Pet Connection: For fun in the snow, try skijoring

With the Midwest and Eastern U.S. experiencing deep freezes this winter, plenty of dogs and their people will either be reveling in the snow or huddling by the fireplace trying to stay warm. Snow sports are a great way to take the edge off if you have an energetic dog who loves the outdoors, and you indoor types – canine and human – have options as well.

Of course, you and your dog can go for walks or hikes in the snow, but you might want to try snow-specific sports such as snowshoeing and skijoring. These activities are naturals for Nordic breeds, including Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies, but any athletic, conditioned dog can enjoy them.

Snowshoeing is as simple as strapping on a pair of snowshoes and striding out. Your dog doesn’t need them; his paws are already equipped for traversing the snow. Cross-country skiers with a need for speed may want to try skijoring: being pulled by one to three dogs. You’ll need a skijoring belt or harness for yourself, a sled-dog harness for your dog, and an 8-foot or longer line to connect the two.

Any dog who loves to pull can skijor, but if he weighs less than 35 pounds, expect to provide most of the propulsion yourself. Your dog will need to learn the commands “hike” (start), “haw” (left), “gee” (right), “on by” (ignore those squirrels) and “whoa” (no explanation necessary).

Practice without skis first so you don’t accidentally get pulled into a tree. Places you can snowshoe or skijor include your neighborhood, golf courses, some wilderness areas or national and state park trails, or Nordic or snowshoe centers. Avoid snowmobiling trails; there’s too much risk of accidents when you’re sharing the path with motorized vehicles.

Know the rules wherever you’re going and obey them. Dogs may be required to be on leash so they don’t frighten or knock over others.

Does your dog need clothing in frigid weather? Veterinarian and canine sports medicine expert M. Christine Zink says a dog exercising continuously shouldn’t need a coat because he creates his own heat. If your dog is out in the cold but not exerting a lot of energy, choose lightweight, stretchy items that don’t restrict front-leg movement.

Finally, be sure your dog has access to plenty of fresh water. He can quickly dehydrate in cold, dry weather. Rather stay indoors with your dog? Take a handful of kibble or tiny treats, scatter it on the floor, and say “Find it.” Some people feed whole meals this way. Play the muffin-tin game: Place a treat in each cup of a muffin tin and cover some of them with tennis balls or other dog toys. Then let your dog have at it. See how long it takes him to find the covered treats. Whatever you do, be safe, have fun and snuggle often!

The buzz

We know that several animal species align their bodies to the Earth’s magnetic field lines when performing certain behaviors such as grazing, hunting or migrating, but until now it wasn’t known whether dogs did the same thing. In a two-year study published in Frontiers in Zoology, European researchers proved magnetic sensitivity in dogs by measuring the direction faced by 70 dogs of 37 different breeds when defecating or urinating and comparing the data to geomagnetic conditions at the time. Turns out that when the Earth’s magnetic field is calm – only about 20 percent of the daylight period – dogs prefer to line up along the north-south axis.

•  Got dust? And dogs? Good news! Your child may have less risk of developing asthma and allergies. A new study suggests that exposure to dust from homes with dogs may change the immune response to allergens and other asthma triggers by affecting the makeup of the bugs that inhabit the gut: the microbiome. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that dog-associated house dust can play a key role in preventing allergic inflammation. They help demonstrate how environmental exposures may protect against airway allergens and asthma.

•  An 85-pound black Labrador retriever named Bubba was killed recently at his home in Glendale, likely by a mountain lion. The big cats are capable of bringing down 150-pound deer and have been known to drag 100-pound deer into trees to dine on them at their leisure. Bubba was dragged over a 3 1/2-foot wall. To protect your pets from predators, don’t leave pet food or water outdoors at night and keep pets indoors after dark.

– Kim Campbell Thornton