How To Mountain Bike With Your Dog - tips from an expert dog trainer

8 min read

How To Mountain Bike With Your Dog - tips from an expert dog trainer

There’s no doubt mountain biking with your best furry friend is fun.

Watching them navigate the trail, fly over jumps, cut down the trail and wait for you to catch up...

There’s nothing quite like it!

But, the truth is, as much as it’s silly fun for you to mountain bike with your dog, it’s not always awesome for your dog or other trail users.

I realize mountain biking with dogs is a highly debated topic. And dog owners and non-dog owners are often divided on this issue of dogs off leash on trails. It’s why I asked expert dog trainer, Maren Bruun,to help us out and answer some questions on how to safely mountain bike with your dog.

What’s the number one issue/conflict you see out on the trails where people are biking with their dogs?

One of the most pominent issues I see is dogs interfering with others on multi-use trails. And mixing on leash and off leash recreation is often part of the problem.

There are often many uninvited and unwanted approaches by dogs to humans and other dogs, whether it’s friendly, rowdy, a bluff charge or showing teeth -- and, of course, dogs chasing cyclists.

Many of these problem type behaviours include an element of surprise, fear and stress for all.

One of my biggest beefs, and a huge reason we see so many conflicts on trail, is owner’s that don’t understand their dog’s behaviour / body language. They don’t “listen” to their dog’s early whispers for “help” and then react when their dog reacts and they “yell” too.

I see so many dogs that don't understand their owner and are left unsure and conflicted, then when their owner gets upset and yells or uses other harsh corrections, the dog “listens” by shutting down and appearing “good” but they are actually shutting down.

And far too many cyclists pedal ahead leaving their dog to “fend for itself” and run to catch up with them.

Many dogs are forced to go skittering past other dogs and (actually ignore normal dog social etiquette) are pressured to keep up with their owner… putting them in tricky situations and creating social stress for the future.

How can a dog-owner best avoid these conflicts on the bike trail?

While out on the bike trail you should always have one eye on the environment and one eye on your dog to ensure you don’t miss any early warning signs.

Owning a dog can and should be a joy and as a dog owner you have a responsibility to meet your dog’s needs and train them so they have the skills to be a part of your life more fully.

Always have your dog under voice control and within your sight. If a situation arises that is beyond your dog’s ability to handle or respond, have them under physical control and far enough away to limit being triggered or being a trigger to other trail users.

If you see another person with a dog on leash, leash yours unless you're 100% sure they will stay by your side. Respect others trail users as you don’t know their story or why their dog is on a leash.Not all dogs want to meet others. Ask first as they could be stressed, injured, contagious, etc.

Anytime you see another trail user make it a habit to call your dog to your side. The more predictable and practiced, the more reliable this behaviour will be and eventually automatic.

Know your limit - ride within it.

Be honest about your dog’s behaviour. Learn about body language and get to know the early signs that your dog is going to shift focus. This is the time to interrupt and redirect, not after the fact.

Don’t take your dog on bike rides unless you plan to focus on your dog and put his or her needs first.

And be sure to choose the right trail for you and your dog's skill, ability and temperament.

Woman standing with her mountain bike and two trail dogs by her side

If I have to bike with my dog on a leash, how can I do that safely?

It depends! My favourite answer for everything ;)

Common advice is hard to argue. Combining leashes and bikes is risky, but let's face it, there are times you have to do it.

If you need to leash your dog for physical control then you probably shouldn’t be riding with your dog on leash. The leash is there for safety and to abide by rules/regulations/laws.

The best option for success is always come back to training and practicing. Plan for the unexpected. Anticipate potential tricky situations and be realistic because in the moment you need to have a well practiced strategy!

Use a leash that’s short enough to not get caught but long enough (or bungee type) to give you time to react if your dog suddenly moves or stops.

Use a well-fitted harness that sits away from your dog's neck and their shoulders have full range of motion. And use a back leash attachment to keep it from going under your dog’s legs.

Practice your emergency stop plan -- in case of a leash tangle or sudden pull.

I don’t ever recommend attaching your dog’s leash to your bike.

Holding the leash in your hand is risky but if you hold it with just one finger, while your other fingers can grab your bars or brakes, then you can always hold the leash or “quickly release it with a flick of the finger. *You have your dog under excellent voice control and you really don’t need the leash, though, right?

My most favorite is using a waist belt with a quick release mechanism. It’s fairly low centre of gravity so even if your dog pulls moderately you can counteract if you’re an experienced cyclist.

What is the best way to handle an aggressive dog on the trail?

First, it’s important to define aggression because there are many different types and triggers for aggression.

Most aggression is rooted in fear/conflict/stress so it’s always best to just give space and move on slowly. Face the dog sideways, use soft body language, sing a quiet song and keep your eyes looking off to the side

If it’s more of a chasing and nipping at your heels type behaviour that technically isn’t called aggression… it’s chase / predatory behaviour (“normal”) but, of course, not cool.

