There are a lot of great reasons to train your dog to wear a backpack. During daily walks, it gives your dog a "job," which can make some high-drive or nervous dogs feel more calm and confident. It also adds weight so that they burn more energy during their walks, which is always a benefit. On hikes, your dog can carry their own water, food, bowl, waste bags and other items. No matter your goal, having a dog who knows how to carry a backpack can be useful.
But it isn't quite as easy as just throwing a backpack on your dog and expecting them to know what to do. There are a few training steps to take so your dog learns how, and enjoys, walking with a pack. Here's how to get started.
It is important to make sure your dog is fully grown before challenging them with a weighted backpack. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Before we get started on the training steps, there are a couple things to consider. First, you'll want to avoid putting any weight on a dog who isn't fully grown. If you put a weighted backpack on a dog that is too young, you risk serious health issues from bones that don't grow properly to stressed joints to early arthritis. Smaller and medium-sized dogs are usually fully grown at about a year old, but larger breeds are sometimes not fully grown until 18 months or two years old. Check with your vet to find out if your dog is grown enough to carry weight.
On the flip side, also check if your dog is a little on the old side to be wearing a pack. Putting extra weight and stress on older bones and joints is a big risk for injury or speeding up problems like arthritis. Older dogs don't need the added weight training that dogs get from carrying a pack, so take your dog's age into account when making a decision.
For dogs under a year old, you can still start training them to wear an empty backpack so they can get used to the feeling of wearing it. Just make sure it is light, and that nothing is put in the pockets.
No matter the age or fitness level of your dog, you'll want to limit how much weight you add to a backpack. Never exceed 20 percent of your dog's weight. So for instance, if you have a 40-pound dog, never put more than 8 pounds of weight in the backpack. Too much weight risks injury, including joint problems that develop over time. You'll want to take this into account especially if you're hiking and your dog is carrying their own water, as that weight can add up quickly!
A great backpack is more than just a fashion statement. Construction, durability, and comfort all come into play. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Step 1: Select a backpack that's right for your dog
When you're deciding on a backpack for your dog, take into account what you're using it for. Just exercise around town? For long hikes when camping? This will help you decide on the design of the pack and what kind of capacity you need. However, even if you're just using a pack for burning extra calories on a walk, make sure it is of sound construction. Things like where the straps fit on your dog, how well you can adjust fit, and if there is padding under the clasps, will all factor in to how comfortable it is for your dog to wear their new pack.
I've had several backpacks for my dog over the years, and have landed on two that I love the most. For walks and jogs around the city where I want my dog to have extra weight for a workout but not a huge profile, I use the Ruffwear Singletrak backpack. It is a wonderfully well-made pack that has adjustable straps so you can get it to fit your dog perfectly without it wiggling around when running. It has just enough room for two collapsible water bladders, one on each side, plus small zipper pockets to put doggy waste bags, and my keys and iPhone so my dog can carry my stuff for me on a jog.
For longer hikes, I love using the Ruffwear Palisades pack. This comes with a harness that you can adjust to fit your dog like a glove, and to which the backpack securely attaches. This makes it quick and easy to take the pack off and put it back on during breaks on the trail. Plus we get the two-for-one of a sturdy harness as well as a handy backpack. The pack has plenty of pocket room, including separate pockets on each side for collapsible water bladders, and plenty of room for food, first aid, waste bags and other items needed on long hikes. The pockets also have straps inside to secure what you put in them so stuff doesn't jiggle around too much. However, it has a pretty big profile for a smaller dog, so it takes my dog some time to remember where he can and can't fit on a trail when wearing it! Plus, I have to take extra care not to overfill the pack. I need to stay under 7 pounds of weight for my dog, and this pack had plenty of room for more than that.
When you're making a decision on a backpack, select one that has a chest strap so that the backpack doesn't slide down your dog's back (or entirely off your dog when she sits!) and so that the weight stays on the right part of your dog's back. It also doesn't hurt to find a pack that is brightly colored and has reflective material on it, since visibility is always a plus.
Kygen, Kurgo, Outward Hound, and Ollydog all offer great options for backpacks as well. I recommend going into an REI store, or a pet store that stocks outdoor and performance gear, to try out the different packs and see what works best for your dog.
A backpack that detaches from the harness, like the Palisades Pack from Ruffwear, is a great option for taking a load off during long hikes. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Step 2: Introduce the pack and get a proper fit
It's important to start your dog off on the right foot with their backpack, because the last thing you want is for them to become scared of it or dread it. That means you’ll want to have a pocket full of treats when you first introduce your dog to their new pack. Some dogs will accept the pack like it’s no big deal and you’ll hardly need to spend any time conditioning them to wear it. But other dogs may be a little more skeptical or flat out nervous about this strange thing you’re attaching to them, so it doesn’t hurt to take your time and make it a great experience.
