Monday, November 15, 2010

Trail, Tail, and Tires: A Brief Guide to Mountain Biking with Canines

Canines on the Trails
Scott mountain biking with his dog
The following is a guest post by Scott Melzer.

The world of mountain biking has many aspects. The world of riding with your dog can be one of them if you prepare ahead of time. Riding with your four footed friend can be a great combination not unlike peanut butter and jelly. Sadly it can also turn out like oil and water. I will attempt to offer tips and guidelines to help you in your mountain biking endeavors. Keep in mind I am no expert in dog training nor do I try to pretend to be. I can cover the basics. I also know that it is a learning process with no diplomas, because the learning never stops.

There are many reasons why riding with your dog can be something to look forward to. Looking over your shoulder as you fly along the trail and seeing the dog’s face of blissful joy is where it all starts. A well-trained and behaved trail dog makes a great riding buddy. The relationship between pet and master can be improved upon when the dog has a sense of accomplishment and has pleased its master. Getting home after a good ride and seeing your pooch as spent as yourself is like killing two birds with one stone.

First thing to consider is the dog you will be riding with. Not all dogs make great trail dogs. Three things to look at are breed, age and fitness of the dog.

Breed will be a big factor. I would suggest that the sporting group offer the most likely success on the trail than the other groups of breeds. Too small of a breed will not be able to keep up due to a short stride and might be more prone to injury. Too big of a breed will have trouble keeping up on longer rides as well as having injury due to size and weight. Stay away from aggressive type breed such as guard dogs. The last thing you or others will want is a dog hurting itself or others on the trails. Chances are if your dog is aggressive when walking or at home, it’s best to leave the dog home. A dog ranging from 40lbs to 70lbs with a long stride and short coat fits the sport best. Mongols can be a wildcard. Knowing your dog is something I cannot stress enough. When looking at your dog know its pros and cons before hitting the trails and prepare for problems that will arise.

Age for prime performance would be two to seven years. Under a year do not push the pup on the trail with the bike just yet. Rather focus on training and command words. A large open yet safe area is ideal for your pup to learn the ropes. Dog parks can fit the bill, but can also divert attention away from training with other dogs running around. Also pups are still growing and trail terrain can put stress on shoulder and hip joints, particularly on down hills. So slow down a little on descents even with older dogs. Most dogs after the age of seven start to lose a step and are on their way to retirement from the biking lifestyle.

Fitness of the trail dog must be kept in mind before that long ride. Start with a trail that is a less than three miles in order to build the dog's endurance to peak level. Also having a trail that is a short loop is ideal simply for the fact if something like a injury or fatigue set in you're not too far from the car and the ride home.

Trail dog
Rider: Scott Melzer Dog: McGuinness Trail: Alpha, WI
Training and tools are the bread and butter of a successful ride. I have found that hunting bird dog books have a lot to offer as far as working command words. I have found that such books also offer wordless commands like being able to point in the direction with your hand where you want the dog to go.

The dog must learn to respect the front wheel of the bike. Ride slow and nudge him or her with the front tire and use command words such as “Move it” or “Outta the way”. Most dogs will learn this lesson fast. Using short phrases for commands works best for the dog. Obedience classes would not be a bad idea, just to get things steered in the right direction.

The most useful tool I have found and would not hit the trail without is the whistle. Just a plain whistle like a ref. would use will work. I prefer the plastic variation since it will not get cold when the winter winds start to blow. I wear the whistle around my neck on a chain so that it’s easily within hands reach at all times. I mostly use the sound of the whistle to reel the dog back to a heel position if he gets too far out or takes a wrong turn. It beats having to yell at the top of your lungs, which tends to be counter productive when training a dog. This should be taught to the dog as early as possible. I found that sitting a puppy down and commanding him to “stay” then walking away a good distance while the pup remains in a set spot then using two short loud burst of the whistle to bring him to you works great out in the field or trails. This way the dog will be able to hear you from a great distance and make it back to you.

A small bell for the dogs collar is a useful tool also, since it will help you and others keep track of the dog position on the trail without having to have him in your eyesight. This works well since the preferred place for the dog is behind your bike. I have found that my dog likes to lead at the start of the ride. As the miles add up he is smart enough to stick near me and pace himself.

A water bottle is a must since hydration is a critical for the dog. Teach them at a young age to drink from the bottle or camelback. Also try to ration the water in small amounts so the dog does not get too full when running. Give the dog a drink or two as often as every fifteen minutes . This also goes for feeding time. Do not feed the dog an hour before or after a ride. It can cause "bloat," which is the result of the combination food and exercise. This can lead to the dog’s stomach flipping and twisting. Bloat can be fatal and some dogs can be more prone to it more than others: mostly breeds that have a deep chest, which puts their tummies in a more problem like position. Poor hydration and heat can be bad news for your dog. I have an Irish Setter and he has a thick, full coat that does not work well in warm weather, so I do not take him out in 60 plus weather. Even in temperature in the 50’s I keep an eye on him. I have learned to watch his tail like a fuel gauge. When the tail points skyward he is on a full tank so to speak. When the tail is dragging towards the ground he is running on empty. Do not make a dog run if he is lying down. Most likely you are done for the day and will be walking the rest of the way back.

Mountain biking with your dog
Rider: Eric Melzer Dog: Gabe Trail: Greenbush, WI
Dog boots can be a useful tool. I have found them to be pricey and they wear out very fast. They also tend to heat the dog up more since dogs cool off though their feet, so keep that in mind on warmer days. Yet dog boots can be useful for any trail dog that will be running though rock gardens and other tough terrain. In some cases dogs may have tender feet from not being outdoors enough. I would suggest that you try to keep your dog on smoother trails if possible. I also have had the problem of these boots popping off during riding sessions. The last thing you want is to back track though the trails looking for lost booties, so I have used sporting tape to keep them on the dog’s paws, much like a football player tapes up his cleats or a boxer tapes up his gloves. Most of these boots use Velcro straps that rip open on long rides. A light tape job that is not too tight will make sure the Velcro straps stay in place and stay on the paws. Just make sure the tape job does not hinder the movement of the leg of the dog by flexing the leg gently back and forth.

Preventive maintenance is also a must before you take to the trails. Make sure you look into flea/tick/heartworm medication by asking you veterinarian about options for each product available. A good tick shampoo after rides never hurts either.

In hunting season it’s not a bad idea to equip your dog in a blaze orange vest just to play it safe.

The most important tool your dog has is you. Make sure you are in control of your dog at all times, especially near roads and any traffic situation. Carry a leash at all times in order to keep the dog in control when problems arise. It is better to ride alone with your dog rather than with groups of riders. If you do end up with a group share your commands with them and try to keep to the back of the pack so the dog does not get in the other riders' ways. Also it is best to ride at non-peak hours of the trail. Early morning works best followed by late afternoon/early evening. Taking to the trails at these times will benefit you and your dog by keeping you away from other bikers and taking advantage of the cooler parts of the day.

Dogs can make great riding partners. Like the old quotes says, “The more people I meet the more I like my dog” and "Every dog must have his day”. Riding with man’s best friend can make your day.

Scott Melzer is an avid mountain biker living in Wisconsin who has spent many years riding his mountain bike while being chased by one of his furry friends. If you want to read more by Scott, be sure to check out his review of the Copper Harbor Trail System in the U.P. of Michigan


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