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Food (and more) for backpacking dogs

My preferred travel food for dogs was discontinued, it was called “Whole Meals”, and it was in bone-like bars that were sized according to the size of dog they were to feed.  They weren’t ultra light or compact, but it was a convenient form for traveling, without worries about spilled kibble.  Now, we’re planning an extended biking/backpacking trip (22 days out) which means carrying a lot of supplies!

I really need a food that is dense nutritionally, so our volume and weight are minimized.  We’ll have two dogs with us, (one dog will stay with friends–she’s not crazy about traveling) so its a 5 lb. chihuahua and a 70 lb. American dingo/carolina dog.  Standard kibble for each of them comes in at 3 cups per day on a normal low activity day.  That means I’d have to pack 66 cups of kibble to last us the 22 days!  In addition, the little one is a picky eater, whereas the bigger one is happy with almost anything, especially when she’s hungry.

Does anybody make such a food?  The only alternative I can think of is dehydrating a mixture of meat for them, and rehydrating it and adding rice on the road for their meals.  At the same time, I don’t want to cause nutritional deficiencies, especially when they are already being faced with high energy consumption and potentially low temperatures.  (It’s in November, we have NO idea what kind of weather we’ll really have.)  I’m even considering making meal-bars for them myself, using pureed meat, vegetables, eggs, and cooked rice and then baking them to rock hard perfection in the oven.  Obviously, the chihuahua’s “bars” would have to be much smaller.  Has anyone tried this either?

Searching online, I found one company that sold food, recommended only for intermittent or occasional use, called “Peakwaggers.”  At $8.95 for 2 meals suitable for an 80-100 lb dog, that might just fit the bill for my dynamic duo.  My sole concern is that “intermittent and occasional use” clause.  I sent them an inquiry.  Price wise, I really can’t beat that if I make it myself, and I would have the hours of work preparing it and packaging it as well.  If you are curious, check out their website.  According to an email I received from them, each meal is vacuum packed and weighs in at 5 oz.

Most of the foods that come up on the search just don’t qualify as dense enough nutrition to eliminate the bulk and weight.  Merrick has a “wilderness” food, but it’s just a high protein kibble really.  Granted its got great ingredients, but its still not what I’m looking for.

Then, I remembered a food I had seen before, a food that amazed me and the dogs absolutely went gaga over.  It’s compact, freeze dried, and you just add hot water and let it sit for a few minutes…just like our own Mountain House meals.

Who is this mysterious food manufacturer?

Grandma Lucy’s Artisan Foods.

I’m not kidding, the chicken was the only one I saw, but it was literally delicious looking and smelling.  Cutting up one of the CHUNKS of chicken, it looked like just cooked chicken…nothing “dog food” like about it at all.  At about $68 for either the pork or chicken varieties in a 10 lb. bag (makes 55 lbs. of fresh food) it seems reasonably priced for what we’ll need.  (To get one pork and one chicken, along with some beef tiny tidbits treats would total just about $145 plus shipping and handling.)  To get the first brand, one package would work for 1 day, and we’d therefore need 22 pkgs., would be about $196.90…and doesn’t include any “extras”.   Packaging the food into serving sized portions for the dogs in zip lock bags, all we’d have to do is add the hot water and stir in the food in their bowls.  It’s much more expensive than the familiar kibble, and its much less bulky than trying to drag along canned fish, rice, vegetables, etc. to cook up their food on the road. I’m sure we’d have trouble getting Nemo, our little guy, to eat kibble again at home…but hunger is quite an incentive!

