[ This story originally appears in our July issue, now available on newsstands. Click HERE to check out our favorite gear items to get your dog ready for the river. — Eds. ]
My friend Lorraine Wakely takes her dogs everywhere. So when she started whitewater paddling, there was never any question that Daisy, a brash German shepherd, and Clover, a cautious Lab-Doberman cross, would share in the fun. While Wakely learned how to boof and eddy-hop on the Class IV creeks that flow into Lake Superior, the dogs became experts at running the shore. Daisy and Clover tiptoe along cliffs, ferry across the river, and duck under bridges on command to avoid busy roads. Lorraine and her dogs made it all look so easy. Only later, when a new canine companion came into my life, did I understand the true challenges of obedience training. But after some basic lessons and a few outings, canoe-tripping has become my orphaned sled dog Jack's favorite summertime activity. I've never regretted having him for a companion on a wilderness trip. He's still a little sketchy around moving water, and we're still working on Wakely's favorite tips for river-ready dogs. — Conor Mihell
Swim lessons: Though Fido need not be the next Michael Phelps, it is important that your dog be comfortable around water before you take him out paddling. If yours isn't a water-dog, use a combination of toys and praise to ease your dog into the water gradually. A dog-specific PFD is a good idea to keep weak swimmers afloat; even for good swimmers, PFDs add buoyancy and valuable insulation in cold water.
Basic commands: Your dog should have basic obedience training before you take him/her on the water. Sit, Stay and Down are essential for keeping dogs calm and the boat steady. Wakely found that training her dogs for agility competitions helped them negotiate tricky riverbanks. "Any previous experience in responding to commands from afar and dealing with problems independently will shorten the dog's learning curve," she says.
No strings attached: The best place for a dog to ride in a tandem canoe is either behind the bow seat or immediately in front of the stern paddler. A foam pad will increase your pet's comfort. Rule One: The canoe doesn't leave shore until the dog is sitting (better yet, lying) still. And save the leash for shore. Tying your dog into the canoe could be a deadly mistake if you capsize. While creekboating, Lorraine will occasionally carry a dog on the back deck of her kayak to get it from one side of the river to the other.
Start easy: Regardless of whether you're training a new canoe-tripping companion or a whitewater super-dog, start on flatwater. You want your dog's first experiences with paddling to be positive, fun and risk-free. In training her dogs to run the shore, Wakely started at an open beach before progressing to lakes with more complex shorelines and, eventually, to easy whitewater rivers. The trick on the river, she says, is convincing the dog to stick to the shore and to swim only when necessary, such as when crossing inflowing tributaries.
Stay in your comfort zone: Adding a dog to the mix increases the level of risk involved in canoeing across a white-capped lake or running a steep creek. Your dog is relying on you for support, so don't get in a situation of survival paddling. "It's essential that you know where your dog is at all times, and that you're familiar with the river to ensure that your dog is safe and away from hazards like strainers," Wakely says.
Leapfrog: Use a dog-spotter in higher risk situations. This might mean having one person walk the portage with the dog(s) or using a leash to keep canines safe at the top and bottom of a rapid.