Adventure, canoeing and kayaking, gear and clothing, Travel Tips, travel with dogs

The Complete Guide to Paddling with Your Dog

paddling with your dog
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Every dog must have its day. And for many dogs that day includes quality time spent playing outside with their favorite human companions. Throw in a spectacular mountain lake or a meandering river, and you’ve got yourself an adventure. It’s true that not all dogs are comfortable around water, and many more might balk at the idea of canoeing or kayaking, but plenty of adventurous dogs can be convinced to give it a shot. Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of paddling with dogs. Is it the ultimate adventure or a disaster waiting to happen? Only one way to find out.

Best Dog Breeds for Getting Out on the Water

paddling with your dog

Whether or not your dog will get along with boats and water depends on all kinds of factors, including age, temperament, breed, and the environment they’ve been raised in. Just because your dog is a certain breed does not necessarily mean that they will or won’t take to water, but I’d be lying if I said that a dog’s breed didn’t play a role. These breeds are said to be lovers of water and the best swimmers.

  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Portuguese Water Dogs
  • Newfoundlands
  • Brittany Spaniels
  • Poodles (this was news to me!)
  • Australian Shepherds

Dogs with heavy chests like bulldogs, pugs, boxers, and basset hounds don’t have body shapes designed for swimming, and many other breeds just don’t take to the water readily. For the record, we’ve raised a number of Labradors over the years and several of them did not enjoy the water. We’ve also seen boxers, dachshunds, and pugs that love to swim. Your dog’s breed is just one factor in the equation.

Before You Begin Paddling With Your Dog

There’s a process here, and before you even think about paddling with your dog, you should spend some time introducing him to the exciting world of lakes and rivers. You’ll learn pretty quickly whether or not your dog takes to the water. Some will jump right in, while others will be perfectly content on the shore. This is fine. What you don’t want is a dog that is anxious or fearful. If your dog is anxious around the water, please don’t be pushy — that will only make matters worse.

Tips for helping your dog fall in love with the water

paddling with your dog

  • Borrow some water-loving dog friends that will show your dog the ropes. Their enthusiasm may just be contagious.
  • Bring your dog to shallow lakes and ponds before tackling streams and rivers.
  • Bring your dog’s favorite ball, toy, or frisbee and toss it a few feet into the water. Be prepared to fetch it yourself if your dog can’t be convinced to retrieve it.
  • Go swimming! Seeing you and your family frolicking in the water may be all the incentive your dog needs to get his toes wet.
  • Do not push, pull, or throw your dog in the water. This will not help, and it may make your dog fearful of you and the water.

Canoe or Kayak?

paddling with your dog

Whether you choose to paddle with your dog in a canoe or a kayak will probably be determined by the size of your dog. If you have a large breed, you may want to stick with the roomiest paddle craft — a canoe. Canoes are wide open and dogs can ride in the middle or on either end, plus you have extra space for your gear.

Kayaks definitely have limitations when it comes to dog paddling, but they are easy for one person to handle and maneuver, which makes them desirable for many. If you don’t mind having your smaller breed on your lap for an extended amount of time, a kayak could be a great choice. I’ve also paddled around with an 80 pound Labrador in the kayak — lucky for us he was super mellow and curled right up between my legs. I wouldn’t do it for hours on end, but it wasn’t too bad. A two-person kayak is another option —  a place for you and a separate spot for your dog. Now if we could only teach them how to paddle the boat, we’d be all set.

Special Gear for Paddling with Dogs

paddling with your dog

Before you head out, be sure to pack some essentials to keep you and your dog happy, healthy, and comfortable. Here’s what you’ll need.

  • A life preserver. Important for people and dogs. It doesn’t matter how well your dog can swim — unless you are paddling on a small pond right near the shore, you should outfit your dog with a proper life jacket. Yes, they’re a life-saving tool, but they also help reluctant swimmers feel more confident. It should fit nice and snug and should also have a handle on top so you can grab your dog if he goes overboard. We love the Ruffwear K-9 Float Coat Dog Life Jacket (affiliate link), but to be honest, it’s the only dog life jacket we’ve ever used and we have nothing to compare it to. I recommend getting it in a bright color so your dog is easy to see in the water.
  • A dry sack. Important for all paddlers, but especially important when paddling with dogs. Even if you keep the boat upright like a champ, you don’t want a wet dog shaking all over your towels and snacks. Keep your gear in a dry sack and tie it down in case you do capsize.
  • Treats. We use treats for positive reinforcement training with our dogs, which means we always have a treat pouch handy. This works especially well with Labradors or other food-motivated pups.
  • Bones or chew toys. We love surprising our dog with a special bone during long paddles. It buys us extra paddling time, and promotes serious tail wagging.
  • An old towel. A towel makes a great make-shift bed in the canoe, and you’ll need it to towel off your dog before putting him in the car.
  • A leash. Unless your dog is perfectly trained to respond to your voice commands, you’ll need a leash, at least for the on-land portion of your trip.
  • First aid kit. In addition to a standard human first-aid kit, you should also carry waterproof tape made especially for dogs, an allergy medication like Benadryl for bites and stings, and a vet-prescribed pain killer like Rimadyl for emergencies.

