I love that well-made backpacks for dogs to wear are becoming so easy to find and much more affordable. If you’ve ever wondered about whether you should buy a backpack for your dog, we’ve got the answers for you below.
Benefits of Backpack Training for Dogs
It’s Great Exercise
Think of a dog wearing a backpack like someone using weights to work out. Adding a weighted backpack to your walks can help develop different muscles and tire your dog out without putting a lot of high-impact strain on their body. It doesn’t have to be a lot of weight; just carrying an empty pack can help.
It Helps With Mental Focus
Wearing a backpack gives your dog something to think about other than the world around them. With a dog like King who has reactivity issues, I find that he is far less likely to have a full meltdown with other dogs if he is wearing his backpack which allows us to have more positive outings. Not to mention, giving the dog’s mind a workout helps to tire them out faster too.
It Gives Your Dog a Job
I’ve found that most dogs are happiest when they have a job to do. Maybe it gives them a sense of purpose. Not to mention all the admiration from people they pass is the best positive reinforcement.
They Can Carry Their Things
What can you pack into a dog backpack? Almost everything. Having your dog carry their own poop bags, food, water bowl, booties, and water is a great way to free up space in your own pack. Not having to worry about that awkward swinging bag of poop in your hand that inevitably tears open is an added bonus (ewwwww).
It Builds Confidence
Giving your dog a challenge that they can easily overcome is a great way to boost their confidence. Some dogs are also comforted by the weigh and feeling of compression.
Are you convinced that dog backpacks are amazing yet? The next step is to help you pick the best backpack for your dog, after consulting with your vet of course. There are plenty of options to consider when choosing a dog backpack.
How to Choose a Backpack for Your Dog
The first step is deciding what you are going to be using the pack for. If your dog is just going to be helping you carry the mail, then a pack with smaller saddlebags (also called pannier) and less robust materials will do fine. On the other hand, if you’re looking for dog backpacks for hiking, especially multi-day trips into the backcountry, you’re going to have more features to consider. The biggest factor is to keep the dog’s comfort in mind; after all, your dog is the one that is going to be wearing the pack. If your dog doesn’t get excited when they see their backpack getting loaded, they aren’t having fun.
Many backpacks are listed by the weight of the dog. This is not the best way to size the backpack for your dog. Have your dog standing and use a soft tape measure to measure their girth (the biggest part of the chest behind their front legs), the neck where it joins their shoulders, and the length of the back from the base of the neck to the base of the tail. With those measurements in hand, now you get to start shopping.
I prefer chest straps that have a yoke (the part that goes across the chest) with a Y-design. I find they sit lower across the front of the dog’s chest so it doesn’t ride up on their throat, a particular problem on hilly trails. The strap in the centre helps to keep the pack stabilized and distributes the weight across a larger area. King’s neck ties in so low that straight chest straps actually ran across the bottom of his throat.
Some of the Y-straps clip into the chest strap while others have the dog step through. I prefer the clip kind but if you have a smaller dog like Lilly, a step-through may be the only option.
Wide straps help with distributing the weight and can prevent hotspots. For longer trips, padded straps will help keep your dog comfortable. Make sure the clips are robust enough to endure the wear and tear of use and are not positioned to dig into your dog.
Some backpacks are made of heavy duty material which prevents damage while hiking outdoors. It can also help to keep the seams from tearing.
You will want to pay particular attention to where the saddlebags sit. The majority of the weight should be at the front of the dog so that the backpack isn’t putting any weight over their loins, which is the sensitive area behind their ribs. The saddlebags should not be so large that they prevent the dog from laying down comfortably otherwise you're going to have to take it off for every quick break.
Notice the zipper closures and which way they slide. If your dog likes to brush up against things, like your leg, you may not notice if zippers are opening if they fasten from front to back.
The more adjustable the backpack is, the better you can fit it to your dog, especially as their muscles develop.
Waterproof - The best hiking backpacks for dogs are waterproof and have removable saddlebags. A waterproof backpack means that you don’t have to worry about everything getting soaked if you get caught in a downpour and saves you from having to pack everything in plastic bags.
Removable saddlebags - Removable saddlebags means that you can quickly free up your dog for a swim without having to remove the entire pack. Some run through buckles while other have clips. If you use the clips, make sure to check that they are strong enough to carry the weight of the saddlebags and that there's enough padding to keep it comfortable for your dog.
Compression straps - Compression straps can be used to cinch the saddlebags tighter against the pack for less movement.
Hydration bladders or water bottles - Some backpacks have hydration bladders built into the pack or come with dedicated water bottles. Make sure that you factor the weight of a fully loaded water bladder or bottles when packing the saddlebags so that you’re not overloading them.
Mesh lining - If your hikes are going to be in hotter temperatures or your dog has a heavy coat, consider a backpack with a mesh layer closest to their body. This reduces contact which allows for some air flow to help keep them cooler.
Handle - Most backpacks have a handle on top of the pack which you can use to help your dog over difficult terrain.
Colours - Brightly coloured material and reflective patches and striping aren’t just for looks: these can help you spot your dog if you get separated in trees or, heaven forbid, your dog ends up on a roadway. Reflective piping can make them more visible to passing cars.