First, let your dog smell the pack all they want. Next, place it on your dog’s back like a blanket — not yet attaching it — while giving them treats for standing still. Take the pack off, give a treat, put the pack on, give a treat. Keep this up until your dog could care less about the pack. This might take just one time for really mellow dogs, but several times or even several sessions for wary dogs.
Next, attach the empty backpack to your dog. If your pack is designed to slide over their head, pay attention to how nervous your dog is and go slowly with plenty of rewards for sticking their head through the straps if they show a little concern. Clasp the straps shut and reward your dog for being awesome and cute!
Now it’s time to get the fit just right. You want the straps tight enough that the pack doesn’t slide around, but not so tight that it causes chaffing or discomfort. Usually, this means to tighten the straps to the point that you can still slide one or two fingers between the straps and your dog’s body. Make sure all the straps are evenly tightened on both sides so that the pack isn’t sitting higher on one side of the body than the other.
You’ll probably have to make second or third adjustments during the first couple times your dog wears the pack, and you note where it is too loose or too tight for your dog’s comfort. In fact, even after you have the fit just right, you’ll want to continue to check the fit every few walks just to make sure the fit stays comfortable. Weather, changes in your dog's weight, and wear and tear on the pack all factor in to adjusting how the pack sits on your dog.
Your dog's backpack should fit like a glove, including evenly distributed weight and avoiding chafing around the straps and clasps. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Step 3: Getting your dog used to new balancing and space awareness
The first thing your dog is probably going to do is try and walk through a doorway and run into the door frame. In fact, they'll probably run into a lot of stuff the first time they wear the pack. They have to get used to the new edges of their body. Keep the experience fun with lots of laughter and rewards just for walking around your home with the pack on. Then, head out for a walk with the pack empty. Give your dog plenty of opportunity to get used to wearing the pack, as well as having it put on and taken off, without any weight in it.
After a few walks with an empty pack, add in a little weight. A water bladder with a little bit of water, or a baggie of rice on each side of the pack works great. On your walks, be sure to go up and down stairs and curbs, scramble over logs or even park benches, so that your dog can learn what it feels like to balance additional weight as they maneuver. Once you start adding more weight to the pack, balancing the extra bulk will be more of an issue that your dog has to figure out, so start out slow and give your dog plenty of time to get used to a new way of thinking about getting up, over, off and through things with a pack on their back.
It is this aspect of wearing a pack that provides a dog with a sense of having a "job." Balancing the added weight as they walk keeps a dog focused on what they're doing, and is part of why some anxious or high-energy dogs calm down when they're wearing a backpack. This is a great benefit, but also one the dog needs time to get used to, so make it a positive, fun experience.
Your dog will learn new balancing skills while carrying shifting weight, and also new space awareness as they figure out how not to run into things with their pack! (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Step 4: Increasing weight and improving fitness
The next step is slowly increasing how much weight your dog carries and ramping up conditioning. Just as you wouldn't one day wake up and run with a 50-pound backpack, your dog shouldn't wake up and start running with a heavy pack either. Start with a small amount of weight, maybe 2-3 percent of your dog's body weight, and build up from there over the course of a few weeks to carrying as much as (but no more than) about 20 percent of the dog's body weight.
To build up weight, you can use collapsible water bladders and keep adding in more water as your dog builds up strength. Other things that work great for gradual increases are baggies of beans or grain, or even bags of kibble. Of course your dog probably wouldn't mind if you added in some tennis balls, baggies of treats, and other, more enjoyable odds and ends to increase the weight.
Build up your dog's fitness by starting with an empty pack and adding a little weight at a time. Water bottles or bags of beans are a great way to add small increments. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Step 5: Hit the trail and have fun!
Once your dog is conditioned to carry a backpack filled with necessities, you're ready to hit the road! Or sidewalk, or park path, or trail as the case may be. Remember to watch your dog for signs that the backpack is not rubbing them in the wrong place, and that they aren't fatigued from the extra weight. With a properly fitted pack with just enough weight for your dog, neither of these should be an issue. But if there are areas where the straps are rubbing away your dog's fur, or your dog lies down during your walks to rest, it's a sure sign that it's time for you to carry the pack the rest of the way home.
If you are training your dog to wear a pack, or have already gone through the experience, tell us about it in the comments!