Last Valentine’s Day my little monster of a puppy finally turned two. Now that winter is over, we’re headed out on our first rock climbing trip of the season which means he’s headed out for his first backpacking trip… ever. To give a quick synopsis, my little monster is a, now 2 year old Bernese Mountain / Australian Shephard mix. He’s a giant fluffy ball of madness who loves being outside and is constantly looking for a job. Like his owner, he’s happier outside than in, wants nothing more than to live in the back of a pick-up and can scale a pile of rocks faster than your standard mountain goat (okay, I can’t do that part but he can). For him, I bought the Ruffwear Approach Pack mostly because we sell it, it fit him properly, and we had it in stock. There are a TON of different doggy backpacks out there and if you’re seriously considering it, do the research and find the best one for your uses. I went with Ruffwear because I’ve had exceptional experiences with their other pet gear and because I trust them to make equipment that is durable and will last. I chose the Approach Pack because I thought the Single Track was too small and the Palisade Pack was too much. Grayson, my monster, isn’t going to be carrying a ton of weight, and I don’t normally leave him in a harness so the approach pack seemed like a good middle ground for him.

When it comes to training a dog to wear a pack there is a TON of knowledge out there. As an avid backpacker I know the importance of making sure you’re safely breaking into the sport so as to avoid long term injury or short term trail disasters. What I’ve found, is just like a human learning to backpack, your dog will have a learning curve as well. You can’t just toss on a pack and hope he loves it. Again, I would suggest you do your research and really dig into it. Here are a couple of steps I highlighted that I think are particularly important.

Wearing the Pack

Dog packs are not like collars or even harnesses. Just because your pup is used to wearing a harness doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be okay wearing a pack. Packs, even when empty are bulky have a little weight and feel awkward so your dog might not be super receptive to this. From what I read, and the experience I had, I found that the best way to get Grayson used to wearing the pack was by associating it with good things like dinner, snacks, and walk. I found the most success with creating a Pavlovian associating with walks. When he sees me get the pack out, it means we’re going for a dog walk and he gets super excited. There are some immediate short term tricks as well, you can repeat the process of putting the pack on and taking it off with treats as well. This will help you in the long run because you’ll be teaching them to sit still while you’re trying to do all the straps and whatnot. Also, while we’re here, do all sorts of research and maybe even consult your vet to make sure your dog is ready to wear a pack. There’s a difference between resistance and pain. A dog might be resistant to the idea at first, but you need to make sure that the pack isn’t actually hurting the dog. There’s a ton of knowledge out there about this so do some digging.

Hiking with the Pack

Hiking is a WHOLE big learning curve for both you and the dog. Not only do you need to train your dog physically and mentally, but you need to learn how to pack the pack appropriately, figure out what goes where, how it moves, the whole thing. I’m going to break this into two parts packing and training.

For packing the pack, its just like packing your own pack. Make sure that its balanced and not too heavy. With Grayson, I only have him carry his treats, a bone and some toys, a small roll up dog bed, and a collapsible bowl. I generally stick with the heavy things like water and food because its just easier that way. Some of the problem I ran into were making sure it was balanced. Even when it felt balanced, as he would run around it would start to shift to one side of the other so it was a constant process of moving this or that to see what worked best. You’re going to have to play with it. Another issue was making sure there wasn’t anything pokey in there. He carried an antler one time that had a sharp edge on it. He kept stopping to itch where it was poking him and it took me a while to figure out what was bothering him.

For training you need to plan it just like a human. There are some easy basic parameters and after that it’s just a matter if building the muscles and preventing injury. With Grayson, I started taking him on short walks around our house with a completely empty pack. At first, the idea was to just get him used to walking around with something on his back. Then, I started hitting some local trails doing 1-3 mile hikes to make sure nothing was bothering him or rubbing or affecting his movement. Next, I moved to socks. I literally just stuffed the bag to the brim with as many pairs of socks I could find. This was actually pretty funny, he kept getting stuck between narrow trees (he likes to dodge and weave) because of the extra width but quickly figured it out. Next I moved to food which seamed easy because I could measure out in weight how much he should be carrying. At a max your dog should never carry more than 25% of his weight, so be careful with this one and increase it in stages. I started with 2 pounds, then 4, then 8 and I did multiple hikes with him like this. Also, keep in mind that if you’re going to have lazy winters and active summers (or vice versa) your dog might need to get “back into shape” like you do. I also varied my lengths as I increased the weight. I found, and have subsequently read, that at the full weight I only get about half the distance out of him before he’s tired. 30 minutes or so would get him about as tired as a full hour. I’m not a scientist so I don’t have a formula for this fact, but based on my knowledge of him this is my official guess-timation.