Bike Riding With Your Dog
Two tires and four paws add up to more cycling fun!
You walk your dog several times daily, but it never seems to be enough exercise for your energetic pup. It probably isn’t. Healthy dogs need to run, and walking just isn’t an aerobic enough exercise for them. Running with your dog is a great aerobic exercise, but many people can’t run or simply don’t like running.
So how about biking with your dog? If you love to ride your bike and have a dog who loves to run, you may have considered sharing your rides with your best friend. Fresh air, exercise, time spent together having fun and creating your own adventures – it doesn’t get much better than that. And it seems so simple, right? Just you, your dog, a bike, a leash, and the open road, and you’re on your way.
Well, not exactly. But riding a bike with a running dog as a companion can be done safely. You just need to be willing to put in the time for training, invest in the proper equipment, and follow some safety rules to make the activity both fun and safe for you both.
Before you get started
If you and your dog are just beginning to exercise regularly or more strenuously, physical exams by your respective doctors are advisable. Safety precautions regarding age, breed, weight, and thickness of coat are the same as those for dogs who are beginning running programs with their running humans (see “Running With Your Dog,” Whole Dog Journal February 2009).
Check with your vet about when your young puppy’s growth plates are expected to close so you won’t risk injuring your puppy’s development by beginning a structured exercise program too soon. Some medium and large breed dogs are built for running endurance, but others, especially smaller breeds, can only run slowly for shorter distances. And as with all new forms of exercise, beginning slowly and building up duration and distance over time, no matter what condition you and your dog are in, is the safest way to go.
Equipment for the cyclist
If you don’t already have a bike, your local bike shop is a good place to start to figure out what type of bike will suit your needs for the terrain you plan to ride on. If you will ride on mainly paved roads, dirt roads, well-mowed fields, and smooth bike trails, then a hybrid bike may be your best choice. If you want the option of riding more rugged bike trails on which you must negotiate rocks, branches, streams, and tree roots, then a mountain bike is in order. You can still ride on more gentle terrain with a mountain bike, however you may want to replace the knobby tires with more slick ones if you plan to spend more time on the road. The bike shop staff can fit you for the proper size bike and make any adjustments necessary for a comfortable fit.
A helmet is the single most important piece of safety equipment for any cyclist at any level, from beginner to elite. Riding without a helmet is an invitation for a head injury, or worse, from a slow-speed tumble to a more serious crash or collision. Feeling the wind in your hair as you ride is not worth the risk of brain injury or death should you hit your head in a fall. And think of your dog’s safety. What exactly will happen to your dog while you lie unconscious after a crash?
Bright colored cycling clothing, a water bottle or two, spare tube, tire pump, tire repair kit, identification, money, and a cell phone are all safety items that you should have with you when you and your partner head out. Further equipment for the human half of the cycling duo has more to do with comfort than safety. Unless your bike comes with a big, cushy saddle, you will appreciate the extra cushioning that padded bicycle shorts will afford. You can also put a more comfortable saddle on your bike, or add a gel-filled seat cover.
Beginners commonly use running shoes or light hiking boots, but cycling shoes designed specifically for the sport are recommended. They are rigid and allow minimal flexion of the foot. If you continue to use a more flexible shoe on your bike, over time you may experience foot problems. Your bike shop staff can recommend the best shoe for your needs.
Equipment for the dog
For your dog’s safety, a colorful, reflective collar with ID tags and a reflective vest for high visibility are recommended. But there is one critical piece of equipment you need to invest in to assure that cycling with your dog is as safe as possible.
You may have seen someone riding his bike while holding his dog’s leash in his hand on the handlebars. Or perhaps with the leash tied to the seat post of the bike. Both of these practices are unsafe for you and your dog and may result in tragic consequences.
When you ride while holding a dog’s leash in your hand, the dog can easily pull you off balance causing a crash, or you could collide with your dog if he runs in front of your front tire. If he lags behind, you may be pulled backward, possibly falling and sustaining an injury. Then there’s the possibility of the leash becoming entangled in the wheel spokes, perhaps resulting in serious injury to you both.
Attaching your dog’s leash to the seat post, your center of gravity when you ride, makes pulling a little less of an issue, and is therefore considered safer by some cyclists. While never testing this theory, I know that I wouldn’t have a chance of staying upright if Aero, my 98-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback, were to suddenly lunge for a squirrel while attached by leash to my seat post. And other dangers, like your dog getting too close to your bike and become entangled, are still present.
