Dog Tired – Part Two: The Controls

So you’re riding with your dog, awesome! But, before you hit the trails, make sure you’re both ready for anything that might happen. Most trails will involve other bikers and hikers, and you may also run into horses. Not to mention, of course, other dogs and whatever wildlife is prevalent wherever you’re riding. Below, I’ve given a list of the most important commands to have (in my opinion, at least) before you take your dog out on the trails. When I take Ziggy with me, I’m usually in (relatively) remote areas of wilderness, so I’ve been working under the assumption that if anything goes wrong it will be better for both of us if he’s not on a leash. As such, this list is definitely geared towards the style of riding that has you out on empty singletrack, and it might not be the best for shared pathways or groomed downhill runs.

Ready to go! He doesn’t much care whether we go left or right, as long as he gets to run!

Come: Everyone should be able to see the importance of your dog having a strong recall. It doesn’t matter whether they’re running ahead to check out another biker, falling behind trying to pee on something, or bolting off after wildlife – eventually, you’re going to run into a situation where you’ll need your dog to get back to you, quick.

Heel: Particularly useful if you’re on a busier trail, or somewhere that you don’t want your dog anywhere other than the trail. I tend to aim for trails and times that don’t see a lot of people, so the majority of my dog’s heeling is to keep him out of things like yards, golf courses, nasty slimy lakes, and away from places that might be dangerous (holes/cliffs/snakes/etc). I’ve been working primarily with his basic heel, where his head is about even with my bottom bracket on my left side, though we have begun to venture into drive-side heels for particular sections of the trail.

A strong heel is super useful in situations like this, where just over the crest of the hill an active logging operation is happening.

We’ve also been working on “front” and “back” – “front” is usually what I use if I’m passing people that have pulled over on a singletrack trail, because if he’s behind me he usually lags to say hi/sniff everyone. “Back” is a bit harder to train (hours and hours of riding one-handed, dangling a treat behind me and trying to convince him not to pass as soon as he’s eaten it), but well worth the effort. Dusty trails and technical descents usually see me using this command, though I have used it before while passing other riders in wider sections.

Wait: It doesn’t necessarily have to be “wait” – sit, lie down, stay, etc all work just as well. The important thing is that you have a reliable command that will make your dog stop until you tell them to start going. I typically use this when I have Ziggy running ahead of me and we meet other people coming the opposite direction – having the ability to make your dog sit down and stay when he’s 20 feet away from you is infinitely easier for everyone involved than having them run back to you (in front of the other riders) and squeezing into whatever area you’ve gone into.

Directions: Teaching your dog directional cues is, to be frank, really damned hard. We’ve been working every day since I brought him home (about 10 months total) on “left” and “right”, and have only made a miniscule amount of progress (progress which may actually just be confirmation bias on my part, it’s hard to tell sometimes). Easier things to teach are the concepts of “uphill” and “downhill”, as long as you have the time and trails. We spent a good 45 minutes at a T-Junction on our local trails, where one way goes up and the other goes down, doing loops again and again. Not a ton of fun, but if your dog can tell them apart it’s much easier to control them on the fly.
The other very important directional command I use is “this way!” It’s pretty self-explanatory, it just means that whatever direction they’re going is wrong, and he needs to get back to me. I trained this by purposefully taking different forks than he did while hiking, and using his natural “oh crap where’s my pack?!” instinct to reinforce the meaning.

When you’re coming in from the side, being able to tell your dog “Up” or “Down” is incredibly useful.

Depending on your dog, quite a bit of these may be superfluous. If my dog had the attention span to hang out right off my back wheel the whole time, I doubt I’d even think about using other commands with him. As it stands, though, he’s the sort of guy that needs to be sniffing things while also galloping along at ~30km/h. Having your dog with you on the trails is great, but being able to ride without a leash (keep one on you, just in case) *and* allow your dog to be fairly free-running with only occasional directions is absolutely incredible. Go ahead, try it out if you haven’t already! 

If there’s anything you use that you think should be added to this list, let me know! If you’re looking for some training tips, shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help!

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