Commands & Training

This page focuses on training and commands used for bikejoring. It also gives tips, covers philosophies and goals.


Your dog must WANT to run

Your dog must think running is fun if you want to bikejor. Only dogs with a good physique or conformation could like running, others would find it too painful.

Mentally, some dogs are obsessive about running (Iditarod material), while others, like my Samoyeds, like to run up to a point. Other dogs don't want to run.

You can't make a dog run consistently unless it has fun or satisfies a need.


As ye walk, so shall ye run (why we train)

If your dog wanders back and forth on your walk, that's what will happen when you run them, only much faster, (like a pinball).

You are better off to teach your dogs to walk the same way you want them to run before you get on a bike.

Teach how you want them to run and the commands you want them to follow. If you have problems while with the dog walking next to you at a couple of mph it is more easily corrected than with the dog 10 feet in front of you running at 20 mph.

A simple reality of bikejoring is that the bike will go wherever the dogs go. Whether you are on the bike or it is upright is uncertain, but the bike will go where the dogs go.

If the dogs zigzag down the road, so will your bike. If the dogs chase squirrels and cats, so will your bike. You may be thrown off your bike at some point, but it (or parts of it) will follow the dogs. Another fact is that if you haven't trained your dogs to run the correct way to run and to obey voice commands immediately without question, they will go wherever they want, and the bike will follow.

When you are on the bike you can not easily correct your dogs. You can't jerk their leash. They will jerk you around instead. When you get on the bike you loose physical control over your dogs. Hence you must have verbal control. The dogs' belief that you are in charge must be complete. They must obey commands immediately because you will only get a second or two for them to do the right thing to avoid accidents (the two second rule). The dogs must also know that you will care for them and protect them in any situation. Otherwise, they will not obey commands when they see a loose dog, which is a potential threat to them.


Successful Training

Training must be comprehensive and fun. Just shouting "NO" is not training. The word "no" is not a particularly useful command and I use it only to stop a behavior. Generally you must redirect a behavior to have a positive outcome.

There are good books on training and professional trainers and classes if you have questions. The principles of training are the same for anything you teach your dog, so you can take any sort of obedience or other class and learn to train your dog. In general, I shoot for 90 percent praise and 10 percent or less correction. It follows from this that what I am attempting to train my dogs must be broken into tasks that are easy to do, even if by accident initially.

Plan training so success is highly probable.  Choose how to break tasks down, choose the time to train, the amount of time, the location to train, all to encourage success.  (If training is really not working, stop and rethink it.  Learn alternate methods.)  When you find a method that works, be consistent and persistent in your training.  

Give lots of praise. Be goofy, be enthusiastic, praise consistently and constantly. Make your reaction to successful desired behavior obvious and reinforce it. I use a high pitched voice for praise, a medium or neutral pitch for commands and a low pitch for corrections. How much your dogs learn may vary, but make sure you make success certain.

You MUST train your dogs before you can bikejor, your and your dog's safety depend on it. It may take months. (It took me a couple of months to train my first dog, and I still was thrown off the bike more than once.) Now I start training them as puppies. By around six months, they know their commands (even though they haven't ever actually pulled me around). Do not make or let your dog pull any serious weight until it is full grown.

Jaguar teaching Panther
while I scooter


Training Steps

When I want to teach a directional command, I use the following steps. First take the dog through the manuover in a heel position right next to you. Then, teach the dog to do it in normal position at the end of the leash out in front of you while walking. Then try it on a bike. Note that dogs do not normally generalize like you do. A command at heel is not necessarily the same to them as that command at the end of a leash, which is not the same as that command while on a gangline. You have to help your dog through those transitions.

If you have multiple dogs you can use an experienced one paired next to a novice to speed up training. Just be sure to let your experienced dog know how much you appreciate their help. For a lead dog, training a young puppy is not nearly as much fun as a real running adventure. In fact, it can be pretty annoying, so give your lead dog breaks and lots of praise. This also helps the puppy understand that the lead dog is doing the right thing and should be emulated. If nothing else, maybe the puppy will learn to follow the lead dog.


What Commands to Train Your Dog

The names of the commands are up to you. I use commands that I tend to instinctively shout, because often I have to blurt a command out. The command must be given and the dogs must react within one or two seconds to prevent an accident.

Use the words that work best for you and your dog. Avoid words that sound alike, especially avoid words that start the same, as much as is possible.

I have read that dogs focus on consonants instead of vowels. Not sure if that is true, but it is food for thought.  I have three classes of commands.  Essential implicit are rules a dog must always follow for the safety of the team.  Essential verbal commands include direction and pacing such as turn right/left, start and stop commands.  Informational commands are ones that inform a dog of what is coming up (yup, I see that cat too so calm down).

Essential Implicit Commands:

These are things your dog must know without you saying it.

You must always walk and train according to these rules.

- Always pull the ropes tight in front of you, never allow slack without a slack command. If the ropes go slack they can tangle or get caught in your front wheel, which will cause you to be thrown from the bike.

- Always stay together, never split and go around different sides of a pole or tree.

- Always stay on the street side of poles, mail boxes and fire hydrants.

- Always be on the right hand (in the US) side of the road or trail and move straight ahead.

- Always stay on the road or trail, don't leave it to chase things.

- Ignore other dogs and people.

I teach my dogs to walk in two positions. Heel is walking on my left side with no tension on the leash. Normal is walking in front of me with slight tension on the leash.

There are a couple of ways to train this. One is to use some sort of harness for normal position and to clip the leash to their collar for heel position. Initially I did it that way. Now I just train them with a "heel" and a "hike" or "lead" command. Learning these two positions is important. I start teaching a command with a dog at heel (unless I can pair them with a lead dog). After learning a command at heel, a dog relearns it walking at normal position, then in front of a bike.


Essential Verbal Commands:

- STOP or WHOA (Essential for self preservation)

- SLOW (can be used before STOP for a controlled approach to a stop sign or blind intersection)

- LEAVE IT (Essential for self preservation & control)

- GEE (RIGHT, gee is the traditional word, most people pronounce it jjee, but I use a hard Gee)

- HAW (LEFT, haw is the traditional word)

- STRAIGHT (blast through an intersection without turns)

- HIKE (GO, hike is the traditional word, not mush.  I use "LEAD" too.)

- YIELD (Get off the road or trail. I use it when someone is about to run us over.)

- ON BY (Go around an object, combine with GEE and HAW to get around to one side or the other)


Informational Commands

I tell my dogs what I see. They tend to react less if they know I see what they see. For some reason they go nuts if they see a cat, but if I say “kitty cat”, all they do is perk up a bit.

- CAR (any motor vehicle is a "car")

- PEOPLE (your dogs should not react to people)

- BIKE (dogs can't always hear bikes from behind so warn them lest they startle and swerve)

- DOG (you should ignore it)

- CAT, SQUIRREL (yes I see it too, mellow out)

- FRONT (it is in front of us, as in DOG FRONT)

- BEHIND (it is behind us, as in BIKE BEHIND)

Nice Verbal Commands to Have

- CROSS (go to the other side of the trail or street, combine with GEE and HAW to jump on and off of sidewalks or to change lanes)

- ABIT (example: GEE ABIT means take the right fork, but not a hard right turn, useful at complex intersections and random obstacle fields)

- TURN (turn around 180 degrees, combine with GEE or HAW to avoid dogs turning into or away from each other) I recently learned that my dogs react better to “gee turn” or “haw turn” better than “turn gee” or “turn haw”. So word order is significant. What happens is I say “gee” or “haw” and they start to angle to the proper side, then I say turn and they finish off with a 180.

- TAKE-A-BREAK (stop pulling, give me slack, settle down, this is going to take some time to fix)

- VISIT (My dogs are therapy dogs, so I use "VISIT" and "NO VISIT" to define 
whether we are going to interact)

- TEAM (This means "Hey everyone, listen for a command" and is used in place of a dog's name.  If you can do "TEAM SIT", it looks really cool.)

