TEACHING YOUR DOG TO PULL

(Please be sure to also read our SAFETY TIPS and BASIC COMMANDS sections before beginning skijor training with your dog.)

Introduction

For thousands of years dogs have enthusiastically helped man with his transportation needs and materials movement, while at the same time providing companionship and protection. In the far north Eskimos used dogs to pull their sleds during hunting expeditions, often traversing great distances over difficult terrain; In North America, the American Indian used dogs to transport supplies via a travois, or drag sled, constructed of two poles and animal skin webbing. Perhaps your dog is a distant cousin to these hard working and dedicated canines.

Harnessing Natural Behavior

Every dog from Poodle to Irish Setter shares an ancestral link to the wolf and displays many of the same instinctive behavioral traits. For example, you may have noticed that your dog howls when a siren is heard, or watched curiously as your dog circles before lying down. These primordial behaviors have been passed on from generation to generation for eons, and are still a tremendous force in your dog's life. By tapping into instincts like these, training becomes easier for you and a natural behavior progression for your dog.

In teaching your dog to pull, we suggest taking advantage of three canine instincts: 1) Chasing; 2) Trail Running; and 3) Pack Running.

1) Chasing. In the wild wolves depend on chasing for their very survival. They chase lemmings, deer, moose, mice, rabbits, squirrels, etc., as well as each other during play. It's not surprising the instinct is so ingrained in domesticated dogs today....can your dog resist chasing a squirrel?

When beginning pulling training, make sure your dog has something exciting to chase a short distance up the trail, for example, a skijor or sled dog team, a friend running with a dog, or a family member skiing or running. The keys here are sight and movement (and to some extent, scent and sound). Your dog must have the opportunity to see the chase object "running away" to ignite the chase instinct. If you don't know a skijorer or musher, do some research by contacting a skijoring or mushing club in your area. Dog drivers are friendly and outgoing, and enjoy helping those new to the sport. Our LINKS page is a good place to start for a list of clubs.

2) Trail Running. Wolves instinctively follow the path of least resistance to conserve energy, as do their prey. In the wild they patrol game paths that are well defined, often in single file with the Alpha male leading. This is especially so in winter, when travel outside the path can be extremely difficult due to deep snow. By beginning skijor training on a well defined trail, for example, a ski trail with at least a foot high berm on each side, you allow your dog to follow her instincts.

Since the first training session is most critical, take some time to find the "perfect trail." In winter, choose a one-way trail that is relatively flat and straight for safety and ease of learning. Although winding trails through the woods seem to excite dogs the most, we don't recommend them until you're comfortable with skijoring and can control your dog. Select a time of day when you can be alone on the trail, usually early morning, and remember that a clearly defined trail is of paramount importance. One final note, choose a narrower trail over a wider one when possible. A 20 foot wide ski trail, for example, may confuse your dog even if the berm on each side is adequate.

In non-snow seasons you'll have more trail choices because you can run behind your dog instead of ski. Although experienced skijorers often train their dogs in the spring and fall using bicycles (called BIKEJORING), we don't recommend the practice for beginners due to safety and control concerns. The same is true for using off road style in-line skates. As mentioned before, choose a flat and gentle turning one-way trail, but consider the following differences:

  • On foot you'll have better control and a lower speed versus skiing, so use a narrower, wooded trail if available, i.e., a path. Hiking trails through heavy woods or undercover are a dog's favorite. This type of trail gives your dog the opportunity to run in only one direction, forward, and maximizes the trail running instinctive response.

  • Avoid asphalt trails. An excited dog pulling in the harness can literally run in place on a hard surface, wearing toenails and pads down quickly. Grass and dirt trails are best, followed by sand, wood chip and crushed gravel trails. Before running on any trail, check for sharp rocks and other hazards, and use dog booties whenever trail conditions are questionable.

  • In non-snow seasons you must be vigilant for signs of heat stress in your dog, especially when temperatures are above 40 degrees. Keep your training sessions short and always have fresh water on hand. If you drive to the trail, roll your windows down or turn the air conditioner on to keep your dog cool during the ride home.

3) Pack Running. Wolves are pack animals and work as a team to run down prey. During the hunt they gain strength, speed and sensory acuity from a heightened physical and mental state. If you've ever competed in a running race, you've probably felt this phenomenon yourself and noticed how you can run faster and longer in a group versus individually. Domesticated dogs experience this feeling as well, even if the only other member of their pack is the skijorer. Unfortunately, you need to know a skijorer or musher to effectively tap into this method of training, which yields remarkable results. In essence, it's dogs teaching dogs in an energized group atmosphere.

  • If you know an experienced skijorer (or musher), ask if they'd be willing to hook your dog up with one or two of their dogs for a short distance. Let them know that your dog has never pulled in the harness, but is well socialized and friendly - don't try this if otherwise. As an experienced dog driver, they'll keep the pace moderate during your dog's first run and give positive reinforcement when appropriate. Suggest meeting at a trail where the skijorer or musher regularly train, and return the favor by helping them to the start line at their next race.

  • If you have a skijoring club in your area, or mushing club with a skijoring contingent, inquire as to when the next seminar or fun-run will be held. At these events you can expect to receive friendly hands-on training and advice from knowledgeable skijoring enthusiasts. Most important, you'll have the opportunity to see the instincts related to pulling come to life in your dog. Don't be surprised if Rover takes off like Iron Will's lead dog as you chase 20 other skijor teams down the trail!

Summary

Training a dog to pull is easiest when canine instinctive behavior is taken into consideration. By arousing the chasing, trail running and pack running instincts inherent to all dogs, the chances for success are greatly increased.

Good luck in your skijor training, and remember to always have a positive attitude when working with your dog. If she doesn't grasp the concept of pulling quickly, assume it's your fault and try again next time with renewed enthusiasm. Like learning to ride a bike, the experience can be difficult until that one magical moment occurs, then it's never forgotten. Welcome to the exciting and rewarding sport of skijoring.

Step-By-Step Instructions

Assumptions: Winter XC ski trail, one inexperienced dog, and three humans - a skier to chase, a dog holder, and a skijorer (you).

  1. Try the harness on your dog a time or two at home. Give your dog abundant praise, and let her know this activity will be fun. Never leave your dog unattended while wearing the harness.

  2. Practice using the rest of your skijoring equipment. You might try having a friend pull you on skis to become familiar with the feel, especially the start (lean forward).

  3. Choose a trail that is safe, relatively flat and free of sharp turns. Make sure the trail is well defined, and avoid trails with motor vehicle traffic whenever possible.

  4. Take water and a snack for your dog, as well as a plastic bag for pet waste disposal.

  5. When you arrive at the trailhead, place your skis where you plan to start, then put your skijor belt on and connect your towline. (We recommend not using ski poles on your first outing.)

  6. Harness your dog and attach the towline to your dog's harness. Choke up on the line so you are closer to your dog for control purposes. DO NOT loop the towline around your hands, fingers, etc.

  7. Have your helper lead your dog to the trail so you can put your skis on. The helper should then hold your dog forward, keeping the towline taut. Give your dog some comforting words of encouragement.

  8. At this point, your "chasee" skier should be ready to go. Have him or her head up the trail while calling your dog by name. Your dog should become agitated.

  9. When the skier is about 40 yards up the trail, say "Let's Go!" and begin moving forward with your dog. If she responds by pulling forward, immediately say "Good Dog!" and then help her attain some speed by skiing smoothly behind her. Keep the towline taut at all times so she can feel the pressure against the harness.

If she doesn't start pulling, have your helper coax her forward with a gentle tug on the collar. Once she does lean into the harness, say "Good Dog!" If she still is hesitant, have the skier up the trail call her name again with enthusiasm and then continue skiing away. Again give her a "Good Dog!" when she starts moving forward.

Keep the first few sessions short so your dog is still pulling hard at the end of the run, and give her positive reinforcement and a treat when you finish. Remember that the whole experience should be very positive for your dog. Once she associates the harness with skijoring, you'll be amazed at her reaction when you pull the harness out!

Dog training in general is most effective when variables are controlled, consistency is maintained and repetition is practiced. If your dog didn't take to pulling like you had anticipated, stay positive - especially when interacting with your dog - and read our IF YOUR DOG WON'T PULL section.


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