'Joring Sport and Canicross
By Heather Peatman
This is a bit of a deviation from my Photography work, but anyone who knows me is aware that I am passionate about dogs and have an incredible soft spot for working breeds. I wrote this article for two Facebook pages I Admin on, Husky Training Community and Outback Dog Training Community. This article is meant to be an intro to the sport. I also have a skijoring specific article featured by SKIRACK too: What Skijoring is and How to Get Started with Your Dog
Skijøring is an ancient method of transportation with roots that began thousands of years ago in Scandinavian countries. Traditionally “ski driving” was done with reindeer pulling drivers on skis, but more modern athletes utilize dogs or horses. Read on to learn how to train your dog for Skijoring or it's dryland counterpart, Canicross! This can even be adapted to Bikejoring or Dogsledding!
So I’d just like to take a moment to talk about Canicross, dryland mushing and ‘joring hobbies. Working breeds, like huskies, love to have jobs. It offers them a mental and physical outlet, provides an outlet for confidence, a means of partnership with dog and musher, and keeps you fit too! Canicross is SO much more than running. Straight up running your dog is only going to breed endurance. Exercise without structure or a mental component will leave them in an energy high rather than leave them feeling fully satisfied in mind and body. Canicross allows you the partnership with your dog (LOTS of communication going on both ways) and your dog has commands to listen to, these are the mental components. You won't have to go MILES to go miles. What I write below doesn’t just apply to canicross, but to any mushing sport; like skijoring, bikejoring, and rollerjoring (even dogsledding with some tweaks!). The equipment is mostly the same too!
If you are content to let your dog run beside you, and that works for you both, then by all means, keep at it! There are many ways to enjoy running with your dog, this is just one of them. This post is meant for those who would like to get into the above sports or perhaps take advantage of an unnaturally smart dog, or one that has a penchant for pulling. Of course, there are many methods and schools of thought, so find what works for you!
A dog trained with mushing commands should never pull harder than is asked of them. Dryland mushing and canicross is about partnership with your dog. You trust them to be in front and listen while you lead from the back. They trust you to never put them in a situation they cannot handle. For me and my dogs it is to the point where I now listen to my dog, even when I ask her one thing and she does another, she usually has a reason. If she says the snow is bad and we’re skijoring I don’t correct her for shifting over (if anything I thank her for avoiding ice!). A well-trained dog knows directions and key commands with managing the line and distance from you. Don’t worry if you don’t have this to start, it comes with experience on the go, for now, correct your learning pup, but learn to listen to them too. When you stop listening, they stop communicating.
At least 18 months to two years old, 35lbs, and in good working condition (a must). Younger than that and you risk hurting their developing bodies, but you can start light stuff. I recommend taking the time to teach young dogs important socialization and obedience commands (like recall). It can really help you avoid issues on the trail and starts that bond early. You can also begin teaching directional commands on a leash during your normal walks! That way you can hit the ground running when they're ready! You can teach the directional commands at anytime, I’d recommend around 6-9 months if you can’t wait to get started.
Having the proper equipment is extremely important in injury prevention and training. I inspect each piece before leaving home. I learned that the hard way.
I personally believe that harnesses should not be used to curb pulling, and a proper harness should be designed for pulling to avoid injury (more on that later). Again, if your dog walks beside you in a harness without issue, and that is your thing, please continue. If your dog pulls, in a “no-pull” harness I encourage you to find another tool/training method or take advantage of canicross (since your dog has a natural ability!). If your dog pulls in a harness that is designed to curb pulling or one not designed for pulling, it can cause lasting damage. It can pull and put stress in areas that should not be load bearing. For a strong dog it gives them more surface area and more leverage to pull you around with. Harnesses can also alter gaits by hindering movement or making it uncomfortable. Remember, a good harness should be fit to the dog. Most custom harnesses run from $25-40 USD. Avoid front clip and no-pull harnesses.
What harnesses to use
Howling Dog Alaska makes an excellent harness called “Distance Harness” which is actually very ideal for these activities as the point of attachment is higher up on the dog. Given that most people’s waists are higher on their dog, this provides a much more comfortable scenario where the angle of attachment is placed in a way that the lower back and hips are free of pressure. It is a great harness for new and experienced folks at an excellent price point (at the time of writing $35 USD).
