Taking your dog mountain biking

Dogging your wheels

Unlike human riding companions, dogs never complain about the trail and come equipped with their own go-anywhere propulsion. Kenneth Innes has everything you need to know to train a mountain biking pooch.

Riding with a dog at your side adds a fascinating dimension to mountain biking. Dogs live in a different world from people, dominated by smell rather than sight, closer to the ground and seemingly permanently filled with the sheer joy of movement. A dog as a companion will make you notice things you didn't previously realise were there (though some of them will be pretty gross; dogs are like that!) and provide the constant inspiration of a fit, permanently happy furry buddy.

However, there are a few things to think about. If your dog usually spends its days lazing on its bed, don't expect it to immediately be able to cope with a 20km ride. Like people, dogs need to get fit. They also need to learn that there are things they should and shouldn't do around bikes, and that's what we'll be dealing with in this article.

Dog health

The health and safety of your dog has to be paramount. When riding with your dog you must be constantly on the look out for natural and man-made hazards as well as assessing your dog's general condition.

Items like drains, broken glass sharp gravel and even hot tarmac can cause damage to the pads of your dog's feet. And if you're riding with your dog on a lead, it's vital he knows that he should always go the same side of a telegraph pole as you...

Breeding matters

How far your dog can comfortably run depends on its size; age; breed; fitness; health; and reaction to high temperatures, which means anything above 20°C for a dog during exercise. The dogs best suited to what dog trainers class as 'endurance work' in Australian conditions are generally the short haired medium to small working and sport breeds: cattle dogs, kelpies, dalmatians, boxers, pointers and so on. However, many breeds of both large and small dogs can make great riding companions. Whatever breed you have or decide on, use your common sense and research your breed. Find out if it makes a suitable riding companion by asking experts (like trainers and breeders) if its capable of sustained running. If your breed is not known for its boundless energy, you don't have to restrict it to a mountainbikeless life, just take it easy and slowly build up its fitness. If you own a bulldog, though, buy it a Playstation instead.

Puppy fitness

The age of your dog also limits its ride distance and speed. Dogs younger than six months should not be taken on bike rides at all. Dogs from six months to a year old are old enough to start building their fitness, but their limb joints have not fully developed at this age and over-exercising can lead to joint problems later in life. Some tips for getting your puppy into canine Steve Monagety shape:

* Do not go fast down hills-this puts a lot of stress on the knee and elbow joints.

* Buy a speedo (if you don't already own one) and see what pace your dog breaks from a trot to a canter. Deduct 3km/h and never go faster than this.

* Start with short loops rather than an out and back trip. If your dog is worn out you don't want to be at the furthest point from the start. A park or oval is ideal for this.

* If your dog starts limping, immediately stop and inspect the leg and pads for damage. If there are no visible signs walk home with your dog. If you can see pad damage, or the dog limps when walking, you may have to carry him home. Another good reason not to stray far when you start. Consult a vet to see if your dog has any health problems.

When your dog is over a year old (for medium size or smaller dogs) it has finished most of its development and from then on ride length depends on the dog's fitness level. For long rides try to keep the dog on grass or soft surfaces and check the dog's pads for wear. Pad wear shows usually as a lighter colour in the middle of the pad. Never run the dog while its pads are excessively worn. Work up to a particular distance slowly don't put your dog straight into a 20km ride.

Beat the heat

Over heating is a major concern with dogs as unlike humans they don't sweat. Imagine the smell if they did. Let them cool down by splashing in every puddle or water hole you pass. Canine endurance competitions are not held when the temperature is at or above 16°C so follow the lead of the experts and don't take your dog out riding in the middle of the day - ride either early morning or later afternoon.

Keep your dog hydrated even in cool weather. Teaching the dog to drink out of your camelbak is the easiest way to do this, and it's surprisingly easy to get a dog to drink this way. Stop regularly to give the dog a saliva reviver. To gauge how far is far enough at the end of each ride watch your dog's pant rate and recovery time. Gently hosing your dog down at the end of each ride will speed up his recovery rate.

Some dogs are prone to a rather nasty digestive condition called bloat, which can be caused by the combination of food and exercise. Some breeds are more prone to bloat than others, but as a general rule, do not exercise your dog an hour before or after a meal. Bloat can be fatal. For more information on symptoms and a list of breeds which are at high risk see your veterinarian.