Treats are something else that is important to have along for the dogs too.  When we stop for a break and a snack, they’re ready for their own.  They also need copious amounts of water, and Red Dog’s been nicknamed “The Camel” for a reason.  She has been observed to go through a couple of GALLONS of water when she’s hot and getting a drink.  (Not all of it makes it to her stomach, she dribbles, drools, spills, and slops a lot of it.  She also drinks by submerging her entire snout and literally sucking it in when she is truly thirsty.  Lapping is tea time behavior in her book.  Her favorite drinking method, even in cold weather, is standing belly deep in a creek and sucking up water.)  High quality treats are important to maintain their high energy and good spirits.  Typically, we’re giving jerky, but a hot favorite with all of them is peanut butter crackers.  Yep…the same peanut butter and crackers that we are consuming!

Don’t forget their beds, especially when camping in cold weather.  We are intending to use hammocks for a number of the nights, due to terrain, and we’re working on the canine solution.  Nemo the chihuahua can join GM in the hammock, but I am a bit uncertain about how agreeable Red Dog will be to sleeping in a hammock.  (Haven’t tried it yet…she’s remarkably good about sharing a cot though!)  I’m assuming she’s going to find the movement of the hammock disturbing, and may prefer solid ground.  With her advanced age, sleeping on the cold ground is going to aggravate old joints, and that’s not conducive to her enjoying the trip.  If she refuses to agree to sleep in the hammock, something we’re going to work on this summer, we will need to find a compact and light solution to insulating her from the ground’s heat sucking tendencies if she’s not joining us on our bed in a tent or helping me stay warm in the hammock.  We may have to come up with an insulating pad that fits the bottom of the bicycle trailer she rides in when we’re biking (she’s also too old to run alongside a bike for any distance) and use that for her sleeping arrangement.  At night, if we’re not in a tent, she’s tethered to a tree or other large sturdy object to prevent her wandering off and getting into mischief.  When riding in the trailer, she’s tethered to that to prevent a startled dog from jumping out and into traffic or other danger.  Nemo will also be tethered into his basket or carrier, for the same reason.  We have all seen dogs become suddenly and unexpectedly alarmed by some noise or sight that they are unfamiliar with, and it is much better to be safe than sorry, especially when motor vehicles enter into the equation!

For Nemo, we’ve decided on a handlebar basket solution due to his size (about 7 lbs.) but we also would like to have one that has a top for shade at least, since we live on the Gulf Coast and the summer sun is scorching hot.   Since Nemo is a “daddy’s boy”, the basket will be put on “daddy’s” bicycle, which  means he is not thrilled with anything too frilly or “sissy” either.  (Probably for the same reasons that he does not regard spandex as appropriate attire for himself.)  So…no flowers, lacey trim, pink or baby blue baskets either.  Something suitably masculine for the little boy and his adoring daddy is what is on my shopping list.  We are apt to look for a standard soft pet carrier that will fit in a regular bike basket, as the pre-made solutions I’ve seen so far are overpriced and under-quality, as far as their reviews have indicated.

The Aosom cargo trailer that I like so much is sold out, with no date of more coming in.  They may have gone the way of the Model T–they were inexpensive, sturdy, and efficient.  I love ours.  That means we need an alternative to carry either a dog or cargo, and with no anticipated date of our preferred trailer in stock again, that means shopping all over again.

The SolveIt HoundAbout trailer in large MIGHT work.  Rated at up to 100 lbs, it can carry Red Dog and some gear, such as bedding, blankets, spare leashes, and possibly even food.  (I’m thinking about possibly packing the food in individual bags flat on the floor, then covering it with Red’s sleeping pad and her blankets, etc. to protect it from punctures from her nails.)

