Can I Live Car-Free and Get a Dog?

“OMG there’s a dog in a backpack!” “Look! Look at the pup in the bag” “I love your backpack!”

Is it possible to live car-free and get a dog? For many, the idea of getting a dog in a city is a fantasy. For me, I had a full-time job, evening activities, am a car-less bike commuter, and I’m a renter with close-by neighbors. However, when the global pandemic put me in a position where I was home 24/7 and my landlord begrudgingly agreed to a dog, the only remaining issue was the lack of car. How would I get the dog to a vet? Or my sister’s house 4.5 miles away when I inevitable went for dinner or to babysit? 

Was I really going to let a lack of a car keep me from my fantasy of finally getting a dog? A lack of a car? Pshh, that’s something I prided myself on. That’s when I realized that being car-free did not have to be a restriction to me achieving a long-term dream of getting my own dog.

How do I take MY dog with me?

First, I live car-free by predominantly riding my bicycle everywhere year-round; weather be damned. However, I have been known to take the occasionally car share, or metro/bus. With an added buddy, I needed to consider all of my avenues. Was I planning on bringing the dog everywhere? What methods would I use? What about extreme heat or cold? There were a number of factors that led to my final decision of how to commute with a dog. 

The first thing I considered was how to carry the dog? Every person will be different here. I knew I wanted a backpack early-on, but there are a few option to consider.

  • Trailer:
    • This method will make the size of the dog less relevant, but will also make maneuverability more difficult. Trailers are also best used on only specific types of bikes, but there are a lot of options. It is also possible with minimal effort to change which bike the trailer is attached to. You can use any type of trailer you want depending on the dog, though I would recommend a dog specific trailer.
      • My first 2 months with a dog I used a borrowed kids trailer as a hold over. It worked perfectly for hauling a dog and a full turkey to my sister’s for Thanksgiving.
  • On-bike attachment/basket:
    • This is a great option for small dogs typically to about 25-30lbs. The dog gets to sit directly in front of you so you can always see them. The biggest downside to me is that you cannot move it from bike to bike (although not everyone has a running list of bikes like me…).
      • I have a basket on my commuter bike (normal basket, not dog-related) and it is literally the most useful thing ever.
  • Backpack:
    • This is a great option for small dogs up to 35lbs (and potentially more depending what you want to carry). The biggest appeal for me with the backpack is the versatility. Not only can you take it with you on any bike (I have 3 bikes and a bike share membership), but it can also be used for quick stop-ins at a store, on subways, etc. The biggest downsides to a backpack are the strain on your shoulders and the need to stop every 45-60 minutes for 15 minutes to let the dog stretch out. For a typical commuter day this isn’t a problem, but for camping trips or longer outings on the bike, there need to be built in stops that I may not have normally taken. Personally, I chose the K9 Sport Sack because it came highly recommended by others and offers a variety of bags.
      • BONUS: When the dog is in a backpack, they can enter spaces where dogs usually aren’t allowed because they are contained! This served me well on bike trips where I needed to run into a grocery store, or if I wanted to do a quick shopping trip while away from home. 

How do I train my Small dog to use a backpack?

First, I luckily had a friend that biked with her dog that I could use as an example and a sounding board. Much like commands such as sit, stay, and heel, you have to train your dog to use the backpack. It’s not an innate behavior, but it can be trained!

Since I was getting the dog after knowing that I wanted to bike with them, I had the benefit of seeking a dog that was under 20lbs (which was my landlord’s rule) and would be the right temperament. However, if this is something you are looking to do with an existing dog, just make sure the method you choose fits into their life too!

I was incredibly lucky that my dog took to the backpack quickly. You will want to employ various training methods that you can spot online (I am a bike expert, not a professional dog trainer). In general, I used lots of treats and worked my way up to riding. First the bag was just on the floor at home with an occasional treat hiding inside. Then it was testing being in the bag for a few minutes, then walking around the house and the block before ever getting on the bicycle. For more tips on how to ride safely with the dog in a backpack, please see my guest post on the K9 Sport Sack Blog, The Joys of Being a Bike-Dog Owner.

Meet Watson

After a long search, I finally found the perfect adventure rescue dog (I may be editorializing, but he is pretty great). Despite his whines in the trailer, Watson is totally content in the bag. Even on a cold day, he’ll only shiver a bit, but he won’t complain. Much like myself, Watson has become an all-weather and all season bike dog. While I do try to limit extremes, sometimes you end up in the middle of an unexpected downpour. Since last year we’ve biked: paved and dirt trails, Boston night rides, in Solidarity with Black Lives, to campgrounds, to friend’s houses, in State and National Parks and, of course, on joy rides along the river.

Because in the long run it’s the bag or the crate, and he’ll chose the bag every time.

final caveat

I want to make one caveat to this whole discussion. If this blog didn’t make it obvious, I ride my bike a lot. I am extremely comfortable on my bike and in almost any road and off-road scenario. I do not recommend riding with a dog unless you have a certain level of confidence on the bike, or just stick to paths. When I say Watson comes everywhere, I mean everywhere and that includes bike paths and heavily trafficked roads. I live in a city and commuting means cars unfortunately. If I didn’t trusts myself around cars, I wouldn’t ride precious cargo. Please keep that in mind.

My Inspiration

I want to make a special shout-out to my inspiration. This whole transition was made possible by the example of another dog in my life that I had seen in person in a backpack. Priscilla (@hiitslittlep) was my good example and hopefully Watson can be that for other potential dog-owners out there! Being able to take my adventure buddy with me every step of the way has made this the best decision of my life. 

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