To those of us who believe our dog is part of the family and truly "man's (and woman's) best friend"...this is for you.
Often I get paddlers coming out for the first time with their canine companions wanting to get on a board or kayak with their little buddy.
Most of the time it's a fantastic experience, but once in a while there is a disgruntled dog owner soaked to the bones, with a dripping buddy who is also pleased as punch at the success they had dumping their human friend into the water.
I'm a dog owner of many years and have had my share of multiple furry buddies I've had to train on the water. A "water shy" Black Lab mix: Toddy, a cute little Chihuahua that felt he ruled the lake: El Gato, and now the electrified Dingo, my Red Heeler mix that never tires of swimming for hours on end, as long as something to fetch is out there.
Each of these dogs were unique in the experience and type of training they needed. Because as we dog owners know, dogs have personalities to take into account before heading out.
While one person's dog will just sit and not move all day, another dog is pushing things over and in your face making paddling a little tougher.
Here are my top three tips for paddling with your pup. Equipment, dog behavior and training.
You want to make sure whatever type of vessel you will be paddling, SUP or kayak, will be large enough to fit you and your dog. With my Chihuahua, it was something I didn't even have to think about. That little guy would literally run around my board while I was doing Yoga, and I hardly could tell he was there. This was not the same story with my larger Black Lab. If Toddy got up from a seated position, it threw off my balance on a paddleboard. I advise first timers out there with a dog to take a larger board or kayak, initially. Of course, if you are renting, specify to the rental crew that you want a larger board, tell them it is your first time with your dog, and tell them the weight and/or breed of the animal. Most rental shops might have something that will accommodate. At Dig Paddlesports, we have plenty of dog friendly bigger boards and kayaks for your first adventure together.
If you are bringing your own equipment, you will want to know the weight capacity, and make sure you are not exceeding or pushing it's limits. Even equipment with a higher weight capacity can feel extremely unstable with a new doggy paddler moving around.
Yes, my dog wears one. I learned a hard lesson when my dog got tangled in some fishing line in some submerged brush. My kid came running and screaming that our dog was drowning and to run quick to save him. My heart jumped and I was chilled to the core to see kid #2 in the lake up to his chin holding my dog above water the both of them trying not to drown. I grabbed my utility knife and cut my dog free from the line. If he had a vest on, yes, he still would have been tangled, but my kid would not have been risking his life trying to keep my dog's chin above water.
Many dogs do not know their limits, this raises their risk for drowning. Dogs can get scared, jump off your vessel in the middle of the lake and try to swim to shore. Maybe you have capsized and they can wear themselves out trying and failing to get back on your board or kayak. Most Dog PFD's have a handle on the back so you can grab your buddy in the water and pull them back on with you if they need some assistance. Invest in a vest for your loved one. We have a few in stock, but let us know if we need to order your dog's size for you. You want to make sure the vest is snug and not sliding around, just as if it were one of your kids on a boat. Because it is. Am I right?
This is a biggie. If your dog is a total spaz and can't obey simple commands... ehhhh... you might want to work on that a little before taking him out to the middle of the lake.
Make sure your dog can obey simple commands like "Sit", and "Stay". Otherwise, you may be one of those soaked paddlers upset at your furry buddy for dumping you in the water.
So you got the right equipment. Your dog is listening to you and knows how to sit and stay.
Now we get the fun part!
If it is your dog's very first time on a board or kayak, I suggest letting them try getting in and sitting on it on land first.
Try "sit" and "stay" while the kayak is on shore. Don't get out in the water until the 2 of you can sit in the kayak on solid ground. Let them feel it and know it's a safe and fun place to be.
Next step. DO NOT JUST PADDLE OUT TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE LAKE!!!!!!
Your first time in the water, stay inside the buoy line! If your dog does have a freak out moment and jumps out, the swim to shore is safer and easier and you can paddle back in and try again. Keep working on that "sit", "stay" and give corrections while you are on the water and close to shore. Take time to reassure your buddy and stay calm.
Remember if you are nervous, they are nervous. So smile. Breathe. Enjoy the scenery.
Be aware of your dog's triggers. My dog freaks out and wants to jump in every time he sees a stick in the water. He wants to jump in and grab that toy. For your dog it might be birds or fish or other paddlers.
Be calm and alert. When you see a potential "freak out" trigger approaching, calmly remind your dog to "relax" or whatever your word or cues are to calm your dog. Remind them to "stay".
If your dog does have that moment where he is just too excited to stay on with you and jumps out try and catch that duck, it's ok! You have a canine PFD on them.
Here's the tricky part, and we probably should have practiced this closer to shore inside the buoy line, but now we get to work on bringing your dog back into your vessel with you. Depending on the size of your dog, this can be very easy or very challenging.
Again, stay calm.
If you are close to shore and worried about capsizing, it might be easiest just to paddle to shore and have your dog swim along side and try again.
If you are in the middle of the lake and your buddy is panicking, paddle up to them. Most panicked dogs don't respond like a human when you try to calm them, but make it fun. It's an adventure you are having together. So smile, remain calm. That awesome doggy PFD has a handle usually in the middle of the back of your dog. Secure your paddle as your reach to lift your dog out of the water. If your dog is larger and you are unable to lift them, paddle to shore.
As I am lifting my dog back on, I shift my own weight to the opposite side of the vessel to balance out the weight. Again, you may want to practice this close to shore first so you both know what to expect.
My Chihuahua LOVED jumping off the board and trying to climb back on. You may have a dog that thinks it's a game. It's no big deal with the little guys, but when your bigger guy puts your balance at risk, it's time to go back to "sit and stay" practice once again.
I've enjoyed many adventures on the water with my dogs. Seeing my dog enjoy nature brings a big smile to my face, and knowing that we are both equipped and ready for anything allows us both to have a great time.
- Michelle Ennis
PSUPA, WPA, Certified Paddle instructor
...and owner of the famous Dingo the Wonder Dog, my favorite paddling buddy (Shhhhh, don't tell my husband).