Friday, November 15, 2019

How to Train a Mountain Bike Trail Dog!

I’ve been biking with my dog, Presta, for almost a year now. She goes with me on most of my bike trips, and there’s not much we don’t do together. One of the most frequent questions I get is if I have any advice on training a dog to be a great trail dog. The answer is, of course, YES! But it comes with a grain of salt (or five hundred) – every dog is unique, and I am not a certified dog trainer. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I have talked to a lot of people about what they’ve done, and I’ve ridden with lots of dogs, both well-behaved, and some not so much. Here’s what I’ve learned over this journey with both Presta and my previous dog, Tuki, below.

Warning, there’s a lot of information, but I wanted to make sure this was as comprehensive as possible. I’ve learned so much and I’m happy to share as I believe the more information, the better prepared you are to handle all scenarios.

A snowy fat bike ride at Levis Mounds in Wisconsin


A casual ride at our local trails in Dubuque, Iowa

My Story

I adopted Tuki when I was 18 and she was 2½-years old. Tuki was a Border Collie crossed with an Australian Cattle Dog. She had been an outdoor dog previously but her owners surrendered her because she kept escaping their yard to visit the neighbors. Tuki and I went on countless adventures all over the US, and I learned a lot from having her by my side. I hadn’t picked up mountain biking yet, so Tuki and I predominantly did longboarding, trail running, hiking, and backpacking together.

I made many mistakes with her, including pushing her too far too fast, as well as taking her out when it was too hot for her paws. On the bright side, those mistakes were a great learning opportunity so I could avoid them in the future. Tuki was a very trainable, loyal, and devoted dog. I hardly did any work to teach her stick by me off-leash. Unfortunately, her body started giving out on her around 10 years of age, and she crossed the rainbow bridge in April of 2018 at 12 years of age.

A few months later, I adopted Presta in October of 2018. Presta’s breed is unknown, but the best guess based on her physical features and personality is she’s an Australian Cattle Dog crossed with some sort of terrier, potentially a Jack Russel Terrier. When I adopted Presta, she was 7-months old and had been in 3 homes, 2 foster homes, and two different animal shelters. For such a chaotic life, she was a very happy, sweet, and loving puppy, but also very stubborn, energetic, and a bit wild at times, which is likely why so many families had decided she wasn’t a good fit for them. Training Presta was an extreme challenge when compared to Tuki, as she isn’t food motivated, has a high prey drive, and was also still very much in her prime puppyhood when I adopted her.

My intention when adopting Presta was to train her to be a mountain bike trail dog, so her energy was an attribute for me where it was a challenge for others. Tuki was always willing to go on adventures to be near me, but wasn’t ever really interested in running on her own. Presta, on the other hand, gets zoomies every time you let her outside and never seems to tire out.

Having trained both of these dogs with such different personalities and energy levels has helped me gain a deeper insight into how many different variables there are when training a dog. Some may take to it quickly, and others might require more work, but the result is the same: an awesome, enthusiastic companion for all of your adventures.

Is your dog a good candidate?

One of the first considerations in training a great trail dog is making sure your dog is a good candidate for it. There are a few factors to consider, and while I’ll offer my take, it is by no means a hard and fast decision. You know your dog best, so it will be up to you to make sure your dog is well-suited for becoming a trail dog.

Temperament is the primary factor in whether your dog will not only make a good trail dog, but also enjoy being one. There are some dogs who don’t like running, and there are others who get lost easily or scared in the woods. Other factors are prey drive, and independence. If your dog has a high prey drive and you are unsuccessful training them abandon the chase when called, then it’s for their safety that you find an alternative activity for you both to enjoy. Same with dogs that are overly independent and prone to being willful when challenged. Ensuring your dog will stick with you and listen to commands off-leash is complete responsibility of the owner.

An additional factor to consider is if your dog shows any aggression towards unknown humans or dogs. Any dog that shows aggression towards strange humans or dogs is not a good candidate for a trail dog. Running off-leash is a privilege that must be earned, and it is your responsibility as an owner to ensure that other humans and dogs are safe from your dog.

