Dog On Trail
Mountain bike ownership and dog ownership seem to go hand in hand. Add in a good truck and you've got a combination made in heaven. Add in good beers and, well, I digress. I love taking my dog with me on the trail. Hearing her fly along behind me, stretch out her legs, smell the air and be in nature makes me feel like she's doing all things that a dog is supposed to do. I know how much a day spent riding in the mountains benefits my state of mind, and I can't help but imagine that its the same for her. I've always been of the mind that a tired dog is a good dog, and to counter her hours spent cooped up in the house while I'm at work, I feel like its my duty to provide her with frequent and exciting excursions in the great outdoors.The subject of dogs on the trail is not a new one, but it has popped back up in online media recently. GoPro videos abound of aussies, labs and mutts racing down singletrack, doggy grins a mile wide. There's discussions about the downsides as well. A recent post on Pinkbike discusses some potentially negative consequences of dogs on the trail, and an informal poll at the end shows that around 8% of respondents have crashed due to a dog on a trail. So how to find a balance? How do you enjoy bringing your (or your friends) four legged buddy along while still ensuring the safety of yourself, other trail users, and the dog?
Dog Safety This is the easiest aspect to overlook. Dogs are designed to run on trails, right? Why make special considerations for my rough and tumble trail dog? First of all, a dog is just like any other athlete. They need to be trained into shape. Start with shorter distances and less technical terrain. Take breaks during the ride to give your dog water and check his paws for abrasions and cuts. Look in between the toes for rocks or seeds that can become embedded between the pads and cause discomfort and injury. While not all dogs take to them, boots may be beneficial for dogs with sensitive paws or for covering rocky terrain. Be aware of weather conditions. Dogs cool themselves by panting and have different considerations in heat than we do. Vests and coats are a good option for both cooling off and heating up. With any vest, coat or boot, check the fit regularly to make sure its not rubbing or binding anywhere, especially around the shoulders and armpits. Remember that your dog can't tell you if he's hurting, and many dogs will push through pain that should be mitigated.
Rider Safety Rider safety means not just you and your immediate party, but all potential trail users. This is where training and etiquette come into play. When I first started riding with Gus, she had a bad habit of trying to push around me and run in front. She would run until she caught a whiff of something interesting, then stop dead on the trail to investigate. The sudden braking I had to do to avoid her was dangerous for not only she and I, but for anybody ripping down the trail behind me. Since then, I've worked extensively with her so that she stays behind me, and as a nod to etiquette, I always take last wheel so that nobody else in my group has to worry about her. My friends love to have her along, but she's my dog and ultimately my responsibility.
There's other training considerations as well, such as making sure your dog is well socialized and friendly with people, other dogs and small children. An excited dog may act completely differently than a dog in the house. And remember, you may think your dog is the coolest thing since sliced bread, but not everybody does, or wants anything to do with him at all. I met a guy on the trail last week who was training his 7 month old Vizsla to run back to him and sit down whenever they met another biker, runner or hiker. How polite! Even if your training doesn't get taken that far, keeping your dog from running up to, or jumping on strangers can go a long way in keeping dogs in the good graces of the trail using public. And don't forget to always scoop poop and pack it out. Nobody, dog friendly or not, wants to deal with a turd, or bag of turds, on the trail.
When it comes to sharing the woods, communication is key, just like everything else. Ask your friends if its alright to bring a dog along. Warn other trail users that you have a dog. Tell them he's friendly. If they have a dog as well, make sure that dog is friendly. As a general rule, if you see a dog on a leash, its a good idea to leash yours as well until you find out if the dog is aggressive or not. Finally, there are times to bring Fido, and times to leave him home. It may break his doggy heart, but some situations mean making the call to go without him.
At the end of the day, the best trails are the ones shared with good companions. My stoke is always doubled by having Gus along. Good judgement, good training, and good etiquette help ensure its a positive experience for everybody else as well.