On the very first page of the very first chapter of his acclaimed book, The Well-Adjusted Dog, Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic Director Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, says that “very few” dogs get enough vigorous daily exercise, making a strong case that all the neurotic behaviors in which dogs engage (whining, panting, pacing, aggression, barking, and so on) could be ameliorated with some heart-pumping daily activity. He puts this ahead of diet, training, environmental enrichment, and pretty much everything else. “Exercise has both calming and mood-stabilizing effects,” for dogs as well as for people, Dr. Dodman reports.
The problem, he comments, is that when people come to see him to learn what can be done about their dog’s annoying or disruptive behavior, they frequently balk at his suggestions. “Oh, I can’t take Fido to the beach; I burn too easily”; “I’m not comfortable walking him on a long lead — it gets tangled up”; “I don’t really have time to take him to a park to play fetch.”
With that in mind, what about biking while the dog runs alongside, attached to the bicycle?
Admittedly, it’s not for all dogs. “Many brachycephalic dogs, like Pugs, can’t breathe walking around, never mind being dragged along by a bike,” Dr. Dodman says, so it obviously is not a good idea for them. It’s not going to be a good idea for a tiny toy breed or a “wooly old dog” either, he notes. But, he says, some dogs are “born to run — and run hard.” He mentions, for example, that Dalmatians were bred to run alongside stagecoaches and fire trucks for hours without tiring. And “dogs’ wild cousins covered huge distances in search of prey,” he adds, “so exercise is part of the natural and necessary canine agenda.” Think: Weimaraners, Rhodesian ridgebacks, and German short-haired pointers in that regard. Many mixed breeds would benefit, too.
How to do it safely
There are a number of considerations for making sure that having a dog attached to a bicycle while running is safe for both him and you — and also enjoyable for both of you. If only you are having a good time and not the dog, it’s not the way to go.
First off, you have to take some measure to make sure the dog doesn’t get tangled up in the wheels. The best way to do that is not to directly attach the dog to the bike — or to you — with a leash but to use a gizmo that a) has a bar, like an arm, that keeps the dog at a consistent short distance from the wheels and b) has a spring attached so that if your pet tugs in a different direction than the one you’re going in, there’ll be some give so you don’t tip over and risk hurting the two of you. Any tension will be applied more gently than with a sudden jerk.
One good brand is Springer America (made, ironically, in Norway), which attaches to the seat stem or frame of a bike. Its safety release frees the dog instantly if he gets caught, say, around a tree or hydrant.
Your dog also has to be in good enough shape for running, Dr. Dodman says. “It wouldn’t be fair to take an arthritic German shepherd on a 20-mile bike ride,” he asserts. In fact, to be on the safe side, any dog, no matter how currently active and no matter what his age, should get clearance from a veterinarian before embarking on a biking-running program with you. His heart, lungs, and joints all need to be checked.
And if he hasn’t been engaging regularly in sustained exercise that gets his heart rate up and leaves him tired, start very, very slowly, perhaps only every second or third day, and for very short distances. He has to become acclimated, just like a human runner. Especially if he’s overweight, this has to start gradually — with walking that gets faster and then maybe jogging alongside you as you bike, down the line.
At all points along the way, even when the two of you get a regular rhythm going, it’s important to stop if the dog exhibits any signs of pain or discomfort. Signs can be subtle because the excitement of running might decrease a dog’s awareness of pain. But if you see your pet’s energy start to flag, even just a bit, stop biking and walk or simply wait, at least for a few minutes. Imagine if someone made you keep running at a certain pace when you felt out of breath or your legs hurt.
You want to keep in mind, too, that dogs can’t cool their bodies as efficiently as people. They don’t sweat. They only pant, which puts them at greater risk for dehydration or even heat stroke in hot weather. That’s why, during the summer months, you should bike with your dog running alongside either in the evening or the early morning to keep out of the worst heat of the day. Mornings are best — the pavement won’t have heated up by that point and will thus be easier on your dog’s paw pads. Even during the cooler hours, though, if your dog starts panting excessively or shows increased salivation or red or blue gums (a sign of oxygen deprivation), stop. And always have water at the ready. An overheated dog will very quickly learn to drink from a bottle; you won’t have to put out a bowl.
After the jaunt is over, inspect your dog’s paws. This is important not just in hot weather but also in cold. Chemicals, salt, and sand that cities and towns use to melt snow and ice can be irritating, so you want to brush them out. Even in areas that don’t have snow, rough pavement can chafe a dog’s foot pads. They need to have a chance to toughen gradually with use.
Perhaps most important of all is to remember that with a biking-running combo, your dog’s proclivities come first. “This is not you on a racing bike with your head down, tearing across the back country or along a track. It’s a leisurely, steady-paced ride on a sunny day next to a canal on a sort of pretty path, a gentle ride,” says Dr. Dodman. “That way,” he counsels, “you can pay attention to your dog’s signals.” You need to know when he needs to stop, or when he has had enough.
To that end, you also need to keep in mind that not all dogs enjoy running, even if they are built for it. And some enjoy running on some days but not others. And some enjoy running until they sniff a really neat hydrant or need to relieve themselves. In other words, your dog has to take the lead on this, so to speak. If at any point you sense your pet’s enthusiasm waning, either during a run or while you’re lacing up, stop. That is, if it’s not fun for your dog, it’s not a good idea and you need to find another way to tire him out with healthful exercise.