Teaching Your Dog How to Ride in a Canoe or Kayak

Where will your dog ride?

Start by making a plan for where your dog will sit or stand. Ideally, you’ll want your dog to remain in one spot — you won’t want a dog moving all around a small craft like a canoe or kayak. If you’re in a kayak, you won’t really get to choose your dog’s spot. He’ll have to ride where he can fit, either on your lap, between your legs, or in the extra seat if you’re in a double.

paddling with your dog

In a canoe you have more options. Unless your canoe is filled with gear, you’ll likely have lots of room in the wide center section. The bow, in front of the paddler, is another good choice because the dog has just enough room to stand and sit without causing any rocking motions. It’s also less tempting for most dogs to try and jump out of the bow of a canoe — it’s a little higher off the water than the sides. Another good spot is between the legs of the person riding in the stern. Having the dog sit right in front of either paddler means someone will have to lift your paddle a little higher to clear your dog’s head. In both of these positions, you or your paddling partner have instant control of your dog, should the need arise. It’s harder to grab hold of your pet if they’re riding in the center section.   

Working on Dry Land

If your dog is new to paddling, spend a bit of time introducing him to your boat on dry land. Use treats to teach him to hop in and out, and then go over some basic obedience commands inside the boat. When your dog can reliably sit, stay, and lie down in the boat, you’re ready for your maiden voyage. If your dog is leary of the watercraft on land, try sweetening the pot by feeding him his meals, bones, or special treats in the boat.

The Launch

By now your dog is used to the water and used to your boat. It’s time to put it all together to embark on a paddling adventure. Bring a dog-loving friend and make sure your pup is wearing his lifejacket before you head out.

Once you have your boat and gear ready to launch, hop in your canoe or kayak with your dog. I know I’m making this part seem easy — that’s because I hope it will be. Use plenty of treats and encouragement and everything will be awesome. Have your helper shove you off while you keep a firm hand on your dog’s collar to keep him from bolting.

paddling with your dog

Keeping Your Dog Safe While Paddling

Until your dog is a regular on the waves, it’s a good idea to paddle with another human being. Once you’re out on the water, most dogs will settle right into their role as captain and watchdog. If your dog shows signs of fear or severe anxiety that last more than a few minutes, return to dry land and continue practicing loading and unloading. Here are a few more tips for keeping you and your dog safe on the water.

  • Positive reinforcement works. As you get into a rhythm, be sure to reward your dog for calm behavior, and don’t forget to stay calm yourself — showing sudden excitement might encourage your dog to pace, bark, or look for a way to exit the boat.   
  • Keep an eye on the weather. Your dog won’t like paddling in rough seas and rain any more than you will.
  • Don’t leash your dog in the boat. This could be dangerous if you capsize.
  • If your dog jumps out of the boat… Don’t get mad. It happens. Simply paddle to the nearest shore and collect your pup. Basic training comes in really handy here.

Tips for Dog-Friendly Paddling

In all honesty, there are as many ways to paddle with dogs as their are dogs, and my advice will only get you so far. You’re going to find a system that works for you and your pup, or your dog is going to stay end up staying home. Here are a few more tips to make things easier for you and your dog as you navigate the transition from land to water.

  • Make frequent stops. You may be getting a nice upper-body workout in the boat, but your dog won’t get much exercise when you’re paddling. Be sure to give him some shore time every hour or so, and he’ll learn to love those paddling excursions as much as you do.
  • Start with shallow, placid water. At least until your dog is a regular wave runner.
  • Keep a bowl and fresh water on hand. This is especially important if you’re paddling in salt water or if you have a small dog who can’t reach over the side for a drink.
  • If the bottom of your boat is slippery, you can attach textured tape, or even one of those no-slip bathtub liners to make it easier for your dog to get in and out.
  • Keep your craft balanced. If you want to put your dog in the widest center section of a canoe, pack some gear to one side so your dog is forced to sit on the other side. This can prevent your dog from going back and forth and rocking the boat.
  • Bring lots of treats. This is worth saying more than once. A fully-loaded treat pouch by your side is canine insurance for a successful journey on the water.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that almost every outdoor activity is more fun with a canine companion. Dogs love adventure, they rarely complain, and most importantly — they just want to be by your side. Take the time to teach your dog to swim, float, and ride the waves, and you’ll be rewarded with a partner who will enthusiastically share in all of your crazy adventures.