I personally love Nooksack Racing Supply out of Maine (USA) as they create custom colors, padding levels, styles. Certain breeds and body shapes do better in certain styles. For example, Siberian huskies with their broad shoulders and deep barrel seem to do great in a classic “X” back harness for dogsledding). Hound type or narrow dogs do wonderfully in these as well but seem to flourish in harnesses designed by Non-Stop Dogwear (freemotion/secondskins), those are built from the “H” back harness. Windigo Outfitters is another excellent supplier. For a custom harness you will measure your dog to fit the harness, and it is designed for your dog. Most harness makers are old school pros or learned the art from others. A good harness maker can be shown a picture of your dog with the harness (give tension out and slightly down) to judge the fit. Different styles fit in different manners. But generally, the loop to your line should be at the base of the tail, the harness should not rub the armpits or curl under the ribcage, it should also not block any movement of the legs, shoulders of back. A harness designed for pulling evenly spreads the weight, does not inhibit movement, and gives your dog the use of their full body. I take an additional safety precaution and add something called a K-9 LifeLine, it’s basically a clip that loops around the harness to the collar so if the dog miraculously backs you, you are still attached. You can use Paracord and a carabineer too. Some other great harness makers: Windigo and Howling Dog Alaska.
This is a great harness guide made by myu friend Taylor (who I get my dog lines from, check out her store!).
For my Canadian friends, try Nahak Sport (Northern Ontario and Quebec).
Bungee lines are a necessity (usually the bungee is in the center or more toward the dog). They help to absorb the shock from starting and stopping. This reduces stress on both you and your dog and can help prevent injury. It also gives you and your dog a little more freedom as well. If your dog doesn’t have a great “on-by” or not the best impulse control this will give you some much needed time to react, so you aren’t jerked around. The line is usually secured to you with a quick release (should you get in a sever tangle) and tied to the dog with a clip. I love bungee lines that have hand loops by the dog and by you if should trouble should arise or if you need to clip your line to you shorter for whatever reason.
What’s at the end of the line (you)?:
The next bit really depends on your sport. If you’re bikejoring you’ll also need an antenna to avoid tangles with the lead in your bike. There should also be a solid clamp to your bike with a quick release attachment. If you’re skijoring a “a full booty” or padded harness for you is recommended. This ensures no wedgies and that the weight of the dog (who is typically pulling you more here than in canicross) is spread across that nice strong booty (mine is colored red) you have from all those miles you’ve been covering. Added bonus is that baboons will be jealous of that red booty. I recommend leg loops for all things human harness. This prevents slipping, saves your back, and keeps it from sliding up/off or on your neck should you fall. I also recommend padding so the belt doesn’t cut in. I prefer metal loops to connections durability-wise.
For Canicross you don’t need that full booty (unless you want to show it off). You can wear a trekking belt which is basically a padded belt around your midsection with loops to step into. The loops may look silly but they serve an important purpose… keeping that trekking belt from riding up and putting strain on your back. I personally like the belt from Manmatt the most.
What about the dog, how do I get started?:
I am glad you asked young Padawon (sorry, I’ve been watching lots of Star Wars). First things first is to get your dog OK with being comfortable in the harness. Just place it on them and give them some treats if they seem tense. Treat when the harness is on, not when you take it off (otherwise they may look forward to that). Then immediately go out for a walk and clip into the back. A harness should not be worn in downtime. It means “work”. When this comes out, your dog will know exactly what you are about to do and they will become rather excited!
You can teach your dog on a leash very effectively. These skills translate to bikejoring, skijoring, carting, canicross and all that fun stuff too!
There are MANY ways to teach the commands, some may be right for your dog, some not… You need to find what drives your dog (and maybe you already know other training situations). There are some great tips on Youtube. The most important thing is CONSISTENCY and PATIENCE. Remember, words are arbitrary to dogs until we give them meaning and reinforce that meaning.
The commands (feel free to change it out, the first three are fairly standard):
- “Hike” - Let’s go! (I also say “Hike Hike Hike” fast for increasing speed).
- “Line out” - Make that line taught
- “Gee” - Right
- “Haw” - Left
- “Easy” - Slow
- “Woah” - Stop
- “On by” - Used when passing others or going be a distraction (say the moment they notice/fixate).
- “Straight ahead” - Don’t turn at multi intersections, or you can also only call turns.
