We’ve all seen it, and most of us envy it. The perfect four legged friend that follows right behind their pack leader (also known as human/master/mom/dad). Never straying from the designated trail, except to let other traffic pass, no time to concentrate on squirrels or interesting smells, but focused and happy to move their legs at top speeds. You can see all different breeds mastering trails, barreling through banked turns in fern covered forests, launching sandstone drops, and climbing wooden ladders through your local bike park. You might be lucky enough for your fido to have the herding instinct and want to follow you from day one, but most people aren’t quite so blessed. So, the question is, how do you train your perfect trail dog?
This year, BJ and I were lucky enough to adopt a new family member, Nova. She’s a wild thing, cute as a button, but not the brightest dog in our pack (cue the southern “Aww bless her heart” comments). We already owned a spectacular dog, Spock, who is an Australian Cattle Dog mix, and who happened to completely understand the trail the first time we let him loose, so we figured we’d just let her loose with him, what could go wrong, right?
A lot. A lot can go wrong with a high energy puppy in the wild, following every person, hiker or biker, or dog, we met on the way. Getting bored on water breaks, and running off. Sure, it could have been worse, but it could have been better too. Ultimately, I decided we needed to dial in a science of how to train our wiggly little puppy into the perfect, well behaved trail dog. And so we have it, the 10 steps to turn your hare-footed pup into a trail-god dog.
What you will need:
A bike, yourself, a dog, treats, extra water and a collapsable bowl (unless you’re cool with sharing from your hydration pack), disposable poop bags, and a lot of patience. In the first stages, it can help to start with an already worn out dog. I chose to take mine to the dog park for an hour or so before we started attempting trail days, after the first disaster.
1: The Basics
Start with leash training your dog on foot. Walk and run with him or her on bike paths until you think they’ve got it down, then you can switch things up to a bike. When moving to the bike, ride slowly with your dog on a short leash, keeping them up next to your handlebars. Keep yourself between your dog and traffic, if you’re riding on a road. Give the leash a quick tug anytime your dog seems to focus on any kind of distraction (cat, squirrel, fire hydrant, super fly lady dogs). As you ride, give your dog verbal commands that you’ll use on the trail, like Stop and go, or whatever else you think might be useful.
Remember to keep your dog’s limits in mind. A young dog’s bones are still growing, and fast, long distance runs can damage its growing joints and ligaments.
2: Following the Leader
Teaching your pup to follow, not lead. This can be easy on foot, you’re able to use your excited puppy voice, bribe with treats, and throw on a leash if needed. Most of those options are much more difficult, or not accessible when on a bike. One of the easiest, and most effective ways I’ve learned to do this is the following. Bribe a buddy with a couple of beers, and choose a single track trail somewhere with tight trees, bushes, or shrubs. Pick your leader, and your caboose, and throw your little pup in between you two. Make sure your leader is confident with throwing their bike around sideways quickly to block off the trail. Take things slowly, even if (or maybe especially if) you have a high energy dog that would love to just take off. What you’ll do here is pick random spots to turn off, take deer trails etc, and never allow your pup to pass the leader, or fall behind the follower. Whenever your pup tries to pass, stop in your tracks, and throw the bike sideways, so he or she has no choice but to stop between you and your buddy. Reward with a treat when your pup gets back in place. Practice this until you think they’re getting it, and then try switching to some double-track, where you can flip a quick U turn, and see if your pooch will follow. If not, get back on the single-track and keep practicing. This is best done somewhere without a dense population hitting up the trails, whether that be a far off trail in the middle of nowhere, or just your normal trail network during off hours (midweek around 10 am is a good time to do it).
3: Yielding to Other Riders and Traffic
Teaching your dog to get out of the way of other bikers or hikers can be difficult. This is another step that’s best when done with a buddy (Yeah, you might just want to give them a case of beer in advance).
To train your dog to understand that when oncoming traffic heads their way, its their job to move, start with it on leash on the trail. Have your buddy ride towards you and as the bike approaches, give your dog a command, “off” or “move” or whatever works best for you, and bring your dog off of the trail. Do this several times a day until your dog understands to get off the trail when its approaching another bike, and to get off the trail when you use your command.
Getting your dog to ignore wildlife. Some dogs automatically go into “trail mode” when let loose, Spock is this way, nothing matters to him but his feet on the dirt moving as fast as they can, other dogs instinctively want to check out absolutely everything they encounter.
If the latter sounds more like your dog, try taking them somewhere you know wildlife regularly is encountered. Use any command you like, and practice on leash before letting your dog off around deer and such. Give a solid tug and shout your command whenever their interest seems piqued by wildlife, until they don’t show any signs that they’re about to book it for a venison dinner.