Do you canoe or kayak with your dog? Please share your tips, questions, and comments below. I’d love to hear from you! Want to read more about adventuring with dogs? Check out these articles:

Winter Adventuring with Dogs

Does Your Dog Deserve a Road Trip?

Wondering how to make paddling with your dog a reality? This is a complete guide for canoeing or kayaking with your pup.

41 Comments

  1. Jim

    Hey Tara! Great write up! I did one earlier on the best kayak for dogs. Being able to take the pooch when you get on the water makes the day that much more exciting.
    Jim recently posted…Best Sit On Top KayakMy Profile

    • Thanks, Jim. We love taking our dogs along on all of our trips. I’m going to check out your kayak article.

  2. Nice guide Tara – your dogs are super well-behaved. I wish our cat would be a little friendlier towards other animals so we could get a dog too, but he will not have any of it. Have you tried stand up paddle boarding with your dogs?
    Hung Thai recently posted…Tahiti is more than just beaches and bunsMy Profile

    • We haven’t tried stand up paddle boarding with the dogs, but we did build a raft once out of a pallet, and cruised around the lake Huckleberry Finn style. We just got a kitten. He’s awesome, but he doesn’t want to go on adventures with me.

  3. Such a great write up and it sounds like so much fun. Now if I just had a kanoe I sure would give this a try. Your pups are so cute and well behaved by the way.

  4. Love those pictures! So cute and your doggy is so well behaved! My babies definitely aren’t on that paddling friendly list (two English Mastiffs and a chihuahua mix) and I guarantee they’d never warm up to the idea (at least not the big ones), but a girl can dream (and live vicariously through you!).
    Lara @MommyKazam recently posted…There Is Actually A Perfect Rug For Every RoomMy Profile

  5. Great post for the dog lovers who like to get out in nature. Wonder how our rabbit would go in the canoe?

  6. Love this post! I have been hoping to teach my dog to ride in a Kayak! He hates to stay behind!

  7. I have a five-month old black lab. She absolutely loves the water and oh boy, she is going to love your blog! Thanks for the info. I can’t wait to try it out this summer.

  8. Marie

    Your dogs look like they are having a great time! My little Pomeranians swim in the swimming pool and float about on a lilo. I think dogs are happyy to join in with family activities.

  9. So fun! My daughter’s dog is a big time swimmer and lover of the water.
    Emily @ Recipes to Nourish recently posted…Nourishing Meatloaf {Grain Free}My Profile

  10. paddling is so fun! i can just imagine how much more fun it is with a doggie!! =)

  11. We would really like to try this with our Aussie! She loves water, and it might be hard keeping her in the boat, but we know she’d love to go on an adventure!

  12. These are such great tips! It makes me a little sad that we’re getting rid of our kayaks this year and never got around to taking them out with us. With me being pregnant, it’s time for a big boat for the whole family though! I’ll be using the other tips to help one of our pups adjust to the water since the other one already loves it 🙂

  13. WOW – this is packed with so much helpful information! Thank you!! We have always had lab retrievers and none of them have really taken to the water. I’ll use these tips the next time we head out with our dog!

  14. My labrador would absolutely love this. Anything top spend time with us. We take her out in our boat with us regularly. Great post.

  15. What an awesome article. Now, I just need a dog to teach how to ride in a kayak!
    Alexa Meisler recently posted…The Best Free Hula Show and Where to find a Perfect Mai Tai in OahuMy Profile

  16. This is a really cool article! It’s really nice that your dog can get involved in the family days out 🙂

  17. Actually think it would be more interesting going an adventure with a dog! Providing they don’t go AWOL!

  18. Adorable! Nothing screams happiness like a dog playing in the water!

  19. I had no idea about this! I’ve always assumed that dogs wouldn’t be a problem when it comes to being in the water, I didn’t realize some get anxious around it too.
    Pinay Flying High recently posted…Doha, Qatar | Sabai Thai Is The Thai Restaurant Doha Is Waiting For.My Profile

  20. Your dog is adorable! You’re definitely right about choosing the right dog to take out on the water; it’s certainly not meant for every dog. Great advice for how to enjoy a fun day with your dog! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Morgan. Yeah, they don’t all take to the water, but we’ve been lucky so far.

