Sunday, July 31, 2011

Keep Them Doggies Movin'

Rubi and I haven't been entirely slacking for the past few months. We found a new hobby: biking. Rubi is one of those dogs who go a little stir crazy if she doesn't get out and run on a regular basis, and since I can't really let her off leash, giving myself a way to keep up with her seemed like the next best thing. I've put off writing this blog for a while because we were still working the kinks out. It turns out that biking with your dog is a lot like the rest of dog training: it requires a lot of tailoring to the individual team.

As with any activity that's physically demanding for your dog, safety is super important. I'm not going to insult you by pointing out that you should get your dog checked out by your vet before starting any new exercise regimen. If you're reading this blog, you probably already know that. What you might not realize is that you really need to watch your dog's feet. A dog running on asphalt is like a human running on sandpaper. You need to start slow. Rubi and I went up by half mile increments when we first started out. She definitly want to go farther, but foot pad injuries are horrible, and I didn't want to risk having her out of the game for a week or two while she healed. Another important piece of safety equipment is a helmet. Because who's going to take care of B if my brains are splattered across the pavement?

There are several dog-bike attachments out there, and none of them are perfect. The three that seem to be the most popular are the Springer Bicycle Jogger, the Sunlite Bicycle Leash, and the Walky Dog. The Springer, at $80, was out of my price range. The Sunlite, if you look at the picture, allows the dog to move to either side of the bike. I decided this wasn't for us because there are certain times that I know I'm going to want B on one side of the bike or the other. For example, if we have to pass people or other dogs, I definitely want to be able to put myself between B and the oncoming civilians.

So we went with the Walky Dog. Thus far, I've been pretty pleased with it. The Walky Dog is pretty much a metal pipe with a bungee cord running through it. The center of balance is right under the seat, and thus far B hasn't been able to come even close to pulling us over - and trust me, she's tried a few times. The metal pipe also unlocks from the rest of the bike so I can take it off if I want to go out sans dog. Or in case I need to beat a zombie with it (you never know when a foot long piece of metal pipe is going to come in handy).

The big criticism of the Walky Dog is a tendancy for the bungee to wear against the pipe and break. Seems like a pretty big product flaw, huh? As with everything else, I check my equipment before we go out, and so far it's not showing any signs of wear and tear. The bungee, should it break, is pretty cheap to replace. Implementing a back-up attachment wasn't any big deal. I probably would've found a back-up even if I didn't know about this flaw because I'm a pit bull owner, and we're paranoid. The trick was figuring out which back-up worked best: waist leash, collar, harness, shoulder leash, gentle leader, leash attached to bike - we played around with all of them. Here's what we've settled on:

B is attached to the Walky Dog with an awesome zebra striped martingale collar (yes, I bought it just for the bike - and yes, I know you're not surprised). The martingale is two inches wide. A smaller collar would put more pressure on her neck, and since that's her primary attachment to the bike, I want to reduce stress to her neck as much as possible. Ideally, I'd run her on a harness, but B is fifty-two pounds of reactive pit bull, and I do have some self-preservational instinct. Another advantage of the martingale is that no matter what twisted positions she tries, she's not going to be able to slip out of it. That's what martingales were developed to prevent.

Our back-up is B's four foot leash around my waist and attached to an eight inch Liberty's Attachment attached to Rubi's gentle leader. How we came to this arrangement is a long story. Basically, the four foot leash is too short and causes the gentle leader to interfere with B's running. The six foot leash is too long and B trips over it. 4'8" is apparently just right for us. This set-up is nice because it allows me to get control over B's head quickly if I need. And the Liberty's attachment makes a nice back-up for a lot of other things, too, like B's gentle leader to her collar, or Allister's harness to the Walky Dog when I run him. It's one of those handy bits that I never knew I needed until I got it.

Now that we have all the equipment sorted out, next comes the hard part. Luckily, B is afraid of nothing and didn't need to be conditioned to the bike. Once she figured out that she gets to run when the bike come out, it became her new Favorite Thing Ever. If you can't bike in a straight line for at least a block, do yourself (and your dog) a favor and practice. Yes, this is the voice of experience speaking. On any of the bike attachments, the dog has a limited amount of ability to move. You'll both have more fun if you're not continually pulling each other around.

Our heel work commands have transitioned nicely to the bike. In accordance with our new "eye contact for everything" rule, B has to look at me before she can start moving. Then, I release her with an "okay." In our heeling, "let's go" means move faster; this is our new cue for right turns since turning to the right almost always means that the dog needs to move faster. All my dogs forge (move farther ahead of me than they should) during heeling. Our cue for move back into heel position is "get in." This is now our cue for left turns. The only new cue is "easy" which simply means that we're slowing down or stopping. After we stop, at a corner, for instance, I tell her to wait. We're not just stopping and doing nothing. We're stopping and waiting, and B needs to look at me in order to get released to move again.

So how does this all come together with Rubi's reactivity? As with everything else, we figured this one out by trial and error. The nice thing about biking with B is that by the time B has found a dog to react about, we've already passed it. On the other hand, this is exactly what B wants: see another dog, run around and spaz. So we work on the same principle with the bike that we do on walks: only dogs who are under control get to move forward. So if we see another dog and B starts getting worked up, we stop. Depending on the intensity of the situation, we might work a few autowatches, or counter conditioning to barking, or I might just wait until she gives me eye contact and reward her by moving forward. The nice thing about our set-up is that it's really easy to detach from the bike if we need more room to work. All I need to do is unhook her collar.

Many, many moons ago, before I had a mortgage or a husband or even a driver's license, I used to go out biking with our family dog, a GSD mix named Dingo. Every time we went out, it was always an adventure. Somedays would find us catching crayfish in the Kinnickinnic. Other afternoons we'd spend terrorizing the local rabbit population. Or we'd bike to the local coffee shop. Our only limits were the power of our legs and the moment before dark when the street lights came on. A lot has changed since then. Despite my best intentions, I seem to have grown up. It's a different bike, a different dog, a different town. But the sense of freedom - that remains the same.


  1. Ooooo! I'm so glad you posted about this! I've been working on an exercise/training plan for a dog where I work, and I've been thinking about teaching him to run next to a bike. I'll look into the attachment, as that was really the only thing I couldn't figure out, because he's a big boy to hold onto if he decided to chase a chipmunk!

  2. Thanks for posting this! I hadn't thought about things like turning and slowing down, etc. Wonder how I'm gonna cue those things with Jun. We've gotten as far as walking her and the bike at the same time, in the back yard. I need to find a deserted parking lot to start practicing in.

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