Croozer trailers are only rated to 66 lbs.  Barely one Red Dog.  That’s not much weight, so that one isn’t really appealing.  I don’t think it would be a good choice for durability.  M-Wave has a very do-able looking cargo trailer, and Amazon’s page shows a customer modification to allow his cocker spaniel to ride under his camping gear–quite ingenious.  It’s rated to 88 lbs.  Serviceable weight.  Avenir‘s cargo trailer looks like a good option, but one of the reviews complains about the early failure of one of the axle bearings and customer service’s lack of interest or response.  I hate bad customer service, by the way…  Amazon also has an “Extended Space” dog trailer, which looks interesting, is much more expensive and has no customer reviews.  I’m a bit leery of a trailer in this price range without reviews.  Even more expensive is the “Novel Dog Bike Trailer“, but it has options like a roof rack (yeah!) and has a good review.  Still, $300 for a dog trailer is a good chunk of change.  In that price range, however, is the Burley Nomad, an industry standard.  It also has a cargo rack option.  It’s also a trailer well known to cyclists.  If I’m going to spend $300+ on a trailer, this is probably the trailer I’d choose, even though it lacks the solid floor I prefer.  It’s lightweight, reliable, and it works.

I already have one trailer that can carry Red Dog, but the second trailer needs to be capable of it, even if that’s not what is in the trailer.  We like our gear to be multi-purpose, and we already know that dogs are one thing we’re apt to have to carry in the trailer.  It wouldn’t make sense to purchase a second trailer that couldn’t also carry her.  In addition, our gear and supplies will weigh in at roughly the same amount as she does, making it sort of a six of one or a half dozen of those in terms of use.  If we have a choice, putting her in the solid bottomed trailer just makes more sense, but if we can’t get another sturdy cargo trailer, and are forced to choose a “pet” or “child” trailer, then she may have to ride in the second one.

There is also the option of making our own trailer, with a little help from friends.  This would give us the option of matching our 26″ bicycle wheels or the 16″ wheels on the Aosom trailer, keeping the number of spare parts to a minimum.  It would also allow more customizing of shape, and possibly even let us use the hitches from the Aosom trailer to hook our home made trailer to, which is also appealing.  We may just think about that!

All in all, our trip is planned in early November, and we’re working diligently on getting ready, getting gear, deciding on supplies, and calculating weight and volume carefully.  We really need to have all of our plans solidly in place within four months, with the gear and the bulk of our supplies purchased as well, leaving the last month for last minute issues and ensuring it is really all going to fit and we can actually tote it behind our bikes!  (Wouldn’t that be a fine how-do-you-do to be all packed, all ready to leave, and climb on our bikes only to discover…we can’t pull the load!)  Training, both for us and the dogs, starts just next month.  Even though we’re not riding far or fast each day, we are going to be riding 2-4 times our current daily ride distance, which means we’ll also definitely need that training!  For the dogs, it’s going to be mostly about learning to ride most of the day when we’re on the bikes, and us learning what their tolerance is for staying put in a relatively small space.  (Moving around much means we’re apt to become unstable, and more likely to fall or wreck ourselves.)

Most of all, our trip is to have fun and enjoy ourselves.  The dogs are to enjoy themselves too, everything from their food to their sleeping arrangements should be about fun and staying safe, comfortable, and being happy.  For them, it’s mostly about being with us, no matter where we are and what we are doing, that’s what makes them happy.  It’s our job to keep them safe and comfortable while they do just that.

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The electronic bark collar-a solution to a problem

The electronic bark collar was never something I anticipated using myself.  I had never owned a dog with a nuisance barking habit before.  Sissy, our feist, is not a young dog, but upon moving into a location where she could SEE things moving (she is losing her sight, so she does not see well)  meant she had to bark her alarm.  Unfortunately, not only does she have a shrill bark, but her alarm period is about 15 minutes.  Between the sights and sounds to cause her alarm and the period of her alarm barking…she barked non stop virtually all day long.

It didn’t stop when we were walking on leash either.  If anything, it was worse.  She was definitely a nuisance barker, and we had to do something fast, as our current location is temporary and no one welcomes a nuisance barker.  We didn’t want to be in a situation where we couldn’t live with our beloved little Sissy.

Uncertain, I found a very cheap anti-bark collar on Ebay, direct from…you guessed it…China or Hong Kong.  I bought it, spending less than $10 including shipping.  I wasn’t anticipating a quality collar, and I got about what I had anticipated receiving.  It’s not reliable and doesn’t go off with each barking session.

