they're worth the extra $15 or so.

A skijor tug line should have bungie in it, so neither the dog nor the person gets hurt from sudden pressure on the line. Howling Dog, Nordkapp Racing, and this company (Nordkynn) all have good examples: http://www.nordkyn.com/skijor.htm

Trails: stay off groomed ski trails, of course. Forest Service roads are great; multi-use snowmobile trails are fine, if allowed. Wear a blaze orange or road safety vest so the snowmobilers can see you. My favorite places to skijor are on frozen sloughs, bays, estuaries, marshes and lakes, when the snow is windpacked and there are lots of places to run.

5. Training: 
a. start with groundwork, of course, training your dog to happily pull a light weight (5 lbs) behind her. You start out with her leashed to you, trotting along in front, offering lots of praise and treats. Then ease back behind her, until she is trotting with the weight in front of you. I've used targets and lures and "rabbits" to chase, but it might well be best to follow the slow, steady progression described here: 
http://tinyurl.com/yz7kr35 (you may need to be a member of the clickersolutions yahoo group to read this).
b. I find it very helpful to go out with other skiers and snowshoers to encourage my Vanya to skijor. It's also helpful for me to ski beside him (with a leash connected to his harness), while he pulls someone else, or a sled with a child or weight in it. Soon he'll want to be pulling both of us, so I drop behind and add a tiny bit of my weight to his harness.
c. as always, keep the sessions SHORT and fun, and stop before the dog wants to stop. Always keep a little pressure on the line, so your dog learns to expect the pressure. This means a lot of snowplowing when you go down hills. And never, ever, run into your dog with your skis. While you're learning, it's helpful to hold the line in your hand so you can drop it instantly and ski to the side if you feel you're losing control

d. basic commands to teach:
LINE OUT--walk 10 steps or so forward in harness, to take up the slack, then wait for the next command:
HIKE--means start to run (or trot for my dogs)
EASY--slow down
ON BY--don't stop to sniff that deer pee; keep on going past the distraction
GEE: turn right (I just use "go right")
HAW: turn left
http://www.Sleddogcentral.com is a great website. They have a program to connect you with a mentor to help you with skijoring 

When the snow is off the trails, you can switch to canicross or scootering (safer than bikejoring!). Dogslovetorun is the best yahoo group I've found for advice on skijoring and scootering. 
http://www.rundawgrun.com/canicross.html is a useful website as well.

The toucan 20 is very popular with skijorers for spring and fall training: 
http://www.bikemania.biz/ProductDetails ... e_Toucan20

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