American Paddler
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How to Kayak with a Dog (And Actually Love It)

Creative Commons "SH Jake the Dog (Foxes)" by vastateparkstaff is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tongue hanging out, eyes darting from side to side at all the new and exciting sights and sounds — if kayaking is that much fun for you, kayaking with a dog can be a lot of fun, too.

There’s no better way to spend an afternoon than out on your kayak with man’s best friend. If paddling with your canine companion is something you’ve wanted to try, here are a few tips to make sure you both will be wagging your tails at day’s end.

After all, if you enjoy kayaking, your pooch (who loves you more than life itself) is sure to find reasons to love it, too.

Does your dog like water?

Obviously, whether it’s a good idea to kayak with a dog depends entirely on the dog. Some dogs take to water like a fish, while others are more skittish and cautious. If you’re not sure, bring Fido to the beach and watch how he acts. Puppies exposed to water at a young age are more likely to love the water — especially if they see that you do, too.

Introduce your dog to the kayak

Assuming your dog does like water, get him accustomed to your kayak long before you launch from shore. Let him climb aboard, sniff it out and even lay down inside the boat. The less scary the kayak seems on dry land, the easier your dog will adjust once he’s out on the water. When you do launch for the first time, take it slow. Paddle around in shallow waters to let your pooch get the hang of being on a boat before you head for the middle of the lake.

Let your dog sniff out the kayak on dry land. That way, it’s not as scary.

Like people, dogs have different personalities. It might not be the best idea, for instance, to kayak with a dog with an overabundance of energy or a penchant for sudden movements, especially if you’re not sure how he might react to the water.

Training is essential

On the flip side, if your dog just loves the water, that’s great, but make sure he doesn’t love it too much — or else listens to your commands. If your dog doesn’t know how to sit, stay or come on command — especially in stressful or distracting situations — he probably isn’t kayak-ready. Out on the water, a well-behaved dog can mean the difference between a nice afternoon and a dog in the drink.

If your dog doesn’t know how to sit, stay or come on command — especially in stressful or distracting situations — he probably isn’t kayak-ready.

Another essential training skill for doggie paddlers is the “leave it” command. Between new smells, wildlife and other paddlers and dogs, there’s a lot to tempt your pooch. If he locks onto something he shouldn’t have — a bird on the shore or a fish in the water, for instance — give him a firm “leave it!” and make him sit or lie down. And especially if you’ll be doing any fishing, make sure any hooks, bait or anything else that looks like food is locked away in storage.

Launching your kayak with a dog

Even if your dog is used to the water and is comfortable with your kayak, combining the two could take a few tries. Your four-legged friend probably won’t like the initial feeling of “floatiness” when the kayak first hits the water, so it’s important to reassure him every step of the way.

Before launching, get the kayak as close to the water as possible while still sitting on solid ground, and coax your dog to climb in and lie down. Then, climb aboard yourself and use your paddle to push off from the shore. Don’t push your dog out onto the water by himself. This could spook him and cause him to jump out. Your presence will reassure him.

kayak with a dog
Remember: Your dog takes his cues from you. If you‘re calm, cool and collected, he will be, too.

If you have a dog that likes to swim, let him paddle around on his own for a while before getting into the kayak. Once he’s tired out, he’ll be less likely to jump out when it’s time to sit still in the boat.

Once you’re on the water, take a few moments to just float and let your dog get acclimated. Pet and talk to him, and act casual. If you act like it’s no big deal, your dog will quickly pick up on your cues. Depending on the kayak, your dog might want to sit in any number of positions: facing you, facing forward or lying down. All are fine. Just make sure both you and the dog are comfortable before you head for deeper waters.

Out on the water

This probably goes without saying, but when kayaking with a dog, stick to calm, open waters. Dogs should never accompany you if you’re doing more dangerous kayaking such as whitewater rapids or open-ocean fishing.

While some slower rivers are doable, take into consideration that the closer you are to shore, the more distractions can tempt your dog. Staying away from fishermen, other kayaks or the shoreline can decrease the chances of your dog choosing to jump out and swim.