But…

It worked.  She doesn’t bark in extended periods of time anymore.  There is a warning tone that she actually pays attention to, unlike our attempts to shut her up.  Maybe the reason she pays attention to that warning tone is because on occasion, it is followed up with a jolt.  We can’t adjust the jolt or make it consistently respond, but it is often enough that we know it’s getting her attention.  Yes, I feel guilty when she yips in pain in response to the jolt, but I also know that she continues to bark even when my hand was holding her mouth closed–she was the most devout barker I had ever seen.  She needed serious correction to get her attention.

The cheap battery that came with the collar lasted about a month, and who knows how much of a charge it had in it.  We bought a replacement battery from Radio Shack that set us back nearly $20–far more than the original and collar had cost, even with shipping.  Replacing the collar and battery was necessary however, as a few days with a nearly dead battery had Sissy nearly to her previous level of barking.  Obviously, the collar is going to be a part of her attire for an extended period of time.

What else has it done?  She’s become a bigger pleasure to take with us, as she doesn’t wear out her welcome with continual barking immediately.  She behaves better, since she’s not focused on producing that steady stream of yaps.  She gets to go with us, rather than having to always stay home because of her incessant barking habit.  Other people may not LOVE her like we do, but she sure is much more likable to them now.

We may make a transition to a standard electronic correction collar, so that we can eventually teach her to respond to our verbal commands to hush, rather than merely responding to that electronic tone.  In addition to the barking, using an electronic correction collar may be more effective at curbing her aggression towards other dogs, a life long problem since she’s got security issues, and feels that other dogs may be going to “steal” our attention and affection.

Do I anticipate ever being able to let Red and Sissy hang out together again?  No, I don’t think there is a collar in the world with enough of a non-fatal zap ability that I’d feel safe letting them together again.  Red is aging and more cranky with age, and Sissy’s attempts to gain the throne as “Empress of the Universe” don’t go over well with her, resulting in progressively more severe response from Red at each attempt.  Since the last event resulted in serious injury to Sissy, who has more determination than intelligence when selecting her opponents, we’ve deemed it necessary to maintain our “separate but equal” policy in our lives.  The two dogs are never allowed to be together, even on leash, without a physical barrier or distance between them.  We’re relieved that the aggression from both of them has become a rare event, which makes for a peaceful life for all of us, as the days when the spats occurred with a crate between them were nerve wracking for all of us.

Consulting with trainers, animal communicators and even the veterinarian didn’t offer solutions.  I was told repeatedly that one of the dogs needed to be re-homed, a solution that wasn’t acceptable.  After five years together, it was like being told to give up one of your children!  Instead, we have opted for this separate but equal policy, putting Red outside for Sissy to have some time loose in the house, even if Sissy vastly prefers to hang out in her crate with its bed and nice safe door.  Red largely ignores Sissy, even turning her head away as she passes by her crate, as a result of frequent challenges in the past that always resulted in Red being “in trouble” while Sissy appeared to be the victim of bullying–until the day Sissy got caught doing her little trick!  Red’s turning of the head is so incredibly melodramatic that it is actually funny, but she is pointedly avoiding looking at Sissy, as though that means that she will not be challenged and therefore get in trouble for aggravating the other dog.

Tackling Sissy’s barking problem has given us greater peace.  We’re happier, she seems less stressed now that she’s no longer spending so much time barking (and being told to PLEASE SHUT UP NOW!)  We enjoy her presence more, which means she gets more attention.  She’s more welcome at group events, where previously she would end up banished to her crate often and early, so that people could carry on a conversation without having to shout over a barking dog.  Other people pay attention to her too, which means she feels more valued and validated.  I’m thrilled, because for a change, I’m not the “bad guy.”  She does not perceive me as punishing her, so there is none of the blame game happening.  That’s great for our relationship too!  Happy families are families that enjoy each other’s company…and we’re a happy family again.

