Sure, paddling with a dog looks easy and fun on Instagram, but for the unprepared it can be frustrating, unsteady, and potentially dangerous. Here’s what you need to know.
The first time I took my dog on a paddle he was a rambunctious three-month-old puppy. I didn’t let the fact that he knew no commands and misunderstood the power of his quickly growing Labrador body stop me.
Needless to say it didn’t go as I’d imagined. I desperately tried to counterbalance as my furry friend leapt from side to side in the tippy canoe. Even worse, I wasn’t confident we could swim back to shore in case of an emergency. I quickly turned around and paddled for land.
Feet back on shore, I kissed the ground, waved at the old fisherman chuckling nearby, and vowed to do better next time. Here are a few tips I’ve learned paddling with dogs in the decade since that naive first attempt.
Know Your Dog
Does your dog hate the water? Fear riding in the car? Unable to swim?
The truth is not every dog is meant to be an aquatic copilot, but with training most can overcome paddling obstacles.
My dog would do anything for a treat. I handed out cookies at each stage of our introductory SUP outing, which allowed Baylor to associate the paddleboard with good, tasty thoughts.
Not all dogs are food-motivated, though. So feel free to use a clicker, verbal feedback, or whatever works for your pup. The point is to create a positive association with the SUP.
Lastly, wait to paddle until you and your dog have a grip on the basic commands. Sit, Stay, Lay will prove invaluable when you’re struggling to balance in cold, choppy alpine waters.
Pick the Right Board
Years back, I made the mistake of picking an easily tipped canoe at first. It wasn’t the wisest choice.
Could I do it all over again, I would definitely start on a SUP. They’re stable, offer a large platform for your dog, and are easy to climb back on should you or Fido fall off.
Something like the Hala Asana is a great choice. The wide base keeps it from rocking back and forth, and the massive foam stomp pad gives your pooch plenty of traction and comfort. Plus, it deflates and packs up easily, so you have the freedom to paddle anywhere you like.
Introduce the SUP (or canoe or kayak) to your pup on dry land. Let him sniff it, walk on it, and sit in it out of the water when it’s not moving. Practice where you’ll stand and where she’ll sit.
Next, take it to the water and do it all over again. It’s tempting to head straight into the deep, but wait until you both feel comfortable. Initially, you should stay close enough to shore that you could confidently swim to land if need be.
Even better, if you have a friend willing to play lifeguard, have them keep an eye on you in case you need extra help.
Paddling is all about what those in the acrobatic world call “soft-strong.” You want your core to feel engaged, but the rest of your body to be loose and fluid. Keep the knees slightly bent and the shoulders down. And, of course, remember to breathe!
This not only helps with balance, but will soothe your dog’s nerves too. They can sense if you’re totally stressed, or relaxed and enjoying yourself. You set the mood.
When floating rivers or heading into deep, wide waters, Baylor happily wears a doggy lifejacket. He could swim for hours on end (as a lab he’d prefer it), but we still take safety precautions. The Float Coat from Ruffwear is our favorite. It easily slips on and provides excellent flotation while still allowing for full range of motion.
It Can Be Fun
After that first disastrous day, you’d never guess we’d have such success SUPing. But that’s what happens when you just keep trying.
Baylor and I have since SUPed down wild Oregon Rivers, across the frigid Kachemak Bay in Homer, Alaska, on bathtub-warm waters along the Gulf Coast, and countless lakes, ponds, and reservoirs across North America.
It just takes practice. Keep at it, and soon there won’t be a body of water you and your pup haven’t explored.
We hope these tips help you get out there enjoy a good dog paddle.
–Mallory Paige is a Storyteller and Adventurer. As the creator of the Operation Moto Dog adventure, she spent a year traveling and camping her way across North America on a motorcycle-sidecar with Baylor the Dog, proving you don’t need to be fearless or perfect to live your dreams.