Blast From the Past: Singletrack Hounds

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Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag #111, published in November 2004. Words by Karen Brooks. Photos by Brad Quartuccio.


If you’re reading this, chances are you know the joys of gliding through the woods, the satisfaction of making it up that hill, and the release of elevating your heart rate. It makes sense, then, that humankind’s best friend can also enjoy and benefit from mountain bike excursions. If you have a canine companion you’d like to introduce to the sport, or if you’re thinking about getting a dog to join you, here is some basic advice to get you started.

My dog? Really?

My dog Ivan accompanies me on almost all of my mountain bike rides. The most common question I get from folks is, “He just follows along with you?” Yes, that part was easy. Dogs are instinctively pack animals and don’t want to be separated from their pack mates, especially in a quasi-hunting or herding situation, which a ride can be. The quirks of certain individuals aside, most dogs, seeing their beloved master traveling more quickly than usual, won’t want to go anywhere else but in the same direction. They get excited by the speed and by the scents on the trail; for a dog, a singletrack path is very obvious, not just by its visual cues, but by the olfactory traces of all the other people and animals who have traveled on it. Of course they want to see what’s at the end.

Most dogs, like their owners, don’t get enough exercise and spend far too much time being sedentary indoors. Not only does obesity cause as many health problems in dogs as it does in people, the mental benefits of biking extend to our four-legged friends as well. A well-exercised dog is a good dog, much more likely to pay attention to commands and spend time alone without resorting to destructive behavior. People who meet Ivan often remark how calm and obedient he is—the reason is that, most likely, he’s already run between five and eight miles that day.

57 Varieties

Every breed has certain common characteristics of temperament and build that make it more or less suited for mountain biking, and even the suitability of mixed-breed “mutts” can be predicted with a good guess as to their lineage. Don’t be fooled by pet-shop propaganda: purebred dogs are not necessarily superior to mixed breeds, and in fact, some purebred dogs are more susceptible to inherited health conditions. You can find information on a breed’s characteristics on the American Kennel Club’s website as well as other general dog information sites, and in many books on individual breeds.

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For mountain biking, the temperamental characteristics you want are high energy and stamina, willingness to follow commands and not too much of a “roaming” tendency. The physical type that does well is a lean, long-legged dog. Very small dogs will obviously have a hard time keeping up because of their shorter legs, although there are exceptions in dogs with such high energy levels that their size doesn’t hinder them.

One riding buddy, Hammer, has a Miniature Pinscher, only about a foot tall, that can easily run with him for 10 miles or more, or happily stow away in his messenger bag. Large (100 pounds and up), stout and heavily muscled dogs—again with exceptions—often don’t have the speed or stamina necessary for anything but short rides. Hunting breeds work well, since they generally are bred to spend long days searching for various kinds of game, taking their cues from the hunter. This translates well to biking; I’m convinced that a big part of why Ivan loves it so much is because we’re covering more ground and coming up on the forest creatures faster than we would walking or running.

The first dog I ever biked with was a Cocker Spaniel; with no prodding, she loved to just put her nose down to the trail and run as fast as possible, occasionally making side trips to flush out birds or squirrels in the underbrush. Herding dogs also are typically highly energetic and intelligent; their herding instinct, however, sometimes translates to nipping at heels and barking to try to keep everyone together.

Medical Clearance

Your vet is the first person to consult if you’d like to try bringing your dog along on rides, since Fido can’t tell you directly if he’s got heart problems or other reasons he should be left at home. One of the most serious reasons is hip dysplasia, a genetic defect in which a dog’s hip joints are not formed correctly, causing arthritis and pain. It occurs more frequently in some breeds than in others, but also in mixed breeds, and no dog is guaranteed to be free of it. If your dog is afflicted, too much sustained running can exacerbate the symptoms; although there’s a fine balance as far as exercise is concerned, because strong hip and leg muscles help to stabilize the joint and preserve range of motion. Your vet may okay short rides if the degree of the problem is not too severe.

If you’ve got a new puppy in your house who’d love to ride, be careful with the amount and intensity. No dog before a year of age should run continuously for too long, or do it too often—your vet can give you some guidelines for your particular type of dog. Too much high-impact exercise can interfere with normal joint development. I took Ivan out with a bike at nine weeks old, but only rode for about 50 yards total; over the course of his first year I gradually increased the amount, but never made him run at full speed for more than 100-200 yards.

We often went to a local ski resort, where some trails are so technical that traveling at walking pace is difficult, and there are a lot of small lakes and reservoirs where Ivan could take breaks to swim (which is an excellent low-impact exercise). Avoid going too fast on fire roads or smooth trails, and follow your dog’s cues—the more you pay attention to signs he needs a rest break, such as whining or laying down suddenly, the more he’ll feel confident in giving you those signs.

For an adult dog, the same rules apply as for a human starting a new sport: take it easy at first, and gradually build up in intensity. Again, Lassie can’t tell you if she’s too out of shape for the ride, and some dogs won’t give any cues before they literally run themselves to death if they’re trying to keep up with you. The pads on her paws also need to be toughened gradually. You can purchase booties to protect her pads, which are especially good on gravel or sharp rocks.

