Pet Connection

Ski Dog

Love cross-country skiing? Got an active dog? Combine the two with skijoring for winter fun

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel

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."

Q&A

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? -- via Facebook

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. The wrong harness can also cause a ferret to choke, so you are smart to make sure you get one that's a good fit.

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.

Harnesses with quick-release snaps are easy to put on and remove. Buckle styles are more difficult to adjust, especially if your ferret is squirming excitedly while you're trying to put it on. Velcro fasteners are convenient, but not safe for outdoor use. A strong ferret can escape from a harness with a Velcro closure.

Try it on your ferret indoors before venturing on a walk. You want to make sure it fits well and that he can't escape from it. It should fit snugly, with space for only one finger beneath it.

Be sure to remove your ferret's harness when he's at home. A bored ferret may chew on it. It's also easy for the harness to get caught on something and cause your ferret injury. Reserve its use for walks only. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Kitten classes offer

long-term benefits

-- A Canadian animal trainer offers classes for kittens -- yes, you read that right. Ellie Ross in Kitchener, Ontario, says educated felines are more likely to stay out of shelters because they are less likely to do things that drive cat owners crazy: jump on counters, lick the butter dish and fight taking medication. Much like puppy kindergarten, "kittygarten" offers basic training such as sit, stay and come, tips on kind handling and making car rides and veterinary visits happy experiences, and the all-important socialization with other kittens and with humans.

-- Two Labrador retrievers are making life a little brighter for patients battling poverty, homelessness, illness or addiction. Maestro, a yellow Lab, and Rylie, a black Lab, make weekly visits with minister Suzanne Bossert to McInnis House, a recuperative facility run by Boston Health Care for the Homeless. Patients and health care workers alike welcome the dogs' visits, petting them, enjoying their tricks or just relaxing into the pleasure of having a canine head resting in their lap. The dogs bring a moment of happiness on what may be a bleak day, and that's a gift.

-- Dogs and cats may have fur coats, but they can still suffer from cold weather if they're not built for it. While Alaskan malamutes or Great Pyrenees may happily bed down in the snow, pets who are smaller or have short, thin coats are at risk for hypothermia, frostbite, lacerations from ice and other chill ills. Put coats on small or hairless dogs. Use booties to protect paws if dogs must walk on ice, which can be slick, rough or sharp-edged. Clean paws thoroughly to remove salts and ice. Finally, before you turn on the ignition, bang the hood of your car to make sure no cats are snoozing on the warm engine. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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