Trainability and energy level are traits that can be somewhat determined by the breed of your dog. If you are going to a breeder, I highly recommend talking with the breeder of your intention to train the dog to be a trail dog and see what they say about the potential suitability of the puppy. If you are rescuing, which is how I got both Presta and Tuki, you can talk to volunteers to gauge the personality of an individual dog before adopting. When I adopted Presta, I was very nervous about her small size, at a tiny 20lbs, but after discussing my intentions with the foster family, we knew she’d be a great fit as she had a high energy level and loved to be outside and run.

The last thing I want to mention as a precaution is health. There are certain breeds, like Labradors, that are known for hip dysplasia or other injuries that make running many miles harmful to the dog. By no means am I saying a Labrador can’t be a great trail dog; it is just very important that you are aware of any potential health problems of your dog and make sure to cater to what’s healthy for them, rather than your own fitness. Your vet is the best place to go for more information on potential health problems and how much might be too much for your particular dog. Your vet will also be able to tell you when your dog is old enough to start training for longer distances – this is very important to follow, as if you start training your dog too early before their joints are fully developed, you can do long-term, permanent damage that will prevent your dog from running with you.

One of Presta's first bike rides

Professional training and training tools

I cannot stress the importance of group obedience classes enough. You can do all the work on your own at home, but it does not provide the same chaos and distractions as a group class will, as well as giving you an instructor to help you navigate any obstacles in your training. Try to get your dog into a group obedience class as young as you possibly can, as it provides the best environment to start teaching your dog to listen to you even around other dogs or strangers.

In addition to group obedience classes, I would encourage anyone to consider professional training. I trained Presta on my own for the first 6 months before taking her to a local dog trainer. We had a very unfortunate incident where she didn’t recall in a very dangerous situation, and that prompted me to look into professional training.

While I believe anyone can train their dog to be great off-leash, the majority of us are short on time already, and professional training is a great alternative to ensure your dog is well-trained and will be safe in all scenarios. Professional trainers are also much more knowledgeable and competent than most dog owners. This won’t magically teach your dog to be a great trail dog, but it will lay a solid foundation for you to build on. I found professional training to be well worth the investment and have no regrets.

The last item I want to mention is a fairly controversial topic: e-collars. The trainers I took Presta to trained her on an e-collar and I use it on all of our excursions now. There are a lot of people who will say very negative things about them, but for me it’s a necessity for the safety of my dog. I know without a doubt that she will listen to me if there’s an emergency. There are many times when I have Presta off leash with her e-collar on and don’t ever use it, but I feel a lot more comfortable letting her off-leash in my backyard next to a busy street knowing I will be able to stop her the moment she gets too far. It has not negatively impacted our relationship in any manner; in fact, I believe the training has strengthened our bond, as I am able to give her freedom that I was too nervous to give previously.

E-collars are not for every owner, nor for every dog, but I wanted to bring awareness to this tool as I believe it increases safety for your pet when you can reinforce boundaries off-leash. Please consult a professional trainer if you are new to e-collars as the trainers will help you understand them better than I ever could in a blog post. I would also recommend checking out Robin MacFarlane’s dog training videos – she is a widely respected professional dog trainer who uses e-collars. She has an extensive training video collection that can be a further resource for helping you not only train your dog with or without an e-collar, but also build a great bond with them. 

Presta sporting her e-collar at Placitas Trails in New Mexico


Rewards are the first step in any training! If your dog is food motivated, this is easy-peasy for you. Make sure to always have a ton of treats on hand, and consider clicker training to help reinforce which behaviors are getting rewarded.

The reason I felt a need to include a section on rewards is Presta couldn’t care less about treats when we’re outside. Even using treats for training inside was less than ideal. It took me a long time to realize that squeaky balls were the best reward for her, so now I carry one with me on all my rides, and some of my runs. If your dog loves squeaky toys, consider finding a small one to carry when working on off-leash recall. There’s a fine line to using it as a crutch to consistently get your dog to come back and using it as a reward, but a good rule of thumb is if you need to squeak the toy to get a behavior from them, they don’t get the toy. If they behave without being bribed, then they get the toy for a short duration, 30 seconds to a minute. I still mix this in with treats for rewards as well, but by incorporating the toy into training, I’ve gotten much better engagement.