So how then, can you ride safely together? Fortunately, there are some devices on the market designed to facilitate a safer, more comfortable ride with your canine companion. Bike attachments such as the Springer, WalkyDog, and BikerDog allow you to keep both hands on your handlebars while keeping your dog at a safe distance from your bike.
The Springer attaches to the frame of your bike and the WalkyDog attaches to the seat post. Both use coil spring shock absorbing mechanisms to reduce the effect of a dog pulling. The BikerDog attaches to the frame of your bike near your rear wheel and uses a flexible, hard plastic post to control pulling.
Each device attaches by a cord or leash to the dog’s collar or harness. For greater safety, use a harness to put less stress on the dog’s neck. The BikerDog comes with a harness, but the WalkyDog and Springer do not (the Springer used to come with a harness, but no longer does). It’s best to use your dog’s own well-fitting harness with all of these. And you can attach two of these devices to your bike if you are interested in biking with two dogs at once (one on each side of the bike).
Many users of these bike attachments are not only happy with the increased safety they provide, but also claim that their dogs stay focused on running beside the bike and attempt to pull less than when walking on leash.
Bike attachments for cycling with your dog install on either side of your bike. Which side your dog runs on is a matter of preference. If your dog is accustomed to walking or running on your left side, this may be the most natural position for training for bicycling. However, there are other considerations, especially if you ride on roads. As a pedestrian, you should walk or run against (facing) traffic. Having your dog on your left side when on foot keeps your dog safely away from passing cars. But moving vehicles, including bikes, are required by law to travel with traffic, on the right side of the road. Your dog is in a more vulnerable position running on the left side of your bike next to traffic.
Try to remember your first experiences riding a bike. You may have graduated from a tricycle to a two-wheeler, and just the sight of the two-wheeler may have caused a little anxiety. Getting on it was even scarier. Mom or Dad probably held the bike while you tentatively pedaled for the first time, and it took most of us a couple of sessions before we were ready for Mom or Dad to let go of us. Even when finally pedaling on our own, we had to learn to negotiate turns, slow down, stop, and many more skills and safety rules. At first we could only go for short distances on our bikes, but soon felt we could fly around the world!
To become a good cycling companion, a dog needs to go through a learning curve similar to the one you experienced as a child learning to ride your bike. Your dog should be comfortable around your bike, when you are both stationary and moving. He needs to be familiar with any equipment you use, and learn how to slow down, turn, and stop. And just as you started slowly on your first bike, the time and distance your dog accompanies you on bike rides should increase gradually.
Even if your dog is accustomed to seeing your bike leaning against the wall in your home or garage, it’s probably viewed as just another piece of furniture (that you curiously remove from the house on occasion!). Some dogs are fearful of moving bicycles, so you may need to help your dog become comfortable around your bike. In your house or garage, start by holding your bike, calling your dog to you, and allowing him to sniff it. Praise him, pet him, and give him a yummy treat to reward his bravery. Lay your bike down, sit on the floor next to your bike, and repeat the exercise. You can even place treats on the tires, the frame, and the pedals, playing a game with your dog while he begins to associate this strange machine with having fun. Next, walk a few steps with your bike and encourage your dog to follow, using praise and treats. Continue to practice indoors, eventually adding your dog’s harness and leash, and moving outdoors only when your dog is comfortable walking alongside you and your bike.
Outdoors, repeat the same walking exercise on-leash. Gradually add in some distractions: walk over a curb, over the lawn, on top of a utility hole cover, over a speed bump, through a puddle. Move the bike so it wobbles, make some turns, walk faster then slower, even jog a little. If your dog shows any signs of apprehension, you have progressed too quickly. You may need to practice over several days before your dog will happily walk alongside you and your bike with distractions. When your dog handles these challenges with ease, teach him some cues for behaviors that you will use to guide him when you ride, such as “Slow,” “Stop,” “Easy,” “Turn,” and “Leave It.”
Starting to ride
Now that your dog walks happily next to you and your bike on-leash, it should be no problem to switch to the cord or leash of a bike attachment such as the Springer, WalkyDog, or BikerDog. Continue to practice walking with your dog attached to your bike, and if he shows no signs of uneasiness, get on your bike and pedal slowly. If you have gradually accustomed your dog to moving with your bike, he will likely be happy to trot alongside you. Take him for a slow, short excursion, using lots of encouragement, praise, and treats.
