How to Train Your Dog to Mountain Bike
The following post reflects mere suggestions based off of what has worked for us. I strongly encourage you to assess these methods and implement them based on the abilities of your own dog - do not hold them to the same expectations as you will read about. Happy Trails!
. . .
My favorite comment about this topic is: “you taught your dog to ride a bike?” which is 100% of the time the most sarcastic one I get. Rightfully so haha. But in all seriousness, if you are a mountain biker and you’re either looking to adopt a new trail buddy or train your current one, there’s definitely some hard work coming your way.
Start Young - if you are raising a puppy, there is a proper time frame to start introducing your dog to the trails and your bike; start really small and slow aka don’t expect them to like your bike. For the most part, this is an entirely new thing for them and it’s often times a little frightening. Spend some time in your home or yard (or whatever you have available to you) to let your dog sniff and explore your bike without you on it yet. Show them the pedals and how when they move they make a certain sound, change your gears, let them see the tires move. When you’re ready, take it outside so you can ride it around and let them figure out what in the actual hell you’re doing off of your feet. When I first trained Zuke, this moment scared him, as it did for Nezra, simply because they have no understanding of it. Use positive reinforcement and your light, fluffy voice to encourage them to hang out around you while on the bike. Next, try to do some tiny “laps” around the front of your house, start encouraging them to follow you on your bike and reward them when they come!
Start Soon - this is the other option for those who a) adopt an older dog aka one that is not under a year old or b) you just started biking and your buddy has been with you prior to the new lifestyle change. The sooner you start, the faster they get comfortable with the idea of it all, and the sooner you get to jump on trail with them. Where you’re really training will happen is on trail, getting them to follow you and not wander off or get distracted by the squirrels taunting them from the tree tops.
** NOT ALL DOGS ARE DESIGNED TO RUN THE WAY THEY NEED TO RUN WHEN YOU’RE MOUNTAIN BIKING; IF YOU THINK YOUR DOG ISN’T CAPABLE OF THIS TYPE OF ACTIVITY, DO NOT FORCE THEM TO DO IT. IF YOU WITNESS THEM HAVING A HARD TIME WITH IT, STOP TAKING THEM WITH YOU/CHOOSE BETTER SUITED RIDES FOR THEM **
On Trail: Early Stage - Suss out some trails in the area that are dog friendly and do not go over 2 miles in total; if training a puppy, start around the age of 7 months when bringing them on trail, and keep it well under 1 mile. This is going to be a new, exciting, and nerve racking experience for you and them so make sure to keep a leash on you, treats for reinforcement, and water. Take them on a trail that feels like a trail, not necessarily a paved path but more dirt oriented - side note on paved paths: do not take your dogs on these trails when the outside temp is higher than 70 degrees as it will put them at risk for burning their paw pads - so that you can start to familiarize them with the many distractions that they will face while outside, off-leash, and following your bike. Keep your speed s l o w, take breaks often (great time for positive reinforcement here!) and talk to them while you ride. Do not fear bumping into them: it will probably occur a few times before they realize that they do not want to be in front of your tire. You should be biking slow enough to monitor where they are placing themselves and therefore should be able to correct it on the spot. When beginning a trail, depending on how you’d like to bike with your dog, command them to place themselves behind your rear tire to reinforce where they should be at all times, especially riding downhill. If you get going and they somehow escape to the front, stop and reset. Finally, choose a command that you want them to register in a split second: for us, we use the command “OVER” which to our dogs means to get off-trail ASAP, whether it’s because they are in front of us or there is an oncoming biker.
On Trail: Furreal - Once you feel comfortable enough to take your dog on trail with you, by all means, go for it! My suggestion, an owner of a border collie who has also raised a heeler/kelpie mix for mountain biking, is that you keep your mileage low to start with, so that you have a better understanding of what they are capable of/comfortable with. Something to also note is that your dog’s ability to keep up with you will change drastically by the time they are roughly two years old - I’m telling you, you will notice how much faster and more precise they get as they get older. Zuke was able to keep up in his first year and half but as he is now two years old and entering his second mountain bike season, we are pretty pleasantly shocked by his ability to trail us with accuracy and speed. Always remember to take breaks, more often than you would when riding with just some friends, because 10/10 you are able to bike downhill faster than they are able to run, even if they are keeping up. You’re basically at 100% and they are giving 120% to keep up.
Some Other Stuff To Know - I have trained two dogs now, one was a heeler/kelpie mix and the other is a border collie/aussie mix, which both were purposefully picked out from the shelter for the very reason of them becoming trail dogs. Nezra, our heeler mix, is in the midst of joining the pack at 7 months old and proving to have a natural talent at it. One of the scariest moments with my first dog was that she would not drink water on trail - she was an all-black dog and she could RUN, so naturally I was really worried about overheating her. There are warning signs that you need to look out for that you will need to take very seriously and immediately come off-trail for…please review these signs before taking them on trail: https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/cardiovascular/c_dg_heat_stroke
The other side to me stressing about her water consumption is that some dogs just don’t need/want to drink in the middle of their activity. Zuke was another case of this whereas Nezra is a water guzzler - she is always down for a little drink and Zuke acts like we are trying to feed him broccoli (which he also hates). Fear not: your dog isn’t being ignorant or stubborn, they just know their body better than you do. Always offer them water but don’t panic if they aren’t interested in it. If you get really worried about it, like I do, just choose your trails wisely aka ones with fresh water flow somewhere along the way or at the end point. 10/10 Zuke will not drink on trail but he will always go for a fresh stream or body of water to drink/cool off in.
One thing that I’ve always liked to do is wear all black which really honestly sucks most of the time, especially in Utah heat. So why do it do it? On average, a black coated dog will run anywhere from 7 to 10 degrees hotter than you, so for me, it gives me the understanding that if I, dressed in all black, am overheating, that he is probably most definitely not feeling so great.
Lastly, I don’t take the dogs on every ride with me. Even with Zuke being a border collie mix, overrunning him could cause some serious harm to his body in his later years. While he will attend most rides, his cap is at around 12 miles and that’s not at a full paced run for him/usually involves a lot of stopping. I will usually avoid bringing him along if we are riding before the cooler hours of the day too. Nezra is capped right now at 2 miles of slow to moderately paced trails and we usually bike behind her so that she can set the pace. My partner and I will switch off for loop rides so that she gets one loop in and then hangs out around our meeting point. And finally: shoutout to all of the dog parents who understand and respect that their breed of dog is not suited for activities like this. You guys absolutely rock for being good dog parents and your pup will thank you in their later years when they are still able to walk/run freely without joint pain or damage.
Woof! It’s your turn! Comment below with what has worked best for you and your buddy / ask any questions you still have!