Teaching bike sense

The most vital lesson for your dog is to learn that getting run over hurts. Many people skip this step and still have happy riding time with their pets. Some of them acquire a few tire marks but who's counting? The following steps are for those of us who don't have robot dogs. The most important thing for your dog to learn is to respect the front wheel of the bike. This is best achieved like this:

1. Find a nice oval (where dogs and bikes are allowed of course) and just push the bike around nudging the dog with the front wheel at every opportunity. Do not make it a game, rather, you want the dog to think the whole thing is just boring and annoying.

2. Put your bike seat right down, wear flat shoes, and flat pedals, cover the brakes at all times, let the dog off the lead and just slowly ride around never exceeding a slow walking pace. If the dog gets near the front tyre, turn the wheel and nudge him with the moving wheel with fingers ready on the brakes just in case. It doesn't take the dog too long to figure out wheels are bad news.

You're not trying to hurt your dog or permanently scare it you just want the dog to respect the wheel. Never run over the dog's foot-the aim is to nudge the side of the dog's body with the wheel. Be very careful with small dogs, but do not skip this step as it is even more important for them to stay away from the front wheel.

On-lead riding

This is how I do 80 per cent of my dog-accompanied riding because of restrictions on where you can take your dog off-lead.

The most important factor in riding with your dog on the lead is the collar or harness you use to control him. With a flat collar or car harness on an excitable dog, you are probably going to be pulled off your bike at the first distraction. This is good safe equipment on a well mannered dog, though. Using a check chain, 'Halti' or 'gentle Leader' does stop the dog pulling but they should not be used because there is a risk of injury to the dog if you take a spill. The perfect compromise is called an 'Easy Walker', a 'semi-harness' that holds the dog like a car harness but stops the dog from pulling.

This in turn is attached to a standard, fixed-length lead tied underneath the saddle. Never hold the lead in your hand; even on a short lead a dog attached to your hand can get to the front wheel and very easily controls the steering. Attaching the lead under the seat seems wrong, but it really does work-the attachment point is close to the centre of mass of the rider and bike, so if the dog pulls it has minimal effect, and the attachment is high enough that the lead can't get tangled.

The lead needs to be short enough that the dog can not get past your front axle, or even shorter. Don't use a stretchy or extendable lead; you do not want your dog to learn that if he pulls harder he gets further in that direction. A bit of basic off-bike heel work with your dog is handy here: teach him to stay on your left side and to go at your speed without pulling on the lead.

Another option is a 'Springer', a flexible bar that extends out from the bike so the lead does not get tangled in the back wheel (why this is advertised in dog magazines and not sold in bike shops is beyond me).

A novel but completely effective system is to use a tandem. The bike is long so it your mutt cannot get in front or behind the bike; the weight of two people off-sets any of the dog's pulling and the stoker can keep an eye on the dog and inform the captain of any speed changes needed. Since the dog is always 100 per cent safe on the left hand side you can do anything. However we do get strange looks as Joe Smith sees two people and a dog going around a roundabout, and not everyone has a tandem...

Riding with the dog off lead

It's hard to be too fussy about the dog's position relative to the bike when riding off lead, especially if you're going for a long ride. Make sure your dog stays in proximity but not too close to your front wheel. If you're catching up to your dog make a command such as 'Watch out' and use this whenever you feel your dog is to close. If riding in a group, inform the group of this command. Remember that dogs kick up a huge amount of dirt 'roost'-always wear glasses.

If you have the control over the dog teach it to stay behind or beside your bike. Make sure you have full control over the dog if you plan on doing this anywhere near roads and any other situation with traffic. Personally, however, I would never risk it no matter how well my dog is trained. Riding alone with a dog is easier than riding in a group to start with. Make sure you always carry food rewards or some sort of bribe like your dog's favourite ball or tug toy to provide enough motivation to lure your pooch away from exciting distractions.

Dogs and the environment

Remember dogs are banned for good reason from many places including Australian National Parks and the associated fines could buy a very big bone or even a mountain bike or four. Be a responsible dog owner: pack out what the dog packs in and control the dog around other track users especially horses. Ring your local council or dog club to ask about legal places to ride with your dog such as State Forests that allow off lead dog shenanigans, or politely ask a friend with a property.

[This article originally appeared in Australian Mountain Bike magazine].

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