Commuting With Dogs – Tips for Riding With A Canine

Jamie rides to work with Chorney each day. Chorney is on a short leash attached to the rear rack. Photo by Stephen Morningstar
Jamie rides to work with Chorney each day. Chorney is on a short leash attached to the rear rack. Photo by Stephen Morningstar

By Jamie Morningstar

Owen Hancock and I work for Qualtrics, an Internet software company based in Provo, Utah. In addition to the fast-growing startup perks like catered lunches, casual offices, and sweet equity, Qualtrics boasts a special benefit: dog-friendly campuses! As long as the dog is (reasonably) well-behaved and (reasonably) well-groomed, man’s best friend is welcome at work.

I love working in a dog-friendly environment, even though I have to apologize for the occasional bark in the background when I’m on the phone with a customer. Dogs add an affectionate, casual, playful vibe to the office. I’m also grateful to be able to spend the day with my pup rather than leaving her home alone.

As cycle commuters, however, Owen and I faced a challenge – how could we maintain a regular schedule of biking to the office and also take advantage of the Qualtrics dog-friendly workplace? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

About Jamie and Chornaya

I work in the Qualtrics Provo office. I live in nearby Orem and commute by bike year-round (see the March 2014 Cycling Utah Commuter Column). My daily commute is quick and easy 2.5 miles each way through side streets and bike trails.

Chornaya, or Chorney for short, is a six-year-old black Labradoodle. She’s a very affectionate, very energetic dog. Cycle commuting with Chorney was borne out of necessity for two reasons:

1. I get to work by bike and if Chorney was going to come to work, she had to get there by bike as well.

2. Chorney has a lot of energy. At six, she’s only just getting over her puppy wiggles. And if she was going to survive hanging out at my desk for eight or ten hours a day, she needed to run off some energy in the morning.

Chorney is a medium-sized dog and a great runner, so I knew that with some training and practice she would do well running alongside my bike as I rode. There are several products created specifically for riding with a dog, such as the WalkyDog, but in the end I found that a short 24-inch leash clipped to my rear rack with a carabiner was the best equipment for us. The leash is long enough that Chorney can get out of the way of my pedals but short enough that she can’t get around in front of the bike to trip me up.

The key to successfully riding with Chorney is a no-pull harness. Chorney is a pretty well-trained dog, but she’s still susceptible to getting distracted when a critter crosses the street or a dog barks from behind a fence. I know

Owen brings Albert to his job at Qualtrics in Seattle. His commute is 5 miles each way. Photo by Chelsey Hancock
Owen brings Albert to his job at Qualtrics in Seattle. His commute is 5 miles each way. Photo by Chelsey Hancock

that for my safety and hers it is imperative that Chorney can’t pull me off-course if she bolts. The no-pull harness ensures that Chorney has to stay with me even if she’d rather go check something else out.

About Owen and Albert

Owen moved from Utah to Seattle last February to help Qualtrics open up a new engineering office. During the first year, he commuted between Provo and Seattle every week while his wife was finishing up pharmacy school at the University of Utah.

About the same time, Albert joined Owen’s family. Albert is a fourteen-month-old white Maltese. He is a small dog, weighing about 14 pounds.

Owen’s apartment in West Seattle is about 5 miles from the office, which doesn’t seem like much, but during rush hour the drive can take more than 30 minutes! There are alternate commuting options such as busses and a water taxi that can make the commute easier, but biking actually is the fastest way for Owen to get to and from work. Plus, when Owen rides his bike he doesn’t have to worry about parking, toll roads, or road rage, he reaps the health benefits, has fun, and most importantly spends time with Albert!

Albert accompanies Owen to work in a cute little backpack. Before committing to a pack, Owen did a lot of research because he wanted something that was low-profile and stylish. He found the perfect pack online from Timbuk2 called “The Mutt Mover.” It is different from other backpacks because the dog sits sideways in the pack rather than backwards. The only downside to the Mutt Mover that Owen has found is that the bag doesn’t have a built-in laptop holder. However, Albert is small enough that he can slide his laptop case right next to Albert in the pack.

Starting Out – Owen’s Training Process

Albert is a professional commuter, accompanying Owen to work and flying on planes since he was 8 weeks old. Starting training young has definitely made the process easier and now Albert is used to being schlepped around town in his pack.

Teaching Albert to love the backpack was natural. Dogs love sticking their heads out of car windows, and the backpack provides Albert with the same experience. Owen started using the backpack with Albert when he was a puppy, initially introducing him to it with lots of treats and praise. After the first ride, Albert was hooked.

Now, whenever Owen grabs his helmet Albert knows that it’s time for a ride. Albert walks over to the pack and waits for Owen. And if Owen takes too long getting ready, Albert gets impatient and will paw at the backpack until it’s time to go.

Owen’s Mutt Mover has seen a lot of mileage. He uses the backpack when riding his bike and also when commuting by bus, train, and even by airplane! If Owen is going anywhere with Albert, he makes sure to take the backpack because he can put him in the pack to go into a store or restaurant. Thankfully, Owen and Albert have only been turned away once!