Sit, Stay and All That

You don’t want Fifi running off into the woods and not coming back or knocking down little kids in the local park, so obedience training is necessary before you think about biking with your dog. For simple commands, “Come” is the most important, and commands like “Heel,” “Stay” and “Leave it” are also helpful.

There are many excellent training books to be found that can help you, or even better, there is probably a club or kennel near you that holds regular obedience classes for dogs of all ages. Classes work great in that they not only teach you how to teach your dog, but they get her used to paying attention solely to you in a distracting situation. It’s very important to make sure you have control of your dog both on and off leash; biking is best done with the dog off-leash, so that one of you doesn’t yank the other into danger.

Once you’ve established a good training relationship with your dog you can start to get him used to the bike. A dog’s reaction to seeing you on the bike can range from total indifference to barking and jumping wildly, so it’s best to start slowly. For your first trip, walk with the bike for a while, then choose somewhere secluded, flat and non-technical to try riding for a short distance (100 yards or so), to see how your dog reacts.

Getting Spot to follow you will most likely not be a problem, but keeping him out of the way of your wheels will be. When your dog gets in front of you while you’re moving, yell something like “No” in a forceful voice, and even slam on the brakes to make that scratching sound with the tires if possible—this gets the dog’s attention and lets him know he’s not supposed to be there.

When he moves out of the way, praise him and give him a favorite treat (conveniently located in an accessible pocket). This is the most important safety lesson for both of you, so spend some time to get it right—ideally only 5–10 minutes once a day, or as often as you can manage, so Fluffy doesn’t get bored and start to think of biking like you did of, say, seventh grade study hall.

Another biking friend used a leash at slow speed to pull her dog Emma out of the way while giving a command like “Move” or “Get over.” With large-sized adult dogs, and very good bike handling skills, you can even bump your dog gently if she gets in the way. This is obviously an advanced maneuver on your part—you don’t want to run over a paw or otherwise injure your dog—but it will give her an idea of what could happen if the wheel had more force behind it. The ability to get out of the way should extend to other bikers, too; have your dog come to you or heel anytime a biker passes, even when you’re just walking, so she gets in the habit.

Shaping other behaviors happens in much the same way: give a verbal warning for the wrong behavior, and give praise and/or treats for the right stuff. A dog’s attention span is pretty limited, so both warning and reward should be nearly instantaneous, so that he knows exactly what it is he’s doing right or wrong. Ivan as a pup had a problem with dominance; when biking, this meant he insisted on being in the lead and would resort to jumping up, barking and even snapping at me to get there (with no UCI judges in sight).

In addition to other training tricks used at home to address this, when he started his illegal passing maneuvers on the trail, I’d stop and shout “No,” then continue riding until he did it again, which resulted in stopping and shouting over and over, until he realized that this peloton wasn’t going anywhere unless he minded his own business.

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It’s convenient to teach Rex to drink from a bottle, and to carry an extra one with you for him. Puppies take to a bottle instinctively, as it’s a lot like suckling; adult dogs may be reluctant at first, but when they get thirsty, they’ll figure it out. Just be careful not to squirt the dog and create an aversion to bottles. I have also taught Ivan “Left” and “Right” as commands, so that he can be told which way to go at intersections. This was actually relatively easy—I just said “Left” or “Right” anytime we made a turn, and also did the same thing walking on the street, so that after a while he knew which was which.

The Group Situation

Once you have your dog trained well and she’s able to ride with you with no problems, you can take her along when riding with friends. As well trained as you may think your dog is, however, don’t try this with anyone but one or two regular riding buddies at first, and ask ahead of time if they’re comfortable riding with a dog in tow.

Avoid surprises—riders you don’t know may turn out to be afraid of dogs, or still learning skills and not confident enough with the distraction; your dog may be fine with one person, but freak out with three on bikes. Don’t attempt to bring your dog on a ride with more than 10 people, as there’ll be enough chaos going on without her, and the chances of you being able to personally ask everyone if they’re cool with Frisky running along diminish greatly.

But Where Can We Go?

This could be the toughest challenge in bringing your beloved friend with you mountain biking; the chances of finding somewhere that also allows dogs off-leash is pretty slim. Ivan and I are fortunate to live near a city park where neither off-leash dogs nor mountain bikes are technically allowed except in certain areas, but both are accepted.

There are some things to keep in mind to help minimize conflicts and problems: If your riding spot is somewhat crowded, leash your dog and walk anytime you may come up on people picnicking, walking with babies, etc.—even if you have total control over your dog, not everyone you encounter will be confident in that. For more remote areas, consider a bell for your dog’s collar, so that she doesn’t inadvertently surprise any big, aggressive forest residents. And of course pay attention to hunting seasons in your area, and avoid areas where hunting is allowed, for your own safety as well as your dog’s.

Learning to mountain bike with your dog can be a challenge, but the effort is worth it. Riding the trails alone is an enlightening experience, but sharing it with someone you love, human or canine, elevates it even further.

Keep reading

We’ve published a lot of stuff in 25 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.