TCI Friday – Trail Dog Edition

Trail dogs are so cool. I binge-watch amateur trail dog videos almost as much as Belgian Malinois takedowns. Maybe I need to get out on my bike more. I’ve wanted to write about trail dogs for years, but only dusted off the idea when someone else wrote about them first. And then someone else made a tribute film about them. So instead of wasting your time extolling the well-established cool of riding with canine athletes, I’d like to talk about some of the challenges both owners and pets might encounter and open the conversation for some solutions. 

Introductions first. My trail dog is Finn–now 13. He’s the guy who got me into mountain biking. Walking with him after work didn’t take the edge off the energy he had. I needed a way to get him tired faster. A friend suggested mountain biking and invited me to come see how she rode with her dog, a beautiful black shepherd named Andre. I left Finn at home. 

I quickly saw that Andre took his job as flank guard seriously. He looked focused and fulfilled, like running next to his owner’s bike was his highest honor and duty. My friend looked super cool out there too, shredding with a black wolf keeping pace alongside. If I had nefarious intentions toward a woman alone in the forest, I’d think twice if a dangerous athlete like Andre pointed his bite force in my direction. 

At the end of the ride, I knew this was a way of life I wanted with my dog: a great workout for both of us, an extra measure of security in the woods, plus the cool factor. Nice dream, but my dalmatian-mix pound puppy didn’t have any ‘cool factor.’ He didn’t look tough; he looked kissable. So much for a deterrent. But Finn and I had found our sport.

Finn retired at age ten, but we had a remarkable career guiding bikes through the woods. I don’t have the cred to tell anyone how to create a perfect trail dog; I’ve only trained one mutt using a book I bought at a garage sale. But here are a few things I learned. 
1) Train a dog young, but don’t push the miles early. Our vet says most breeds are still considered puppies until they’re two, so even though puppies are hyper, wait till they’re done growing for regular all-out running. Ease them into the sport. Keep it short and fun. 
2) Off-leash dogs–especially those powering through narrow trails at speed–need to obey immediately. First time, every time. We can’t assume that every other trail user loves our dogs as much as we do, and letting our dogs run after wildlife is dangerous bad manners. “First time, every time” seemed impossible when we were long-line training in neighborhood vacant lots. But training works–stick with it! Responding “yes” to us needs to be a habit deeper than our dog’s prey drive or curiosity. We both can enjoy more freedom if we can trust them to obey. 
3) Consider the mileage. Serious exercise is good for our bodies, but we’re prone to repetitive strain and wear, especially as we age. Dogs aren’t exempt from this. My dad–master of story problems–calculated that Finn, then eight, had run over 10,000 miles with bikes, and that’s not factoring side explorations or impatient circles waiting for me to catch my breath. That’s a 12-mile run three times a week for six years. 

Finn turned ten with no signs of slowing down. Then in the summer of 2019 he blew out a cruciate ligament. That injury shows my naivete: I hadn’t thought about the possibility of accumulated stress. He seemed invincible, happy on the trails. Most days, I couldn’t outride him. Suddenly, he required major knee surgery, or he’d never use that leg again. The sport he lived for, the sport we’d learned together, had worn him out. In retrospect, I should have dialed it back, cutting speed or distance but keeping him active. His surgery was successful and he’s doing well, but it might have been avoided.My limited experience is why I’d love to hear from you. This week’s TCI Friday asks, if you’ve trained trail dogs, what worked and what didn’t? What should other mountain bikers consider? If you don’t ride with a dog, what do you wish we dog-owners understood?

Bonus: Forget “SIT!” Finn’s best dog tricks for MTB:

  1. Drinking from a hydration pack without licking the valve. No dog germs. No extra bottles or bowls. 
  2. Understanding right/left. Surprisingly easy to teach. If your dog’s leading and the trail divides, call the direction and they won’t have to break stride. 
  3. Off-campus crapping. He taught himself this genteel skill. I bring baggies, but he’s super sneaky. Most of the time I can’t find it. Is he burying it? Who knows these things? 

Join the conversation
  1. jlaudolff says

    Wow what a relationship you have created with your dog! Congrats!

  2. chris says

    I miss Finn!! Give him a head pat and call him a good boy for me!

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