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Canoeing with Dogs

Dispatch No. 11 from the Freemans' year in our nation's most popular wilderness area

PHOTOS BY DAVE FREEMAN / STORY BY AMY FREEMAN

Over the past couple months we’ve had the enjoyable yet challenging experience of training Tank to become the ultimate canoe canine. I’ll impart some of the knowledge we’ve gained in the process. Tank is not the first sled dog we’ve had the pleasure of training in the ways of paddling. Our polar husky-lab mix, Fennel, accompanied us for about six months in Canada as we paddled south and east from Great Slave Lake to Lake Superior in 2011. I hope these concepts are useful regardless of your choice of watercraft. Our experience is with canoe dogs, but you may be out to train the perfect SUP dog or kayak dog.

Doggy demeanor: A mellow, well-behaved dog makes an ideal paddling companion. Tank is older, likes to nap a lot, loves people, and has always acted friendly and submissive with any other dogs we have encountered out here. Perhaps a high-strung dog that freaks out easily, doesn’t like a change in routine, attacks other dogs, can’t be trusted off-leash, is afraid of strangers, and/or barks at the slightest provocation should be left at home.

Useful commands: With Tank, we had to start at square-one. He’s a sled dog, so he knows a bunch of commands, but not your usual pet basics like sit, stay and down.

“Sit” is a must; “stay” and “down” are quite useful for keeping your dog from causing a capsize. If you’re doing a BWCAW trip with lots of portaging, then there actually are some dogsledding commands that I have found to be useful: “whoa” to stop, “on-by” to move past some distraction or attempts to pee on every tree, and “easy” to go slow on a steep downhill. As a bonus, Tank knows directional command so if we come to a fork in the trail, I can tell him to go left (“haw”) or right (“gee”).

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Rewards: Having treats on-hand to reinforce good behavior has been our secret weapon. Early on, Tank would effectively ignore me when I called him. Shortly after instituting treat use, Tank shows up in record time and even sits down for emphasis whenever I call.

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Trial run: We’ve had the pleasure of training a couple of canoe dogs over the years. Going out for a short paddle on a couple different occasions is advisable. It gives your dog a chance to get used to the routine of paddling and gives you a chance to work out the kinks. You’ll also want to be prepared for immersion. It seems like the most likely time you’ll end up capsizing due to your pooch is in the early stages of the training process.

These short trial runs give you a chance to figure out the best position for your canine. Generally, we’ve begun with me holding onto the dog while Dave paddles. Once we got away from shore and Tank had a grasp on what was going on, I could let go and paddle too. I gave him treats every few minutes so long as he remained sitting. Our previous dog, Fennel, loved to lie down and nap with his head resting on a thwart or gunwale. He also weighed 104 pounds. So Fennel went in the middle, behind the yoke, with a pack or two in front of the yoke to achieve good trim. Tank is a little more alert while paddling, remaining sitting and looking around. Weighing in at 70 pounds, it is noticeable if Tank shifts in the boat. I’d recommend the same position we use with Tank if you have a sightly squirmy dog. He seems to fair best directly in front of the stern seat, wedged between the stern paddler’s legs. This technique would work in the bow too with a smaller, lighter dog.

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Gear: There is a lot of gear on the market for the outdoors dog, so I’ll try to keep it brief– only mentioning the bare essentials. A doggy PFD is a must if your dog isn’t a good swimmer. I recommend the Underdog by MTI Adventurewear, because they really paid attention to a dog’s natural swimming position, with head held high and butt dropping lower in the water.

If you’ll be portaging on your trip, why not have your canine carry some of his or her food or other odds and ends? Make sure the pack fits well and get your dog used to it by going for walks with the loaded pack before your trip.

A foam pad is a new addition for us, but we now realize what a godsend it is. Tank had been sleeping on a chunk of a foam Ridge-rest pad all winter. We decided to keep it with us for the summer. It helped with canoe training because he knew where to sit. The padding definitely makes it more comfortable for him to sit on in the canoe. If it is raining or we end up with some water in the bottom of the boat, he isn’t stuck sitting in a puddle. We’ll be using a pad like this for every paddling venture with a dog from now on.

A collapsible dog dish is a handy addition. We also carry a small trowel to make poop scooping easy.

Bug considerations: One of our biggest concerns when considering traveling with Tank in the BWCAW for the summer was his comfort in a buggy area. Ticks, black flies and mosquitoes were the bugs that concerned us, along with the ever-present risk of heartworm. So Tank regularly takes NexGuard for ticks, HeartGuard for worms, and we apply Advantix to his skin for flies and mosquitoes. If only humans could use this stuff! We also spray him with an herbal bug spray when portaging or camping in particularly buggy spots. Be sure to research the bugs of concern in whatever wild location you’re planning to travel in and get your dog the appropriate preventative treatments. Also ask your vet about what to carry in a doggy first aid kit.

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Leave no trace: Taking your dog with you on a paddling venture in a wild place means you’re responsible for preventing them from leaving a trace. This means no digging, no chasing after wildlife, picking up after your pet, and even making sure they’re not barking. Be sure to check out the dog regulations for the area you’re planning to visit. In some places you’ll need to haul out their waste (along with your own). In other places dogs are not allowed at all.

Here’s what the U.S. Forest Service has to say on the back of all BWCAW permits:

“Dogs impact wildlife and barking intrudes on the experience of others. Dogs must be under control at all times. Dispose of fecal mater 150 feet from water sources, campsites, and portages, or deposit it in a latrine.”

Whether you’re planning to canoe in the BWCAW or SUP along a rugged coastline, I hope this helps in your paddling pooch training and planning.


— Check out more DOG PADDLING TIPS.

— Dave and Amy Freeman have been sending in Dispatches from their #WildernessYear in the Boundary Waters. (Read more about their adventures, including: Tips and Tricks for adhering to key rules in the BWCAW, canoeing through the recent spring Ice-out, Finding Reasons to Rejoice, Holidays in the Boundary Waters, Ice Canoeing, The Freeze Begins, The Slow Way and Canoeing with the Next Generation.)

— Learn more about the mining threat at SavetheBoundaryWaters.org, and check out the Freemans' educational info at WildernessClassroom.com, or follow updates at #SavetheBWCA and #WildernessYear.