Leonbergers At Work Ė Backpacking

Backpacking with your Leo can be a wonderful experience that provides an excellent opportunity to get away from the rigors of daily life.  Most dogs love the opportunity to get out and enjoy the sights and scents of the trail and enjoy having a job to do in the process.  Owners often find that they enjoy the outing even more when they see the hike from a canine perspective.  With their keener senses, dogs can point out interesting features or animals that their people might otherwise overlook.


Orovale's Biloxi Blue  ("Blue")


Who can participate ?

From the human perspective, basically most people that can go hiking and backpacking without a dog can go hiking and backpacking with one.  The additional constraints are that you must be (1) physically able to restrain your dog (or dogs) in the presence of distractions, such as a running deer or squirrel, and (2) be responsible enough to prevent the dog from being a nuisance to other people or animals. 

From the canine perspective, if the dog is healthy, fit and well-behaved around other people (both adults and children) and animals, he can usually accompany the owner(s) on their outings.  Of course, for both humans and dogs a visit to the doctor to evaluate general health is a good idea before starting or increasing physical demands.  If you choose to have your canine carry a pack, you should be confident they are in good health and structurally sound.  Bear in mind though that dogs, like people, need to gradually build up strength and endurance.


What do I need to begin backpacking with my dog ?

You need a flat buckle collar and a leash (preferably a 6 foot long leash rather than a retractable leash that can easily become tangled around bushes, the dog or other people).  Be certain before setting out that the leash, snap, collar and buckle are in good condition and will not break if the dog suddenly lunges after the rabbit thatís been teasing him unmercifully from just ahead on the path!   To help safeguard against unforeseen disaster, carrying an additional collar and leash is a good idea in case of loss or breakage. 

Next, you will need a pack for the dog to carry and, depending upon the type of terrain you plan to navigate, the weight of the pack, and the dogís tendency to tear his footpads, you might want to consider buying some booties to protect your dogís feet as well.  There are many different types of packs and booties suited to different terrain so you may have to experiment to find out which works best for your dog. 

Identification for your dog is not only important on city streets, but is absolutely vital when backpacking in the wilderness.  Most Leos are either tattooed or micro-chipped; however, for these techniques to allow recovery in the unfortunate event your dog is separated from you or lost, more knowledge on the part of the person finding the dog is required.  For this reason, it is imperative that you have identification tags firmly attached to your dogís collar at all times when out on the trails. 

In addition to proper identification, clean drinking water is a must for both you and your dog.  Although natural water sources may be plentiful on your hike, the water may be contaminated with giardia (a protozoan parasite), or harmful bacteria or chemicals.  In areas where giardia is a problem you should not allow your dog to drink from streams or lakes on your hike.  Instead, always make sure that you carry enough water for yourself and your dog(s) to avoid the risk.  

Finally, common sense dictates that you should let someone know what your travel plans are, especially when going to a less frequently traveled area with your dog.  Itís also much safer not to hike alone in such areas.  If you or your dog are injured or otherwise unable to return from your outing, having someone else able to go for help or to help get you out can mean the difference in some cases between life and death.


Accustomizing the Dog to the pack :

Some dogs will adjust to a pack more easily than others.  As is sometimes done with horses, start your Leo with something light, such as a towel, to get him used to the feeling of something riding on his back.  This is particularly useful with puppies that are too young to carry a pack.  A word of caution is needed here though.  Never put anything on a puppy under the age of one year old and do not put anything other than an empty pack stuffed with newspaper on a Leo under eighteen months old.  Just as with agility and jumping in obedience, there is a risk of doing structural damage by putting an increased load on developing bones.  Check with your veterinarian to be safe. 

Just like people, dogs must be conditioned for any performance activity.  If your Leo is a couch potato, donít expect him to suddenly be able to carry a full pack on a 10 mile hike.  Some dogs will refuse to carry a pack thatís too heavy, but others will injure themselves trying.  Start off with short hikes and light weight.  Gradually increase the length of the hikes and the weight of the pack.  Keep an eye on your dogís movement, and be reasonable in your expectations.  And ask your vet for advice when youíre unsure. 

Depending on your dogís reaction and temperament, you can start by putting a pad or towel on the dogís back and then the pack itself.  Take him for short walks and see how he reacts.  He should learn to associate getting to go out with the pack, and will quickly start to look forward to wearing it, provided he has been introduced to it properly.  Once heís comfortable with the pack, fill it with odd things that will feel and sound like the pack will when itís actually used for an outing.  Crumpled newspaper, half filled water bottles (sloshing), tin cups or pots that bump one another, etc.  As you start filling the pack more (volume, not weight), you may notice that your dog misjudges walking through doors, around trees, and even your legs, bumping them with the pack.  Another problem is slightly misjudging jumps, falling short because of the additional weight.  This is another good reason not to ask your dog to carry too much weight too quickly.  These problems will get better with experience, although if you hike infrequently there may be a brief readjustment necessary at the start of each hike.   