Other dogs love tug, and there are great toys to look at trying as a reward, like Ruffwear’s huck-a-cone. Figure out what your dog loves the most, and then make sure you’re only using it as a reward for training, rather than open play. This means picking the toy up when training is over! This way your dog learns to associate good behavior with their favorite activities, as well as with you.

Leash training

Most people want to skip proper leash training and go straight to off-leash training, but if you can’t control your dog when they’re tethered to you, there’s no way you’re going to have control when they can do whatever they want. The first three months I had Presta were dedicated to walks and trail runs on leash, working on loose leash walking and heeling. Trail running is a great way to get your dog used to taking your lead on pacing, as well as build the foundations of trail etiquette.

One pivotal thing to remember when training loose leash walking is to not use the leash to force your way, as your dog will learn that pulling on the leash is a means of communication. Everything you do should help your dog learn to correct their behavior on their own from verbal cues only. Don’t reel them in with the leash, merely stop, wait for them to stop pulling, and then reward them for the correct behavior. This is hard to learn to execute consistently, but it will help down the road as you won’t be relying on the leash to get your dog to behave.

The commands I taught Presta for walks and trail running were:
  • Heel – her shoulders must be by my heel and she needs to follow my pace. It is equally important that a dog does not lag behind significantly in a heel as well, although it’s fine if they’re a bit behind you.
  • Close – Get in as close as possible when passing someone. If your dog knows not to pull on the leash, this is easy to train, as you just tighten the slack on the lead as you give the “close” command.
  • Back – Get behind. Done for passing in tight corridors. This will translate directly over to biking.
  • Sit-stay – Learn to ignore others as they are passing when we are stopped. If this one is a challenge, pull your dog away from the point of passing and put them in a sit-stay to start, and gradually move closer as your dog learns to ignore other people and dogs.
  • Let’s go – I’m moving and she needs to generally follow me. This means if she’s in a sit-stay, she releases, but can be in front of or behind me. This does not mean she gets to pull on the leash. This is how you communicate to your dog to start moving verbally, rather than relying on the leash to get them to do what you want.

Off-leash training
Ironically, the first step in off-leash training is to use a long lead line, preferably 15ft or longer. This allows your dog to have greater range of motion while you work on recall and other training behaviors while still ensuring you have a safety net to make sure your dog can’t run off.


Recall is the most important command you will teach your dog, and it also must be respected in all areas of your life. For me, I only use “come” when I have a reward or it’s an emergency. There are some outliers, but they are few and far between. I do this so when there is an emergency and I need her to abandon whatever she’s having fun doing, I know she will listen because she associates “Come” with good things.

To start training a solid recall, use the long lead and call your dog to you, give them a reward, and immediately let them do whatever they want next – this was vital for training Presta. “Come” does not mean “fun is over,” it means that I have something wonderful for her, and she needs to come to me to get it, and then she gets to keep having fun.

The next step for training recall is to start doing this in the house – stash treats or favorite chewies in other rooms, call your dog to get the treat, and let them go back to doing whatever they want to do after. This way your dog starts learning that “Come” always means good things and it’s in their benefit to listen.

Leave it

Another item to work on with the long lead line is “Leave it.” Start with teaching your dog to leave treats you place on the ground, and then move to having them abandon things they are sniffing while on the lead. Each time your dog should move away from the object and check in with you for a reward. You can then start moving on to using this command for calling your dog off prey while on the lead.

Next steps

Once you are comfortable with your dog’s recall and ability to leave prey and strangers alone, it’s time to move towards off-leash trail runs with your dog at a heel. I recommend either getting a short leash that doesn’t drag on the ground, or tucking their leash into their collar at first, that way you still have something to grab on to to help correct any mistakes.

It’s important that you get your dog used to running with you in a heel without a leash before you introduce the bike. Biking adds a new level of complexity as well as speed, so laying a solid foundation before introducing the bike will set you up for success in the long run.

