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Winter sport of skijoring gains popularity

Angie skijoring with her dogs Madison and Sureena at an event in Duluth. (Submitted photo)

Skijoring is a sport gaining popularity in recent years all over the world, including here in Park Rapids, in which a dog assists a cross-country skier along snow covered trails.

Angie Walther, owner of Angie's Groom 'N Board, first began skijoring recreationally over 15 years ago with her dogs, Madison and Sureena, whom she adopted from the Headwaters Animal Shelter.

Over the years, Walther also skied with her dog, Tawny, before the dog passed away from cancer, and now she skis with Rain, whom she rescued from euthanization.

"I love having sports that you can involve your dog in," Walther said. "It's good for the dog and it's good for you and it's a good way for the owner to bond with their dog."

The sport is practiced both recreationally and competitively. According to Walther, a common misconception is the belief that the dog is just pulling the skier.

"It is 50/50. You do have to know how to ski to help," she said. "Because the dog isn't just going to pull you."

The skier provides power with their skis and poles, and the dog adds additional power by running and pulling.

There are two types of skijoring. Classical skiing is commonly practiced by owners with slower dogs. Walther says the majority of people partake in skate skiing, in which the motion is similar to rollerblading. Skate skiing is faster and requires a dog with higher energy that is inclined to pull.

One to three dogs are commonly used. Many breeds of dog are able to participate in skijoring. Athletic dogs, such as Pointers, Setters and herding breeds, take to skijoring quite well with their high-energy demeanors, as do breeds such as Huskies, Malamutes, Samoyeds and Inuit dogs.

However, any dog is capable of enjoying this sport, Walther says.

"You can ski with any dog, but preferably a dog that weighs 30 pounds or more. You want a dog that's going to be able to go the distance and have a little bit of stamina and strength, but honestly any dog can do it," Walther said. "I've seen everything from giant Schnauzers to Golden Retrievers, Beagles and Miniature Poodles. It's really fun to see the owners and dogs bonding, having a good time."

The skier wears a skijoring harness around their hips while the dog wears a sled dog harness. According to Walther, the pull is going to be on the chest of the dog. A traditional harness is going to put too much restriction around the dog's waist and it's going to be too confining. The proper harness allows the dog the freedom of leg movement that they need and it should fit properly around the dog's neck to keep from strangling the dog.

A proper belt for the skier means that it will rest on their hips, as opposed to around the waist to align properly with their center of gravity.

The dog and the skier are then connected by a length of rope. The proper rope will have bungee in it to help absorb the shock. All racing events also require a quick release that will separate the skier from the dog in emergency situations.

"Having the right gear is important," she explained. "It makes all the difference. It's a little more expensive but it's easier on you and the dog, making it more enjoyable."

Walther says one really important training technique is to teach the dog the difference between a regular walking collar versus a running harness to prevent them from pulling on a leash on a day-to-day basis.

"You really want to have a specific collar so the dog knows what's being asked of them," she said.

There are no reins to control the dog; it must be motivated by its own desire to run and respond to the owner's voice for commands. Key commands for skijoring are "hike" for go, "whoa" for stop, "gee" for right, "ha" for left and "on by" tells the dog to pass a distraction.

Due to the sport becoming more and more popular, there are local parks with designated skijoring trails.

"The hard part is trying to find a place in the area that allows dogs. Itasca has a designated skijoring trail and Bemidji also has a multi-use trail," Walther said.

With limited activities during the winters in northern Minnesota, Walther says, "I'm so lucky that I enjoy skiing."

Skijoring requires a somewhat wider path with packed snow; fresh snow can be more difficult for the dog to navigate. She will often times ski out on the lake if the trails haven't been groomed.

Walther may have found the perfect skijoring partner in her dog, Rain.

"I wasn't sure what she would do, but she has so much energy and almost immediately when I put a harness on her when I was on my skis she just took off. It was amazing," Walther said about her first time skijoring with Rain. "She's really keyed into me. When I've fallen down she'll stop and wait for me."

"She's a pet so if she feels too much resistance, she thinks I'm asking her to stop. She's conditioned to do that."

Walther said that most skijoring dogs are pets.

"Now if you get into the working dogs, they just know one mode: pull."

Walther said she is always exploring new things to do with her dogs. She is involved in flyball and agility among other sports to incorporate into her dogs' lives including bikejoring, scootering which are summer activities skiers will participate in to keep the dogs in shape for winter.

"Dogs are smart and when you tap into their instincts and what they're bred to do, you're going to have a happy dog," she said. "A lot of customers will come to me and say their dog is naughty. It's not naughty; a lot of times it's bored. Look at what kind of dog you have, do a little bit of research. What were they initially bred to do and explore that a little bit."

For anyone wanting to try skijoring, Walther recommends learning a few of the basic commands and keeping the run short the initial time out.

"You always want to keep the line tight. When the line shows slack the dog is beginning to tire out," she said. "You have to know when it's no longer fun for your dog."

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