Future rides should increase slowly in time and distance, working up to a steady trot. After several rides together, you will begin to develop a feeling for your dog’s natural pace. Your dog may try to keep up until he drops, never showing signs of discomfort, no matter what speed you ride. It is important for you to let him set the pace. After your dog is in good running shape, you can add some brief accelerations, bringing your dog to a gallop. But use a comfortable trotting pace for the bulk of your rides.
The frequency, distance, and duration of your rides with your dog depend on many factors. Age, breed, size, fitness level, coat, running surface, and weather should be considered. Keep your dog well-hydrated, familiarize yourself with the symptoms of heatstroke (see “Running With Your Dog,” Whole Dog Journal February 2009), inspect his paw pads often, check for harness chafing, and watch for signs of lameness or waning enthusiasm. Increasing distance and duration slowly will help prevent soreness and injury, allowing your dog’s respiratory and musculoskeletal systems to adapt to increasing workloads.
Where to ride
Riding with your dog on roads with traffic is dangerous. While the shoulder of a road may safely accommodate you when riding alone, your width triples when you attach a dog to your bike. You are a much larger target around road curves and for careless drivers. Being honked at constantly by impatient motorists may also scare your dog, and it definitely takes some of the fun out of your ride!
If you live in a rural area with lightly traveled paved or dirt roads, you are in luck, as long as you are still cautious of passing vehicles. But even if you live in a densely populated area, there are safe options for biking with your dog, some closer than you may think. You may need to load your dog and bike into your car for a short drive, but for a safe, fun ride with your best buddy, it’s worth it.
If you live close to a linear park (former railroad beds converted for recreation), you have access to perhaps the best place of all to bike with your dog. Trail surfaces may be dirt, wood chips, soft cinder, or paved, but most continue for miles of flat, scenic riding. Quiet neighborhoods with little traffic, especially on certain days or times, are another good choice.
Taking your dog with you when biking on rugged terrain presents more challenges. It’s difficult and dangerous to negotiate obstacles with your dog attached to your mountain bike, especially on single-track trails. And even the most experienced mountain bikers have occasional falls or crashes. Injury to both rider and dog could result from one of these mishaps.
Allowing your dog to run off-leash, if allowed, on remote mountain bike trails presents its own set of problems. Mountain biking is more physically demanding and it is difficult to keep track of your dog with the increased concentration necessary when riding on rugged trails. Your dog may take off after a bird or animal and get lost or injured in the chase. There’s the danger of snakebites. Being free to drink in streams and puddles can lead to an infection of giardia, an intestinal parasite that can cause serious illness. And it is more difficult for you to determine your dog’s comfortable pace, possibly leading him to exceed his running limits.
The idea of allowing your dog to run freely in the woods with you is better than the reality of biking with your dog off-leash. If you love to mountain bike, consider leaving your biking partner at home on those rides and schedule other rides together in safer locations.
Bicycling for non-athletes You don’t have to deprive yourself of your buddy’s company on your rides if your dog is a toy breed, has special needs, or is an older dog and no longer able to run.
There are all sorts of products available to help your dog enjoy accompanying you on your bike trips, including pet bike baskets, trailers, and sidecars; look on the Internet or ask the folks at your local independent pet supply store or bike shop. Accessories available include seat belts, dog helmets, and even goggles. Assess the safety of any of these products before using them with your beloved companion – and be realistic about your dog’s temperament, too. I’ve seen dogs who are electric with delight in joining their owners for a ride in a pet trailer, and I’ve seen others who have the same look of terror on their faces that I must have when riding on a roller coaster!
That said, most dogs can learn to enjoy your rides with training. Gradual exposure to your bike and trailer, creating a positive association with being in the trailer using lots of treats and praise, and slowly exposing your dog to movement in the trailer increase your chances of a successful outcome.
Sometimes, the safety precautions that we take to protect both humans and our companion animals may seem so cumbersome that they take all the fun out of some of our activities. But when it comes to the health and welfare of your dog when accompanying you on bike rides, taking the appropriate safety measures can potentially save your dog’s life, as well as your own. Training, using proper equipment, and adhering to sensible exercise practices actually increase your enjoyment of the sport. “Fun” is knowing that you are keeping your dog as safe as possible while sharing your rides together. Enjoy!
Susan Sarubin lives, bikes, runs, and trains dogs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her training business is Pawsitive Fit, LLC. Susan is also the Maryland State Coordinator for Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue, Inc. See pawsitivefit.com for more information.