Dirt Rag Magazine

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.

 

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A brief history of the Dirt Rag Office Dogs


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Canine co-habitation has long been a part of the casual atmosphere that prevails at Dirt Rag headquarters. From rides to relaxation, they are a constant companion. Some are gone, some are still with us, but they all warm our heart – and our toes under our desk.

With the assistance of the respective poochies’ partners, I offer this tribute to the four-legged denizens of Dirt Rag, past and present.


Speck

Speck – Elaine and Maurice Tierney

The original Dirt Rag office dog, Speck ruled as queen of HQ for a number of years, starting in the mid-90s. Elaine and Maurice’s Border Collie and Brittany Spaniel mix had a bubbly, warm personality that turned hearts into melted butter.

The only thing Speck loved more than mountain biking was being petted. Former Art Director Mark Tierney dubbed her “Schnoz” for her habit of sneaking up to your desk, sticking her nose on your lap, looking at you with sugary brown eyes, and not leaving until you gave her a proper back scratching.

Maurice remembers Speck’s day in court, “The neighbors took us to court, claiming that Speck had trespassed on their property. ‘They took twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows, and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.’ Apparently the evidence impressed the magistrate, and we ended up paying a couple hundred dollar fine.”

We miss you, Schnozzy, rest in peace.


Sparky

Sparky – Chris Cosby

Back in the day, Sparky and former Ad Guy Chris Cosby were inseparable, “Sparky came into my life when my girlfriend heard about a black lab that had been passed down through a family. She was relegated to living in a garage while they looked for a new owner. This was January, and we couldn’t stand the thought of her on that cold concrete floor—but we already had two cats and an American bulldog. We took her in, and although there were the inevitable turf wars, and infrequent growls and meows, she became a part of the pack. Sparky would run trails with me while I rode, slept under my desk at work (great foot warmer!) and was my soul mate for seven years.”

I’ll never forget the Christmas that I bought five pounds of dark chocolate covered espresso beans, with the plan to divvy them up into little gift packets for friends and family. I stashed them in my bottom desk drawer, and headed out with the rest of the staff for our annual Christmas dinner and drinks. We left Sparky behind to guard the office.

Apparently, I didn’t close my desk drawer all the way. When we returned later that night, I found all five pounds of coffee beans strewn on the office floor, deposited into several piles, after passing rapidly through Sparky’s digestive tract.

Chrispy had the cleanup honors. R.I.P., Sparky.


Ivan

Ivan The Red – Karen Brooks

Karen’s Vizsla companion Ivan didn’t often visit DRHQ—mostly because Karen rode her bike to work just about every day. But when Ivan did show up, he was the best athlete in the house.

Karen summoned up the strength to pen a tribute to her recently departed friend, “Ivan was the best mountain biking dog, ever. I told him that after every ride. (His daughter and sidekick Viva didn’t mind; she agreed.) There were few things he loved more than rounding up a pack of humans to lead through the forest, charging down the trail at top speed, leaping over log and stream. He’d pause to point at deer or make quick sideways dashes to tree squirrels, but if anyone else tried to stop for too long, The Chief Pest would bark until everyone was moving again.

“”Hope those deer in heaven can run fast.”


Roman

Roman – Shannon Mominee

Roman is another well-conditioned athlete, and a very handsome Weimaraner specimen.

Shannon is his proud papa, “My wife picked him from a litter of ten when he was two days old, and I thought of his name while cycling through Portugal. Roman is by far the coolest canine on Earth, and makes us laugh all day, from the moment we wake. He’s silly, yet has stature and enjoys being under a blanket, which my wife loves. He’s the perfect trail dog for hiking and biking, which I love. Roman listens, doesn’t need a leash, has the neighbors trained to treat him because he’s so damn handsome—and if you look into his eyes you know he’s intelligent.”


Heinz

Heinz – Frank Wuerthele

Heinz was a young, feral dog living in the woods near Seven Springs resort in southwestern Pennsylvania when Frank Wuerthele gradually lured him closer and closer with hand-rolled bread balls. Eventually, Heinz got close enough to let Frank pet him, and from that moment the two formed a lifelong bond.

