How to Choose a Dog Pack
What is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of working dogs vs dogs that just provide some laughs, company, and a larger dent in the wallet? Their equipment! You always know a dog earns its keep when you see it with a vest, a harness, or a pack. Whether it is trained to provide a service, protect and serve the public, or haul a load; a working dog has gear just like their owner.
A dog pack is a very important, and very practical piece of gear. Dog packs allow a dog to aid in carrying just about anything. They can carry: water, food, first aid kits, extra leash/collar, school books, emergency medical supplies for diabetics or people with severe allergies. They also provide an excellent way to exercise a dog. A dog that walks a mile with a weighted pack is working harder and getting more exercise than a dog with no weight who also walks a mile.
I will include several pictures of various pack designs but please understand there are lots and lots of options out there. Instead of trying to compare a few of the lead designs I decided it would be better to help inform you of the proper questions to ask when searching through the choices yourself. Choosing the proper pack for your dog is an important decision. The wrong pack can lead to discomfort for your furry friend as well as potentially injuring them. Understanding the important factors behind how a pack functions will give you the knowledge to find a pack that fits your dog, the activity, and your wallet perfectly while ensuring its done safely.
The first thing you need to ask yourself when choosing a pack is: how the pack will be used by the dog? Will it be in a forest often and subjected to abuse from brush and thorns? Will the dog be primarily in an urban environment when wearing the pack? How much volume do I need out of a pack (volume is the amount of "space" a pack provides for carrying things)? Packs are made to withstand different uses and abuses so its important to understand what your planning to use it for. You also don't want to buy more pack than you would ever use, save yourself the money for more treats!
Generally packs can be found from 3 different areas and they are made to fit those genres of activity. You can find them in outdoors stores, sports dog supplies, and general/niche pet supplies. The general pet supplies tend to have lots of convenience features built into them while the outdoor and sports packs tend to be a little heavier duty and have a little more volume.
Another very important aspect of a pack is the design. A design will be what makes or breaks a pack. Dogs have a very different physiology than us. It is important to keep this in mind when looking at how a pack is designed. Probably the most important aspect of a pack is how the weight is distributed and where the load is placed on a dog. The dog's spine is not capable of handling loads of weight. A pack that is placing the bulk of the load on a dog's spine is incredibly dangerous to the dog. The bulk of the weight needs to be on the shoulders of the dog. These are the only area capable of handling loads of weight safely.
There should be no strapping or bags that restricts a dogs' leg movement. This will create chaffing, make it difficult for the dog to walk/run (especially in tight quarters or dense forest), as well as make the dog uncomfortable. The dog's elbows should not hit the bag, nor should the bag be so low to the ground that the dog can't lay down. Typically you need to be more careful with straps that go straight across the chest, and with bags that have a very low vertical profile or are "boxy". There is a strap design that has a V design across the chest. These are great because they generally allow more unrestricted movement while still providing proper load security.
Figuring out if a pack is designed and being used properly is a two part process. First of all read reviews. Do your homework and see what people are saying about specific packs. If there is any question about whether they distribute the weight properly or restrict movement have nothing to do with them. There are plenty of well designed and affordable packs out there. After you've done your research and chosen a pack there is another aspect of design that is often overlooked. That is application. It is very important you understand how to use a pack and adjust it properly to fit your dog. The best designed pack in the world won't do a lick of good if it is not fitted properly. The straps need to be fitted to your dog to ensure the load is secure and distributed properly. The best way to ensure this is done properly is to fit your dog with the pack and take it to the vet. Ask them to examine your handiwork and help you adjust the pack so it fits properly and comfortably.
The fabric is also an important aspect of the pack. The material needs to allow enough padding that the pack is comfortable for the dog, this is especially true for short haired dogs. Packs with little padding will chafe faster than packs with adequate padding, especially on longer hikes. You will see some packs that have mesh and some that have a solid material on the top of the pack. Both are an acceptable fabric material but have different strengths and weaknesses. The mesh will usually provide more cooling in hot environments but be less durable. The solid design is going to provide better load distribution and be more durable. Dogs don't lose a lot of heat through their backs so my preference is for a solid material. The actual saddle bags should be made of a durable and weatherproof material. The pack should also have some reflective qualities to it for extra safety at night.
