In the winter of 2019, I showed up to the trailhead with my newly-adopted dog, Annie Mae. I had no intentions of rescuing a dog specifically for mountain biking, but after seeing her run around in the woods on a walk I figured I would give it a shot.
When I started pedaling, I didn’t have any expectations. I just wanted to see how she would react. It turns out Annie Mae loves singletrack as much as I do and she took off like a dart in front of me. I laughed like a little kid chasing her around, seeing just how much joy she had. I realized pretty quickly there was a technique we needed to work out to enjoy this sport together. With a little bit of research, I discovered many types of dogs love going mountain biking with their companions, and some tips and tricks that can help when you go mountain biking with your furry best friend.
I rescued Annie Mae, so I don’t exactly know what breed she is. I just got lucky that she was a capable trail dog and loved to go mountain biking. She appears to have cattle dog in her, and cattle dogs are bred for driving cattle over long distances across rough terrain. This makes Annie Mae a great endurance companion with the instinct to chase. Every breed is different, I suggest checking with your veterinarian to be sure that your dog would be up to mountain biking.
1. What age should you start training your dog to ride bikes with you?
Puppies are not made for endurance, and if they run too much, too soon they can have some serious injuries to their growing bones and joints. At around 18 months, dogs are fully grown and can generally go on longer trots in the woods. I suggest first asking your vet for advice on if and when your dog would be up for long runs.
2. How do you start training your dog to be a trail dog?
Every dog is different and training is going to look a little different for each dog. The most important thing is to make sure you do it at a gradual, slow pace.
First of all, you should start with some basic obedience training, such as walking on a leash without pulling and moving to walking off leash as well as a basic recall. Then, introduce your dog to the bike and see if they are scared. In my own opinion, it’s ok if your dog is a little scared, not terrified, of the bike. This prevents them from running in front of your bike while you’re riding.
The next step is to go out to a trail or a field with your dog and go on a walk together while pushing your bike. While doing this, give praise to your dog and make them feel excited while the bike is around. Make sure you keep your dog behind or to the side of the bike and never in front. This is also a good time to start teaching commands you will use while riding the bike. With Annie Mae, I use “stay” for her to know she has to stay behind me, and I have a noise (I can’t whistle so I use a loud “boop boop”) that she knows she has to come no matter how many squirrels are distracting her.
If things are going smoothly and your dog is responding well, get on the bike and go on a short 1-3 mile ride. Make sure to give your dog a lot of praise when they are doing well. If they stray away or run in front, stop biking completely and call them back to you. This way they know if they act in such a way you will stop biking and the fun is over. Then once they come back and resume their position, praise them and start biking again. Make sure to not be frustrated or yell at the dog. This is a fun sport and dogs respond to praise more than they do punishment.
3. How do you work your way up to longer rides with your dog?
Start slow with a 1-3 mile ride and build up from there. I’d recommend starting on an easy trail with varying terrain and no long descents. Remember, trails that are fast for bikes are often hard on a dog’s paws, especially gravel. Again, every dog is different and starting gradually will make it easier to build up to a successful, fun mountain bike ride. Make sure to start at a trotting pace for your dog to see how they react, and then pick up the pace as they feel comfortable with it. From there, watch your dog and see if they start slowing down or limping. If they do, stop riding and build on that mileage/pace the next ride. I found with Annie Mae that she would keep up, but her paws needed to build up to the trail abuse, so keep an eye on their paws. We have dog booties for her, but rarely use them since they can also rub on other parts of the paw. It’s best to be mindful and pay attention to signs from your dog when building distance.
4. How much food and water should you bring on a ride with your dog?
I actually don’t bring much food on rides with Annie Mae. She is usually too hyped up to worry about food. However, water is very important. I often try to plan our rides around access to water sources. If water isn’t accessible on your ride, I suggest having a full bottle of water just for your dog and bringing a collapsible dog bowl. Annie won’t drink from a hydration pack hose, so make sure you test whatever method you’re going to use so you don’t have issues out on the trail.
If your dog loves treats and responds well to them, I suggest having a pocket full of them to keep them attentive on your ride.
5. What are some situations to avoid when mountain biking with your dog?
Crowded trails. Highly trafficked trails make it hard to get into a rhythm and can be distracting for your dog.
Parks and trail systems that have leash laws. Make sure that you are riding somewhere that allows dogs to be off-leash.
Hot weather. Always check the weather and make sure it’s not too hot. Anything over 65-70 degrees is too hot for Annie Mae. Early mornings are always a little cooler and more shaded to help your dog from overheating.
Aggressive behavior. Make sure your dog is not going to be aggressive to other dogs or humans out on the trail.
6. What if you lose your dog on the trail?
When training your dog, you should be confident in their recall abilities before heading out to the trail off-leash. They should know to stay with you at all times, regardless of distractions. If your dog does get too far away from you, make sure you have a well-rehearsed recall command. As I mentioned above, I have a very specific loud noise (“boop boop”) that Annie Mae knows to stop whatever she is doing and get back to me. After that, if for some reason you and your dog get separated, make sure your dog is microchipped and wears a collar with your contact information.
Training your dog to be your riding buddy isn’t easy, but it’s so worth it. Wishing you and your pup happy trails!