How to Go Mountain Biking With Your Dog
Want to take your four-legged friend on your biking trip? Cycling Expert Gunnar O. gives you all the tips you need to prepare your furry friend for the trails.
If there is one other thing that gives me as much constant joy as mountain biking, it is my dog — I love dogs. Their sheer enthusiasm for everything, their willingness to push past their limits, and their trail-ripping prowess make them the perfect riding partners.
But riding with a dog is no small task. Trail dogs need to be fit, willing to run, able to maintain pace at mileage, and able to have perfect recall to avoid separating from you on the trail. Not only that, but as a dog owner and a rider, you have to be able to keep your dog healthy, behaved, and most importantly having fun while on the trail. The following is a guide intended to help you learn how to go mountain biking with your dog.
The Trail Dog
There are some defining attributes that make certain types of dogs better than others when it comes to being a mountain biker's best friend. While I personally am a proponent of the “adopt, don’t shop” policy, I do think there are some things to look for when choosing your ideal trail partner, and some things that should be identified in your current dog before bringing them to the trails.
The dog should have stamina and endurance and be willing to run. Without these things, your dog will likely not enjoy their time on the trails. It is also helpful to identify whether your dog is a dependent or independent breed. Dependent dogs tend to blindly follow you, whereas independent dogs are more prone to taking their own route or following their own inhibitions on the trail. Also, it is worth identifying whether your dog has a prey drive and whether this is something that can be controlled while off-leash.
It is also worth noting your dog's physical attributes. Breeds with thicker hair will have more problems regulating heat. Dogs with shorter snouts may have a harder time breathing. Those with softer paws will need shorter distances to maintain their paw health. And dogs with shorter legs will not be able to run as long. Your dog's physical attributes should be considered before bringing them onto the trails.
Lastly, besides just breed ability, a dog should be in good shape and old enough to run for a sustained period of time without causing damage to their joints — typically full-grown and at least 14 months of age — but not too old to cause injury from running. The ideal age varies from dog to dog, and you should always contact your vet when making these types of decisions regarding your dog’s health.
Basic dog obedience is a must before hitting the trails. Your dog should be able to consistently hit all cues with common tasks like sit, down, and stay. Also, your dog should have plenty of practice with off-leash recall. Typically, this starts in a controlled environment like your home and moves into larger environments like off-leash parks.
Before hitting the mountain bike trail, it is best to have trained your dog to recall, even when faced with some of the most tempting distractions like squirrels, deer, or other dogs. If you know that you can trust your dog off-leash no matter the temptation, then you should be able to trust your dog on bike trails.
Along with recall, your dog should be able to walk in heel. Besides the obvious importance of this for following you on the trail, it is also a critical skill for your dog to have to learn to follow you — not lead you — on the trail. This will ultimately keep your dog safer from you as well as any unsuspecting oncoming riders.
Before bringing your bike and another layer of complexity for your dog, it is best to do some walks, hikes, or runs with your pup that allow you to practice off-leash recall and learn your dog's physical limits. Dogs are willing to run until they can no longer do so, but they should never be pushed to this kind of limit while on the trail. Not only will trail practice help you gauge your dog's physical ability, but it will also help you practice recall and other types of trail etiquette.
Knowing your dog’s habits at the trailhead is essential before adding the bike component. This is a good time to determine how your dog does at the trailhead and in parking lots, how they are around other dogs, how long it takes them before their first poop, and how much water they need for certain distances.
Days on the trail without the bike are a great time to practice heel and loose leash walking with your dog. It is also a great time to work on trail etiquette, such as pulling off of the trail and asking for a sit when other trail users pass. This type of behavior can make days on the bike with your dog much less frustrating.
As with other types of socialization for dogs, the best way to get your dog comfortable with your bike is through exposure. Some dogs naturally understand when you mount a bike, but others have more problems understanding it. To ensure that your dog isn't automatically afraid of your bike, first start by feeding or giving your dog treats near your bike. This will get your dog accustomed to the bike and help to eliminate fear.
