Dogs run, bike, ride with athletes at Killara Station
Karen Koehler laughs at a photo of herself taken during a canicross, scooter and bikejor fun race she organized at Killara Station on Gelert Road on May 18. Her mouth is wide open in a delighted smile as she looks forward ahead of her, toward her dog Much, whose mouth is also wide open, tongue flapping, seemingly also with a delighted smile.
“I’m surprised actually at how many times I look at pictures and I am smiling, because I feel like I’m really focused and serious when it’s a race, right?” said Koehler. “It’s just kind of funny. And that the dog’s expression and mine are similar.”
It’s not so surprising that Koehler is having fun with her dog. That experience is one of the reasons she organized the fun race to practice canicross – dog and human participant running together; bikejor – dog running while human participant bikes; and scooterjor – dog running while human participant rideds on a sort of kick bike. Fees raised through the event were donated to Yours Outdoors and Killara Station.
“Last year I had some people approach me that wanted to have a fun race in the spring and I thought, well let’s do that and let’s raise some money for the two places that have supported us, so that we can do fun activities and have fun races,” said Koehler. About 10 people and their canine athletes came this year from throughout the region, including local racers. Besides the fun race, the event offered a tips and tricks session to help participants better understand race etiquette, proper equipment and race strategy.
“So because we were such a small group we were able to do all of that while it was still cool,” said Koehler. “We try to do the races kind of early May if we can so that we still have a nice long cool day. The temperature was absolutely perfect and it was sunny so we had a really, really good time.”
In Quebec, skijoring clubs with 200 to 400 people in them have been growing in popularity.
“Ontario, I think we’re just starting to get more steam,” said Koehler, noting races near Owen Sound and Ottawa.
“I’m just trying to encourage people in our club, because we’re all from [around here] to start doing these little fun races near them. To really get going you need a mass of people because in that mass there will be one or two goers that just want to get things going ... I’m the goer in this area but we need more to pick it up.”
Arrowhead Provincial Park is attracting a large group on a now-permanent winter trail for skijoring use, and Haliburton is becoming increasingly more well-known as a destination for racers, with Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve hosting the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships in 2017 and the Haliburton Highlands Dogsled Derby offering skijoring opportunities.
“It is growing, it’s just taking a bit longer,” said Koehler. “I think that what happens in Quebec is that you have some really good trails and good snow near some major city centres, so it just allows things to get going a bit quicker, whereas Toronto doesn’t really have anything. I think that’s where our differences are, it’s just demographics and geographic. In Europe of course this stuff has been going much longer.”
Killara Station offers a flat property, which Koehler said makes it ideal for beginners.
“It’s such good training for the dogs, because there’s so many distractions with all the animals, all the farm animals,” she laughs. “It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great place to do the fun races.”
Killara Station also offers other distractions, which is good practice for the dogs looking to work on their focus.
“We actually happened to run by the cars, we ended up parking in the shade halfway down the start chute, the dogs had to go running by the cars a couple of times, which you’re supposed to do in your training just so you can set up for whatever race you go to and where your car is at,” said Koehler. Then, laughing: “it was good training for people because you could see who had already done their training and who hadn’t. Some of the dogs were like, ‘uh, I think I might go back to the car now!’”
With vet approval, Koehler said any breed of dog can be trained to get involved in skijoring. As long as a dog can run as fast as its owner, it doesn’t have to necessarily pull, although Koehler said dogs quite enjoy that.
“It’s something you can train if your dog isn’t as social,” she said. “It’s a good experience, lots of techniques if your dog is shy and getting used to the whole thing. Most dogs from the get go, some people are confused about t his, but love to pull. If you think about it, everyone is training their dog to heel. Their natural thing is, ‘I want to pull.’”
Koehler said her own dogs, German short-haired pointers, get very excited to race.
“They love to pull, they love to run, and it’s a good way for me to know where they are, because they’re attached to me. They like canicross OK, but really they prefer the bike and the scooter, but it’s because they can go fast. They want to go fast.”
A world-class competitor with strong attachment to her dogs, Koehler said she thinks the activity is a great one for dog and owner bonding, offering an opportunity to run and get fit together.
“It’s such a great team building with your dog, you really start turning into each other,” she said. “It’s just such a cool connection ... how the dog and the person are both happy. It’s not just a person going for a joyride and the dog working like heck and not enjoying itself. You start getting the equipment out and the dogs go nuts, and you haven’t done anything yet. ‘She’s going to take me running, she’s going to take me running.’”
The Muttskateers, a rhyming book written and illustrated by Koehler about the dogs and the adventure of the sport, has sold more than 100 copies. It’s available at Algonquin Outfitters and Minden Mercantile. A similar event planned in Gelert this fall will raise funds for the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust.