We love sharing stories from people having fun traveling with their pets – especially when they do things a little differently than us. So, when Sheila Bergin Goss of Vermont Paddle Pups offered to share their her tips for canoeing or kayaking with dogs, we were delighted!
Sharing YOUR pet travel experiences may be just the nudge someone else needs to pack up and head out with their own best friend. If you’re interested in writing a guest post for Take Paws, let us know!
My husband and I are avid paddlers, and advocates for safe and fun outdoor adventures with dogs. We enjoy sharing our love of paddling with dogs, and are thrilled to be able to share a few pointers with you, to help you and your dogs have a great paddling experience – one you will want to continue for many years!
No way…you put TWO dogs in your canoe with you? Oh, we’ve heard that before! We started out with Gryphon, a yellow lab mutt, who took to canoeing like a pro. He paddled with us for a few summers as a “solo dog.” Then we adopted Edgar and, with a few adjustments, we were able to put 2 large mutts in our 16’6” canoe, and off we would go … on multi-day canoe camping trips, day trips, picnic paddles, and love exploring new waterways. You and your dog can do it too!
If your dog can happily ride in a car, he’s a good candidate for paddling. Our dogs love the peaceful movement of the canoe and kayak, they get to see wildlife, explore islands and beaches, camp out with us, and splash around to cool off.
When deciding which watercraft is best, we suggest starting with a stable, family-suitable canoe. Bring your dog along for your shopping trip so he can try the boats for size. Some configurations are more suitable for dogs than others, and aluminum canoes can get very hot and noisy – both unpleasant conditions for a dog – so we suggest avoiding them. If you’re leaning toward a kayak, you should be sure that there is adequate room for you to paddle, and for your dog to safely sit in the boat. When you’ve narrowed down the options and are ready for a test paddle, bring your dog along, too, wearing a life jacket, of course.
We use the tandem canoe for some trips, but most of our outings now involve the use of a 13 foot solo canoe and a 12 foot kayak. One dog prefers the canoe, and the other likes his kayak, so both dogs and paddlers are happy!
The first step in ensuring your dog’s comfort in the boat is to have a covering on the floor. Your dog will need to adjust to the movement of the canoe or kayak, and if he slips or slides, he will be unsteady, insecure, and will not be able to settle down. We have used yoga mats, backpacking pads, foam mats, but found that many of these will slide once water gets under them. Our preferred solution is a section of good quality indoor-outdoor carpeting. This material can be cut to fit nearly the length of our canoe, protects the interior from the dogs’ claws, and also is easy to clean, dry, and roll up for storage. For our kayak, we have high praise for adhesive traction mats sold for SUPs (stand up paddleboards).
Be sure that you are confident paddlers before you take your dog out in the canoe or kayak. You do not have to be an expert paddler, but even on quiet waters, you are going to have a miserable (and dangerous) time, if you and your dog are both uncertain and inexperienced. Select a quiet, calm body of water, with an easy access launch site, for your first excursions. Choose a time of day when there are fewer other boaters or dogs around; the smoother the water, and the fewer distractions, the more successful your initial trips will be.
Your dog does not have to be a good swimmer to have a safe trip. In fact, all dogs should wear a dog life jacket when on the water. These jackets provide thermal protection in cool water, a nice handle should you need to lift your dog out of the canoe or the water, and make your dog visible to other boaters should he end up in the water. Neither of our dogs are skilled swimmers; should we capsize, I’d rather deal with a floating dog than one who is struggling. And we periodically have our dogs practice swimming while wearing their life jackets, so they gain confidence in the water.
Do not forget to wear your PFD! No matter how strong a swimmer you may be, should you need to assist your dog in the water, lack of a PFD could be detrimental to your health. According to the American Canoeing Association, 85% of canoeist who drown were not wearing PFDs. Consider that, and the fact that there would be added exertion required in trying to help your dog!
Before taking off, it’s a good idea to brush up on your dog’s basic obedience commands, such as sit, stay, down, and “hup” (or another command you may select for getting in and out of the boat). We had each of our dogs work on these skills in the boat while on dry land before they ever went onto canoe on the water. This training has saved us from disaster more than once. Each of our dogs began his canoeing career by sitting near the stern paddler where he was secure, easy to hold, and there was less chance of unexpected motion from the dog. The dogs then “graduated” to choosing their preferred position in the canoe.
Our dogs get very excited when they see that they are going out on the water, and that’s to be expected! If your dog has trouble settling down, you may want to take him for a walk or run first. It is also a good idea to let him take care of any potty business before he gets into the boat.
We also keep short leashes handy for use at the launching sites (where there may be broken glass or other hazards), and at access points where leashes are required. We do not suggest using a leash on your dog while in the boat, since any hanging lines could cause entanglement if the boat goes over. And NEVER tie your dog to the boat!
Dogs can lean over the gunwales to access water, but we do not always want our dogs drinking from the water we’re paddling across. So be sure to pack plenty of drinking water for yourself and your dog. We also pack essential safety gear, which includes a dog first aid kit. In this kit, we always have a few Cordura musher’s booties – should we have to bandage a paw, the use of a bootie will help keep a bandage in place.
Our standard routine for getting in and out of the boat is: dogs go first, one at a time, upon command … then we go in. The dogs are taught that we decide when they enter and exit the boat. Upon landing, we reverse the process. Most boats capsize within 10 feet of shore, and keeping a strict routine can help prevent this. The dogs only get in and out of the boat when we decide it is safe for all of us.
It’s also important to practice good paddling etiquette with your dog. We do not allow the dogs to bark while in the canoe or kayak. We paddle near some amazing wildlife, and would not want our dogs to harass the loons, beaver, herons, moose, or other animals (or paddlers) we see. Be sure to clean up after your dogs, as we are responsible for them, and for keeping our waters clean.
Perhaps the most important element to having a successful dog paddling expedition is your attitude! Have fun, and remember that this activity may be a bit unsettling to your dog. Go slowly … start with short trips, so your dogs can earn your praise while he practices his canoeing skills. Take Photos! You will want to look back some day and realize how far you and your dog have come, and laugh at your adventures (and misadventures!). Canoeing and kayaking can be a “lifetime activity” for dogs. Once our dogs’ more active days are over, we know that they will continue to enjoy canoeing with us, a shared activity we all love.
About the Author: Sheila Bergin Goss lives in northern Vermont, surrounded by mountains and lakes that support her love of outdoor recreation. She and her husband are empty-nesters, who enjoy hiking, snowshoeing, bicycling, c
amping, and paddling … with their two paddle pups, of course. She is active in recreational advocacy groups, and in promoting safe and responsible outdoor recreation with dogs. All photos in this post belong to Sheila.
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