Training your dog to wear a pack is simple, and most domestic dogs quickly take a shine to it—we’ve been asking them to carry things for the last thousand years or more. Other dogs require gentle nudging, but know your own dog’s limits: if he is a senior dog or his health is compromised, wearing a pack may be inappropriate for him—consult your vet. Likewise, a puppy should not be asked to carry any measurable weight at all.
With rare exceptions though, nearly all dogs (even very small ones) can wear a backpack, and most of them can handle at least a little cargo. There are loads of great reasons for your dog to carry a load; read on to learn about them, and discover helpful tips to teach your dog how to wear a pack.
WHY SHOULD MY DOG WEAR A PACK?
Dogs need a job to do—even dogs who are not specifically working dogs. It’s in their nature. But many dogs have no outlet for this, and sometimes the unrequited desire to work expresses itself in undesirable behaviors: excessive barking, hyperactivity, and even anxiety. Wearing a pack, if only for a quick walk around the block, keeps your dog focused and gives him a sense of purpose. It’s also:
- Good exercise Carrying a pack physically challenges your dog, and does so in a compressed window of time: walking for fifteen minutes with a weighted dog backpack is roughly equivalent to a half-hour walk without one.
- Mentally and emotionally stimulating Carrying a backpack also refocuses your dog’s attention away from the errant squirrel or cyclist in the road to the task at hand: carry the water bottles around the block, and deliver them safely back to the house.
- Therapeutic For a dog with fear aggression, the gentle pressure of a pack can be soothing the same way a thunder vest settles a dog with thunder anxiety. The dog backpack can also calm a driven or anxious dog.
- Easier for you Your fit and healthy dog can make your own burden lighter on the trail. Asking him to carry his supplies:
- allows you to include small items you’d have left behind otherwise,
- can extend your backpacking adventure, and
- keeps you from having to carry more yourself.
Even an empty pack makes your dog feel important. So a better question may be, why shouldn’t your dog wear a pack?
WHAT CAN MY DOG CARRY IN HIS BACKPACK?
Your dog’s backpack payload really boils down to what is most comfortable for him and helpful for you. Examples include:
- His own food and water
- A Frisbee, which doubles as a water bowl
- Empty poop bags
- Your extra shoes, one placed in each of the pack’s saddlebags
- Other small items you might need for hiking
Avoid packing sharp objects (your car keys, for example) in your dog’s backpack, and make sure each saddlebag is weighted identically. Then continue to adjust the weight distribution in them as your dog consumes food and water on the hike.
Quick Tip: Your dog’s payload should never exceed 25 percent of his body weight, and many seasoned hikers are uncomfortable with that much—25 percent of your own weight would make for a burdensome backpack if you used the same ratio for yourself. For most dogs a good pack weight limit is 10 to 12 percent of total body weight after conditioning, a number that can be shaved or nudged up based on your dog’s health and energy level. So if your companion weighs 50, ask him to carry no more than a 5-pound load in the beginning.
WHAT KIND OF DOG BACKPACK SHOULD I BUY?
Make sure the pack is specifically designed for a dog. Look for one that’s waterproof, fully adjustable, and allows him to carry a few things safely and comfortably. And make sure the pack’s contact points with your dog are padded.
A lightweight pack with smaller saddlebags made primarily for hydration is suitable for short-duration hiking or trail runs. A larger-capacity pack with additional padding is appropriate for big, multi-day camping and backcountry hiking adventures with your dog.
Avoid a backpack design that puts weight on your dog’s spine; the weight should lie instead on his torso, where he’s strongest. Then use the compression system—adjustable straps that allow you to cinch the saddlebags snug—to customize the fit and keep the load from shifting during a hike.
HOW DO I TEACH MY DOG TO WEAR HIS BACKPACK?
Assuming your dog’s frame is fully developed and he is otherwise healthy:
- Make introductions. Allow your dog to examine his new pack all he wants, and then place it on him like a blanket without attaching it. Treat him for standing still during this exercise. Remove the pack and treat him again. Repeat again and again until the dog no longer cares about the pack.
- Now close the clasps. Praise him copiously and give him a treat. Begin to adjust the pack to fit your dog properly: the straps should be snug so the pack won’t shift, but not so tight they cause chafing. You should be able to get a finger or two under them comfortably. Adjust the straps evenly on both sides of his body to keep the pack from listing to one side.
Continue to make small adjustments the first few times your dog wears his pack, and be advised that weather, changes in his weight, and wear and tear can necessitate adjustments. If your dog shows signs of stress, back off and reward him for letting you simply drape a folded towel across his back.
- Try it inside first. Your dog will need some time to develop an awareness of where his pack is in relation to everything else; let him figure it out without any weight at first—he’ll probably bump into furniture and door frames while he’s learning his new shape. Later add wadded up newspaper to mimic the profile of a full pack. Continue to lavish him with praise and treats.
- Let him wear it empty. Go for a walk, or engage in a vigorous play session—this will allay stress and create a positive association (pack = fun). After a few efforts, begin to add equal weight to both sides: a water bottle or bladder in each saddlebag, or a baggie of rice or beans on each side, for example. On your outings ask your dog to navigate stairs and curbs, and to scramble over logs or even park benches so he’ll learn how to maneuver with weight on his back.
Importantly: start with light weight and simple tasks, and gradually work up to bigger challenges with a heavier pack over the course of a few weeks. Keep the outings upbeat and your feedback positive, and include fun things in his pack— a favorite ball or toy, and a bag of treats.
- Try a hike, however this looks to you—a jaunt in the wilderness or a romp down a park path. Check the dog backpack for signs of chafing, and check your dog for signs of fatigue. If you observe either of these, remove the pack and carry it the rest of the way yourself.
Important Safety Tips for a Backpacking Dog
- Remove your dog’s saddlebags and use the pack’s harness handle to guide him across rivers and streams, where he’s most vulnerable.
- Your dog is more likely to overheat wearing a pack; observe him for signs of it and offer him more frequent water breaks than usual.
- Check your dog’s feet and pads for wear and tear, and check them often. Bring dog booties even if your dog never wears them: they’ll be indispensable if he injures a pad on his trail adventure.
- Check often for chafing where the pack’s straps make contact with the dog: lesions can occur with little warning in both furry and bare spots and can become infected if not treated immediately with antibiotics.
Resist the urge to throw a backpack on your uninitiated dog and go. But don’t give up if he resists wearing a pack at first. Acclimate him to it gradually and include treats and praise along the way. Or work on backpack exercises at mealtime: your dog will soon associate wearing his pack with pleasure. And in no time your confident canine will be ready to pack in his own supplies for the trail, or the park across town, or even a pleasant stroll around the block. He’ll appreciate being given his own important work to do, and you’ll both benefit from active time together outdoors.