THE BENEFITS OF A TRAIL DOG
It comes to my attention that I have now been accused on several separate occasions of having an obsession with my dog Mawli. Having given it some thought, I freely admit that they are right, she is my best friend and I love her to bits. Needy by nature, fortunately it is a mutual obsession. Mawli is my constant shadow, ever ready for the next adventure. In return I value her companionship above all others, her constant energy and verve for life can lift me from my darkest mood.
Dogs, I think, make the best trail companions, whether it is for trail running or mountain biking. In this post I will be mainly talking with mountain biking in mind but most rules transfer, its only the distance that is shorter (for most people!) I prefer past times where my dog can, for the most part, run free but also worth a mention are the sports of dryland mushing, bikejoring and canicross where the dog wears a special harness and pulls the runner/rider behind. These are also fun ways to tire your crazy friend.
Before you even step out the door a dogs presence in our life is a benefit, as they need exercise anyway no matter what the weather they give us a reason to always get out. As we lace up our trainers or mount our trusty steed their uncontained enthusiasm for the adventure ahead is infectious. I most appreciate this as I puff and pant my way up a long climb!
From a dogs point of view I’m yet to see or hear of a dog that doesn’t love this fast paced form of exercise. The speed of travel and changing terrain stimulates them mentally and physically as you share this great bonding activity of having fun together. The added benefit being as I’m sure others with high energy dogs will agree, it’s a great way to tire them out.
So here are a few pointers for training your trail dog.
Note. I am NOT a dog trainer these are pointers I have accumulated through research and personal experience. For expert advice I highly recommend contacting Nicki Binks who IS a qualified professional trainer.
All experts will agree however that you should not start any hard, long runs or rides until the dog is 1 year old and their growth plates are fused. It is also advisable at this stage to have your pet checked over by a vet to ensure there are no heart or joint problems that could be worsened by strenuous activity. This is also valid, possibly more so for the older dog where hip and elbow problems are more common. Whilst at the vets ask them to check the length of your dogs toenails and show you what length is appropriate. You will need to keep a close eye on this in future. Long nails cause the toe to bend upwards putting more pressure on the tendons, this in turn increases the risk of painful tendon injuries. If you feel confident enough to check and trim the nails yourself here is a useful video to help.
However there is no harm in getting a head start furthering your basic training from 6-8 months.By this I mean acclimatizing them to the sort of places you plan to ride such as forests, moorland and farmland. Spend time introducing them to farmstock and wildlife implementing the firm rule that they should NOT chase them so that they learn to keep their focus on you. Introduce short bursts of running so they become used to this too.
Begin slowly with short rides in familiar places where the terrain is easy for you so full concentration can be on them. Start with your dog on a lead keeping them next to your left pedal, use the heel command to keep them there. When he/she is happily staying there and appears calm around the bike let them off the lead.
A few simple voice commands are essential for the safety of dog, owner and any other innocent trail user! I would recommend using –
GO – When you want them to run ahead.
STOP/WAIT – This is an important command for them to stop immediately where they are. A real life saver when you unexpectedly meet a road, cattle grid or livestock
BEHIND/FOLLOW – As it sounds a command for them to follow behind your back wheel. Important for when the trail is narrow or fast downhill.
MOVE/OFF – Another vital safety command for them to get off the trail if you or an approaching rider needs to pass.
LEFT/RIGHT – with a little extra effort it can be useful to teach your dog left and right to avoid any miscommunications when turning. This can also be combined with off/move for extra control.
LEAVE IT – Just incase the temptation to chase gets a little bit much, or in the case of Mawli she sometimes thinks bringing that fallen tree branch along might be fun. Anywhere near my bike wheels I strongly disagree!
As with any form of training the main thing is to start small and build up slowly bearing in mind each dog is different.
There are a few things you must bear in mind for your dogs health and safety these are –
1 – Take enough water for you and your dog, remember unlike us they can’t sweat, they cool down by panting making for a thirsty dog. Consider that dogs with thicker coats will be more likely to overheat. If the forecast predicts hot weather think of their welfare first and either ride early or late in the day, if you can’t then leave them at home. Most dogs will happily drink from your hydration pack nozzle otherwise carry a small collapsible bowl. On hot days try to incorporate rivers, lakes or beaches where they can take a dip to cool down.
Leading the way as ever!
2 – Keep your dog in mind when planning your route. Avoid main roads completely and limit lane riding as concrete is much harder on their paws. The same with slate and gravel where they’re in danger of slitting their paws and steep downhills where the pressure is all on their front paws, unlike us they don’t have disc brakes! If these kind of terrains are unavoidable or on longer ride invest in a pot of Mushers secret. This is a pot of gel you rub on their paw pads which sets and provides a barrier providing a layer of protection. Ensure you check their paws on a regular basis throughout the ride no matter what the conditions. Incase of emergencies, especially on long rides, it pays to carry an emergency first aid kit containing the basics for dealing with things such as cut paws. If there are any cuts whatsoever head straight home, clean the paws thoroughly with anti bacterial wash and apply a good healing ointment. Do not allow the dog back out on the trails until the paw is completely healed. Cliff edges are similarly a bad idea no matter how sure footed you think they are, it only takes one mistake!
3 – Listen to your dog. Recognise when they are tired and dragging behind and stop to give them a break. At the very least slow down! Be aware that their top speed is not the same as yours on a fast grassy descent and leaving them miles behind is not fair! Note to yourself what distances they are managing and plan the ride accordingly. Bear in mind your average speed throughout the ride will make a big difference to them.
One last thing,when anywhere near traffic no matter how well behaved your dog is put them on a lead.
The eternal debate is which breed makes the best trail dog, I of course will be massively biased and say it has to be the Border Collie. As they are bred to follow, have great endurance, huge levels of focus and loyalty, I feel I have a fair point. However there are of course many other favourites out there. The top in my searches were Spaniels, Pointers, Vizsla, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lurchers, Huskies or any combination of the above. Notably all working dogs bred for athleticism and endurance. Of course 90% of dogs can be a trail dog it just may mean adjusting your speed and distance covered to suit there physical capabilities. I would ALWAYS recommend looking to rescue if at all possible.
Again, Mummy why are we stationery?
Last of all don’t forget to praise them, especially in the beginning when its all new. Reward good behaviour and don’t get angry if they occasionally get in the way, it’s bound to happen. Nothing beats cruising along your favourite trail with your best buddy next to you sharing the adventure together. Happy trail times people.