5. Hydration & Preventing Overheating
It’s a given, your dog is working harder than you when you take it on a ride, especially on downhills. Since they cool down by panting, they lose a lot of water evaporating from their mouth, and need more water than you do per pound of body weight. A small dog might need half of the water you need, so a large dog is very likely to need as much or more water than you do. Keep that in mind when you’re packing up for the trail.
If you’re grossed out by dog mouth and don’t want to share straight from the hydration pack with your four legged friends, there are some great silicone collapsable water bowls for dogs that don’t take up much room in your bag.
As mentioned before, dogs use panting to cool down, as well as evaporation from their nose and foot pads. Basically what I’m saying is, they’re overheating almost always. Imagine if you were running 16-25 mph with a jacket on in the sun. Give your dog solid cool down brakes with lots of shade and lots of water.
6. Take care of their tootsies
A young pup has super soft foot pads (adorably so), and a dog after winter is going to have softer feet as well. Make sure you work up to the longer rides, and hotter days. They need to build callouses just like we do. If it’s too hot to walk on a trail barefoot for you, its too hot for your puppy. Once their trail feet are feeling good and hard, you can take them on warmer days.
That being said, there are some products to help out with heat tolerance, as well as protection from the elements. My favorite is one called Musher’s Secret. It was created for dogs who run the Ididarod. Musher’s Secret is a wax you rub on your dog’s feet right before a trail day. It can protect against high heat, cold, sand, and salt. It has saved my dogs from sore and tender feet after days of adventure.
7. The Emergency Word
You might not think you need one, and you may never need one, but when you do need one, you’ll regret it if you don’t have one. The code word for an emergency. Imagine yourself riding early morning with your dog, you’re booking it around a blind corner and you’re met square on with a bull moose who is very unhappy to see you. You can see the steam rising from its nostrils as it snorts at you and paws at the ground with it’s cloven feet. You know it’s about to charge. Your pup is with you (and is likely what scared the moose the most), and you need a word to yell so that it will come right with you wherever it is you go.
Our code word? Bangarang! Why? Because it’s a totally unusual word that doesn’t come up in daily conversation (unless you watch the movie Hook every day, I suppose).
How it works is pretty simple. Pick a strange word that doesn’t come up in day to day life. Use it randomly, sometimes a couple of times a day, sometimes once a week. Every time the word is used, reward your dog with lunch meat, or whatever their very favorite only super special occasion treat is. Overtime, the word becomes code for “follow me and you get lunchmeat.” And eventually, “follow me right now no matter what else is going on right this second.”
At best, your code word could save your dog’s life, at worst, you gave your dog a lot of lunchmeat and made it pretty damn stoked.
8. The Don’ts:
We’ll start with the don’ts, so we can end it on a positive note.
I know your dog will be moody, but there are absolutely days when you can not bring it with you on the trail. Most of these are pretty common sense, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people from doing them anyway, so here goes.
- Don’t take your dog on rides that take you on large busy roads.
- Don’t take your dog on rides along gnarly cliff sides (I’ve seen my dogs miscalculate and fall off of logs and trip over rocks when riding, I’m not about to let them do that along a cliff.)
- Don’t take your dog on trails dominated by horseback riders.
- Don’t overdo it, watch for signs of your dog getting tired, and head back then.
- Don’t take your dog when it’s way too hot out.
- Don’t leave their sh*t behind on the trail, ever (not only is it gross, it spreads disease and can damage your local watershed).
- Don’t assume every person sharing the trail with you likes dogs, or your dog.
9. The Do’s:
- Do take time to train your pooch before letting the hellhound loose on a trail.
- Do pay attention to what trails are off-leash dog friendly.
- Do take enough water.
- Do bring disposable poop bags.
- Do take breaks in the shade and swimming holes when it’s an option.
- Do ride with other friends with their dogs.
- Do communicate with other trail users and understand their level of comfort around your dog.
- Do praise your dog often, and give tasty treats.
- Do pay attention to your dog’s needs, heat, and condition of their feet.
- Do enjoy sharing beers with your buddy who helped you train your pup.
- Do have an awesome time with your new, most loyal trail companion.
10. Adventure Time
Congratulations! You should now have a trail savvy fuzz ball. Now the final step, hit those banked turns, enjoy your log drops, and climb the techiest ladders you can find with your super dialed in trail companion. You’ve got yourself a riding buddy for life.
Hope this can help a few of you out! Have any other trail training dog tips? Post them in the comments!
Martina hails from Salt Lake City, and is an adventure enthusiast. She grew up in Utah as a competitive Mogul, Big Mountain, and Half Pipe skier. In the winter you can find her bombing off cliffs on her skis all over the Wasatch Front, and in the summer, you may find her traversing the same mountains on her Yeti. She’s the owner of two amazing dogs, and is married to TMTBL Contributor BJ Platte.