So you have figured out what pack you want, congratulations!! However, your not done yet ;) Once you have figured out what pack you want you have to pick the proper size. A pack size for a St. Bernard is not going to fit a beagle. The typical small, medium, large, entails a lot more for a dog than for a person. To make matters even worse each company has different measurements for their "Small, Medium, Large" categories. I'll explain some of the common measurement terminology and hopefully you can figure it out from there based on their sizing charts. You're probably going to have to measure your dog. Please don't hesitate to ask any question in the comments below and I will do my best to help you figure out the answer! Dog packs can be a tricky business and there are so many options and so little uniformity that no two will ever be alike.
Girth: Measure around the widest part of rib cage
Torso length: Measure from the back of their neck to the base of their tail
How much can a dog carry? This question is always brought up when talking about dog packs. Though it will differ slightly from breed to breed. The standard rule when figuring out this answer is 25-30% is the absolute max. So a 100 lb dog should never carry more than 25 lbs, a 60 lb dog should never carry more than 15 lbs. I've seen some people say 15% is the max. Now does that mean you can go buy a pack and put 15 lbs on your 60 lb dog that has had a few to many treats and a few less walks? Absolutely not! Dogs like people need to build up their strength and endurance. A very easy way to see how much a pack weighs is to get on a normal bathroom scale, weigh yourself. Now pick up the pack, hugging it, and weigh yourself again. Subtract you with the pack from you alone. You now have your pack weight!
[you with pack]175 - [you alone]160 = [Pack weight]15
Once you get a pack you need to take your dog on several walks just wearing the pack with nothing in it at all. I heard the great recommendation that during this period of training you should stuff it with something super light but puffy material, like newspaper, so that the dog gets used to the "puffiness" or width that the pack adds to the dog when its loaded. After your dog has grown accustomed to the pack you can begin to add weight slowly. You should also never put weight on puppies 1 year or younger. You can damage their growth by adding weight while their bones have not yet fully formed and hardened. You shouldn't be giving a full load to a dog younger than 2, they are still growing. However, some moderate conditioning probably won't hurt between 1-2 years old. I actually have to be even more careful with my malamute as they don't mature as quickly and so they have a longer "growth" phase. I'm no expert though so always consult your vet for the final say so when it comes to proper exercise and weight info. I'm always open to being corrected as long as it is constructively :)
Remember to buy a pack that fits with the overall goal of the work that you expect your dog to do. Don't buy a huge pack if your only going to be walking on the paved sidewalk 1.5 miles around your local park. A small compact pack will more than suffice. If you are going to be hiking for days and miles on end in a wilderness make sure you buy a pack that won't fall apart the 1st or 2nd time your dog charges through a pile of briars or sticks. I sure wouldn't want to carry those extra pounds! The determining factor of any pack being a good or bad pack is where it puts the weight. It needs to be on the shoulders! Imagine a kid climbing on your back and bouncing up and down. That's what you're doing to that dog if you put the weight on the spine. Double check your sizing, make sure you aren't getting a small when you need a large. Lastly, weigh the pack before you put it on your dog. Water weight adds up quickly! Make sure you aren't putting on to much, 25% no more!
That's it! Go out and buy a pack! Make those dogs earn their keep!! No but really, I hope that I haven't scared you away from buying one with all this information. There was quite a bit of information and I apologize if I didn't make it easy to follow. I found that when I was researching these myself the information was varied, scattered, and generally hard to find consistent information. The information I've compiled here is my attempt at making it easier to have a good amount of information in one place without having to click 50 times to find it. Please feel free to ask any dogpack specific questions in the comments below. I will be doing a pack review of the Ruffwear Palisades pack in the near future. That is the one I bought and have used with Zoe over the last 6 months.
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