When and How to give commands

Some people say to give a command once, right as you want your dog to do it. I personally give my dogs some warning, say 30 to 50 feet (a few seconds at speed). I may also say the command more than once. The problem with saying the command once is that if the dogs aren't expecting it, they miss it.

If your team has been running straight on one trail for a few miles they may be zombied out. If it is a busy city street the dogs may be distracted by everything that is going on.

You need to get the dogs' attention before they will interpret any command. Also, if you give a command that may sound like a different command, giving it more than once gives the dogs a better chance to understand it.

If I preface the command with a dog's name, the others may ignore the command. If I want all the dogs to turn, this is not so good.

Conversely, if I have one dog who is not where they should be, I will speak that dog's name and then give the command for them to get back in place.

Say the commands loudly and distinctly enough to be heard. In many cases I can almost whisper commands, but if we go by a noisy distraction, I may be almost shouting.

Learn to modulate your voice to convey happiness and disappointment. The dog has to know everything you want to say in a few short words. In an emergency you must convey urgent instructions in a second or two.

A higher lighter pitch is good for praises, a medium, clear pitch for commands, and a lower louder pitch for correction. You must be able to correct in a deep tone and then immediately praise in a high pitched happy tone if the situation calls for it.

If you speak in a monotone, this is your chance to learn something new and to use your tone of voice as a tool.


Retraining

Anytime a dog fails to carry out a command efficiently, it is time to retrain. Either get off the bike and train, or train on your next walk. Training never stops and rarely waits. If you have a training problem fix it as soon as you can. If you fail to fix a problem you may have an accident all too soon.

My senior lead dog knows more traffic law than some drivers. If a dog doesn't do what you want, don't think of it as bad. Your dog may be still learning, or it may be stubborn, not particularly bright or, you may need to find a clearer, less confusing way to train (most likely).

Try to ensure your message is clear and not mixed up.

A suggestion, don't say "Yeeha!", it sounds like "Gee Haw" and is confusing.

There is one exception to carrying out commands immediately without question. I pay careful attention to my senior lead dog (Jag), especially as we approach blind intersections. He can hear the cars I can't see. If Jag baulks, we stop and talk. He has saves us from being run over by stupid drivers periodically.  Learn to respect the additional senses and thought your experienced dogs bring to the team.


Scheduling

Dogs that run are atheletes. They need continuing training to stay at the peak of their skills. However, overtraining and burnout is a real danger.

We try to run once a week (except some dogs may stay home in event of injury or being in season, etc.). When possible, one of our weekly runs is a major run at a significant percentage of the dogs' abilities or in a completely new location. The day after a major run we almost always take a break day and just walk a bit.

We also walk a couple of times a day. Every walk is a training session. (All of life is a training opportunity.) We practice all our commands. The dogs are usually in front and getting direction of where to walk by command.

In the end, dogs run for an adventure and to have fun. If you run more than a couple of days in a row, your dogs may start getting bored. Bored dogs zombie out or are unusually easily distracted. Alternatively they may just stop running.

If my dogs go on strike while on a run it is probably warm, I generally take a really long break, give some water, pet them and start walking them home. I remind them that when they get home they always get treats (have special word for meat). “Go car, go ride, go treat”. This usually gets them moving. Finally, I generally give them some time off. Eventually, sitting around home gets boring and going for a run looks fun again.

If you take a break longer than a week, assume you will need to do some  retraining. If you haven't been walking and training, start with a walk test. Do they remember their commands? Then do a short run with a minimum team size. Build up carefully.

Run different routes on different days. It keeps the dogs from getting bored and lets you know whether they are just following the route from memory or listening to your commands. My first lead dog could follow a trail from memory a year or two after he last ran it, but a new route or a slight variation tests command ability.

Increase mileage slowly. It is my experience that the dogs will go a bit further each week given an opportunity (if it isn't too hot). They are building up muscles and keep pushing a bit further themselves. Bikejor for a year or two and you won't have enough time to run them as far as they want to go (at least that is the limit I have hit).