Electronic anti-bark collars aren’t always a solution.  I’ve seen them fail miserably in the past, hence my lack of enthusiasm for them.  I would have thought that this collar’s lack of reliable performance would have made it ineffective, but in reality, it’s almost as though it has made it MORE effective for some reason.  (Don’t ask me to explain the psychological quirks of Sissy–she’s a hard nut to crack!)

We knew the first day that she was paying attention to the collar, although at first she wasn’t sure what on earth that pain was all about.  It took several days before she began associating the warning tone, the pain, and the act of barking at all.  We have to consistently USE the collar too.  In addition, the prongs for the shock delivery must contact the skin or there will be no effect at all.

In tough cases like Sissy, that shock was an important attention getting device, even more so than a deterrent for the behavior.  In traditional methods for “hushing” her, the problem was we couldn’t get her attention long enough for her to respond to a command.  The shock definitely gets her attention!  I anticipate the collar being a long term addition to our routine, as it will likely take up to a year to determine if she’s been broken of the barking habit.  She may require it permanently as an accessory–she IS a feist!

Unfortunately, many dogs such as Sissy end up in dog pounds and rescues around the country for the same reason–nuisance barking.  Not all cases of nuisance barking are caused by neglect or lack of training either.  Some dogs just feel a  need to announce everything they see and hear and smell via a bark (or two or three or a dozen.)  I had tried a lot of the traditional ways to deter her, and the only method that ever even worked to hush her was to simply isolate her so that she could not see anything that worried her.  Part of her barking may be due to her poor vision and approaching blindness–even if I’m just carrying something, I appear to be a “monster” when I walk towards her, causing her to bark in absolute panic until I speak to her.  At the same time, I suspect this barking issue is part of the reason that she was in four homes (that I know of–it might have been more) before I adopted her as an adult dog on death row.  (Sissy has some other issues, like a deep seated resentment of being corrected that she will retaliate for in a very cat-like fashion.)  In our previous home, she couldn’t see anything to alarm her and therefore didn’t bark.  Here, that’s not the case, just as it wasn’t the case when we had her camping, on walks, etc. in the past.  Now, we have come up with a workable approach that I wish I had employed long ago.

Don’t give up on your dog because of barking.  Keep looking for solutions, whether its traditional training, medication, an electronic collar, or whatever…there is something that will work, I’m sure of it!  Do check to make sure that they can hear (deaf dogs sometimes don’t hear themselves very well) and there is no reason for the barking.  Make sure they have enough attention, and aren’t barking just to get that brief moment of “shut up” as more attention than being ignored.  Most dogs only bark outside–by bringing them indoors, you are going to at least stop aggravating your neighbors, an important step in maintaining peace in the  neighborhood.  Sometimes, it’s the neighbors that are causing the barking too–with teasing, other pets, noises, odors, etc.  Years ago, I had one neighbor that turned out to be the reason behind a middle-0f-every-Saturday-night barking frenzy from a labrador I had–he was drunk and serenading the dog, who was going nuts trying to get at him as a potential threat to our home.  The solution?  Every Saturday night, he had to stay indoors and was walked on leash if he insisted on going out.  Peace returned to the neighborhood, and our serenading neighbor had to find a new audience with smaller teeth!

Dogs and camping

We’re going camping this weekend.  It’s our annual spring primitive camp out, and the dogs, as usual, get to go.  They are already excited, we practically had to pull our feist, Sissy, out of her travel crate in the van.  Red Dog, our big girl, was beside herself this evening after watching camping gear being stacked in the yard beside the van and then loaded.  She knows what those tent bags mean, and she also knows that she’s rarely been left behind when they have been loaded.

