Some days on the river, it can feel as though the paddling world has gone to the dogs—and we say why not? An instinctive swimmer, man’s best friend is a model boating companion, unlikely to Bogart the last beer and entirely incapable of critiquing your stroke. We asked a few experts for advice on how to keep Fido healthy and happy on a paddling trip. They came up with the following tips for all of your dogged pursuits.
Water dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Paddling photographer Michael DeYoung’s first dog Fisher, a golden retriever, was a no-brainer for canoeing. But, generally, even though dogs such as Newfoundlands and Labradors have been bred especially for their resilience to cold and swimming capability, you don’t need a special breed.
Train ‘em young—in and out of the water. Sure, the doggie paddle is easy to master, but dogs can and do drown. What’s more, whether it’s staying center in a tipsy canoe or paws up on a dry box, teaching Spot to sit still can prevent flips—a dog that learns a solid “down” command is even better. “It takes practice,” DeYoung says. “It’s a good idea to start them out on a lake or flatwater paddling when they’re about six months old.” Playing fetch in the water develops swimming skills and fitness, he adds.
Give them traction. DeYoung goes so far as to lay a rubber mat on the slippery bottom of his canoe, which helps keep his current canine Kyia, a black Lab/Great Dane mix, out of the bilge. A bit of industrial carpeting affixed to the deck or dry box can offer stable footing for any four-legged passengers on board.
Teach your pooch specific boating commands or gestures. It will pay off when you hit rolling rapids or windblown waves. Older dogs can learn new tricks—just don’t be overly stubborn. Some dogs never dig paddling, and an inadvertent swim could be just the beginning of your woes. “Unless they’re well-acclimated water dogs, you’re asking for trouble,” says paddler Brad Tyer, who has canoed with his dogs in Texas, Montana, Arkansas, and elsewhere. “My general attitude is take them out and get a few pictures and then leave them home.”
Your dog is an excuse to buy more gear. Pack for Lassie as you would for yourself: A dry bag for food with a hard-sided container inside to keep critters out; a folding bowl for water; a doggie-flotation device for rapids or unanticipated problem sections (best to get the dog used to this before it’s needed); a towel; a leash; and first-aid kit including tape and bandages, dog thermometer and ear drops.
The scoop on poop: Dog owners who want acceptance from other paddlers should treat their dog droppings according to the prevailing rules for human waste. If you are in a pack-it-out zone, then stow the doggie-doo with your own in that rocket box. Otherwise, dig a cat hole—sorry Rover—and bury it deep.
“The leash equals love,” says Charlene LaBelle, a Northern California kennel owner who has written extensively about backpacking with dogs. For boating, LaBelle likes a floating leash that comes with a buoy-like grip. She has faced porcupines, snakes, and bears in the backcountry—and if your dog is out of control, especially in a boat, all bets are off. So training a dog to heel is a must—as is taking care not to let them run wild on shore. “Dogs will see more, smell more, and hear more than you ever will,” she says. “A leash allows you to redirect their energy.” What’s more, dogs are natural-born predators, so even if Fido comes through an encounter unscathed, injuries to wildlife are not uncommon, and the stress of the encounter can be deadly for woodland critters