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Dog Packing
The how [and why] of teaching dogs to carry packs
Dog Packing

In Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a spirited young Buddhist named Japhy takes his domesticated friends for a crash course in what he calls “mountain smashing.” While it sounds destructive, mountain smashing is really just a colorful euphemism for climbing to the summit. It’s choosing to spend a day outdoors instead of glued to the television, and Japhy makes it his life’s work to share such choices as a better way of living. He teaches his friends about the roar of the wilderness, the stillness of forests, and how a few miles on your boots and some basic camp food can convince you that you’re the luckiest person alive. Though I don’t have my own personal beatniks to take me outside and teach me to pay attention, I have even better guides: dogs.

With their red and blue packs, my dogs look like mountain smashers. They no longer resemble the goofy and good-natured Siberians who take my spot on the couch during movie snack breaks—they look like kind wolves, my personal escorts into the wilderness. Though dogs aren’t wild animals, they are not as foreign to the forest as we humans are. They’re the perfect link between the worlds, and with their packs on, they seem like my own personal sherpas—experienced guides showing me the world of wolves bubbling in their Husky blood.

The packs they wear are light, extensions of themselves; in them, they carry extra water, wool sweaters, biscuits and trail mix. They sport them proudly as they leap over fallen trees and dash after the smells of deer and porcupines. Having saddlebags on the backs of the dogs is convenient, too. I can access things I need quickly, instead of stopping to wrestle off my own backpack and root through it. The whole experience of dog packing makes our time outside together richer.

I adopted both of my trail-mates as adults when they were four years old; neither had carried a pack before they met me, but the training came quickly and easily. The trick was two-fold: First, making sure I had packs engineered for canine athletes that fit them perfectly. Second (and perhaps the secret to pack training), making sure those packs were only slipped onto their fluffy backs if we were going to have fun. When I first purchased Jazz and Annie’s packs, I’d lash them on for every trip to the dog park or walk around the block. The idea was to associate that weird new harness with action and adventure, even if it was only put on to chase a ball around the yard. Within short order, they associated the light panniers with time spent with me outdoors. Incidentally, so did I.

Over the next few weekends, I slowly added gear and distance to their pack walks. Soon, they were joining me on jaunts to the local co-op for some light grocery shopping. I’d secure them outside in the shade with water and take their packs inside as my eco-friendly shopping bags. When I returned with the heavier loads, I’d harness them up and we’d walk home together, all three of us smiling. They were getting exercise and smelling busy sidewalks, and I was saving myself a car trip for milk and eggs. It feels good to know you’ve done this good work together.

Within two months, the dogs and I were hiking the trails, and by the end of that first summer, the dogs were carrying all of our supplies for an entire day trip. When it was time for a meal, we’d find a clearing by a stream or a lake and have a grand picnic. Liver treats and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich never tasted better (they got the treats, I got the pb&j). I’d pull a tattered old paperback out of Annie’s pack and the dogs would snooze in the sun. I cannot imagine being in the wilderness without them. They’re my Dharma bums, and as a team, we smash mountains with the best of them. I think Japhy would approve.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 59: Apr/May 2010
Jenna Woginrich is author of Made From Scratch, homesteads in Vermont. coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com

Ruff Wear/© Ben Moon Photography

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