Hiking with Your Dog Can Earn Your Dog a Title

A few years ago, a friend who owns Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs asked if I would be interested in taking my Rottweiler, Moxie, on a pack dog hike with her Swissy club. Kelly told me that the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America offers Working Pack Dog titles to encourage owners to work their dogs in pursuits for which the breed was originally intended. Specifically, working pack dog titles show a Swissy’s “ability to work over time and on a variety of terrains.” She told me other breeds were welcome to take part.

I read the pack dog hiking rules and policies to see what the sport entailed.

I learned there are several levels of working pack dog titles a dog can earn:

Novice Working Pack Dog (NWPD), Working Pack Dog (WPD), and Working Pack Dog Excellent (WPDX).

Since Moxie was nine years old at the time, she wouldn’t earn anything beyond a novice title, but there was no reason we couldn’t earn that title. She certainly was old enough–all dogs trying for their novice title must be at least 18 months old, day of the hike. Moxie was certainly fit and healthy enough to carry the minimum weight requirement of 20% of her weight (in her case, 13 lbs.), especially since there was enough time for me to condition both of us before the first hike.

As two hikes were planned back-to-back over a weekend, Mox and I could earn two of the four qualifying legs if I signed us up for both hikes and she and I hiked the requisite eight miles each day. Otherwise, doing a one-day hike, we’d have to hike 10 miles to earn one of the four legs needed. Hikes take place on natural terrain such as hiking trails in forests and nature preserves, so I knew we’d be outside in some pretty places.

The final requirement for all working pack dog hikes would be easy to secure–a veterinarian’s certificate of Moxie’s weight up to seven days prior to the hike.

Pack hiking is strenuous and to ensure that hike participants understand this fact, all hikers must submit a form acknowledging that they and their dog have trained for each hike they enter. Rules stipulate that for a dog and handler’s first hike they must have completed at least one six-mile training hike with full pack weight.

I started training for the hikes that were about two months off, following the pack hiking training tips on the Swissy site.

Using the odometer in my car, I noted landmarks on various country roads for one, two, three, and four miles from the house to use as distance markers on our training/conditioning hikes. I got a pack for Moxie.

I started out with a total of five lbs., dividing rice into two zip lock bags and added five lbs. roughly every week until I reached 20% of Moxie’s weight. Mox wore her pack three or four times a week. I walk the dogs twice a day every day, so it was easy for us to walk more than the suggested daily one to three miles. Since pack hiking rules let your dog carry food and water that both you and your dog can consume on the hike, you can end the hike with your dog carrying less than at the hike’s start.

On December 5, 2009 Moxie and I gathered with other hiking teams to hike the M&M Trail in Pelham, MA. I handed in our entry form and verification of Moxie’s weight signed by our vet, paid the entry fee, and had Mox’s pack weighed to be sure she was carrying the correct weight. I put on Mox’s pack and started hiking.

The hike was strenuous in places. In the early afternoon, the overcast sky started spitting sleet and slushy snow that made climbing up and down steep, rock-strewn trails treacherous. At one point we were climbing such a steep grade with such a high reach to the next foothold that Mox couldn’t make it, burdened as she was by her pack, so I had to walk her to the far side of the path where we scrambled to the top. Some of the scenery was lovely: Parts of the hike followed trails along the banks of rushing brooks filled with rocks and boulders that wound though groves of mature hemlocks. As much as I enjoy being outside, I confess I was glad when the hike ended.

The challenging nature of the hike made me appreciate the emphasis placed by the sponsoring organization on handler and dog fitness and conditioning beforehand!

The next day’s hike along Amherst, MA’s Robert Frost Trail was much easier since most of the trail was flat. The weather and scenery were early-December-in-New England-picture-postcard beautiful. It was completely still, so the snow that fell the previous night remained on every branch and twig, however slender. It was sunny with temperatures in the mid-30’s. It was a gorgeous day to be outside.

Moxie earned her third leg on January 24, 2010. We wrapped up her title with a summer hike on May 1, 2010 in Hollis, NH at beautiful Beaver Brook Association.

While there are many clubs offering pack dog titles, only the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America and Dog Scouts of America are open to all breeds. If you are looking for an unusual title for your dog to earn, consider pack dog hiking.

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