Our spring camp out means more freedom than usual for them both.  Sissy’s incessant barking is less of a problem there, as we don’t have outsiders walking past, along with bicycles, other dogs, rangers in their trucks, etc. to get her going.  That means we’re saying a lot less of “Sissy, shut up!”  For Red Dog, well trained at 9 years old, it means more off leash time as well as some swims in the creek near our campsite.  No alligators means more water time!  (The water is fast and cold, neither of which enthuse alligators about a creek.)

It means lounging by the camp fire and an opportunity to use her “psycho powers” to coax extra tidbits from the other campers too.  It also means sharing the tent and sleeping on the bed.  Long walks are right up their alley as we walk and explore the woods.  All of this adds up to a great time for them, and they look forward to these trips as much as we do.

But it means other things are important too.  We’ll be away from home, and that means making sure the dogs don’t get lost, as well as that they are carrying current identification tags and are up to date on their shots.  It also means traveling safely both to and from the camp site.

Traveling safely varies between dogs, but one rule should never be bent.  The drivers’ space should never include a dog!  That means even toy dogs, as having them on your lap, etc. is an excellent way to cause an accident as well as seriously or fatally injuring your pet.

There are harnesses designed to restrain your pet while traveling, as well as crates for traveling.  Restraining your pet inside the vehicle is a smart idea, after all, we wear safety belts don’t we?  I must confess though, I don’t strap in Red Dog.

Both dogs have been trained to load into the van on command…and to NOT exit the vehicle without another command, no matter what they want to do.  Sissy rides in a small wire crate to ensure her safety, as she is not as reliable about following the rules.  Red, the dog who has been with me the longest, has a long history of traveling with me, and performing standard security details.  Panhandlers and mischief makers  alike avoided me as a result of her poking out her head through the open door as they approached and giving them a silent “Colgate Grin.”  Apparently, 2″ fangs are greatly inhibiting to these people!    Red is a skilled actress–she puts on a very threatening (and convincing) act of wanting to shred people through the windows of the vehicle.  I have never had a vehicle damaged when she’s sitting inside of it, let alone a thief trying to take an object or the van itself.

So why do dogs love camping so much?  I think its because we are relaxed and happy, and that is contagious.  The dogs pick up on our happy state, and relax themselves.  Add in the interesting scents, the increase in quality time with us, and the fascinating change of routine to include walks and swims, and it’s as much a vacation for them as it is for us.

Camping with dogs is much like any other travel with them, but we do spend more time in camp than we would spend outdoors anywhere else.  As a result, be prepared to cope with their needs outdoors.

  1. Be able to secure the dog for outside lounging time.  Most parks require that dogs be on a 6 ft or shorter leash, which isn’t much room.  Typically, I’ll tie a rope around a tree trunk and thread it through a leash handle, allowing the dog to have a 6 ft radius around the tree.  Most parks do not allow you to leave your dog in camp and go elsewhere–someone has to stay and “dog sit.”
  2. Don’t forget food and water, as well as their dishes.  If your dog has a touchy stomach, bring water from home for them to drink.  It’s a great help to prevent diarrhea and stomach upsets.  Remember, when traveling you may encounter difficulties in obtaining your food, so bring enough along.  Don’t forget their treats–it helps keep the people food for the people!
  3. Bring along a copy of their vaccination history.  This may be required at some parks, and is always good to have along, just in case of a problem.
  4. Bring a toy or two if your dogs play with toys.  It helps occupy their time too.
  5. Have a spare leash.  Leashes often meet with strange damage problems, can be lost or broken, or simply mislaid.  A spare saves your sanity.
  6. Remember the weather. In warm weather, dogs can quickly overheat, whether in a vehicle or not.  Make sure they have shelter and protection from rain or wind, according to the season.  NEver leave a dog in a vehicle in warm weather.  (Typically, if we have to stop & shop when traveling with the dogs, one of us stays with the vehicle unless it is at night and then we’re quick.)  In cool weather, remember…if you need a jacket to be comfortable outside, so do they!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy your time with your pet.  That’s the most important part!