Chorney is on a short leash attached to the rear rack with a carabiner. Photo by Stephen Morningstar
Chorney is on a short leash attached to the rear rack with a carabiner. Photo by Stephen Morningstar

Starting Out – Jamie’s Training Process

I knew that cycling with Chorney had the potential to be dangerous, so many days before our first commute we started off with simple rides up and down our street and around the block.

At first, Chorney was understandably nervous around the bike, but once she started getting comfortable with staying on my right side and not straining too far ahead or falling behind we began training with vocal commands.

Before I slow, stop, or turn I tell Chorney what’s going on. I tell her “slowing” or “turn right” and I’m not saying that she can actually discern her right from left (although, who knows, sheep dogs do far more!) but at least she knows that if I tell her we’re stopping or turning she needs to pay attention.

Catastrophes Averted – Jamie

Chorney and I have ridden hundreds of miles together with only two incidents.

The first was completely my fault. We were riding to the park, not our usual commuting route, and I turned right a little abruptly and without giving Chorney the notice she was used to. I turned right into her and we tumbled to the ground. Bike, rider, and dog were all fine and I took it as a good lesson in preparing myself and my dog before turning, especially when on an unfamiliar route.

The second was this winter during a slushy, sloppy day. Chorney and I had navigated to the turn lane on a fairly quiet side street and were slowing to turn left. A car buzzed around us on the right and disturbed a pile of slushy snow, making a big sound that surprised both me and Chorney. She spooked and bolted. Thanks to the no-pull harness she wasn’t able to pull me over, but we both wobbled a bit to regain our composure, which was especially nerve wracking to me as we were in the center lane and exposed to traffic on both sides.

Catastrophes Averted – Owen

Owen and Albert have only had one major accident. They were descending a hill during heavy traffic and came to embedded light-rail tracks. Usually Owen slows down and crosses the tracks perpendicularly, but because of the heavy traffic he was trying to match speed with the cars and didn’t cut over the tracks at a sharp enough angle. His front tire got wedged in the gap, and Owen fell over the handlebars, head-first, into oncoming traffic.

Fortunately, Owen reacted quickly and moved out of the way in time, but when he stood up he realized that Albert was no longer in the backpack. Albert had jumped out during crash, run across the street, and was waiting patiently for Owen on the sidewalk.

The backpack has a built-in collar hook to prevent the pooch from jumping out, but that day Owen hadn’t restrained Albert before leaving on his commute. That day was the last time Owen left Albert unhooked, and there have been no further incidents.

Bad Weather Advice

Although Seattle is notorious for rain, it rarely pours. True Seattleites don’t let a little rain stop them, so rain or shine Owen rides with Albert. Owen keeps a towel at work for Albert so he can dry off his face when they arrive, and Owen can always opt for the bus on days with truly bad weather.

Visibility in the rain can be a problem. In addition to Albert’s white head sticking out (which actually does a pretty good job of drawing attention), Owen has a light that he attaches his helmet in addition to front and rear lights on his bike.

As for Chorney and I, we cycle commute year-round and she needs very few weather-based pieces of equipment. I do have booties for Chorney to wear in the snow, but most of the time we go without unless it’s icy and I’m afraid that her paws might get cut. Thanks to her furry coat she doesn’t need any extra layers in the cold except for a reflective vest that I put on over her harness if we are riding in the dark or at dusk.

The biggest weather issue for Chorney is hot pavement. Wisdom says that if you can’t comfortably hold your hand on the pavement for 10 seconds, it’s not safe for a dog to walk on either. Sometimes Chorney and I will hang out at the office a little later on summer afternoons to give the worst of the heat time to dissipate and sometime my husband will pick Chorney up on his way home from work if the pavement is too hot for her to run. I can also put her winter booties on during the summer to protect her paws.

Well Worth the Trouble

When Owen’s hunched over his bike, riding up and down the Seattle hills in the rain, he admits that there have been times that he wishes he didn’t have Albert weighing him down. At those times, Owen simply has to look back at Albert’s smug face, tongue out, and realize how much Albert loves every day’s commute.

Owen’s favorite part of the commute is waiting at stoplights. At least twice a week someone will pull up next to Owen and Albert on their bike or in their car and ask to take a picture. His cuteness is irresistible!

As for me, it’s a little extra work to ride with Chorney. I don’t get to zip in to work at top speed and have to take it even slower when she tires. I have to prepare her for turns and stops. I have to protect her and myself from unleashed dogs that come up to us when we’re riding on bike trails. Commuting with a dog definitely does have its annoyances.

But when I pull her harness out in the morning and she sits up on her back legs so I can more easily get her harness on, when I see her running next to me with her big doggy smile, and when she’s napping peacefully in her bed next to my desk at work, I know that riding with a dog truly makes commuting communal.

If you have a suggestion for a commuter profile, have a commuter question, or other comments, please send it to [email protected]

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