As far as what you should have your dog carry, a good rule of thumb is that you should not put anything in the dogís pack that you cannot afford to lose.  Fragile items, or items that should not get wet, are also a poor choice.  The dog will often scramble through tight spots with less grace than his human counterparts, banging the pack against rocks or trees in the process.  This is particularly true with a novice dog that has still not learned how much wider they are with a filled pack on.  Another must is to pack both sides with roughly equal weight and volume.  Failure to do this will result in, at best, a dog thatís off-balance, and at worst, one side of the pack flipping over to the other, or the whole pack sliding over to one side.   

Note :  most working breeds and athletic mid-sized dogs can carry about 33% of their body weight.  Start the dog off with 15 - 20% of their weight for a short hike and see how they do.  Gradually work up to 33% and progressively longer hikes.


Where to hike :

Unfortunately, uncontrolled dogs and irresponsible pet owners have contributed to the closing of trails in a number of places.  Unless you are fortunate to own or have access to conservation like surroundings, the following are rules of thumb for picking a trail or area.  However, since there are exceptions to most of these the only way not to be surprised is to call the correct administrative office and check to be certain that dogs are allowed. 

Dogs are not allowed on many National Park or National Monument trails.  On-leash dogs are permitted on or near the paved, developed areas, but thatís all.  National forests often allow dogs on their trails, but there are exceptions so be sure to check first.  Dogs are usually allowed on wilderness area trails but, again, check to be sure. 

For a list of possible locations click on this link :  www.out-there.com/htl_bpk.htm


Weather :

Warmer temperatures on a hike call for additional precautions to guard your dog against heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  As mentioned above, always make sure that you carry enough water for your hike and give your dog (and yourself) frequent drinks. 

Be sure to watch your dog for signs of heat exhaustion or stroke, paying particular attention to watch for unusually rapid panting, and/or a bright red tongue or mucous membranes.  The dogís primary mechanism for cooling off is through panting, and since this cooling process uses evaporation the dog will require more water when he is panting heavily.  If you determine that your dog is overheating, or suspect he might be, you should stop backpacking immediately and get him into the shade.  Moreover, you should check with your vet before setting off and ask for tips on how best to cool down an overheated dog.  Even on a cooler day, if it is very sunny and your dog is working hard, being a dark coated breed, it is important to understand that Leos can get overheated!  And donít be fooled by cold weather.  Adequate fluid levels are essential for heat maintenance in both temperature extremes.  Drink plenty of water and make your dog do the same.


Trail Etiquette :

Dogs are required to be on-leash on most maintained public trails.  In many places the leash is required to be 6 feet or less in length.  You should always respect these rules.  The reasons for this are numerous: 

  • Your dog might frighten others by running up to them.  Even if heís friendly, people that are afraid of dogs might become agitated and get serious injured indirectly through falling or backing into something in their fright. 

  • Your dog might chase other animals, scaring them, injuring them, or being killed or injured by them.  Your dog might startle a horse on the trail, injuring either the horse, the rider, or the dog himself. 

Just having your dog on-leash is not sufficient though.  You should keep him calm when passing others on the trail, preferably training him to sit quietly to one side of the trail as others walk by, or to calmly walk by others without barking or straining against the leash to jump on them.  Even a polite sniff can be intimidating to a non-dog person, especially children.  Good canine manners will go a long way towards creating good will and increased tolerance of canine presence.  Know your dog.  Be aware of what situations may make him act strangely or provoke an aggressive or defensive reaction.  Then prevent these situations or, if unavoidable, be prepared to deal appropriately with them.  You should never take a dog out on the trail if you feel there is any chance of someone being injured by him. 

Of course not all trails require leashes, and even on the ones that do, many people do not obey the rules.  You and your dog may be accosted by other dogs, some of which may be aggressive.  When you encounter other users on the trail, the following guidelines apply:  horses have right-of-way over hikers, and hikers are supposed to have right-of-way over mountain bikes.  Hikers going downhill have right-of-way over those coming up.  Especially with horses, try to get well clear of the trail and leave them plenty of room to pass.  Again, donít allow any barking or jumping to the end of the leash.  You can quiet some dogs by preventing them from being able to see the horses. 

Always pick up after your dog on the trail.  On your way out, consider packing out other peopleís trash if you have extra room in the dogís pack.  Be friendly and courteous to other people on the trail.  If they have questions about your dog and/or his pack, try to be informative and helpful.  The more responsible, educated dog-owners that want to bring their pets with them on the trail, and that themselves in turn leave a positive impression on others, the more likely we are to stave off additional closings and possibly even get other trails re-opened to our canine friends. 


Obstacles on the trail :

Although there certainly are trails that are relatively obstacle free, most trails will have at least a few challenges.  In fact, backpacking is the best practical application of agility training that you will probably ever encounter, since less traveled trails mean you will likely encounter log bridges spanning creeks, as well as logs or downed trees across your path that the dog must go over, around, under or, in some cases, all of the above!



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Page Last Updated

March 14, 2008

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Leonberger Club of Ontario

Leonberger Club of Ontario