How to Do Your Favorite Sport with Your Dog
From mountain biking to paddleboarding, your best friend can do it all with a bit of basic training
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Dogs seem perfectly designed to be our adventure buddies. They are natural athletes, they don’t complain, and their excitement to be outside, by our side, is unmatched. But that’s not to say they don’t require a little basic training to join us safely and happily in our favorite sports. We asked a cadre of athletes and expert trainers for their tips on how to get our pups prepared for some serious playtime.
Maria Christina Schultz wrote How to SUP with Your Pup in response to a flood of questions she received while paddling around the Shenandoah River with Riley, her Australian shepherd. Her number one piece of advice is to go at your dog’s pace. “Don’t rush it and take them out on a full hour paddle in the first week,” the Ruffwear ambassador says. “Be gradual and be positive.” To let her dogs get comfortable with her SUP, Schultz left it in her living room for a week and gave the dogs treats on it to let them know it was a safe place to hang out.
Once your dog is ready to get on the the water, make sure she’s wearing a life jacket. “It will make it 100 times easier to get your dog back on the board when she falls off,” Schultz says. “Dogs don’t come with handles, but life jackets do.” Schultz also suggests tiring out your dog before you take him on a paddle. Even though her dogs are well-trained, Australian shepherds have a lot of energy and get antsy on the board if she hasn’t played with them beforehand.
Always get on the board before your dog, advises Schultz. Among other reasons, this makes it clear that you are going along for the ride. You need to have set commands for the dog to get on and off the board with you on it. Schultz uses “hop on” and “hop off.” You should stand a little farther back on the board compared to your usual solo position. The best position for your dog is lying down square in the middle of the front third of the board. Be prepared for your dog to move around a bit and touch the water, which is part of the fun. “Dogs are dogs. They are going to be curious,” says Schultz. No need to change your “nose to toes” stroke length with a pup on board—just focus on balance and keeping everyone upright.
When it’s time to disembark, always go to the safety position on your knees within 15 feet of shore. Your dog is excited, and a dash for the beach might end in a dunk for you. If all goes well, move to the center of the board, give the “hop off” command, and follow your best buddy into land.
First, give your dog a pack—and not just because it lightens your load and makes your pal look adorable. “The reason dogs became our best friends is because they want to have a job,” says Heath Smith, head trainer for Conservation Canines, a University of Washington program that trains dogs to detect endangered species scat for scientific research. Having your dog bring its own food and gear into the backcountry is a great way to help give her a sense of purpose. “Be really careful about how you put on the backpack,” cautions Smith. “For some dogs, getting something over their head can be very scary.” Take your time putting a backpack or harness on your dog, and use play or treats to make your dog associate positive things with wearing it.
Once the pack is on, make sure it fits well. Do not overpack or load it too heavily on one side. Hot spots will result in your dog quickly disliking backpacking. Also, make sure to give your dog regular hydration stops; even a few extra pounds can add a lot of strain to a backwoods stroll. During those stops, checks your dog’s pads for cuts or discomfort. Like human feet, a dog’s paws are often the first things to go on a long trip.
On the trail, Smith thinks “it would be really wonderful if everyone kept their dog on leash.” Of course, he and his fellow trainers let their dogs off leash when working and deep in the backcountry, but staying in control of your dog is critical, especially around trailheads and other hikers. Smith’s dogs also all wear bear bells on their collars to alert potential dangerous wildlife and to make it easier for Smith and the other trainers to know where they are.
Running with your dog begins with choosing a suitable breed, says Los Angeles–based Jennifer McCarthy, a fourth-generation dog trainer who has owned a training company for 20 years. “You need a dog that can handle that type of work. There’s a reason you don’t see many people running with chihuahuas.”
No matter the breed, it’s important that you do not take a puppy under one year old running—it can cause serious damage to their joints. When your dog is old enough to run, slowly build up her endurance. “Start out just walking or hiking,” McCarthy says. “If your dog starts lying down or lagging, turn around. You can try going a little farther the next time.” Most dogs aren’t built to run more than two or three miles, so leave your pup at home when you’re putting in longer efforts. On warmer days, McCarthy also recommends bringing a cooling vest, like the Ruffwear Swamp Cooler, presoaked in a plastic bag.
Bryan Gregory readily admits that he is by no means a professional dog trainer and that his Australian shepherd, Kaia, is not the perfect biking companion. But based on their viral video, the two know exactly what they are doing.
As with SUPing and trail running, make sure to ease your dog into the sport. “Keep your dog on the leash for the first little while, and ride slowly with him beside you,” advises Gregory. “Treat it like a normal walk, and slowly build up to riding on trails.” Once you’ve introduced your dog to mountain biking, create a clear distinction about how he interacts with you on trails. “Make sure the dog is running with you and not chasing you,” explains Gregory. “Chasing brings him closer to the bike, which can get dangerous for both the dog and the rider.” One way to convey that message is by changing speeds while training. Slow down sometimes and encourage your dog to keep up instead of just rocketing downhill, which will make him feel like he has to sprint to catch you.
Even after your dog becomes a well-seasoned trail buddy, don’t go nuts and take him on every single ride. “Running at full speed down rocky trails for extended periods of time is brutal on your dog’s joints and feet,” says Gregory. “So pick gentler, pedally-er routes if you plan on taking the dog along, and take frequent breaks on long downhills.”
Most resorts don't let you go downhill skiing with a dog, but plenty of smaller ski hills do. Then there’s off-resort terrain, which is usually more fun for all parties. But beware of just charging into fresh powder with your buddy and seeing what happens. Start on low-gradient slopes while familiarizing your dog with skis and your pace on the hill. “Skis have metal edges, so you really don’t want to run into your dog,” says Louisa Morrissey, owner of High Country Dogs. Ski-and-dog collisions are extremely common sources of injury, and even if your dog is unscathed, she’ll come away with negative associations of skiing. One way to help prevent collisions: Ski in pairs, and have one partner hold your dog while the other goes ahead, then have the holder let go when the first skier has a proper head start and let the pup give chase.
If you’re skiing in the backcountry, route selection is especially important when traveling with a dog. It needs to match the dog’s capabilities, much like your own. Hint: Take it easy. Pay close attention to snow conditions. Breakable crust is a prime cause of many leg and ACL injuries in dogs, Morrissey says. Monitor your dog’s comfort level as well. “Dogs can get frostbite just like humans,” Morrissey says. If your dog is picking up its paws when stationary, that means they’re cold and you need to put booties on them.