Monday, December 12, 2011

Just like learning to ride a bike

This past Sunday, I found myself clutching a hot chocolate in a local coffee shop, while bouncing up and down in one spot as I desperately tried to bring some circulation back to my fingers and toes. You see, all 20 of my digits were frozen solid, because I had just returned from a 10k bike ride. On December 11.

Now I know a few cycling fanatics who are brave (or crazy) enough to bike all year round. But not me. No sir. I wimp out sometime around Canadian Thanksgiving. When it starts to rain a lot and when that North wind really starts to feel like a North wind.

But this year, it's been unseasonably warm. And snow free. So as we've somehow convinced Mother Nature to extend autumn, I've saved my bike from storage dust bunnies for a few extra weeks.

Which makes the Beast very happy. Because biking is one of his top favourite activities. Right up there with eating and, well, eating some more.

T'was not always so.

The enlightened idea to get the Beast running along side a bike came to me as so many of my dog training ideas do; while watching a dog show (although I can't remember if it was The Dog Whisperer or At the End of My Leash). Biking = good, according to t.v. canine experts. Especially for high energy dogs like mine. Also good for doggies who don't like following direction. They kind of have no choice but to pay attention to you when they are being forced to keep up to (and out of the way of) a bike. So two birds, one stone: drain the Beast of his vast reservoir of energy and firmly establish myself and hubby as top dogs!

So one Saturday afternoon about a month after we brought the Beast home, we figured that it was time to give this biking thing a whirl. Remember how excited your parents were on the day that they decided it was time to take your training wheels off and get you riding a two-wheeler all on your own? Well, that is how hubby and I felt: confident in our abilities to lead our little man through this exercise and convinced that he would be a pro within a few minutes!

Now remember how you felt the first time your Dad gave you a push and let go of your bike? Remember how you screamed, "No dad, don't let go! Don't let go!" as panic rose in your throat and you shakily made your way down the street and into a garbage can at the end of the alley? Yeah, that pretty much sums up the Beast's feelings about this whole experience...

The first exercise was relatively simple: introduce him to the bike. So I led the Beast over to this two-wheeled monstrosity and let him have a good sniff. No problem. He likes sniffing things. And he's really good at it.

Next, I leashed him up around my waist, grabbed the handle bars, and went for a little walk, so that it was bike, me and the Beast, in that order. Also no problem. He knows how to walk, after all.

Then I straddled the bike, one leg on either side, and kept walking down the street. This is the part where the Beast started to get a little jumpy. As he was getting closer to the wheels, he started looking around for hubby, as if to say, "Dude, where are you and why are you letting her walk me next to this weird looking thing?" But after a couple of minutes, he settled into a cautious pace, casting a cautious eye on the bike every now and then.

After going around the block a few times, I decided to up the ante. It was time to get him to respect the bike, and learn how to stay out of its way. So I gently nudged him with the front tire once.

He didn't like that very much. 

The Beast leaped 6 feet into the air and about 6 feet away from the bike, growling and barking and having a general fit. And remember, he was tied to my waist, and I was straddling the bike. So violent was his reaction against the nudge that he took me down, along with the bike, and the three of us landed in a pile one on top of the other, with the Beast on the bottom writhing like an individual having a demon exorcised from him. I, on the other hand, was swearing a blue streak, as hubby looked on, trying not to laugh. When he felt it safe enough to come close to me without fear of getting a knuckle sandwich, hubby helped untangle the Beast, the bike and me. And then, ever the optimist, he said, "Well, this is good. I'm pretty sure it means that the Beast will respect the tire, right?"

"Something like that," I mumbled. Then we called it quits for the day, deciding that learning to ride a bike is something to be done in stages.

We went out again the very next day, and repeated the exact same exercises. This time, the Beast didn't throw a tantrum, although he clearly wasn't having any fun and was having a hard time relaxing. So we did this over and over again for a week, no more than 15 minutes a day, until he finally started to calm down enough around the bike for us to actually try taking him for a ride.

Hubby tried first. Having learned from my experiences of being pulled down before we were even riding the bike, he decided to hold the leash in his hand and take the Beast for a ride. We found a large, abandoned parking lot and hubby started pedalling in large, slow circles. The Beast started to panic, bucking and lunging away from the tires, and looking at me with a plea in his eyes to make this hellish experience stop. Hubby, ever the calmer influence than me, held firm and got the Beast to focus on him and the bike ride. It took ten minutes before the Beast stopped whining. And while his furtive glances continued, I watched as the leash got a little bit more slack because he stopped trying to leap as far away from the bike as possible. Then I watched as hubby started to pedal a little more quickly, and the Beast kicked up his own gait to match the bike's. Still cautious, and still a little panicked whenever the bike made a turn, but settling into a reasonable pace.

We did this for another week. And we watched him closely. And when we noticed that his ears were finally dropping back, we knew that he was actually starting to enjoy this bike thing. And so...

His summer days became filled with bike rides. When we wasn't busy as my running partner, hubby would take him on 6 or 7k bike rides along the river in the mornings. Every Sunday, the three of us would take off for a 5k ride to the Farmer's market, followed by a visit to the nearby dog park, and a 5k ride back home. And some nights, when I would come home from work, I would trade in my walking shoes for my bike and take the Beast for a nice ride so that he would be sure to settle into a nice quiet evening.

And he loves it. I mean, LOVES it. Every bike ride starts out the exact same way: the Beast taking off in an all out sprint, daring hubby or I to keep up with him as he sets the pace for the initial stages of the bike ride. Within a few minutes, his panting can be heard by all within a three block radius, but his face is glowing with the biggest puppy grin. And his ears are pinned straight back, the ultimate sign that he is having the time of his life. The further we go, the more he slows down, until he is content to trot alongside us at a more reasonable pace, casting the occasional glance back to make sure that whichever one of us taking up the rear has been able to keep up. And everyone who passes us in the opposite direction smiles at him, sometimes exclaiming in amazement that they have never seen a dog run alongside a bike before. The Beast smiles back at them as if to say, "Yeah, I know. I'm a freaking rock star!"

There have been unfortunate mishaps. Like the time his herding instinct kicked in when we stumbled upon a gaggle of geese and he pulled me straight off my bike and on top of him. Or the now infamous cone episode, when he dodged a lunging dog and ran straight into the rear tire of hubby's bike, suffering from a nasty bout of road rash that drove us all crazy for two weeks. But neither of these episodes have made him scared of the bike. Like a true pro, he gets right back into that saddle.

These days, there's not enough light to bike early in the morning or in the evenings after work, so our bike rides are relegated to Sunday trips to the Farmer's market and the dog park. I don't know how much longer this will last, because let's face it, when the snow falls, the bike gets stored. So I admit, I would love to have a white Christmas, but I'm okay with the snow holding out a little longer. Because there is nothing like seeing the Beast's face break out into that smile as he runs top speed alongside my bike every Sunday.