A Guide to Dogpacking for Beginners

Dogs need exercise. People have busy lives. When these two facts collide, the canine need for physical activity often takes second place to the human pressures of work, family, and other commitments. Experts recommend an hour of daily physical exertion to keep a dog healthy, but many working dog owners have large, powerful breeds: they can’t simply toss a dog toy around the living room if they want to have any furniture left afterward.

Dogpacking is a fun, easy way to provide a mental and physical workout for your dog, even as he helps you in return. Imagine your dog carrying leashes, teaching tools, dog toys, and cleanup bags to your next training session, or bringing along lunch and drinks on day-long outings. Trips to the grocery store could be more fun and beneficial to the dog if he carried home some of the weight, and backcountry expeditions will enjoy the canine companionship and an extra hand (paw?) to carry the gear.

With proper training and conditioning, a healthy dog can safely carry up to a quarter of their weight in specially designed dog packs. Working breeds, especially those bred for draft work, can carry a third of their weight or more. Consult your veterinarian to ensure your dog is in proper shape before beginning a dogpacking regimen.

Where to Start
Obtaining a proper pack is the first step. It is possible to construct a pack yourself with the right pattern, but the best bet for most beginning dogpackers is to purchase one of the commercially available models. The important considerations for pack selection are 1) correct fit and 2) intended use.

Correct Fit
Correct pack fit not only ensures that your dog avoids abrasions or muscle sprains, it also keeps the packing experience enjoyable. Imagine walking a mile in shoes that are too tight or too loose: while it may not injure your feet, it certainly won’t be fun! Pack makers generally size their products based on the weight of the dog and the circumference of their girth, measured around the entire dog just behind the elbows. Common sense on the owner’s part is also necessary. A Welsh Corgi may be too short to wear the same pack as an equally-girthed taller dog, for instance.

Intended Use
Intended use is an important consideration. The needs of an owner who wants a dog to carry leashes and bowls for a trip to the beach does not need the same durability, volume, and ruggedness that a wilderness backpacker requires. Two factors will help you decide on a pack:

How much do you need to carry? Dog packs, like human backpacks, are often sized in terms of cubic inches. For hauling a few items on a day trip, 650 cubic inches (roughly 13″x6.5″x4.5″) is probably sufficient. For a multi-day backpacking excursion, look for packs with volumes of 2000+ cubic inches. Of course, don’t buy a pack that is too large for your dog to carry!

A pack that will only see service for in-town jaunts does not need to be as heavy-duty as models intended for wilderness hiking. If you plan to take your dog on backcountry adventures, look for packs made from heavy-duty Cordura nylon. A pack that splits open halfway through the trip could be a nightmare. Remember, dogs can be rough on packs.

Pack Construction
Dog packs come in many different models and designs, but they have several elements in common. Examining a pack for the points listed below will give you a good idea of the quality and usefulness of the pack you are considering.

1. Panniers. These are the bags that hang on each side of the dog to haul your gear. Roughly rectangular in shape, they are sometimes tapered for a more ergonomic fit and are usually made from nylon. Some will have additional features such as storm flaps over the zippers to repel water, compression straps to secure and stabilize the load, or interior pockets to help organize gear.

2. Belly and chest straps. These nylon-webbing belts are what secure the pack onto your dog. Most designs have a chest strap that wraps around your dog’s chest, and one or two belly straps that secure the panniers underneath your dog. Look for wide straps (narrow ones can be less comfortable) and some kind of padding over the straps (often a fleece or closed-cell foam wrap). Make sure the buckles are sturdy and lie flat so they don’t dig into the dog as the pack moves.

3. Backpiece. This is the connector between the panniers that rides on your dog’s back. It is a critical component of the pack, because the weight of the load will be focused here. On some designs, the backpiece is a solid piece of nylon (often padded), while other models have two or three nylon straps. Each style had advantages. Solid backpieces distribute the weight better, and are often equipped with mesh pockets or bungees to hold additional gear or a handle to help carry the pack when it’s not on your dog. Straps are individually adjustable to mold the pack more closely to your dog’s contours, ensuring a more natural fit.

4. Other goodies. Packs will other include other features and conveniences as well. Compression straps help to stabilize the load and can be used to strap gear on the outside of the pannier. Exterior pockets are great for items like need to be accessed quickly (like poop-scooping bags!). Some packs even include integrated water bladders!

Fitting the Pack
When your pack arrives, adjust it to fit your individual dog. The panniers should hang as vertically as possible to keep the weight centered low on the dog’s shoulders. The bottom of the pack should be no lower than the dog’s elbows nor forward of the front legs. The belly strap(s) should be snug, but not overly tightened. The chest strap must not be too high on the neck region, nor so low that it interferes with the swing of the front legs. If your pack has an adjustable backpiece, you can taper the width of the rear portion of the pack to conform with your dog’s waist.

The most important consideration of pack fit is the comfort of your dog. Freedom of movement is paramount, so adjust the pack anywhere it seems to hamper the natural way your dog moves.

Acclimating Your Dog
Your dog needs a chance to get used to the pack. Allow him to sniff and investigate, but discourage mouthing or gnawing of the pack-he should learn that the pack is a work tool, not a chew toy. Let the dog wear the empty pack around the house for an hour or so, making sure that no nibbling or worrying at the pack takes place. Better yet, go on a vigorous walk with your dog wearing the empty pack, and give lots of praise and attention. Soon your dog will associate the pack with exercise and accomplishment.

Once the dog is used to the feel of the pack, stuff both sides with crumpled newspaper to expand the sides without adding appreciable weight. It will probably take some time for your dog to understand that the pack makes him considerably wider: the first doorway is likely to cause a bit of confusion when a pannier collides with the door jamb!

After this initial adjustment period is well underway, you can begin adding weight. As mentioned before, a healthy dog can carry one-fourth to one-third of their weight. However, these proportions must be attained gradually as the dog builds strength: don’t load them up on the first day! Start with perhaps a tenth of their weight. Eight pounds is insignificant to an eighty-pound dog, but it will allow him to get a feel for the swing of the pack and an idea of what dogpacking entails.

Loading the Pack
Now that your dog is comfortable wearing the pack, you need to become accustomed to loading the pack – it’s not as easy as it sounds! There are two major concerns:

1. Balance: The panniers should be roughly equal in weight. If one side is too heavy, the pack will tend to slip around the dog, sagging on the side with the most weight. In extreme cases, your dog may have difficulty walking in a straight line! Adjusting the balance of the pack is an ongoing process. If the pack includes a water bladder, for example, items in the panniers might have to be redistributed every time a significant amount of water is added or removed. Heft each pannier to roughly gauge its relative weight, then put the pack on your dog and watch it closely for a few moments. Often, the natural movement of the dog will cause an imbalance to be noticeable.

2. Sharp corners. Be careful of items with sharp points of corners, as they can jab into your dog’s sides as he moves. If you have wide, flat objects that you can place in the panniers next to your dog’s sides, they will protect against other, less comfortable objects that may also be in the bag. Another protective option is to cut pieces of closed-cell foam to fit the inside of the pannier. These will protect your dog’s ribs from jabs by hard-edged objects.

Get Packing!
Now that you and your dog are comfortable with the pack, get out there! There are many dog-friendly trails in state parks, national forests, and wilderness areas, and don’t overlook urban excursions as well. With a properly fitting pack that doesn’t overburden your dog, your canine friend will soon relish these packing excursions. Many dogs learn to become excited at the mere sight of you handling the pack, because they know that exercise and adventure await!

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