Training a Trail Dog
Argyle. With help from Jackie.
you'll often need to alter your riding style, and your ride plans, so your
dog can accompany you. For example, riding
fast on a hot day may kill your dog. Same with riding on busy streets.
||Riding with your dog is a good way to keep Fido in shape.
But every dog requires training before you head into the wilderness with
Otherwise, your dog may wind up lost in the woods or injured.
Your dog needs to:
Stay with you.
Leave deer and other wildlife alone.
Keep out of the way of other bikes.
Have speed and endurance.
Jackie in Spanish Fork Canyon
You need to:
Keep the dog hydrated.
Stay within the dog's ability.
Alter ride plans for the dog's health and safety.
Keep the dog safe from hazards.
realistic expectations for your dog. A dachshund may benefit from a run around
the neighborhood, but it's not going on the South Fork Loop with you. Some
breeds just aren't trail dogs, because of body shape, physiology, or a tendency
to develop joint problems. If you don't know it's safe to run your dog
long-distance, ask your vet.
And -- this is important -- you need to check the
laws for the riding area. Some allow NO dogs at all under any circumstance. (You
can get a ticket just for having Fido in your car!) Some areas allow dogs, but
only on a leash. Riding while holding a dog's leash is a hassle, and can even be
dangerous to you and the dog. What you're looking for are riding areas that
allow dogs to be "in control." That means the dog can be off-leash, as
long as you and the dog stay together -- and the dog obeys you. If you fail to
control your dog, you can get a ticket, and you'll be liable for any damage that
occurs due to your dog.
Teaching the dog to stay with the bike
It's best to start when the dog is still very young, around 6 months of
age. Remember to start with slow rides and short distances, because the
puppy's bones are still growing and fast long-distance running can damage
the growing joints and ligaments.
First, leash-train the dog while walking and running. Then you're ready
to go to the bike. Put the dog on a short leash. Take up the slack, so the
dog is forced to run within a foot of your handlebar. (Ride with the dog
on the gutter side of your bike.) Ride slowly, giving a quick tug at the
leash whenever the dog starts to turn towards a yard, cat, other dog, car,
Jackie follows my son Steve through the oak brush of Traverse
As you ride, give the verbal commands you'll be using to control the dog. For
example, "Close!" may mean the dog must come closer to your bike.
(Soon your dog will learn that, at the sound of an approaching car, you're going
to say "Close," so it will tighten up to your bike without being
told.) Saying "Go" and "Stop" when you're starting and stopping can prove
useful later on.
||Once the dog is trained to run alongside the bike, it's time to move the dog
to the rear of the bike, so you're ready for those singletracks. Attach a
five-foot pole to the leash. Start with the dog alongside you. Say
"Heel!" and move the pole back to position the dog behind your rear
tire. (If you've already trained the dog to "heel" while walking, this
step goes easier.)
Alex and Jackie on the Virgin River Parkway Trail. A self-retracting
leash works best to keep things from getting tangled as you ride.
Training the dog to ignore wildlife
Go to the foothills in the early spring, to an area where you know you'll
encounter deer. Put the dog on the leash and begin your ride. When the dog makes
that first tiny move to go after a deer (and it will), shout "NO" and
give a sharp pull on the leash. Continue doing this all spring, until your dog
shows no indication that it's planning to chase after deer.
Jackie enjoys a biking picnic along the Jordan River trail.
Clearing the trail
If your dog starts biking with you when still young, it will quickly learn
that bikes stay on the trail, so it needs to get OFF the trail when a bike is
approaching or overtaking it. If your dog doesn't "get it," you'll
need to do some training. Have a second biker come with you. You'll take turns
-- one of you keeps the dog with you, while the other rides the bike. Start with
the dog standing in the trail, on a leash. As the bike approaches, give a
command (for example, "Move!") and bring the dog off the trail. Do
this several times daily, over a few days, until the dog (1) automatically jumps
off the trail at the approach of a bike and (2) will jump off the trail when
riding with you when you say "Move."
Jackie, a mile from her Alpine home.
Keeping the dog hydrated
If you ignore your dog's hydration, it will die of renal failure. On most
rides, your dog is working harder than you are. This is especially true on the
downhills. The dog loses heat by evaporation from its tongue, and it may lose a
lot of water this way. Think of how much you'd sweat if you were running (at the
speed you're currently riding), instead of the dog. Take extra water for the
dog. I run water from the Camelbak hose into my hand. For a bigger dog, you
might need a small water dish -- for example, the bottom of a 2-liter pop
Grabbing a drink after finishing the Casto Canyon ride.
How much water will the dog need? My 14-pound Jack Russell consumes 1/4 as
much water as I do on warm rides. If you're riding with a hundred-pounder, the
dog may need more water than you do. With time, you'll learn to judge the dog's
water needs based on the temperature and on the length and speed of the ride.
Or, you'll only ride trails where there's a creek.
A breeze, like the breeze of riding a bike, helps YOU lose heat efficiently.
You may feel nicely cool, despite a high temperature. It's because (1) you can
sweat, and (2) you don't have fur. But dogs can't sweat. (They lose heat
through the tongue by panting. The bigger the dog, the less efficiently panting
eliminates heat -- there's a bigger mass of muscle generating heat compared to
the heat-losing surface area of the tongue.) The dog may be seriously
overheating at a time when you're feeling fine. You need to be very careful
about the speed and duration of the ride when the weather's warm.
Sunshine Loop on the Arizona border.
At mid-day in summer, road
surfaces and open rock may get hot enough to burn the dog's paws. If YOU
can't walk barefooted on the surface, it's too hot to take your dog.
and concrete are much harder on your dog's paws than rocky trails. It's
because of the sheer forces on the pads as the dog runs. I've found that
on the road, if I exceed 12 mph for more than a couple of miles, the dog's
paws will get sore. Yet I can do 16-20 mph for miles on singletrack trail.
So on the road, or on paved bike paths, I crawl along.
The dog will
develop tougher feet as you continue to ride, just like you develop
calluses on your hands when you work. But it takes time, and it takes
continued exposure. If your dog has the winter off, you'll need to start
slow and build up again.
Kristen and Jackie on the Jordan River
On narrow highways with no shoulder, the dog and I take up more room
than a biker alone. When the dog is running downhill along the road, I'm
biking much slower -- so more cars need to pass me. So it's more likely
one of us will get hit. The sight of my dog running behind me can be
distracting to drivers. Cars coming the opposite way may not move to make
room for the car that's passing me, because they're busy looking at the
dog. So if my ride takes me on high-speed roads, for example the main
section of American Fork Canyon, the dog stays home.
A posed picture
for this article, as the family heads out for a biking trip in St. George.
|My Jack Russell has been biking with me since 1997. But
when I ride on city streets, I put Jackie on the leash. You never know when
another dog will appear -- and Jackie, oblivious to everything else, will
step a couple of feet into the road.
I don't take my dog on cliff-side rides. I've seen my dog jump to a
rock or log, miscalculate, and fall off. I don't want her doing that on
the edge of a cliff.
Jackie died of old age in 2014, having spent a
happy 16 years chasing me on Utah's bike trails.
Copyright 2001 Mad Scientist Software