It’s winter. You and your dog are generally stuck inside the house. But you can change that scenario by getting into a sport called skijoring. All you need is some good skijoring equipment for dogs and some training to get started.
What’s the best skijoring equipment for dogs?
- A harness system to connect you to your dog;
- A 8-12 feet long bungee line that acts like a dog lead; and
- Protection for your dogs’ paws in the snow.
Skijoring can be a great outlet for the energy your dog has built up and needs to release. In this buying guide, we’ll give you some tips for getting started with skijoring itself and for choosing the best skijoring equipment for dogs in general. Yes, there’s a little learning curve, but it’s not too steep. If you live where there’s snow on the ground for several months out of the year, you’ll have plenty of time to learn the sport.
How To Skijor with Your Dog
Before we examine skijoring equipment, it’s good to know what you will use it for. So let’s take a quick look at what’s involved in skijoring.
This is a sport where you are on cross-country skis, and your dog(s) – usually one to three of them – are connected to you and are pulling you over the snow.
You do supply some of the power with your skis and poles as a normal cross-country skier would, but your dog helps a lot with his legs too. You connect yourself to your dog via harnesses – one for each of you – and some kind of rope or cord between them.
You direct your dog by using voice commands that tell them when to start, stop, and turn. As you’ll see later, several of the commands are the same as those the horse owners use with their animals. This is probably because you can also use horses for skijoring instead of dogs.
Have a read of this article for some more background on skijoring, some Frequently Asked Questions and to see if your dog is suitable to the sport of skijoring.
Skijoring Equipment for Dogs
You will need:
- A skijoring harness system or kit;
- Protection fo your dogs paws against the cold.
A skijoring kit comprises joring harness (dog pulling harness), belt that goes around your hip and a towline that attaches yourself (via the belt on your hip) to your dog’s joring harness.
The Best Joring Harness
RUFFWEAR makes a very popular joring harness bundle that includes all three major pieces you’ll need – dog harness, human hip belt, and towline. We believe this is the best joring harness.
If you shop online for this system, make sure you’re getting the whole bundle and not just the dog harness. These pieces are sold separately too.
Choose the right size harness for your dog
Obviously dogs come in different sizes, so you have to pick a harness that will fit them properly. The Ruffwear Omnijore system comes in three sizes:
You measure your dog’s chest (where his girth is the largest around his ribcage) to determine which size you need. The chart below shows which of the three versions you should get.
Each 4-point harness has padding to keep your dog comfortable. You can make adjustments to the several sections for a custom fit. Don’t expect the setup to be correct out of the box. Take some time to see that your dog can breathe and move properly when in the harness.
The hip belt is for the human
The hip belt that you wear fits waists from 27 to 48 inches. In other words, it will fit anyone who is capable of cross-country skiing.
The belt has two zippered pockets in back. Based on the icon near one of them, it’s suggested that you stuff your device that can handle earphones into it.
Another open pocket in back is intended for the 21-ounce water bottle that is included with your purchase. There is also a loop to which you can attach a safety light, like The Beacon, which is also made by RUFFWEAR.
The towline connects human and dog
The towline bridle allows movement over 180 degrees of arc so you can follow your dog easily no matter which direction he goes.
To help keep the hip belt in place, there are detachable leg loops. Depending on your clothing and size, you may or may not want to wear these loops. Should the belt ever come undone, the leg loops ensure that you won’t lose the belt completely and thus lose contact with your dog.
The Crux Clip™ is like a carabiner that you can manage with one hand to work with the towline. After all, you’re probably going to be holding your poles in one or both hands most of the time. If you ever need to quickly detach yourself from your dog, you can use the leash attachment release strap (which is clearly labeled “release”).
The places where the towline connect to the harness and hip belt are each color-coded. This enables you to easily see the correct way to hook everything up.
Every strap has a Velcro attachment for security.
The towline itself has a stretchable section to reduce the shock that your dog would otherwise experience when he first starts to pull you. It extends from 78 to 105 inches long. That should work just fine no matter what type of dog you have and whether you actually use this for skijoring or something else.
