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Training a Trail Dog     by Bruce Argyle

Riding with your dog is a good way to keep Fido in shape. But the dog requires training before you head into the wilderness. Otherwise, it may wind up lost in the woods.

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.

And 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.

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.

You need 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.

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, etc.

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.)

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.

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."

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 bottle.

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.

Avoiding overheating
 

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.

Paw protection

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.

Asphalt 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.

Doggie safety

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.

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.

Copyright 2001 Mad Scientist Software Inc