They’re the subject of videos and photos all over the internet. Bounding down the trail, tails wagging, tongues and ears flapping—not a care in the world. I’m talking about a mountain bike trail dog and they’ve worked their way into mountain bike culture, becoming favourites on social media and at trailheads alike. And it’s no wonder. Dogs and humans have a special relationship. We’ve relied on dogs for thousands of years to help us hunt, haul supplies, and everything in between.
They’re called our best friend for a reason, and that notion applies to mountain biking as much as any other job or activity.
They’re called our best friend for a reason, and that notion applies to mountain biking as much as any other job or activity. They might not be able to push you up a climb or carry a hydration pack, but they can help mountain bikers in a number of other ways; they make great companions if you spend time riding alone. They’re willing to get you out of bed in the morning to go for a ride when you’re feeling lazy and unmotivated. Best of all, they’re happy with whatever ride you pick!
What we learned
These are just some of the reasons my wife Heather and I decided it was time for us to get a mountain bike trail dog! We started with some basic research and two things became clear right away:
- We wanted to be sure to choose the right breed for us.
- If we decided to get a puppy we would have to be patient as proper obedience training would be important and it can be detrimental to run a dog over long distances until they are fully grown.
These are important points to think about in the lead up to bringing home a trail dog, or a future trail dog in the case of a puppy. I’ll elaborate on how we approached these issues and why they are important to us.
Tall and skinny wins the race!
Choosing the right type of dog was important to us because we want them to love their time on the trail as much as we do. After a bit of research, it became clear that, in general, tall thin dogs make the best trail dogs. This body type usually means a dog will be fast, but more importantly, tall thin dogs tend to have good endurance.
This is a good rule of thumb, but I should point out that this isn’t always the case. For example, some tall thin dogs such as greyhounds can run very fast, but are bred for speed, not endurance. They can easily blow themselves up early in a ride by going too hard out of the gate.
The subject of which breeds make great trail dogs has been covered in detail elsewhere and so I won’t go into it here. Two articles I found particularly helpful in researching the best trail dog breeds were:
“Five Great Trail Dog Breeds” from bicycling.com.
As the title suggests, this article outlines five of the top breeds of trail dog (according to the author) and is mountain bike specific. The list is by no means exhaustive but it is a good starting point. In addition to listing breeds, it also outlines some traits commonly found in good mountain bike trail dogs.
“How To Pick Your Trail Dog” from singletracks.com.
Again, the title is fairly self-explanatory. and while many of the breeds in these two articles overlap, this one introduces a couple of breeds not noted in the bicycling.com article.
Our ultimate trail dog
Choosing a breed of trail dog is personal and everyone will have different ideas about what is best for them. Following our research, Heather and I chose a lab/pointer cross. For us, this seemed to be the best mix of breeds. The dog would have a pointer’s endurance and a lab’s easy-going and loyal demeanor. A lab’s willingness to please, coupled with its interest in food means that it should also be highly trainable. Training is important because a good trail dog needs to be well behaved, not be easily distracted, and have excellent recall. Nobody wants to have to stop and call their dog every five minutes during a ride.
Behavioural traits and physical ability weren’t the only reasons we picked a mixed breed dog. We also went with a mixed breed because they are less inclined to inherit genetic issues than pure-bred dogs. An example would be hip dysplasia, which is a known issue in purebred labs and some other large breed dogs.
Say hello to Roxy!
As luck would have it, we didn’t have to search very long to find our lab/pointer cross. Someone had a litter of these puppies near where we live, so we rushed over and quickly bonded with one of the siblings. We brought her home that day. Her name is Roxy and she has a little more lab in her than pointer. At the time of this writing, she is about four months old and we have had her for a few weeks. Because she is so young, it will be some time before she is ready to become a full-fledged trail dog.
Roxy is now part of our family and whether she becomes a trail dog or not (she might hate it, but probably not) she will be a big part of our lives for many years to come. Even in the short time we’ve had her, she’s added a lot to our lives. She’s always happy to see us and her energy is infectious. Having a dog with so much energy can also be a big commitment! Although cute, puppies are no joke. Keeping them amused and out of trouble is time-consuming, but we know it will be well worth the effort.
There is no quick and easy path from puppy to trail dog. It will take a lot of work and patience from Roxy and Heather and I, before she’s ready to hit the trails. Two of the most important things when it comes to getting a dog ready to be a trail dog are age and training.
Don’t rush it
When dogs are young, they aren’t fully developed yet. Their bones are still growing and their joints can’t take the strain of endurance running. Depending on the breed and size, it can take anywhere from eight to 18 months for a dog to physically mature to the point where it will be able to handle long runs.
If they run too much and for too long as a puppy, dogs can develop bone and joint problems later in life. Of course, this isn’t a sure thing. I’m sure a lot of people out there start running their dog at a young age and they lead normal, healthy lives. We aren’t willing to risk it. Our vet recommended we wait until Roxy is about a year old before taking her on extended rides/runs. And even at that age, she will need to build up her endurance over time.
A year seems like a long time to wait for a dog to be ready to hit the mountain bike trails, and it is. Your dog may not be able to go on rides with you for the entire first season you have them. But this is where patience comes in. And in the meantime, there is a lot of work to do to get your dog ready for the trails.
Training is key
Over the years, mountain biking has been gaining steadily in popularity. There are endless places to travel to mountain bike and so many trails and events. No single person could ever ride or attend them all in their lifetime. But as mountain bikers, we want to do and see as much as we can. I, for one, want my trail dog to be there with me as much of the time as possible. And this is unlikely to happen if they aren’t well trained.
We want Roxy to be as well trained as possible so she can go with us on any trail, to any trailhead or mountain bike event, and even to dog-friendly patios and breweries. So while we wait for her to mature, we will be starting obedience training. That way, when she’s physically ready to hit the trails, she will be mentally ready as well.
Of course, each dog is different and the amount of training they will need is different as well. My philosophy is that it can’t hurt, so why not do the obedience work now so Heather and Roxy and I can have the best possible experience wherever we go. After all, the more comfortable we all are in our surroundings, the more fun we’ll have. I don’t want to be out on a trail far from home, worrying about whether or not my dog will come back to me. And likewise, I don’t want to be at an event worrying that she is anxious or may misbehave.
Roxy, Heather and I are just at the beginning of our life together and we are looking forward to all of the adventures that are in store for us. We have a lot to teach and learn about each other. Having a mountain bike trail dog is a big responsibility, but it will also come with great rewards. I’ll be documenting many of our adventures, trials and tribulations on this blog under the heading “The Trail Dog Chronicles”. Stay tuned to see where we go from here!
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