- "Wait" - We're not moving onwards, but you can take downtime and move about... just not onwards (helpful at solo dog races).
You can teach all of these commands on a leash during your regular walk or even in the house. You don’t have to be out on a trail (but you can). You can also teach these commands to a young pup not yet ready to run and build that foundation. I teach the directions first and speed later. Some of the more advanced commands (below) will be learned in repetition over time. Your dog may also naturally do certain things that you can reinforce through shaping as well as building on ones they do know. An experienced dog is an amazing thing. They will think and react, sometimes more as a partnership. You will be able to place additional trust in your dog over time. This communication can be silent at times, and you may not even realize you are communicating with your body position, tone, and line pressure- they just notice. It’s a truly remarkable display of partnership and that ancient bond that allows humans and dogs to work together so effectively.
- “Stand/Stay” - Don’t move from where you are
- “Line in/To me” - Come back to me
- “Gee/Haw over” - Move to the right/left of the trail
- “Come Gee/Haw” - 180 degree turn left or right
- “Trail” - This is for when you come up on other folks on the trail and are requesting right of way. You can add “Right” or “Left” to indicate which side you will pass on (More on trail etiquette in a moment)
Applying the commands
I start off with my pup on a leash at a walk, usually by my side rather than ahead of me. When we approach a turn (and usually I like to have it be obvious for newbies like a fork in a trail, a door or a hallway) I begin to call out the directional command before we approach it, maybe about five paces. I repeat the command as I move closer. I then make the turn with my dog and as we make the turn I praise her like mad and my voice rises with happiness. I then reward her with a treat and a pet. I do try to keep that forward motion so they don’t learn to stop just after the corner. Treats can be important in the beginning, but as they get the hint you wean them off the treat so they don't expect it. They learn that praise and the ability to continue to move forward is reward enough, especially if they have the drive to work and please. After that first turn I repeat it, either in the same spot or further down the trail. I try to work on just one command in a session and never let that session last more than fifteen minutes. Always end on a positive note. Even if it isn't exactly what you wanted then reward the babysteps. Take a step backwards to get a response you can reward if frustration seems to be creeping in (for either party). If your dog started to make the turn but didn’t finish, reward them, as they are starting to do the right thing- but don’t reward if they veer off. Timing can be critical. Remember though, you and your dog will both make mistakes, it happens. How you recover is the part that matters.
I always play with my pup after or give a high value treat so she can expect a good reward for a job well done. I reward the whole of the event. She knows after a run a pig ear is coming her way!
If your dog begins to anticipate the turn before you make the command switch it up a bit! You decide where you are going, not the dog. Maybe, I’ll go somewhere new, go somewhere where the turn is less obvious, or there are two choices. It's important to change things so they don't get familiar with one trail or place and always make that turn. They can quickly do that. I begin to call the command maybe once or twice before the turn and praise the proper action (or partial action). If she doesn't get it, then we repeat until she does (circle back) before we continue down the trail.
When your dog masters these steps you can add in the harness and bungee line (if your dog is old enough). Just like with the leash they will feel communication through the line. It can be a weird experience for dogs as there will be some weight. Expect some level of confusion during this transition, you’re asking them to do something new- something counter to all their previous training. They may be hesitant to be out in front and you may need to encourage this. Having a friend here up ahead can be helpful
As this begins to sink in we then start to give her some line. I like to use my canicross belt on a bungee line for this. They start to feel the weight too! This allows me to introduce "line out". She naturally wants to be ahead of me so as she moves out I say this command. When the line is taught I verbally praise her and allow forward motion with "hike!". (Side note about "hike" my dog didn't need to be taught this one. She hears me excitedly call it and runs. Hike can also be taught in hand on a leash similar to the above style). You can generate this excitement energy too in your tone, some dogs are excited by it.
Anyway, as she gets better I let the line out and basically repeat the above exercise but with me calling from the back. Every now and again we stop with a "woah" on a really good moment or action and I reward. Otherwise, it's verbal praise and onward motion (onward motion is a reward to many dogs).
