How To Get That Perfect Trail Dog
What’s the best way to introduce a dog to mountain biking?
The best way is to make it fun. Go out to a grassy park area and just ride around in circles, encouraging your pup to follow you around. You are going to have to resist the urge to take your young pup on longer rides for two reasons. One, he needs time to develop his joints and muscles, and two, he needs to learn how to coexist with the bike and obey your commands.
Should you get the dog used to joining you and your bike on the street first?
I would stay away from the streets. A good spot to introduce your dog to biking would be a large grassy field. Have lots of treats to keep him interested and close to you, and start by just riding around slowly. Talk to him to keep him focused on you and your bike and not the surroundings. Reward him with love, kind words, and/or treats when he does well. Also, if your dog is young, running on grass versus the street will be easier on his developing joints. You do not want to overwork a young pup.
What are the biggest dangers of taking a dog with you on a ride?
Although most people immediately think of coyotes, rattlesnakes, bears or other critters, I think the biggest danger is overexertion. Some riders just rip long downhills with their dogs in chase, forgetting that they are mostly coasting while their pups are in full sprint mode. A dog could literally run until it drops. Don’t be that guy.
Along those same lines, you need to make sure your dog doesn’t overheat. Most dogs don’t do well when temps exceed 80 degrees, and for some breeds even lower temps can be dangerous. On warmer days, get your pup out on the trail early in the morning or early in the evening.
Another danger is getting lost in the woods. Be sure your dog is microchipped and has tags with a current phone number. When my border collie Poki was young, she used to do big sweeps ahead of me and would sometimes be out of my sight (which I didn’t like), so I got in the habit of putting a bear bell on her. Having the bear bell gives me that audio clue as to where she is. It is also nice when I am going downhill and she is behind me because I can tell where she is without looking back. For a few of her younger years, I also put a GPS collar on her. I had mixed results with the one I used because I had to have cell coverage for it to work properly, which isn’t always the case in the backcountry.
Should you use a leash when you start out?
Some folks do that, but there is a danger that the dog will get distracted and pull in the wrong direction and perhaps knock you off your bike.
What kind of trails should you ride? First off, you need to find trails that allow dogs to be off-leash. Most Forest Service and BLM trails are okay with dogs off-leash but check local regulations. Second, stay away from busy trails during peak times. The best way to avoid potential conflict with other users is to avoid other users. With that said, the majority of the riders and hikers that I come across want to meet and pet my dogs, but I have also come across hikers who were terrified of my little girls, even with their big, welcoming smiles.
What do you do about feeding your dog and giving the dog water?
Keeping your dog hydrated is a high priority. Ideally, teach your pup to drink from your hydration system. That way you can take quick breaks and give them a few squirts. I do know some dogs that just won’t accept water from the hose, so their owners usually pack a small collapsible bowl. You also want to keep your pups cool, so when you are near water sources like creeks or lakes, let them cool down. My Tula will totally immerse herself in any body of water—even when there is snow on the ground—while Poki only likes to wade in the shallow areas.
I also like to pack snacks for trailside treats. I know that I enjoy having a few snacks on the ride. Why shouldn’t my pups be afforded that same joy?
I also keep a supply of dog biscuits in my truck for an after-ride treat. If I forget to serve them up, Tula does a Jedi mind trick by staring at the console where they are stashed until I get the hint.
How do you keep your dog from getting in fights with other dogs?
That is a tough one that I personally haven’t had any experience with. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, maybe your dog is not suited for riding off-leash. Make sure you ride when encounters with other folks are less likely, and if you see another dog, restrain yours until it passes.
How do you protect your dog from rattlesnakes and other dangerous animals?
When I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, rattlesnakes were a real consideration. First, I recommend that you get the rattlesnake vaccine shots. They are not 100 percent effective, but they do increase the chances that your furry buddy will survive the bite. I also recommend that you take your pup to a rattlesnake aversion training class. Check with your vet to see if they know of any classes in your area or search online for an offering in your general vicinity.
My bigger concern is coyotes. I am not concerned when I see just one, especially if he just bolts away when he sees me; however, if that solo coyote seems to be lingering, it might just be trying to lure your dog into an ambush by its pack. We had that happen this winter on a snow bike ride. Tula stuck by my side, but my friend’s dog took the bait. The next thing we knew, Cora was running full speed back to us, and then a huge chorus of coyote howls went off. We weren’t sure how many there were, but it sounded like a large pack.
Does your dog run after squirrels and things like that?
Having a great recall is the first line of defense against this. My girls, especially Tula, will chase the occasional squirrel, but fortunately, around here, they go right up a tree and that is that. I used to ride with a friend whose dog would chase deer, and she would sometimes disappear for long periods of time. That can freak out us dog owners. Poki chased a bear up a tree once, so the first thing I do is leash Poki before I pull out my camera. A solo bear doesn’t want anything to do with a dog, but if it is a mama and cub, it is an entirely different situation.
How young can I introduce my dog to mountain biking?
You can introduce your dog to the bike at almost any age. When I say introduce, that means playing around with the bike and not covering any distance. Most vets that I have talked to say to wait until they are at least one to one and a half years old before taking them out on a real ride. Even then, build up their mileage slowly.
At some point, your dog is going to cross over to senior dog status. He will still love to ride, but you will need to scale back your speed and distance. Poki is going on 13, so I limit her to five miles or less. Even then, while she might not show any problems on the trail, she sometimes hesitates getting up the steps on our front porch or needs help getting on our bed. When that happens, I give her a mandatory rest day and scale back on the next ride.
Do you have any other special tips?
Just as every time you hit the trail you are an ambassador for the sport of mountain biking, when you take your dog along, you are an ambassador for the world of mountain biking trail dogs. You and your dog need to be great ambassadors.
Don’t just let your dog out of your vehicle at the trailhead or let him run around unsupervised. If you do, your dog will probably take a poop nearby. If some other rider steps in that, he or she will not have a good opinion of trail dogs, or their owners.
When you do let them out, have your poop bag ready. They are so excited for the ride that they will probably do their business within minutes. My rule of thumb is that I bag all waste anywhere within a quarter mile or so of the trailhead. After that, if I see one of my dogs doing business, I will bury the waste.
I have a habit of years of being a mountain bike guide of always packing a first-aid kit. I add a couple of items that are dog-specific, such as self-adherent flexible wrap that can wrap around a furry wound. My dogs ride four or five times a week, year-round, so their paws are tough, but I also sometimes pack one dog booty just in case we have a paw problem.
Speaking of paws, it is always good to give your buds a paw check after rides on rough surfaces. In addition, if you ride in tick country, give them a full-body check to catch those critters early.
Any final thoughts?
The best thing about having a loyal trail dog is that you will never have to ride alone again. You will always have someone who will come on a ride no matter what and will never give you a lame excuse for bagging on a ride.
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