Slowly introduce some more exposure to the bike, such as manually pedaling the bike backward to introduce hub and drivetrain noise, spinning the rear wheel for exposure to noise and moving parts, or walking with your dog and your bike to get them comfortable around it.
Using positive reinforcement training — that is, creating a positive association with your bike for your dog through treats and praise — is the best way to ensure your dog will not feel fear around your bike. Never force your dog to do something they are not comfortable with. If your dog is behaving nervously around your bike, start smaller and work on incremental exposure.
Once your dog has consistently demonstrated the ability to perform well on the trail and around your bike, it is time for your first ride. But before hitting the mountain bike trails, I suggest doing smaller and shorter rides to build up your dog’s tolerance to running and to have exposure to the bike. I purchased a dog leash bike attachment to practice keeping my dog behind me. I would advise this type of leash — with a bungee and a rearward attachment, and with a harness if you are planning on leashing your dog during training. Remember, loose leashes and bikes do not go well together. I do not suggest attempting to hold a leash while you ride.
With my bike leash attachment, I was only using it to familiarize my dog with riding next to the bike. I kept my speed very slow, as I didn’t want to jerk my dog if he wanted to sniff or pee. I used this only for training purposes to work on teaching my dog to heel near the bike. These types of attachments can easily injure an inexperienced dog, so keep your speed slow. I would even suggest walking next to your bike with the attachment to start.
Once you are comfortable with your dog's behavior around your bike, it is time to attempt the first off-leash ride. I suggest starting somewhere with a wide, flat path and with minimal people or other distractions, which allows for off-leash dogs. Even finding a wide-open park that allows off-leash running is a great place to start. Starting in an easier area like this is a great way to get your dog accustomed to following you, rather than running ahead on the trail.
Preparing for the Ride
Before your first real mountain bike ride, it is necessary to get the required gear for both you and your dog. Make sure you have the essentials for your dog. A harness and leash for the parking lot or other on-leash areas, poop bags for you to scoop your poop, and enough treats to keep your dog motivated and ready to follow your commands.
Besides the normal essentials, ensure that you are bringing extra water for your pup and a bowl for you to empty your hydration pack or a water bottle into to help your dog easily drink. Remember to have an identifying collar on your dog with your contact information and your dog’s vaccine information readily available. If your dog has more of an independent attitude or a stronger prey drive, a GPS tracking collar is a great choice to reunite you with your dog in the event of a separation.
It is also necessary to bring health and first aid equipment for your dog. This means a puppy first aid kit, paw salve, and other accessories specific to your breed, such as doggles for the herding dogs that like to stay close to your rear tire or dog boots for dogs with more sensitive paws.
Choosing a Trail
When choosing a trail for your first ride, it is critical to consider your dog first and foremost. Finding a trail that allows bikes and off-leash dogs is important, but it is also important to find the right trail for your dog. Avoid rocky trails that are harder on your dog’s paw pads or busier trails that will lead to too many distractions. Find a ride that is short and easy and preferably a slower and windier ride. It's easy for us mountain bikers to cruise down a forest road as fast as we want, but that is very hard for your dog. Choose a ride that is familiar to you, so you know what to expect for your canine companion.
It is also vital to consider the temperature of your dog. Dogs overheat easily, especially when running for longer distances. Ensure that the temperature is cool enough and there is ample shade for your dog to cool down. Also, do not feed your dog immediately before your ride.
Mountain Biking With Your Dog
After all of the training and preparation, it is time to hit the trail with your dog! A perfect ride with your dog should include a controlled and leashed dog at the trailhead, a slow warm-up with a nice trot before the running begins, a poop that is bagged and properly disposed of, plenty of treats and water, a little bit of panting, and a whole lot of smiles.
It is best practice to keep your dog behind you when you ride, as this will keep your dog out of danger from you as well as oncoming riders. Stopping your dog and resetting them behind you every time they get in front with lots of treats and praise as they stay behind is the best plan of action.
Biking with your dog should be a fun and carefree experience, but getting to that point with your dog requires plenty of patience and training. If done appropriately, you will have a new trail buddy for life who will motivate you to ride daily!