Skijoring with Rainbow

All dogs like having a job, and Rainbow was no exception. I had my heart set on teaching her to be an agility dog, but I soon learned that her forte was skijoring. I wrote this essay in February, 2002.

I entered the Butte, Montana animal shelter and glanced at the barking dog on my left. She weighed approximately 45 pounds and was mostly black with white front legs and a white chest. Yoda-like ears contributed to a comical appearance, as did a long pink tongue, a black face mask, gold eye dots, and a partial white ruff. She was built to run; she had long legs, a lengthy back, and a narrow midsection.

The front desk clerk noted that the eight-month old female, who’d been picked up two days previously, on May 1, was slated to be destroyed. For the next 2 ½ days my partner Pete and I weighed the pros and cons of acquiring a young dog. The pros finally outweighed the cons by one item: I will have company on my daily training runs. Up until her self-elected retirement, I’d been running twice-weekly with Bootleg, now age 16. And so, an hour before the inmate was to be put down, Pete and I returned to the shelter, paid the adoption fees, and snapped a lead on the crossbred we named Rainbow.

Rainbow had an excellent indoor persona. However, her outside persona left a great deal to be desired. The day after acquiring her, I set out on a three-mile run. After cresting a rise that afforded one a view of the Pintler and Tobacco Ranges, I undid the leash snap. Rainbow raced down, then up the banks of a steep, scree-covered gully. In seconds, the renegade and the object of her desire, a bicyclist, had disappeared around a bend. Four hours later, Rainbow returned home. She drank two bowls of water, collapsed on the living room floor, and fell asleep.

I decided that when outside, the dog that the veterinarian had nicknamed Knucklehead, would have to remain on-leash. This was easier said than done, for she repeatedly lunged at bicyclists, runners, four-wheelers, dirt-bikers, and mule deer. I soon grew weary of running with her because she repeatedly pulled me off-stride.

“Maybe in a few years she’ll mellow out,” I said to Pete.

“Maybe so,” he replied. However, I could tell by his expression that he was doubtful. That September, Pete came up with a solution, which was to incorporate running jouring into my exercise routine. Rainbow backed away when I showed her the harness, waist band, and nylon rope. However, anticipation replaced concern once the harness was in place. We stepped outside. Ears back, shoulders down, Rainbow made a beeline for the nearby Carcass Hills, called such because it’s a repository for area hunters’ discarded elk carcasses.

After figuring out that “ea-s-s-y” meant go slow and that “go, go, go” meant go fast, Rainbow involved herself in the decision-making process. She was fearless on the uphill, and cautious on the downhill stretches. Since she didn’t pull hard, I soon discarded the heavy metal quick release. Of course, Rainbow didn’t immediately became an ideal run jouring dog. I had to teach her some of the commands, gee, haw, wait, on trail, and go leave it included. The latter required the most work because there were plenty of distractions, rabbits, squirrels, cats, and large game included.

A month after our initial outing, I hit a patch of black ice and fell. Rainbow waited for me to climb back onto my feet. Dazed, I examined my scraped elbow and rubbed my now-sore hip. We slowly returned home. Rainbow, seemingly concerned, stuck by my side. This accident called for another all-important equipment change—screwing hexhead sheet metal screws into the bottoms of my running shoes gave me much-needed traction.

By late November we were averaging 60-70 miles a week. In southwest Montana, high elevations, steep climbs, inclement weather, and uneven terrain make for tough going. This failed to phase Rainbow, who rose to every challenge.

I was so impressed with my dog’s progress that I entered us both in the 24th Annual Cheetah Herder Snow Joke Half-Marathon, a late February run that takes approximately 175 runners around Seeley Lake, Montana. I’d compete in the women’s 40-49 age group, as I’d done for the past three years. And Rainbow, a first-time entrant, would compete in the Canine Division. My decision was easy to rationalize. Rainbow had motivated me to resume serious training. And so, yes, I figured that she deserved a shot at the first-place dog prize—a much coveted soup bone.

