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How to train a trail dog

Top tips on getting your dog disciplined enough to handle any ride

Photo by: John Gibson Photography

By Molly Hurford

Picture this: you’re shredding some loamy singletrack on your mountain bike without a care in the world, sunlight streaming through the trees and man’s best friend – your pup – frolicking through the woods on your right-hand side. It doesn’t get much better than that, but it does take a fair bit of work before your trail dog is capable of sprinting along beside you, not bouncing away in the pursuit of yet another squirrel or mischievous chipmunk.

Here, three mountain bikers with adorable trail dogs, and one outdoors-loving dog trainer, share their top tips on getting your dog disciplined enough to handle any ride.

How to train a trail dog
Cedar the Trail Dog keeping close, right on that back wheel. Photo: Matt Stetson

Work on recall

“You should have your dog learning a proper recall in a low-distraction atmosphere, and then building up to being around high distractions to make sure your dog can stay focused,” says Jodie Hawker of Happy Paws Canine Solutions. “I start with a long leash on the trail, giving the dog some freedom but still controlling how far he can get. Once he’s 99.9 per cent good at responding to you with that, you can start with off-leash.” Hawker suggests that once you do start doing off-leash training, you’re calling the dog back every few minutes just for a check-in and a tasty reward for a job well done, just to get him used to coming when called.

“It’s super important to always be thrilled when your dog returns to you,” says Robin Kay, owner of a very active mix named Bruno. “Even if it takes 10 minutes for him to come back, act happy that he came back, because you want him to understand that coming back to you means good things happen.”

Put a bell on

“We use bear bells on their collars so everybody knows that they are on the trail because they’re fast and that can scare other people easily,” says Bonnie Campbell, owner of two exuberant German shorthaired pointers. “That way, when you’re riding, if you hear that the bear bell sounds are disappearing, you know to call them back, and you can pay more attention to watching the trail in front of you.”

You may want to use a beep/vibrate electric collar on your dog for safety, in case he stops listening to you calling him back, which is what national champion Emilly Johnston does with her deer-loving Dobermans. “Their prey drive is just really high, so we do have recall collars just in case they don’t come when they’re called. I feel like it’s safer for the dogs so that they don’t get lost, injured or too far away. We almost never have to use the collars, but it’s nice to know they’re an option in case of emergency.”

You can also turn that beep collar into a positive reinforcement tool rather than punishment, adds Hawker. “I would use only the beep function, which would cue your dog to return, and then give him a reward,” she says. “That way, it’s a positive experience rather than negative reinforcement.”

Start slow

Begin in an empty field. Start by working on recall while on foot, speeding up from a walk to a jog, and then gradually introduce the bike. “Start by walking with your bike at your side, so your dog can learn how to be beside you and not weave in front of you before you actually start pedalling next to him,” Hawker says. (When Campbell’s pups were little, she would even nudge them with the bike gently to teach them to not get too close.)

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And don’t start by taking your dog to the busiest trail in the woods on a weekend morning when everyone is out riding. “We’re mindful about when we take them on the trail,” Campbell says. “The dogs can get confused when there are other big groups of riders on the trail, so we tend to go when it’s less busy.” (Remember, you might love your puppy, but there are plenty of mountain bikers who are afraid of dogs. These riders may not know how to react when your dog comes wandering over and may even accidentally hit your dog if startled on a trail.)

how to train your trail dog
Even Cedar knows not to cut switchbacks. Photo: Matt Stetson

Find a friend

If you have a younger dog – not too young, since most dogs shouldn’t be running for long stretches of time until their joints are fully developed at around a year of age – look for a friend who has a mature, well-behaved trail dog. Then go out for some hikes or runs together so your pup can see how it’s done. (Kay’s dog Bruno has been a trail teacher for several young pups throughout the years, and has an excellent rate of success.)

Treat your dogs kindly

Like small children, a pup can’t always express what he wants or needs: it’s up to you to diagnose. Snowy days may leave a long-haired dog with balled-up snow clumped uncomfortably between his paw pads, or a burr might be digging into his armpit. He might be chilled from a cold rain or overheating in 20 C sunshine thanks to a heavy coat. Bring treats and water for him, plus any clothing he might need.

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Dex, waiting patiently on a break in Victoria, B.C.

Know your why

The training process takes patience, so remember why you’re doing it. “The need for these dogs to get out to run and exercise helped our kids fall in love with trail running and mountain biking,” Campbell says. “My husband and I used to race competitively, but I don’t want to race anymore. I just want to go out and really just love life, and that’s what these dogs have helped us do.”

This story originally appeared in the February & March 2021 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine