"Any dog that pulls at its leash can be a skijoring dog," provided it's big enough to pull you, said Dallas Johnson, a skijorer of six years whose four-legged companion, Comet, is a Eurohound sled dog, bred for sprint distances. Any medium-sized dog that likes to pull, especially hunting dogs and Nordic breeds, will do well at the sport. Mixed breeds, such as a German shorthaired pointer combined with a greyhound, are particularly competitive.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this international sport is the relationship between human and dog, perhaps a closer bond than in horse racing or dog track racing because often, these teammates live together.
Technically, to be called, skijoring ("ski driving" in Norwegian, and pronounced Ske-JORE-ing), it doesn't need to be canine-powered. There's horse skijoring, snowmobiles, even motorcycles pulling skiers. At an annual festival in Finland, there is a reindeer skijoring race
. Equestrian skijoring, second in popularity after dog, was demonstrated at the second Winter Olympics, in 1928. And there is an effort to get canine skijoring into future Winter Games.
Dogs are involved in the most common form of skijoring and are nearly synonymous with the name of the sport. In addition to needing to learn to cross-country ski (also called "Nordic," as opposed to downhill or "Alpine" skiing), human competitors also need to train their dogs.
Ideally, training a skijor dog begins early, with trainers giving commands on walks until after it turns a year old, and then adding skis for pulling training. The commands -- used globally for skijoring, dog sledding and even livestock -- include starting ("hike"), turning right and left ("gee" and "haw," respectively), stop ("whoa"), and passing ("on by"). Regular training includes running with the dog, maybe off-season pulling on a bike or in-line skates, and then skijoring in the winter. Johnson will skijor with Comet every other day for distances of 10 to 20 kilometers (about 6 to 12 miles). In the summer, they take it easier.
The equipment is minimal and inexpensive. You'll need cross-country skate skis, a skijoring or climbing harness, a sled dog or "running" harness for pulling from shoulders (don't use a neck collar!), a bungee tether designed for cold weather to absorb the shock with a quick-release hook, and eye protection from ice kicked up by the dog.
The International Federation of Sleddog Sports is recognized as the leading organization for the sport, including "dryland" racing, in which dogs pull bicycles. And there are official skijoring competitions
in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere. But the "recreational division," Johnson said, "is the heart of the sport."
The Minneapolis Loppet
One of the largest and friendliest of these skijoring races in North America is the annual City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival
in Minneapolis. Every January or February, the city's frozen Lake Calhoun transforms into one of the country's top urban cross-country ski race venues. A "loppet" means any large, long-distance cross-country skiing event.
It's a festive atmosphere of competitions (including skijoring, ice biking, dogsledding, snowshoeing and speed skating) and eating and drinking -- and all combined in the case of a Swedish lawn game called Kubb,
played with wooden blocks. There is an ice sculpting competition, free hot chocolate and folks merrily ringing cowbells along the race courses. It's merry Nordic fun, out in nature, promoting good health. And when your toes go numb from walking on ice, you can head back into the warming tents for a beer, chili or "warm" Gatorade. The official races attract competitors from around the world, but they are also, by the philosophy of the Loppet, open to newcomers.
The City of Lakes Loppet Festival began as a notion by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to make the city "the silent sport capital of the world," according to John Munger, a Loppet founder and executive director, referring to nonmotorized outdoor recreation. In 2002, a small group of skiers came out to compete. A year later, it was 800, and the year after it doubled to 1,600.
Since then, it's hosted new sports (skijoring was the first one added) and bigger crowds. This winter's Loppet Festival had around 12,000 participants and nearly 40,000 additional spectators. "We've quickly become a significant part of the city's identity," Munger said.
The nonprofit Loppet Foundation
behind the festival encourages year-round outdoor recreation for youths and families by increasing access to activities, equipment and coaching across all abilities and economic backgrounds. More than 9,000 kids have participated in the Minne-Loppet program
over the years. "Doing something every day is to be honored," Munger said. "You don't need to be an Olympian. You can do these activities every day, and that's the point of the Loppet."
One of the most delightful parts of the annual festival is the Luminary Loppet, which takes place one night of the festival weekend on the neighboring frozen Lake of the Isles. A cross-country path around the edge is marked with large ice lanterns, leading to stations featuring ambitious ice sculptures, professional fire dancers and fire pits with free s'mores-making stations. It's surreal beauty mixed with a contagious and youthful glee.
Good for body, your pet and your therapy bill
Don't think because you have a dog pulling you on skis, that you're just along for the ride. For the human half of the team, you are fully cross-country skiing. Your four-legged teammate isn't pulling you like a sled, but rather adding marginal speed and getting you through terrain that would otherwise slow you down.
Therefore, the fitness benefits are simply cross-country aerobic training. And those benefits are huge. A low-impact cardio workout that burns fat and builds muscle is, for most, the ideal. It's estimated that competitive cross-country skiing burns more calories than competitive swimming, biking and tennis. Add the runner's high of long-distance training and the mental benefit of being out in nature, and you have what some would describe as the perfect sport.
"There are all sorts of terrific aerobic exercises, but the great ones are the ones that stick and become routine," adds Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. "Studies have shown that when you are accountable, as you are in skijoring to your 'best friend,' you are much more likely to keep it up."
Additional benefits come from being competitive because you are committing to training, and ultimately to winning. Cross-country skiers "need high aerobic and anaerobic energy delivery, muscular strength, efficient techniques and the ability to resist fatigue to reach and maintain top speeds," according to Øyvind Sandbakk, associate professor and research coordinator at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Centre for Elite Sports Research, Department of Neuroscience. "Those physical attributes may not be so very different from other world-class athletes," added his fellow NUST researchers who published his findings.
Injuries are not common, as cross-country skiing has a relatively low impact on joints and muscles. As for falling, the average speeds are only around 20 kph (about 12 mph), and risk is reduced with proper equipment.
Then there's the health benefit to the dog. Because man's best friend needs exercise as much as you do (obesity among pets is a real issue, veterinarians can attest), you have an obligation to get them moving. And if they are a pulling breed, they're going to thrive more by skijoring than by playing catch with a Frisbee.
Pet owners in general tend to have better fitness levels because the pet becomes a motivator. According to a 2006 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, dog owners walked nearly twice as much as nonowners. Pets have also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression for their owners. "Being active and healthy solves a lot of problems in life," said Johnson, who also has lost 60 pounds since taking up skijoring. "And cheaper than therapy."
Skijoring dogs also provide a good lesson on race day. "The dog reminds you that they don't care if they win," said Johnson, just after coming in sixth at the Loppet skijoring 10K. "They don't get bummed out if they lose."