When it comes time for washing the Omnijore, you simply secure all fasteners, wash by hand with a mild detergent, and let it air dry.
The Omnijore is very popular among those who like skijoring and is rated quite highly. It is the only system available as a complete kit. To give you more choice, we’ve also reviewed another system this is of a more “professional” style.
Runner – Up: The Kurgo Long Haul Joring Bundle
Key differences with the Omnijore
The Kurgo Long Haul has basically the same features as the Omnijore but with these differences.
- You get four storage pockets (instead of two), plus the water bottle holder. The bottle itself is not included here though.
- There is a short bungee towline that extends from 76 to 100 inches long (about the same as the Ruffwear Omnijore) and a long one that measures from 108 to 132 inches. Kurgo doesn’t spell it out, but the intent is likely that you could use both when running with more than one dog. Alternatively, you could choose one or the other depending on the size of your dog.
When deciding which size dog harness to get, Kurgo suggests using the following measurements.
|Size||Neck (in.)||Chest (in.)||Weight (lbs.)|
Again, while the features are basically the same for the Long Haul as the Omnijore, you’ll see that the price is not. The Kurgo is normally quite a bit less expensive.
Protecting Your Dog’s Feet – 2 Options
1. Dog boots
Besides the harness setup mentioned above, you might also seriously consider getting a set of dog boots for your runner dog. These boots will protect their paws in the cold snow and from the sometimes rough terrain that he will encounter.
There are several decent sets of skijoring dog boots available in the market. We’re going to recommend another product from RUFFWEAR, the Polar Trex boots.
You can get a set of four boots (or just two, if that’s all you need in a given size) that are insulated yet breathable.
Each set of boots is available in sizes ranging from 1.5 inches up to 3.25 inches – that’s eight sizes in quarter-inch increments.
You may find that two of your dog’s feet are slightly smaller (or larger) than the others. For example, their front paws may be smaller than their hind paws. If so, you could get two sets of two boots, each in a different, appropriate size. You don’t want to get boots that are too large and fall off or too small and cause discomfort.
When properly fitted, the boots keep out the snow and keep in the warmth, even in the coldest temperatures. Even after a few hours in the snow, your dog’s paws should still be dry and odor-free. This assumes, of course, that they were in that condition before you started your run.
The tops of the boots have a zipper that you can cover to protect it from the elements with a pullover stretch gaiter. This makes them easy to unzip after a day in the snow and ice.
You may find that warming up the boots a bit first (say, in front of a heat vent or a hairdryer) will help you get them on your dog’s feet. It might also take a little time for your dog to break them in. It will help if you mark each one and put it on the same paw each time he wears them.
These boots are sturdy enough to last more than one winter unless you really work your dog a lot. The treads on the bottom give ample traction in the snow and look as good as those we’ve seen on people’s shoes!
2. Paw wax
Let’s face it, not all dogs like having boots on their paws.
If this is your dog, there is an alternative to dog boots: a non-toxic protective barrier balm called Musher’s Secret.
Skijoring Dog Training
Before you ever take to the trails in the snow, you should spend some time getting your dog used to the gear and the commands during skijoring dog training.
Ease into the harness
Whether you walk your dog or delegate the task to someone else, have them wear the harness alone for a while at first. This will be especially useful if they have never worn any type of clothing before.
When you see your dog is getting used to the harness, add the towline and your hip belt so they get the feel of the whole system. Running short distances with this bundle will help get him accustomed to the feel at speed.
When you, your dog, and the weather are ready to learn how this all works on the snow, it’s time to teach the few commands associated with skijoring. You could actually start teaching the commands while getting used to the harness system as described above. The choice is yours, and it may depend on the temperament of your dog.
The first command used in each session is “Line out”.
This tells your dog to walk forward to take up the slack of the towline and then to wait when they feel it become taut. Unlike the next command, this may be the hardest one for them to learn.
