A Day on the River with your Best Friend
Story and photos by Ed Felker
Spending a day kayaking with your dog can be an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. However, as with most things involving water, dogs, or especially both, smooth sailing is not guaranteed. But with the right gear and a little preparation, chances are good you’ll be able to enjoy relaxing outings on the water with your best pal. I am not a professional kayaker or dog trainer, but I’ve learned a few things along the way paddling with my dogs, and I have some tips to help you get started.
Know your dog. Before you head out with your dog, know his comfort level with water. The boat ramp is not the place to learn that your Basenji is terrified of water or your Labrador is so exuberantly in love with it he cannot be contained. Make sure your dog is comfortable playing in and around water first. You also need to have control over your dog – a solid sit/stay is a must. Even if your dog is small, you can’t paddle with a Shih Tzu on your lap. There will be times when you must attend to kayaking tasks and your dog will need to be able to find a parking place for a bit.
Know your boat and make sure it’s dog-friendly. Do your research. Find the right boat for you. Not all kayaks are created equal when it comes to dog-friendliness. For instance, hard plastic kayak hulls are slippery and uncomfortable for dogs. You should be familiar with your boat and extremely comfortable not just paddling it in different conditions, but safely getting in and out of it before introducing four more legs to the equation. Borrowing a boat you’ve never paddled before and throwing your Malamute in the front – and I feel like this goes without saying – is a recipe for disaster.
Know your conditions. Don’t try unfamiliar or difficult water with a dog in tow. They rely on you to keep them safe, so be aware of water levels, dam releases, and weather conditions. Get an app for river levels and make a mental note of the closest gauge reading every time you go out.
Introduction. Have your dog climb around your kayak in your yard. Show her her spot. If she’s apprehensive, you can have her sit on one side while you call her straight across it from the other. Praise, reward, repeat. You know the deal.
Gearing up. You and your pup both need a personal flotation device (PFD). Bring a leash, but do not leash a dog on a boat. Bring fresh drinking water for both of you and a bowl for him, particularly in hot weather and especially if you’re on salt water. Your dog will need a pad or mat of some sort, and a safe spot in the boat to settle down. Bring snacks, treats, and maybe a toy to throw if you stop to stretch your legs along the way. And no matter how experienced you are, have a dry bag with you for valuables and anything not waterproof. If you think you’ll never get dunked, you’ve never caught a smallmouth while kayaking with a 70-pound Wirehaired Vizsla who has never seen a fish before.
Speaking of fishing. Make sure you and your buddy are extremely comfortable with kayaking before you introduce fishing. Start on land first. Even if you can’t show your Beagle a bass in person, he’ll at least see you waving a stick around and propelling an enticing looking thing at the end of the line into the water. Dogs will react differently to this. I don’t recommend waiting till you’re in a boat to find out how. You are at your most vulnerable when landing a fish. Your full attention is on the fish, your dog is most likely very excited, and the lure is in or near the boat. This is one time when a firm, reliable down/stay command comes in handy.
Hit the water. Start small, just a short test run to make sure your dog will take to it. If he does great, don’t push it. End on a good note. Once you commit to a point-to-point float, have possible places in mind to stop for a bathroom break.
Have a plan at the ramp. This is easy to forget, but especially on popular waterways in the summer, boat ramps can be crowded. Plan on there being people fishing, loading and unloading boats, milling around in the way, and generally not paying attention to their kids or dogs right where you need to put your boat. Have a leash for your dog handy and ready to fasten, and make his safety your first priority. You can look for your phone later, for now watch out for the guy repeatedly backing down the ramp at different angles in the same pattern you’d use to paint a wall with a roller.
If this all seems overwhelming, just break it down into pieces. Start by finding some friendly, shallow water, and just splash around with your dog. Have fun. Take your time. And if you’re patient, when you get to the point where you and your dog can be equally relaxed on a boat floating along and watching wildlife together, let me tell you, there are few better ways to spend a day.