Fat biking at Levis Mounds in Wisconsin

Bike Training

Finally! After all that work, we get to the biking portion! Unfortunately there’s even more work to be done here to teach your dog proper trail etiquette. This is where you will need to make some decisions about how you want your dog to run with you while you’re biking.

In front or behind?

The first question you will need to answer for yourself is if you want your dog to run in front of or behind the bike. For me personally, I want dogs to run behind the bike, and if we’re on a group ride that’s evenly matched for pace, I want her to be behind the last bike, not in between me and someone else. There are a few reasons I chose to train my dog to be behind the last bike:

  • Dogs can be prone to stopping randomly if they hear prey or catch a scent. This can be quite dangerous for the dog, as well as for the rider immediately behind the dog. I’ve been behind dogs that randomly stopped and have almost gone over my handlebars.
  • As we go along the trail, I am the first to see any other person, dog, or animal, so I can anticipate my dog’s behavior and gain control of the situation. If she’s in front and runs into another dog that’s aggressive, I have less time to react and take control of the situation. If there are hikers or other bicycles ahead of me, I want to be able to communicate with them that I have a dog, and also be able to stop Presta and restrain her as they pass if necessary. Being in front means I get to make decisions and have control of my dog before there’s a problem.
  • When going downhill, there is the possibility that you might be faster than your dog. I know I am, and my dog will cut trail to keep up. It’s much easier for your dog to accommodate your speed when they’re behind you. You can train them to get out of the way when you tell them, but it’s an additional thing you will need to work on training.

The biggest downside to having your dog behind you is that you can’t see if there’s a problem, so you need to stop frequently to check in with your dog. Your dog might become injured, fatigued, fall behind, or even go off-trail and get lost. I’m constantly checking for Presta to make sure she’s close and doing well. You can add a bell to their collar to help keep tabs on their location, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to stop to confirm your dog is still happy and healthy. There is also a lot of joy that comes from watching your dog exuberantly take a berm at full tilt.

Whichever way you decide, it’s important to stick with that decision at the beginning of training so your dog doesn’t get confused. Once your dog is trained, you can give them more freedom to move in front of or behind the bike depending on the situation.

Left or Right (aka DSO or not?)

There will be times when you want your dog to run alongside you, such as for passing, to check in on them, riding double track, or when you need to have them on a leash. My preference is to have the dog on the right side of the bike, as it keeps the dog on the outside when passing on coming riders, or passing cars if you’re on a road. A lot of places will teach you to keep your dog at a heel on the left side, which can cause some issues training your dog to run on the right, but most dogs will be able to pick up the difference between biking and walking.

Fall time at Levis Mounds; DSO bike and dog!

The basics

Once you’ve made your decision on where you’d like your dog to be, it’s time to leash them up for a ride. I prefer having my dog on a harness when riding with her on a leash, as I feel it will help prevent any potential injuries if the leash accidentally gets jerked or tangled.

With your dog on the side of the bike you want them to run on, start pedaling slowly. I called this position “Bike up.” From here, if you’re going to train your dog to run behind, move the leash behind the bike and use the “Back” command. Drill moving between the “Bike up” and “Back” positions until your dog moves on your verbal commands rather than waiting for the leash to move.

Once your dog understands what “Back” and “Bike up” mean, it’s finally time to go off-leash!

Start the first few off-leash rides with your dog solo so there aren’t any distractions. Always wait until your dog is in the “Bike up” or “Back” position before starting to pedal. Check in periodically that your dog is with you and make sure to stop any time they deviate. If your dog runs ahead, you need to stop and not continue until your dog moves back behind the bike. This is paramount in ensuring your dog understands that being in front of the bike means the fun stops, but once they’re behind the bike, they get to have fun again.

Once your dog consistently moves behind you when you give the “Back” command, you can introduce another rider. Ride behind your friend, and make sure your dog is behind you before you start biking. Have your friend start riding first to help train your dog to follow the last bike.

If you ride in groups often and want your dog to consistently follow the last person, get a close friend to train your dog with you. Take turns as the last rider, and have the rear rider ensure the dog is “Back.” Once your dog is behaving for both you and your friend, start adding in more riders, with you or your friend always taking the rear position to keep your dog in the “Back” position. Eventually your dog will understand not to be in front of another rider by default and you can start having other riders take the rear position.

