7 Tips for Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Pack
Each of my three dogs has his own backpack.
On walks, hikes, or camping trips, each dog can carry his own snacks, water, and bags to pick up after him. When I break out the packs my dogs crowd me, pushing to see who gets to wear a pack first. They don’t think of the pack as work but instead equate a pack with fun; going somewhere new and an adventure.
Evaluate your Dog
Not every dog is a suitable candidate for carrying a pack, especially a loaded one, so before you go shopping for a back pack or begin putting any weight on your dog, take an honest look at him. Medium to large breed dogs under a year and a half of age can wear an empty pack to get used to it but shouldn’t carry any weight as it can stress a growing body and potentially cause injuries. Giant breed dogs mature even later than smaller dogs and shouldn’t carry any weight until at least two years of age. If your older dog has some arthritis or other joint issues, or if he has other health problems, don’t ask him to carry any weight. Overweight dogs or those who have been living a sedentary lifestyle need to get back in shape first.
In addition, breed or body type difference can affect a dog’s ability to wear a backpack. Toy breed and other tiny dogs shouldn’t carry any weight as it could hurt them. It’s difficult to fit a pack on dogs with extremely short legs; such as Shih Tzus and Dachshunds, while dogs with a long back (Basset Hounds, Corgis, and Dachshunds) shouldn’t carry any weight at all. Dogs with short muzzles could potentially have breathing difficulties (Boxers, Bulldogs, and Pugs). If you have any questions as to whether your dog should be able to wear a pack and carry some weight, talk to your veterinarian.
Obedience Training is Needed
Before starting with backpack training, refresh your dog’s obedience training. It’s important that your dog know and respond to the basic obedience exercises, especially walk on a leash nicely, sit, down, stay, and come so that you can communicate with him while he’s carrying his pack. This is even more important should your dog be off leash.
Choose the Right Pack
There are many packs commercially available. Right now, my dogs all wear the Ruffwear Approach Pack. I like the way the pack fits my dogs (two Australian Shepherds and one English Shepherd) and it’s comfortable for them to wear for hours at a time. I also appreciate the bright colors, particularly the red and orange, so my dogs are easily seen when we’re in the woods and they won’t be confused with wildlife.
When you choose a pack for your dog, look for a pack with wide straps that won’t cut into your dog or rub him raw. Padded straps help, too, as well as padding under strap connections. Although you can always buy fleece padding to add to the straps, it tends to work better if padding is a part of the original design. The pack shouldn’t wiggle or shift on your dog. If it does, it will be difficult for your dog to balance and carry and he’ll eventually try to rub the pack off on the nearest tree. The pack should ride closer to your dog’s shoulders with less weight on the middle of his back and none on his hips.
If there is a camping or hiking store nearby, you can try a few different packs on your dog to find the right pack and fit. If this isn’t possible, call and talk to a service representative at one of the pack makers, such as Ruffwear or Mountainsmith, and have your dog and a tape measure close at hand. The service rep can talk you through the process of choosing the right pack.
Introducing the Pack
Introducing the pack is easy. Have a pocketful of treats your dog likes in one hand and the pack in the other. Fiddle with the pack, touching your dog with it, having him step on it or over it, and feed him treats as you praise him for his boldness. Then place the pack on his back (without fastening any straps) and give him a treat and praise. After a couple of training sessions like this, if your dog is happy to see the pack and associates it with a good time, then put the pack on him and fit the straps so they are snug and hold the pack in place without being tight. Praise your dog and give him a few treats. Take it off and make a big fuss over him, “Good dog! Yeah, you’re awesome!”
The next training session, put the pack on him and then ask him to move around. Have him walk, sit, turn left and right, and even do a few tricks. Watch him to see if any of his movements are inhibited by the pack. See if any straps are too loose or too tight and make adjustments. When it fits well and your dog is moving freely, take the pack off and mark the straps so you know where the best fit is.
Walk with the Empty Pack
Now that the pack fits well, have your dog wear it when you go on your daily walks. Don’t put any weight in it yet as you need to see if the pack is going to need any adjustments after a few walks. Watch your dog for any changes in his normal movements and after each walk check for rubs or soreness. Adjust the pack as needed and remark the straps to show the new strap lengths.
Add Some Weight
The recommended maximum weight for most athletic and physically fit dogs is 25% of their body weight. My five year old, 50 pound Australian Shepherd, Sisko, shouldn’t carry more than 12.5 pounds; evenly balanced so that half of that weight is in each of his side packs. He’s comfortable carrying that weight, even on uneven ground.
Introduce the weight in your dog’s pack gradually. Dogs unused to strenuous exercise can even carry as little as 1% of their body weight for several walks and then, if the dog isn’t sore, gradually increase the weight a tiny bit every other walk. If at any time the dog appears stressed or sore, stop and give him time to recuperate. Then on another walk, ask him to carry less weight for a while and increase it later in even smaller increments. Remember, sore muscles and sore paws aren’t any fun. Take time for your dog to get stronger.
Vary the Terrain and Speed
When your dog is comfortable wearing the pack while walking and he’s built some fitness carrying the weight, then it’s time to add some changes. Take about half the weight out of his pack and go for a fast paced walk or a slow jog. When you change the pace, you’re changing everything as far as your dog is concerned. Balancing the pack will be different as will starting and stopping. Turns at a faster pace will need more balance. He’ll need time and practice to master these new skills.
As your dog’s skills improve and his fitness is better, then go for walks, hikes or slow jogs on different terrain. Sand, dirt, a few rocks to climb here and there, woods with dropped branches to climb, and soft ground can all be a challenge to your dog when he’s wearing a pack. Don’t take him back up to full weight, though, until he’s mastered all of these variations in pace and terrain and isn’t showing any signs of soreness or stress. Then, and only then, can you take him back up to full weight.
Even the most cooperative dog can have a bad day so watch your dog and learn his signs of stress. If he turns away from the pack one day and doesn’t want to wear it, he may be sore or perhaps he has a tummy ache. If, in mid-hike, he lies down and doesn’t want to move, something hurts. Check the pack straps and look at each paw. If his ears are plastered back to his head and he’s panting hard, something’s wrong. Remember, too, carrying this weight your dog is going to need more food and water to replenish what he’s used. Our dogs do so much for us so willingly, it’s our job to make sure our dogs are not hurt while working for us.