In that case increase your speed from 20 - 200 in seconds not minutes… ha ha, just kidding. Just stop. The dog can’t chase you and nip if you’re not moving.

Added bonus, you will prevent the dog’s chasing behaviour from being reinforced and the owner will thank you for it! This scenario is usually a dog triggered by movement and it’s not going to continue any threat to you.

Best yet, be proactive. In hindsight, there are so many incidents you can avoid in the first place by passing a dog slowly and giving them space, making sure the dog's owner sees you before approaching, and being aware on narrow trails of exits and entrances to trailheads.

And if there’s an actual attack?

Put your bike between you and the attacking dog. Face them in a neutral way. Be non confrontational. There is no need to “fight” unless you’re being attacked.

What’s the best way to keep my dog safe from other riders and dogs?

It’s a wild world out there and the more predictable the environment the more secure a being is… human or dog!

Having said that, expect the unexpected. Have some solid skills and a well rehearsed plan.

Have a reliable routine that becomes a habit. Any time you (your dog actually!) see another trail user, your dog should automatically come to your “side” or at least when you call them.

I prefer the former because us humans are not as quick to react as dogs and if they are trained to check in and come to you when they see other trail users then there is no time delay for their slower-to-react human owner to call them.

In fact my own dogs (yes, all three!) are conditioned to respond by coming to me and sometimes I wonder why they are checking in and then seconds or minutes even later a jogger or bike comes towards me. Good dogs! That’s a behaviour I value greatly and will pay for life!

Always keep one eye on your dog. I like having them in front of me rather than behind (except on narrow single track or downhill) so that I can see early shifts in their body language which usually means they sense (hear, see, smell, imagine…) something. An early warning system worth tuning in to!

My dog’s have foretold me many times of something I was not aware of. Trust them! But decide how they respond -- should they stay with you or go check it out. You decide.

How can I teach my dog to move off the trail to avoid a crash with me and my bike?

If you want your dog to respond when you signal them? Train them in advance!

Teach them what to do and what to expect ahead of time.

A common practice is to use fear and purposefully “crash” into your dog. But dogs that react out of fear when your bike moves or crashes are more likely to respond in ways that are not safe in other scenarios.

Don’t ever use fear to train. It’s better to have a dog who understands what to do if you say “off trail” rather than move due to fear of a knobby tire up their butt.

Start with walking once again. Does your dog know to go to the side? Both sides? From in front? From behind? Figure out the verbal cue that you are going to use.

I use “beep beep” for hussle in front, “back back” for get behind, “side” for move to the left side of the trail and “off trail” for moving to the right side. The words don’t matter, it’s what the dog has learned to associate them to mean.

Your hands will be on your bars so hand signals and human body language will be off the table. Reliable verbal cues are key. Generalize to different situations and trail settings, and practice practice practice!

And remember, positive training always gets more reliable responses :)

How do I know when my dog is ready to hit the trails?

How do you know when YOU are ready? It’s not much different, really!

Are you still learning to mountain bike? Not feeling very fit? Then stay on the green trails.

Is it your first ride of the season? A hot day in July? Keep your expectations in check if you want to stay in the saddle the rest of the season.

Before you hit the bike trails with your dog, do a risk management assessment and be realistic. Don’t just wing it.

Ask a friend. Actually, maybe ask someone that is NOT your friend, they may be more honest ;)

Just like you don't want to let a crash ruin your bike season, you equally don't want a bad trail experience to ruin your future with your canine partner alongside for the ride.

My dog is little. Can I still take him/her mountain biking?

That depends!

Is your dog little with long legs? Little with short legs? Little with brachiocephalic traits?

When your dog accompanies you on a ride your dog is your number one priority. This means you should always bike at the level your dog can handle. And if you can handle going at your dog’s pace, then enjoy! Personally, I couldn’t tolerate going downhill at 2 m/hr. ;)

If your dog isn't able to run and keep up you can always use a doggie backpack so your pup can come along and never get left behind!

What tools should I take with me when I’m biking with my dog?

I highly recommend taking a dog first aid kit and carrying a first aid kit with you at all times.

And for dog gear? Here's what I recommend:

  • a well-fitted harness with a back attachment for the leash
  • a collar with ID tag / tracker device
  • reflective vest
  • small bell or jingly tags so you know when they're not behind you
  • water
  • treats
  • poop pags

Lastly, have a plan for what to do if you or your dog is injured.

 

Thanks, Maren! Good to know it IS possible to safely bike with a dog.

Although it takes time and effort to do it safely, it can be done.

If you're hitting the trails with your pooch, remember to train you and your dog, go at your pooch's pace and have fun!

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