  21. When we lived in Hawaii, I was surprised to see people doing stand up paddle boarding with their dogs sitting placidly on the board in front of them. I was impressed since it was all I could do to stay upright with just myself to worry about.

    • Now that I’ve never seen, Suzanne. I’m with you – I’m just trying to remain upright on a SUP.

  22. I just read a blog about 6 things you need to know about boating with your dog. This is much more comprehensive, thanks! I’m a super big kayak enthusiast and this article answered some of my questions. Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks so much for visiting, James. I’m really glad you found the article helpful. Canoeing or kayaking with our pups is one of our favorite activities, and we will be taking our 11-week old puppy on her first canoe-camping trip next week.

  23. I have both an Australian Shepherd and a new Brittany Spaniel puppy. My Aussie loves the water, but I haven’t tried taking him on a kayaking expedition just yet. I’m not sure if he’d like it or behave well enough to go with me. My Brittany is still a puppy so I haven’t tested his affinity for water yet. He might be the better choice to take paddling because he’ll be smaller and lighter. Thanks for the info!

    • Hi Haley,
      We had an Aussie for years who wouldn’t set foot in our canoe, but I think if your Aussie loves the water that’s a first good step. Good luck with your kayaking adventures, and if you get a chance, pop in and let me know how your dogs take to it.

  24. Hey Tara, I read that it’s better to take a young pup along instead of an old geezer…lol… Like they adapt better. Do you find this to be true?
    James Dutreaux recently posted…A Kayak Fisherman Fought Off A Hammerhead Shark In Southern CaliforniaMy Profile

    • Hi James,
      I do think that the young pups learn quicker, but as long as the older dogs aren’t afraid or anxious, they can also learn to love paddling — just takes a bit more patience.

  25. jay

    Hi Tara,
    Really great post and completely helpful.
    love to read it.
    especially about A life preserver, this is a must thing and very important to be prepared well.But, I wonder if my ‘Rottweiler’ will remain calm above the water 🙂

  26. Julee

    Thank you for all of this great advice. I have a boxer who just wanted to come on the kayak. We have had a couple of spills – luckily someone told me that boxers don’t float so I bought a life jacket before she ever fell in, which she did. She has also capsized the kayak so I now also wear a life jacket. Tethering has been a life saver for the two of us as, once capsized it kept her attached to the kayak and allowed me to keep the kayak between the two of us until I could pull us ashore. Anniedog also sorted her swimming that day and has not whinged on the kayak since. I have a sit on top kayak, but wonder if I would not be better off with a canoe- puppy dog does not like her bottom in the water, or whether I’d be better off getting her a seat- 30kg of boxer in your lap gets heavy- any suggestions?

    • Hi Julee – Thanks for your comment – awesome that you get out on the water with your boxer. Yes, they’re a heavy breed. I’m partial to canoeing with larger dogs, but I also find that they’re harder to maneuver unless you have a partner in the boat with you. If you do decide on a canoe, you can find waterproof dog beds that will help Anniedog get comfortable. We like this one: http://www.archiedog.com/ArchieDog-Waterproof-Travel-Bed-for-Dogs_p_14.html Good luck!

  27. Hey Tara,
    I was trying once paddling with my dog. But she was afraid of water. After reading this guide and tips, I am going to give one more try and of course I will borrow some water loving dogs to make it easy. Thanks for the article.

  28. My dog doesn’t like to play with the water. I will follow your tips when I go next time.

  29. I’m glad I stumbled upon your article! We’ve just purchased 2 Solo Inflatable Kayaks and are hoping to Take our 2 Labs out with us (just placid lakes really). The tips will def come in handy!

    • That’s so cool, Amanda. I’d be curious to hear about your experiences with inflatable kayaks. We will be testing one out this summer in hopes of figuring out what we should get next.

  30. Great post for the dog lovers who like to get out in nature. Wonder how our rabbit would go in the canoe?

  31. I’ve tried surfing with Jack (golden retriever). It didn’t go so well. I’m sure part of the problem is that I’m not a very good surfer. Maybe we better try paddling. Nice article!

    • Well you’re braver than me, Bekka. I’m no surfer, and I don’t think my dogs are either. Thanks for stopping by.

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