Your dog is not automatically prepared for long-distance hiking in the wild just because he’s an animal. Dogs need to work up their conditioning the same way you do, and that first spring hike, stretching your muscles, can be just as cobweb-y for them.
If you’re adding the weight of a backpack, your dog needs even more conditioning to have a successful long-distance trip. Take a look at The 15 Items in My Dog’s Pack to see what my dog carries into the wild. My aussie carries up to 20% of his weight for ten days at a time, but we didn’t start out that way.
When you start training your dog to happily wear its backpack, keep in mind a few things you want your dog to think about the pack:
"Carrying my pack is a good job! I am a good girl for doing a good job!"
All dogs were bred for a purpose. It may not be as extreme a job as the Rhodesian Ridgeback’s lion hunting duties, but your dog’s instincts push them to do SOMETHING for you. Carrying a backpack can be a great way to channel this urge into something positive.
"When I do a good job with my backpack, I earn rewards!"
Love, play, treats! Whatever you choose, reward your dog frequently when they carry their backpack. Everytime the pack goes on, and every time it comes off, your dog should hear what a good job they did.
"My backpack means ADVENTURE!"
Keep your dog’s backpack put away when it’s not being used. Pulling the pack down from the gear closet should be a signal that something outdoors and fun is about to happen. My dog sits by his pack when it comes out until we’re ready to go, afraid I might leave him behind.
Meet the Backpack
The best training will strengthen these thoughts with positive reinforcement, and progress with small steps that bolster your dog’s confidence. When you first get your new backpack, let your dog sniff and explore it. Put a few treats in the bag and let your dog gobble them out of the pack.
First Time Fit
Put the backpack on and give a treat, then take it right off and give another treat. Put the pack on again (another treat!), and adjust the straps to fit securely around your dog’s chest and torso (more treats!), then take it off right away again.
First Walk with Backpack
Your first several walks with the backpack on should be along your usual, daily walk routes. This helps your dog focus on the new job of carrying the pack. Leave the backpack empty except for a few treats on these first walks. You want to see if there’s anything on the pack that needs adjusting and get your dog used to the feeling of the pack around its body.
This is a good way to keep associating the backpack as a “job” in your dog’s mind. Add a few toys and wear the pack to the park, or on a walk. Your dog should see these toys go in, then come out to be played with. Your dog will get practice carrying heavier loads, while learning their job is to carry something fun.
Chances are, your dog has been Netflix and chillin’ next to you on the couch all winter, so take her with you when you go to get in shape for backpacking season. Along with muscle conditioning, dogs need to toughen up their paw pads. The most common hiking injury for dogs is worn or cut pads, so check them for damage whenever you rest. Add weight and distance in steps until your dog can hike as far as you need each day.
They say you should always “hike your own hike,” which is great advice to make each trip enjoyable for you. Dog owners know that we must always “hike our dog’s hike,” instead. Whatever my goals for each day of a long-distance trip may be, I never hike further than my dog can hike safely, stop often for water and shade, and occasionally throw his pack over mine to give him a short break.
Thanks to his adventure lifestyle conditioning, my dog can crush fifteen miles a day and summit mountains, all with his own gear happily stowed over his shoulders. He enthusiastically thrust his head through the straps every time I hold the pack open because he knows: he is a good boy doing a good job, there are treats coming soon, and we’re going on an adventure!