One last command to consider teaching your dog is “Move!” This is useful for when your dog is the way of you or another rider. There are a number of ways to teach this, but if your dog dislikes being too close to the bike, it’s easy to move in close to them and shout “Move!” and they will get the idea quickly.

Once you’ve trained all of these commands, you should have a bonafide trail dog on your hands! While training is never truly over, the focus can now be on refinement as well as gradually increasing mileage with your pup. More on that below!

Other considerations


Your dog’s ability to run long distances will be largely dependent on the weather in addition to their fitness. Hot weather is the biggest challenge, and your dog’s size, coloring, and coat type will factor into how much heat they can handle; however, a good rule of thumb is if the temperature plus relative humidity is 150 or greater, it’s not a suitable running environment for your pooch. There are some outliers, like 60°F and 95% humidity might not be super pleasant, but likely won’t be too hot. Use your best judgement and always keep an eye on your dog, including their paws. After enough time, you’ll figure out where your particular dog’s limits are.

As far as cold weather goes, I don’t worry until it gets below freezing. I have found that Pawz booties are the best for allowing natural gait and traction, while keeping your dog’s paws dry and ice free, but there are a lot of other options out there depending on what you’re looking for.

Dog jackets can be hit or miss, and I have yet to find one I like. The key is to not overheat your dog or restrict their movements. I don’t run my dog when it gets below 15°F. I think with proper precautions, acclimation, and gear, it’s possible, but for me it’s not worth the risk since my dog is smaller. Bigger dogs and breeds more accustomed to colder weather will have much different limits. Consult with your vet for specific info, but a lot of it will be trial-and-error, so make sure to keep an eye on your dog as the temperature drops.


Just like you would do if training for a marathon, make sure to increase distance gradually. Incorporate rest days, and make sure to monitor your dog during and after rides to make sure you aren’t pushing them too far. Presta has gone upwards of a 12 mile day, and there are many other dogs who can do 20+ miles in a day. Nutrition is also a big factor on a dog’s health, so make sure you are feeding your dog like the athlete they are.

What to carry with you

  • Water 
  • Snacks
  • Tag with current info
  • Leash 

  • Rescue harness 
  • A bell
  • Light up collar for night rides

Water is the most important thing to consider when biking with a dog. Presta drinks about a quarter of what I do during a ride, so if I will need 1.5L, I make sure to bring 2L. Larger dogs may need up to the same amount as you, so be prepared to carry double the amount of water than you would on a solo ride.

Smaller dogs can drink out of your hand, but larger dogs might require a bowl. I taught Presta how to drink out of my CamelBak hose by having her drink out of my hand while I was pouring water into it, and eventually removing my hand.

I always take treats with me as rewards, but also as a snack. Just as you might have a Clif Bar for a long ride, your dog will also need to have small snacks throughout the day to help maintain energy. If your dog likes sweet things, oranges are a great way to give them a snack with hydration.

Always make sure your dog has a tag with your current information in case they get lost and carry a leash. You can also consider getting a collar-leash combo, such as the NiteIze RadDog Collar,

In case of emergencies, consider carrying a rescue carrier, like the Mountain Dogware Pack-a-Paw.

A bell for your dog's collar is a good way to help keep track of them, as well alerting other animals or humans to your dog's presence. I have been told this is effective for preventing dogs from startling bears in bear-country.

If riding at night, consider a light up collar for your dog. I use the NiteIze NiteHowl, pictured below.

One of Presta's first night rides with her light-up collar

Above all else, enjoy this journey with your dog! There’s nothing quite like sharing the thrill of the outdoors with your four-legged pal. Please feel free to contact me or to follow our adventures on Instagram, under @melodictrailyogi and @prestapup!

Updated 11/19/2019 at 12:43 PM CST to include some additional optional items for "What to carry with you."

1 comment:

  1. Heya! I know you wrote this ages ago but I have only just come across it now. I grew up with dogs and have had similar breeds to Tuki (Australian Kelpie). I think all your comments are absolutely spot on. Excellent article!!!