Pulling Together

By Jarrod Denson / January 10, 2013

Dr. Jerry Vanek, a musher and an international sled dog veterinarian, and friends

I live north of Boston, in a small town called Hamilton, which lies about 3,750 miles south of the finish line for the Iditarod Race in Nome, Alaska. Despite the distance between Hamilton and the northern latitudes most people associate with dogsledding, Hamilton is home to the New England Sled Dog Races. Once a year, weather permitting, teams of dogs and mushers arrive from near and far to participate in a sport that originated in the northern parts of North America and Siberia over 4,000 years ago.  Today, sled-dog racing involves teams of trained dogs that pull a sled with the driver or musher standing behind on the sled’s runners.  Contrary to popular belief, not all sled dogs are traditional northern breeds, such as Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. Mushers use a variety of purebreds and mixed-breeds for racing. Even standard poodles have raced in the Iditarod.

The first time I attended our local sled dog race I was hooked. I enjoyed watching teams of athletic dogs pulling sleds through the snow on beautiful country trails. I loved visiting the musher’s pit to play with the puppies brought there for early socialization. But most of all, I was struck by the relationship that exists between the dogs and their mushers. I quickly learned that before a team of dogs will obey verbal commands from their musher, they must share a deep and trusting bond.

Dr. Jerry Vanek, a musher and an international sled dog veterinarian, has served as a sled dog veterinarian on nearly 100 races and expeditions all over the world. Vanek believes dogs that pull a sled want to pull. The tendency is innate. Just think about how much effort it takes to train a dog to heel properly when walking on a leash. Of course, not all dogs have the desire and temperament to pull a sled, and those dogs don’t race. But if a canine with the passion to pull is trained by a caring and loving handler, Vanek believes that dog will want to race.  What Vanek said seemed true. The sled dogs at our local races appeared enthusiastic and raring to run. But even more importantly, they seemed healthy, socialized, and incredibly bonded to their mushers and handlers. So it didn’t surprise me when, halfway through my first day at the races, I started to fantasize about adopting a few more dogs, buying a sled, and building a team. But then the skijoring race began and a more realistic idea came to mind.

Dog skijoring is a sport where a person on cross-country skis is pulled by one to three dogs.  Both skier and dog wear harnesses connected by a length of cable with a quick-release hook. The dog is motivated by his desire to pull and run, and the owner’s voice. Skijoring dogs are taught the same commands as sled dogs, and just about any breed can participate. The skier can assist the dog by using poles and pushing off, so less of the work needs to be provided by the dog(s).  Skijoring is a great way to get a workout with your canine companion. It requires a minimal investment (equipment costs under $100), a pair of cross-country skis, and your four-legged best friend. Many ski centers are opening up trails to skijorers, but local hiking trails will usually suffice.  It is easy to learn on your own, with books and videos, or you can find a skijoring club or winter sport resort that offers instruction. The most difficult part is training your dog to do the exact thing you previously trained him not to do: run in front of you and pull. This takes a bit of patience and practice, but the end result is a lot of fun.

As I watched the teams start their races, I saw skiers and their dogs working together, gliding over the snowy fields and trails in what appeared to be blissful athletic collaboration. And later, as each team crossed the finish line, the dogs were showered with praise, and the skiers were covered in wet sloppy kisses. I went out and bought my skijoring gear the next day.

See Spot Skijor

Skijor Now
Great informational resource for skijoring and online equipment shopping.

Nordkyn Outfitters
Offers a range of products for skijoring and other sports, as well as related books and gifts.

New England Dogsledding and the Telemark Inn
Mason Township, Maine
Located on the border of the White Mountain National Forest, this inn supplies skijoring harnesses and bungee lines. Advanced registration required.

Eden Mountain Lodge
Eden Mills, VT
Located 45 minutes from Stowe and Smuggler’s Notch, Eden Mountain Lodge offers skijoring lessons and pet-friendly lodging

The International Sled Dog Racing Association annually represents over 100 days of sled dog racing and skijoring events.