Skijoring: Mix of two sports is fun for people, dogs

If you’re looking for a new way to spend time with your dog during snowy winter months, consider the sport of skijoring: being pulled on skis by a dog (or three). You don’t need an Alaskan malamute or Siberian husky to get started. Any dog in good condition who weighs 35 pounds or more and is at least a year old can be a super skijoring partner.

Jen Pagano of Layton, Utah, learned to skijor with her two German shorthaired pointers five years ago when she and her family were living in the interior of Alaska. That was when they adopted their first German shorthair, 2-year-old Alice.

“These dogs are high-energy, and I was looking for a way to enjoy the amazing scenery of Alaska while getting a great workout for myself and my dog,” Pagano says. As it happened, one of the teachers at her daughter’s school was Mari Hoe-Raitto, author of “Skijor With Your Dog,” so Pagano and Alice learned from an expert. Pagano later added Alice’s littermate, Vinnie, to the family for a double-dog skijoring experience.

“Vinnie took to it like he was born to pull,” Pagano says. “We covered hundreds of miles of gorgeous Alaskan back roads together.”

Pagano was intimidated at first, worried that she would fall, or that her dogs would drag her into a dangerous situation. While it’s best to be at least somewhat comfortable on cross-country skis, she says she learned quickly that her two dogs could not drag her if she fell or sat down.

A 35-pound dog may seem small for this type of activity, but he’s not doing all the work. The person skiing also contributes to the forward motion.

To start, dogs should learn five basic cues: “hike” (go), “whoa” (stop), “gee” (right), “haw” (left) and “easy” (slow down). “Wait” and “on by” (keep moving) are also useful. More advanced versions of the cues come in handy as you and your dog become more experienced. They include “hike up” (go faster) and “come gee” or “come haw” (make a 180-degree turn in either direction). Contact Nordic ski centers or resorts for information on classes for beginners, or find someone to train with.

“If you have a friend with a seasoned dog or team, your dog will learn incredibly quickly just by following,” Pagano says.

You can purchase a skijor-specific belt, but a rock-climbing harness works as well. The belt or harness is used with padded harnesses on the dog (or dogs) and a bungee line, an elasticized cord that acts as a shock absorber. In a pinch, you can use a leash, Pagano says, but bungee lines are more forgiving. Depending on the number of dogs, the length of the line ranges from 7 to 20 feet.

“I don’t usually need blankets for the dogs or heavy clothing because it’s a major workout,” Pagano says. She recommends booties for dogs when the temperature drops below negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and clothing or blankets can add to the comfort of dogs with short or thin coats.

Even three-legged dogs can enjoy skijoring. Alice, now 7 years old, was hit by a car as a puppy. The Paganos had her leg amputated when they adopted her because the femur could not be repaired. That never prevented her from skijoring, although she’s not allowed to compete in races; rules require racing dogs to have four sound legs.

“To anyone thinking of trying the sport, I’d say, ‘Go for it,’ ” Pagano says. “My dogs and I most enjoy the fun we have getting a workout together, taking in the scenery and strengthening our bond as we work together as a team.”

Get a grip on ferret harness

Q: I want to be able to take my ferret for walks. What should I look for in a harness?

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A: Fun-loving ferrets get a kick out of public outings – once you get them securely fastened into a harness. Long, lithe and slender, they are masters at easily wiggling free if they are wearing a harness that isn’t designed for their body.

A properly fitted harness provides support around the neck and ribcage. It’s similar to the harnesses made for cats, but ferret harnesses are smaller and longer. Look for one made of a strong, flat material, such as nylon webbing or leather. A style called an H harness (for its shape) with wide straps is usually a good choice for ferrets. Figure-8 harnesses generally don’t fit ferrets well, being too loose in some areas and too tight in others. (Note: It is illegal to have a ferret as a pet in California, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.)

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books.