Price - Expect to pay more for a heavy-duty expedition backpack for your dog. The extra expense is more than worth it as they will often last for several seasons of hardcore abuse and keep your dog comfortable at the same time.
How much weight can a dog carry in a backpack?
This amount varies from one dog to the next depending on age, health, and conformation but the general consensus is that a dog should not carry more than 25% of their body weight which includes the weight of backpack itself. As with any fitness program, start out very light then slowly and gradually add weight to the pack. Make sure that you shorten their walks and watch your dog for signs of stress, particularly in the beginning. Remember: you’re taxing them physically and mentally so it’s better to go slow and keep it positive. The amount of weight your dog can carry would be a good question to ask your vet when you’re having that consultation about your dog wearing a backpack.
If your dog is overweight, then use their ideal weight as a guide for how much they can carry in their backpack. Their body is already carrying more than it should and adding to that is likely going to result in injuries.
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Backpacks for Dogs Tips
Introducing the backpack - Introduce the backpack to your dog slowly and with TONS of praise and treats or something else that they enjoy. While you could just throw it on them and let them try to get it off, I don’t think that creates a happy association to it. Treats on the other hand; you can’t go wrong with treats. This process may take an hour or it may take a week depending on your dog.
I have had a lot of success introducing packs and harnesses with this method:
- lay it out on the floor and let the dog sniff it. If they don’t want to, sprinkle some treats around to get their interest
- once they are used to the pack on the ground, hold it in your hand and reward them every time they show any interest in it
- undo all the straps and loosen them as much as you can
- lure the dog to put their head into the chest piece and lightly lower the pack onto their back then take it off
- repeat until they are comfortable
- fasten the straps and begin to tighten them, backing up as many steps needed if your dog shows any sign of tension or resistance
- the straps should be snug enough that they don’t hang loose enough to get caught on things but not so tight that they dig into your your dog’s body or restrict their breathing. You should be able to fit four fingers comfortably between the straps and your dog. I even like to leave the belly strap a bit looser so that it doesn’t dig into their stomach when they lean over to drink or sniff.
- never underestimate the value of telling them how amazing they are. I don't know why, but when I tell King that I'm proud of him, his whole body changes and I sweat he gets the biggest smile
Once they’re comfortable with wearing the backpack, add something to the saddlebags that will fill them out without adding weight. Bunched up plastic bags, a pair of socks, even inflatable packing bags to mimic full bags but without the extra heft. Once your dog has gotten used to wearing the backpack, you can begin to slowly add weight. Bottles of water work great for this and as your dog gets stronger, you can replace the water with sand to increase the load.
Make sure to keep the weight even. This keeps the backpack balanced which can reduce the chances of soreness or even lameness. Also pack softer items against the dog and heavier towards their shoulders. I use my digital kitchen scale to weigh everything that goes in their backpack; that's how obsessive I am with keeping it balanced.
While most dog backpacks have metal D-rings for a leash attachment, I don’t like using them for that purpose. I think that anything that interferes with the fit or movement of the backpack could affect the pack’s balance which then affects the dog’s balance. If the saddlebags can be removed to allow it to be used as a harness, that would be a better time to use that option. The D-rings can be used to clip a collapsible water bowl for quick access though so you don't have to unzip a saddlebag each time you want to give your dog some water.
It’s also a good idea to keep them on leash no matter how good their recall is. If your dog gets scared or takes off into the thick brush, they might get caught between trees by the extra bulk of the backpack which is not only terrifying for them but makes them easy prey if you cannot find them.
Even though your dog can carry their own gear, I would suggest that they not carry anything that you cannot function without. If your dog happens to break their leash and runs off into the bush with your food, first aid kit, or matches, you might be in trouble.
Double check the fit every time you put the pack on them. Straps can wiggle loose or your dog may have lost or gained some weight since the last time they wore it. When you take the pack off your dog, check their coat for any rubs that would indicate friction from a strap that needs to be adjusted and watch for any signs of soreness. A good massage after a hike is a fantastic way to check your dog for any soreness, injuries, and ticks (shudder).
What the Dogs are Wearing
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King wears a Kurgo Baxter backpack. The body is nice and padded with a low profile so it stays close to his centre of gravity and disperses the weight. The saddlebags are not quickly removed which is my only complaint other than the lack of padding on the straps but he never wears it for very long. If we were doing long trips into the backcountry and he had to carry more weight for days at a time, I would get him a different backpack with more padding.
Shop for the Kurgo Baxter pack that King is wearing here.
Lilly wears an Outward Hound Crest Stone backpack. I like the compression strap that helps to keep the saddlebags secure. It does fit a little long on her but the weight is dispersed over a larger area and there are no pressure points on her loins. It is really hard finding backpacks for smaller dogs short of having them custom made so I was really happy to find one that fit her as well as it does.
Click here to check out the Outward Hound Crest Stone Backpack.
I hope that we have answered any questions that you may have about backpacks for dogs. Let us know what your dog is wearing! Or what they will be once you go shopping 😉 What does your dog carry in their backpack?