It snowed early on the morning of the run, but by 11 a.m., the official starting time, the cloud cover had lifted. Rainbow barked when race organizer Pat Cafferty reviewed the race rules. Chagrined, I hustled us to the rear of the pack.

The starting gun startled Rainbow who leapt sideways and entangled the line around a signpost. A laughing race official assisted me as I unhooked the dog, unwound the line from the post, and refastened it to her harness. Once freed, the excited dog sprinted in the direction of the front runners. We turned onto the edge of the main thoroughfare, a north/south highway. My focus was now on keeping Rainbow out of the way of the masses. Nevertheless, I stayed attuned to an ongoing stream of comments that went something like this:

“Hey, that’s a sled dog!”

“Look at that animal pull!”

“That runner’s got an advantage.”

“I want a dog like that!”

Rainbow and I slowed to a lope at the two-mile point. A snow squall at the four-mile mark slowed us down further. An ongoing semi swooshed past. I removed my mittens and wiped my lenses with my ungloved index finger.

At Mile Six, we turned onto the residential road that encircles Seeley Lake. Traffic was no longer an issue; I relaxed my shoulders and lengthened my stride.

“Let’s go,” I said to Rainbow.

Rainbow picked up her pace.

We finished the way we’d started, strong. Rainbow, seeing Pete on the far side of the finish line, veered in his direction. I followed suit. Pete unhooked the long line and fastened the leash to her collar.

“How’d you do?” Pete asked.

I deferred to the dog, saying that she’d kept the line taut, ignored the wildlife, and stayed on-course. We three watched as the remaining dogs and runners crossed the finish line. The fray included three energetic Akitas and a spent Golden Retriever.

I finished second in my age division. And Rainbow finished fourth in hers.

The question that many people have since asked me is, why did I wait another year before attempting to teach Rainbow to ski jour? My response was that I didn’t think she’d be up to the task. I figured that to excel in this area, a dog would have to weigh at least 75 lbs. Plus, I added, ski jouring wouldn’t provide the likes of me with the much-needed exercise fix. I turned out to be wrong on both counts.

We eventually moved to Palmer, Alaska. Looking out the window at the first heavy snowfall, I found myself in the throes of a dilemma. I wanted to go skiing. But I didn’t want to leave Rainbow behind.

I agreed with Pete, that there was no harm in giving ski jouring a try. Of course, there were a few last minute equipment changes—I put the quick release back on the line, thinking that I could more easily let her go if we got entangled. I also grabbed my non-metal-edged skis. This, I figured, would prevent injury should I inadvertently run Rainbow down. I next slipped a pair of dog booties, a doggie water dish, water, and treats into my ski jouring fanny pack.

As had become habit, Rainbow took off at a lope, then alternated running and trotting. Soon enough, we were moving at a slow pace, down a local snowmobiling trail.

Within minutes, I was convinced that I was right—Rainbow didn’t have it in her to be a ski jouring dog. She pulled to the side of the trail and danced on the end of a loose line. Gritting my teeth, I herringboned up the incline. Once at the top, the reason for her lack of focus made itself apparent – a moose and her calf meandered along the far side of the ridge.

When the moose disappeared, Rainbow got down to work. She began to respond to commands, kept the line taut, and settled into maintaining a steady pace. When I fell, she halted and waited for me get up.

The previously foreseen problem still remained—Rainbow didn’t appear to have it in her to be a power puller. But, as I soon realized, this wasn’t what I was looking for. In essence, I’d gotten what I, a recreational (and admittedly somewhat timid) cross-country skier most needed, a companion that would continue to motivate me to get out for exercise. And Rainbow was getting the same.

As Rainbow’s matured, she’s become an even better exercise companion. With age, she’s beginning to take her job more seriously. She’s crabbing less. She’s also begun to make a distinction between the degree of tightness needed for run and ski jouring. And, most importantly, she’s acting as an exemplary example for the new neighbor dog Annie, a pup who is now learning the running and ski jouring ropes.