In regards to "woah"- I also teach this on a leash so I don’t get swept off my feet. It's good to have a solid stop command and one to slow down (more advanced). Call the command on a leash and you yourself stop and reward. Then begin to call before you physically stop and give your dog the chance to stop and realize "woah" is associated with stopping. They associate words with actions through praise and motivation. I praise heavy every time we “woah” and stop on a trail. I usually also give a "to me" command to encourage a good return, sit and a treat. This also is good when you are out on a trail and need to call your dog in to control them (like when we have snowmobiles fly by). You don’t have to teach a return, but it can be nice. You can use your regular recall command or give a gentle tug on the leash to form pressure, use the command and reward.
If using a canicross belt and line sit into it a little bit for woah and easy (wide stance and judge your dog). Some dogs feel tension in the line and immediately stop, some may not. Do not force them physically to stop, encourage them by rewarding the behavior on a leash.
I call “line out” when there is pressure on the line and praise them. I build this command by reinforcing a natural event. If you need a friend up front to encourage this that is OK!
"On by" will also be super important for them to learn with so many smells, other dogs, and people- especially with a dog hyper focused to smells. There are many schools of thought on this, some are crass and some over the top. Honestly, I find the low tech solution works best…. Keep moving. If your dog stops, call out “on by” so they associate the next action with that word. Eventually they’ll feel that tug in the line and you can then use that line out command once they start following you. Sometimes I use my high pitched “hike hike hike” voice in there if I see a distraction on the trail that is terribly unavoidable and use this to bring her focus back to the task. If your dog responds better to a known “leave it” command then use that!
Remember, you call the shots. Your dog should not be stopping if you don’t ask. If you anticipate you are losing your dog’s focus, stop while you are ahead and before they decide. This allows you to control the situation before your dog has the ability to make a bad choice. Set your pup up for success and give them only challenges they can tackle or that are small stretches. Frustration occurs when we ask too much and don’t give them the tools to do what we want. That doesn't make it fun at all.
Trust will be built and heightened with these activities. A goal is also to eventually lessen the verbal commands you give so you don't become "background" noise. Eventually, almost like a horse, your dog will begin to read the trail on her own and make decisions (trail obstacles, sharp corners, position on the trail, etc).
Impulse Control is CRUCIAL to your success and safety out on the trail. You dog should not be pulling you to chase a squirrel or bunny. Your dog also does NOT need to greet everyone or every dog. When your dog is working they should be working. Like a service dog, that harness means work mode, when the harness is off feel free to move about. If I take a long break I will take the harness off and clip to the collar.
Trails, races, and community
Sadly, you can’t take your pups everywhere you can run and ski. Unless the location specifically allows dogs ALWAYS ask. Be an ambassador for this growing sport. Explain your dog is a leashed athlete and you will pick up all messes. Do be aware that many Nordic centers may not allow dogs (or may not on some trails) as they may disturb set tracks for classic skis. A communal Google Map (editable) of trails can be found here (This is an AMAZING resource).
Many races surprisingly will allow dogs, even when not stated. That being said, ALWAYS ask. Some races forbid dogs for insurance reasons or due to vendor/location constraints.
When on trails, it is a courtesy for you to yield to those coming up behind you. If your dog is unable to maintain the course while passing, pull over and/or go at a slower speed. Wait for the other party to pass before letting your dog go. Discourage chasing. It is courtesy on trails to yield to others running, biking, and walking. If you overtake someone, call out “on your left/right!” before doing so, make sure they know you are there, not everyone is comfortable with dogs.
Find trails on your local and regional mushing pages. Community trails are often GREAT places! Sadly, I must warn you, be prepared for off-leash dogs. I personally wear a camera.
There are Facebook groups who will also help you evaluate if a harness is fitting well or not too if you post a photo. I love this one: Dog Powered Sports 2.0
Additional skijoring gear
Get a pair of skis from a local outfitter like Skirack! They can set you up with exactly what you need and help you with each selections and bindings.
Skate skis- Great for groomed trails or packed ones... The rail trails, bike trails, Smuggler's Notch Rd, local school courses that allow dogs). Wax those puppies! Glide wax is a must. You’ll need the wax, and iron, scraper and at least a copper and nylon brush. We wax for snow conditions of course, but blue and red are fairly versatile (you can do both on the skis too!). They keep the porous base of the ski hydrated and allow it to literally glide on the snow.
Classic skis- You can go anywhere with these. I do recommend a trail to make it easier to show them where you want to go and such. But you don't need grooming. You will need kickwax and glidewax! Skirack can get your set up with those!