by: Truman Obermeyer
Reprinted from Giant Steps © May/June 1996
After months of research, I had finally decided that a Giant Schnauzer was going to be my next breed. The requirements were tough. I wanted a hardy, athletic, intelligent, working dog that would enjoy outdoor activities as much as I do. I wanted a companion that reflected a fanciful picture of myself.
One year after I had acquired “Bror”, my Giant Schnauzer pup, I moved from urban Ohio to the wilderness of upper Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw is known most as a winter wonderland. Snowfall, the most east of the Rockies, which starts in October and continues through May, averages 240 inches per year.
As a pup back in the city, Bror was already proving to be the dog I had hoped for. He was the star of the local training club's puppy obedience class and continued to do well in more advanced classes. When I moved, I wanted to put these traits to work, so I joined the regional Search and Rescue organization. Bror and I commenced tracking classes with the head dog trainer. Bror showed promise once again. However, at his young age he was easily distracted when performing off lead work. As soon as he got bored, he showed a tendency to run and play and run and run! After all, in training sessions he knew these people weren't really lost , they were just hiding. Although Bror was having fun and proving he could track with the best of them when he wanted to, I was getting frustrated. How could I focus all of Bror's energy into more productive teamwork?
Working at the local cross country ski shop (bored dogs ran and play, bored architects sell skis) I heard about the little known sport of Skijoring, the Nordic style of dog mushing. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to harness Bror's energy while forming a working relationship. The book, Skijoring With Your Dog, by Mari Hoe‑Raitto and Carol Kaynor, explained that skijoring is a hybrid Nordic sport developed by blending Alaskan style mushing (brought to Europe by gold miners and polar explorers) with the Scandinavians love for skiing. Skijoring is simply skiing behind a small team of dogs. One or two dogs is the norm. Three is usually the max. A low flat sled, known as a pulk, can be employed between the dogs and the skier, if it is required to carry gear. I was convinced skijoring was the sport for Bror and me, when I read that Giant Schnauzers were one of a handful of breeds used in Norway when purebreds were required to participate in official races.
The equipment is fairly simple. A sledding harness for the dog, an eight foot line with a quick release and bungee style shock absorber incorporated to reduce jarring, and a waist belt to attach the line to the skier. A towbar, similar to those used by water skiers can be used in lieu of the waist belt, but I prefer the latter which allows the active skier to use poles. I have seen both downhill and cross country skis used although I highly recommend cross country for two reasons. One, on longer outings the skier can aid the dog in locomotion, and therefore get more of a team feeling, and two, cross country skis do not have sharp metal edges which could cut the dog if there were a tangle. Dog sledding outfitters should have this equipment available, minus the skis, for less than $50.00.
Bror was already used to me being on skis during our daily exercise routine, so when the harness and equipment arrived, we were ready to give it a go. It took him about 30 seconds to get the idea and we were off. We started about easy, just as in any training. That means maybe only a half mile the first couple of times. Being sure to stop before Bror gets tired or bored and then plenty of praise for being such a good team partner. A well conditioned dog, with help from the skier, and a couple of rest breaks should have no problem with a ten mile trip after a couple of months of training. It seems as though a cold winter's evening, with plenty of fresh powder to roll in during breaks, really invigorates Bror.
The training commands are the same as those used by Alaskan style mushers. “Line out” is used as the set up command and means the dog is facing forward in a stand stay, ready to go, with a taunt line between the dog and the skier. “Hike” means take off, let's go and “Whoa” means stop. “On by” should be used to discourage trail side distractions, “gee” and “haw” which may prove difficult, can be refined in summertime training.
After two months of training, Bror and I showed off our talent in the areas annual sled dog races. Along with the 40 mile freight and 20 mile sprint races there was a short Skijoring race. The competition was tough, the six other entries used sled dogs which had not been used in the Alaskan style races. Among Siberian and Alaskan Huskies, Malamutes and Sammies, Bror sure stood out as the odd one. But I wouldn't be surprised if some of the dogs on the sled teams are sporting black beards next year, because Bror and I won the 3/4 mile Skijoring race by three seconds.
Skijoring is a sport gaining in popularity because it is a fun, affordable way to enjoy winter outdoors, while providing exercise for both skier and dog. Most importantly, Skijoring can be used to transform a Giant's love for running into developing a working relationship with his handler, which is so important in all aspects of working with your dog.
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