Heinz was a hard-core mountain biking dog, athletic and fit. Frank, a former bicycle industry road rep, took Heinz with whenever he called on clients, including Snowshoe Resort in West Virginia.

Franks explains the story behind the photo shown above, “Back when I was a road rep, I thought ‘man, wouldn’t it be cool if Heinz rode the chair lift with me.’ So everyday, after reinforcing the big three commands (stay, come, heel) on our daily training hikes, I introduced the command: ‘hop up.’ Hop up onto the couch in the beginning. And then, one glorious day at Snowshoe, and with the world’s nicest (craziest?) liftie’s blessing, Heinz hopped up onto a moving chair lift chair and onto my lap. We were swept off the ground and up high into the air.

“At that very moment you witnessed Heinz at his happiest. His joy was so apparent. The rush of the air currents, and the smells that they brought. You could sense his temptation to leap when he saw a bear, deer or groundhog grazing far below. Being right there, with all that going on, lounging on his best friend’s lap.

“Being part of a pack.

“Freedom.

“Heinz is Free.

“Boo-hoo. Blubber, blubber. Sob, sob.”

We miss you Heinz.


Zero

Royal Zero the Zombie Killer – Matt Kasprzyk

Zero can usually be found in Matt’s office, at the foot of his master—no doubt guarding him against whatever dangers lurk, zombies or otherwise.

According to Matt, “Royal Zero the Zombie Killer is the official AKC name of our 28 pound, four-year-old Shiba Inu. Zero joined our family in 2009, after we visited Royal Kennels in Cincinnati, Ohio, to ‘meet’ some Shibas… We weren’t able to leave without him.

“Since then, Zero has been a large part of our adventures. He loves the outdoors and is happiest chasing a bike or ball. He’s aloof, independent and cat-like at times; but he’s also very loyal, intelligent and ready for action every time I grab my helmet.

“Although he’s fairly small and officially classified as a Spitz, he has the demeanor of a large dog and has strong alpha tendencies. He hates puppies, but he’s calm and gentle with kids, and loves anyone who says ‘hello’ to him.”


Toby

Toby – Josh Patterson

From the moment I met Toby, I could tell from the sparkle in his eyes that he loves life and makes the most of every moment.

Toby now resides in Colorado with former Editor Josh Patterson, “Toby is a Border Collie/English Pointer mix. The pointer dilutes a bit of the collie neuroticism, and both breeds are excellent runners and very attentive to their people.

“While working as editor of Dirt Rag, Toby frequently accompanied me to the office, where he alerted the staff to the arrival of the UPS and FedEx drivers, chewed on things underneath my desk, and accompanied me on many a mountain bike ride.

“Before Toby was my riding buddy he was a rescue pup. I must admit I had ulterior motives for picking him up from the shelter. Toby was a thinly veiled ploy used to lure a girl I had been dating into matrimony. Nobody can say no to a puppy.

“That was four years ago. Toby is no longer a puppy. The girl stuck around. So I guess my plan succeeded. [Insert evil laugh here.]”


Bandit

Bandit – Trina and Stephen Haynes

This loveable little guy is the new kid at DRHQ. He’s a cute as a button.

Trina told me, “Bandit is a relatively new addition to our household as well as the Dirt Rag office pack. We took this adorable Lab/Pit Bull mix in after he was abandoned in a park with no I.D.

“High spirited (to put it mildly), good with our kids, and willing to lay still for belly rubs, Bandit’s cuteness often overshadows the chore of walking, training and cleaning up after him. Not to mention the 6 a.m. wake up calls.

“Still, that is but a pittance for the love that is given in return from this loveable laddie. We plan to continue his training and incorporate more trail hiking this year with the aim of riding on trails with him next year.”

What about you?

Have a favorite pooch (or other pet!) that loves to ride? Post a pic in the comments below!

 

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