Things to watch out for

At a minimum, stop and water and check your dogs on a schedule. I water them every two miles.
Also monitor how hot they look.
How much is the tongue sticking out?
Is there foam around their mouth or white stuff on their tongue?
Get used to sticking a finger in along their teeth to the back of their gums.
Do this consistently and you can feel their temperature.

If they are hot or dehydrated, stop in shade, water them and rest until they look better. If you are the impatient type, enjoy the veiw, pet the dogs, read a book. You must let the dogs cool off.

If you see anything strange also stop and check.
A bobbing or dropping head or back is a lame dog.
It is much easier to see problems with a dog's gait from the side, but from back all I have ever noticed is bobbing.

STOP and inspect paws and legs if you see a bobbing or dropping head or back. Solve the problem for sure and certain before continuing onward. If necessary, unclip a dog and run it back and forth to see the problem.


Flying in Formation (multiple dogs)


I read a good book that noted that wolves are into manuovering prey by managing the space around them (blocking escape routes and allowing the prey to run itself out in a good area). The author noted that dogs have the same sense of space management. Well, mushing is all about everyone knowing their proper relative position. 

You are training dogs to fly in formation with you and each other. The ropes can help guide, but can't force a dog into proper positon, and if a dog tangles in the ropes every 20 feet, you are not going anywhere. The whole team will learn to run relative to each other.  You need to select positions carefully.  

I run a fan hitch with all the dogs alongside each other.  (Dogs in training run with a tug line that is a head length shorter than the others.)  The most experienced and successful lead dogs are on the left adjacent to oncoming traffic (I live in the US).  Other well trained dogs are on the right, and inexperienced dogs are bracketed in the middle.  You may need to go to a Yukon or different type of hitch if you have a lot of dogs and can't run on wide roads.

It takes a lot of finishing training to get a few dogs to run perfectly in formation (even if they know commands they have to learn relative positions). Dogs tend to either run the most worn portion of a trail (most comforable on their pads) or a certain distance from the edge of pavement. The problem is that you want them to run on the right hand side (in the US). Learning to do this takes extra training and is not as easy as you might expect.

When you only have a few dogs, every dog must be a “command lead dog” to a large degree. They must all know what a command means so they can all do it. If they don't run in near perfect formation, the resulting chaos is embarrasing at best and dangerous at worst.


Lead Dogs

The lead dog defines where the team is supposed to go and where they are supposed to be (relative positions). As I said above, everything keys off the lead dog. If you only have one dog, it has to be a lead dog.  If all your dogs are command lead dogs, if the senior lead dog doesn't respond, another dog will.

There are trail lead dogs that can just follow an existing trail.  Then there are command lead dogs, which can follow directional commands and navigate a web of trails, or a street system.  When I speak about lead dogs for bikejoring, they are command lead dogs.

Note that lead dogs are more stressed than the other dogs on your team, so make sure they get enough breaks and rest and lots of praise.  Also, train as many of your dogs as possible to lead.

Contrary to what some say, a lead dog, at best, is evaluating your commands and everything they see and hear around them. Since they are out front, they see more than you do, and they definitely hear and smell more things than you do. A good lead dog will follow your commands, unless he or she senses a reason not to. So obedience is only part of what a lead dog does.

If you train only for strict obedience, you may suppress your lead dog's ability to analyze and act independently. While I start out training for obedience, as the dog gains experience I am also trying to help it learn to evaluate situations. When I have an inexperienced lead dog and see a learning opportunity I will point out the options. When my experienced lead dog disobeys a command, say to turn left at a blind intersection, and saves the team from a car I can't hear or see yet, I praise him, a lot. I accept that he may not do what I say every time, or always make the best decision, as long as he tends to make a safe decision. However, this freedom to analyze and decide is something a lead dog grows into. None of my dogs starts out as a lead dog with that much freedom.

