Essential Guide to Canoeing and Kayaking With Dogs

When it comes to the perfect dog breed for a paddling pal, the experts disagree.

For example, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer Don Hanson suggests the usual suspects: hearty, water-loving breeds, like Labradors, golden retrievers and Newfoundlands. “I’d recommend any of the breeds with a natural propensity for enjoying the water,” says Hansen, who is also the co-owner of Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine.

Everybody loves labs! Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Black-Schmidt/Canoe & Cayak Magazine

Ask another expert, such as John Fiddler, DVM, who does veterinary emergency service in north Seattle, and you get an entirely different answer. “Personally, I would choose a smaller breed for paddling,” says Dr. Fiddler, for whom the choice is based upon a larger dog’s potential for tipping a canoe or kayak.

“Some of the larger dog breeds are what we think of as ‘water’ dogs, like Labrador retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Portuguese water dogs, border collies, and golden retrievers,” says Dr. Fiddler. “They’re breeds that often love being in and around water, but unless they are super chill and don’t move around, they can be dangerous in a kayak.”

Dr. Fiddler paddles with these two pooches. Photo: Courtesy of Canoe & Kayak Magazine

Dr. Fiddler has personal experience with the perils of paddling with a dog.

“The closest to a bad kayaking accident I have been involved with was a friend who was paddling with his border collie,” he recalls. “At the worst time, in open water and in a shipping channel, the dog suddenly shifted its weight, causing my friend to capsize.”

It quickly went from bad to worse with cold water and a panicked dog.

“Every time my friend tried to get back into his boat,” Fiddler says, “the dog was desperately trying to crawl back in at the same time, causing the boat to capsize over and over. Eventually with the other paddlers stabilizing the kayak, we were able to them back in, but they were pretty cold and scared by the end of it. If he had been by himself, it could have ended in disaster.”

Thus, Dr. Fiddler prefers smaller breeds: “Smaller breeds can move around more without as much effect on the balance of the boat.”

Ask a third expert, Jeremy Shapero, DVM, of Meridian, Idaho, and you’ll get the opinion that both large and small breeds are best, depending on the boat.

“For canoeing, I would recommend retrievers, such as Labrador and golden, huskies, cattle dogs (blue heeler), and hunting types like pointers,” Shapero says. “These are energetic dogs that love the outdoors, often tolerate if not outright enjoy the water, and love the activity.”

Dr. Shapero paddling with his canine companion. Photo: Courtesy of Canoe & Cayak Magazine

Dr. Shapero suggests downsizing for kayaks, where “terrier mixes come to mind, as they fit the above description; I would recommend something at least 15 pounds, like Jack-Russell-size and up.”

But he believes weight shouldn’t be the only deciding factor.

“I would not recommend brachycephalic (smoosh-nosed) dogs, such as pugs and shih-tzus, as they already have breathing difficulty and an unexpected swim could be dangerous.”

Training Your Dog

However, when it comes to the perfect paddling pal, the experts are in perfect agreement when it comes to preparation, which means starting with the water beneath the boat.

“Even some dogs we would expect to enjoy the water hate it,” says Hanson. “Even Labs, if they do not grow up around water and do not have many rewarding experiences with water during the critical 8- to 16-week socialization and habituation period, may not be good paddling companions.”

Hanson suggests that you start at square one: “Assessing the dog’s ability to swim is essential, as some cannot swim well.”

Don Hanson and his paddling pooch. Photo: Courtesy of Canoe & Kayak

Once you’ve given them some practice playing in the water and are confident in their ability, bring them into the boat and continue acclimating them with all aspects of paddling.

“Habituate the dog to everything associated with paddling during the critical period from 8- to-16 weeks of age: boats, life jackets for you and the dog, paddles, etc.”

Older and Rescue Dogs

If your dog is an older rescue, Hanson suggests taking a much slower approach to training your pooch to paddle. The vets agree.

“Like people, some dogs love water and some are scared of it,” says Dr. Fiddler. “If you want to paddle with your pooch, it always helps to start early, though it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks.”

Dr. Fiddler suggests incremental approximations of the end activity.

“In your driveway, try getting them to learn to stay in/on the boat even when it starts shifting side to side. Then go to flatwater – a day with no wind. Rougher conditions can scare the dog, so start mellow and get them used to the movement.”

Prepare for the Worst

“Like people, dogs should always wear a life vest, no matter how good a swimmer they are and while acclimating, stay close to shore initially, so the consequences are less if there is a problem,” says Dr. Fiddler.

He also suggests practicing for problems.

“It might be a good idea in a safe environment to practice capsizing and reentering the boat along with the dog. It will help teach the dog what is expected of it and will help the paddler troubleshoot any problems that might crop up.”

Don’t rock the boat! Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt/Canoe & Kayak Magazine

And if at first your pooch doesn’t succeed, Dr. Shapero tells paddling dog owners to keep trying.

“Practice makes perfect,” he says. “Initial trepidation on their part shouldn’t discourage further effort, as desensitization is the greatest tool to overcoming anxieties.”

The Single Best Breed?
Whereas practice matters more than breed choice, Dr. Fiddler does have an interesting suggestion.

“Schipperkes are a Dutch breed that was bred for being on the canal barges.”

Schipperkes weigh between six and 20 pounds and are fearless, agile, confident, and faithful, a good weight and solid traits for a small boat companion.

Dr. Fiddler has also found dachshunds, cocker spaniels, cairn terriers, and beagles to be similarly solid paddling pals. Of course, an important part of the equation is that not all kayaks are suited for canines.

“A little bit depends on what type of kayak you are paddling,” Sit-on-tops or tandems are more comfortable to paddle than having a dog sitting in your lap or between your legs.”

Use Common Sense

Whatever the boat, size and breed can trump training.

“I would not recommend giant water-loving breeds, such as the Newfoundland, as their zeal for water could make for unsafe boating,” said Dr. Shapero.

And don’t let your zeal for tomfoolery turn a fun day upside down.

“Throwing them overboard, even for fun, could be dangerous for them and their efforts to re-board the boat may flip it.”

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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