Once they know what’s going to happen next, your dog may find it difficult to wait. Make them wait!
Next is the command he’ll be eager to hear. Once in the ready position, you call, “Hike”, meaning your dog can start running.
Be ready with your poles to give a push then too. Your dog shouldn’t be expected to pull your whole weight from a dead start, even on slippery snow. This is where the bungee section of your towline becomes important. Make sure, before you start, that your towline still has some stretchiness left in it.
Other useful commands
“Gee” means turn to the right, and “Haw” means to turn to the left. Be sure you have these terms straight in your own mind before commanding your dog with them.
You may find it easier to teach these commands at natural turns along a trail when the dog would automatically be going the desired direction anyway. Eventually, he must be able to obey these commands “in the wild” too.
When you want to make a turn more unexpectedly than on a gradual curve in a trail, give the command several feet (or more, depending on your dog’s ability) before the turn so your dog has time to process the information. As your dog gets better at this, you may be able to shorten the distance before you need to speak the command.
The final command is “Whoa” which, of course, means stop. Help your dog understand this by snow plowing with your skis so they can feel the increased drag and naturally come to a stop with you. Sometimes snow plowing in short spurts, along with the command, helps your dog learn the command better. Otherwise, your dog might think the increased tension just means he’s supposed to pull even harder.
Give it a go
During your first training sessions, you should also practice falling down. Yes, actually doing it on purpose!
You want to train your dog to stay out ahead of you without trying to drag you along as you get back on your feet. Falls may happen naturally on the trail, especially during your first runs, so you want to know that both of you can handle the situation properly.
Keep your first several runs short to build up your dog’s strength and your own skill little by little.
As your dog gets stronger and you get better at skijoring, increase the length of your skijoring sessions.
No matter how long the trip, always stop before your dog gets too tired. That way, they’ll be excited to run for you the next time.
If you have more than one dog available (and each is trained properly), consider running with two or three as a team.
Whether you have a single dog or a team, don’t try to train by running after another team. Let others get out of sight before you take off or find a different location in which to run. Many dogs are just too hard to control when there are other dogs in sight.
Join a Regional Skijoring Club
As you may already know or at least have suspected, you’re probably not the only one interested in skijoring in your area. There are enough people who love skijoring in many areas of the US that they have organized clubs for the sport.
Skijor USA provides a listing of other skijoring clubs as well as sled dog clubs. http://www.skijorusa.org/Clubs/tabid/958/Default.aspx
Some of the links at Skijor USA are outdated. Below are some of the clubs with links that are (current as of this writing) that you might be interested in seeking out if you live in one of these areas.
- Anchorage Skijor Club http://skijoring.org/
- Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association http://www.alaskaskijoring.org/
- Midwest Skijorers Club (Minneapolis area) http://www.skijor.org
- Pacific Sled Dog and Skijor Association http://psdsa.org/
Not surprisingly, several of these dog running groups are located in Alaska, but there are clubs all across the northern continental United States in the more populated areas.
A few of these clubs may still offer training courses, but what is more exciting is that they usually have events and races that you can participate in. Check the associated website for schedules and other details.
We noted that some of the clubs’ websites aren’t as up-to-date as they could be, so you may have to contact them for more recent information. Some also have a presence on Facebook. The information there is probably more relevant.
The amount of activity for a given club will, of course, depend on the weather in a given year. If there isn’t much snow, don’t expect a lot to be happening.
If there is no skijoring club near enough to where you live or where you skijor, you might consider forming one of your own with fellow enthusiasts nearby.
Enjoy the Skijoring Run with Your Dog
Always check your equipment before setting out on a skijoring run – the harness, the hip belt, the towline, the connections, and his boots. With proper care, each piece should last, at the very least, a full season of running.
When you have good equipment, a well-trained dog, and the desire to be out on the snow with him, you’ve got the makings of a wonderful day outdoors in the winter. Hopefully, the weather cooperates and you can have many such days together each season.