An urban lead dog has to learn that cars are dangerous, how cars are likely to move and how to avoid them. They have to learn how to react to other dogs. Wary, but not aggressive, willing to go around if possible. They have to regard varmits as interesting, but not worth going off the road or trail for. They have to be willing to drag or bump team mates in the correct direction and always keep a tight lead until told otherwise. This blend of obedience, wisdom, analysis and confidence take years to develop.  I train from puppyhood, and they know their commands by 6 months, start to grasp complex multiword commands at 2 or 3 years and are really great by 5 years.

If you train well, you will have multiple lead dogs in various stages of learning, so they can take turns. I run my inexperienced lead where the risks are lower and I can stop and help them evaluate the situation. My experienced lead navigates the complex stuff.

I designate a lead dog by putting them one foot in front of the others and running them on the left, closest to oncoming traffic.  (Lengthen the lead by adding a neck line).


Training Philosophies

Some people say you have to be the Alpha or top dog, give commands and get instant obedience. This is true to a fair degree. However, I also find there is a place for negotiation.

When I am pushing dogs to their limits, it is real important that I pay attention to their messages and adapt accordingly. I am in charge, which makes me responsible for ensuring my dogs are successful and have fun.

Remember that you MUST be the Alpha dog, a benevolant dictator. If you aren't, then one of your dogs will be. That dog will have to fight to be Alpha, and the pack will live by its rules, not yours.  On the other hand, being the Alpha in a well run team more often means you act like the activities director for the team.  Your dogs are on a lifetime cruise and you are responsible for keeping them entertained and productive.  

Note that the top dog may well be different at home and when you are running.  I have an unprepossessing female, who, when you put a harness on her, becomes a LEAD, and she means it.

It is a paradox that the better you train your dogs, the more freedom they will have. My dogs are invited to parties and weekend getaways with me ("be sure to bring your dogs") because they are well trained. I suspect I am sometimes invited places because I bring the dogs. When I walk into a senior facility with one of the dogs, people light up because their friend is here. When I visit without a dog, I feel like I am pretty much invisible to people. Consider getting Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog ratings for your dogs. The classes are another way to learn to work together.

How much training do you want to do? Well, how much opportunity do you want to give your dogs? How much of the world do you want to open up for your dogs?

Don't read just one book or hear just one expert and assume you have learned how to train and act towards your dogs. You must find a style that works for you and for each of your dogs.

Each dog is different. Each situation is different. There will be good and bad days. It is a continual balancing act and you must find ways of dealing with it all.

My first lead dog lacked some confidence sometimes, but was very street-smart. He looked ahead and thought things through. He remembered all the ways we've gone before. I have other team dogs that are convinced they know where to go and want to go, but lack wisdom. Each requires a different approach.

When dogs interact with each other, it gets even more complex.
Each dog you add or change will require you to adapt.


Goals



Goals are important as they help motivate you to keep working with your dogs. From what I have seen, there are two ways to approach your mushing goals.

The first method is to choose a mushing goal, and then select dogs to fit that goal. The more obsessive you need to achieve your goal, the more obsessive your dogs will tend to be. Your dogs and your lifestyle will be slected to fit your mushing goal.

The way I approach my goals is to consider not only my mushing goals, but other goals as well. I want my dogs to be well socialized in a variety of situations. They are calm around other dogs, allow kids to pet them, adults to pet them, are comfortable with wheelchairs, etc. This means I select the dogs, and then select my mushing goals to fit the dogs.

My fair warning is that I meet a fair number of people for whom the mushing goal starts out as one of many goals, and ends up as the only goal.

If you find you want more dogs and better dogs for pulling, then you are likely making mushing a primary life goal.

Even if your dogs are not super sled dogs, it is fun to have goals, like crossing a mountain range or running along the length of a river. Long trails can be broken into short sections to fit the abilities of your dogs. If you want to do a long trail, split it into sections your team can run in one day with an access point at one end for your vehicle.

If you have someone who will enable or help you, you can run twice as far because you don't have to do a round trip.  That's called enabling...
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