That said, if your dog wants to swim, it’s not the end of the world if he jumps out of the boat. In fact, if he tries to jump out, it’s probably best to let him, rather than risking capsizing with an excitable dog. As long as he’s wearing a lifejacket (yes, they make PFDs for dogs), simply grab him by the handle when he’s done and pull him back into the kayak, or let him swim to shore while you paddle behind.

Dexter likes to kayak from Galen Lofstedt on Vimeo.

Other quick tips

  • Never, NEVER tie your dog to the kayak. This is a safety hazard for both you and the dog if the kayak capsizes. A leash tied to the kayak could get caught under the boat, wrapped around a neck or wedged on an underwater branch.
  • Bring a bowl with fresh water, especially if paddling saltwater. Your dog may try to drink the water, and it’s important to stay hydrated.
  • Kayaking can be a big stress for older dogs or dogs with health issues. Arthritis can inhibit a dog’s ability to balance on the kayak and brace themselves during waves, and vision/hearing problems can cause them to become disoriented on the water. Cold air or water can also cause pain for an older or arthritic dog.
  • Trim your dog’s toenails before you head out. This can help them to keep traction on the boat, as well as prevent scratches. Or, use a hack such as a small piece of carpet under the elastic bands for your dog to sit on.
kayak with dog
Think your dog won‘t like wearing a lifejacket? Think again!

Kayaking gear for dogs

If you’re kayaking with a dog, make sure to bring the following equipment:

  • A dog lifejacket. Yes, there are lifevests specifically designed for dogs, and your dog should definitely have one. It’s not about how well your dog can swim; he wears one for the same reason you do — in case of emergencies. (Before you head out, make sure your dog gets used to wearing his PFD so he doesn’t try to take it off. Some dogs might actually enjoy wearing one and being able to float!)
  • A harness. Many dog lifejackets come with a handle on top, but for those that don’t, a dog harness can be an additional safety measure, helping you to pull your dog out of the water when you need to.
  • A leash. For use on shore only. Never tie your dog to the kayak or use the leash on the water.
  • Fresh water. It’s not a good idea to let your dog drink the lake water, which could contain bacteria.
  • Dog treats. Sometimes, when all else fails to get your dog’s attention, a favorite snack will do the trick.
  • A first-aid kit with Neosporin or peroxide in case of injury.
  • Sunscreen. Dogs can get sunburned, too, especially on exposed noses.
  • Doggie bags. For when nature calls.

The best kayaks for dogs

If you already own a kayak, you might not have much choice here. But if you’re renting or considering buying a kayak to do some doggie paddling, you would be wise to consider your canine’s needs.

The best kayaks for dogs tend to be boats with larger decks or cockpits, for obvious reasons.

Sit-on-top kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks, with their open-deck design, provide ample room for Spot to move about and get comfortable, and that’s important for you both. Make sure your dog has enough room to lie down and still give you enough room to paddle.

Sit-on-top kayaks provide another benefit for dog owners, too: In addition to being easier to climb in and out of, a sit-on-top kayak won’t sink or fill with water should an excitable dog jump overboard or accidentally rock the boat.

Closed-cockpit kayaks

Closed-cockpit kayaks, such as traditional recreational kayaks, can also be a good choice for your dog. If you’re going this route, you might consider a tandem model with an extra seat or a kayak with a large cockpit opening, with Rover sitting between your legs.

kayak with dog
A closed-cockpit kayak with a dog in your lap might work for smaller breeds, but larger dogs might do better in a sit-on-top kayak.

Tandem kayaks

If you choose a tandem kayak, make sure the dog sits up front, with you in back steering (dogs are notoriously bad at steering). You’ll also want to make sure you can see what your dog is doing at all times.

In general, kayaks with a wider beam can add more stability, especially should you have a larger dog that likes to move around. If the cockpit isn’t large enough for your dog to sit with you, make sure he can balance on the deck. A piece of carpet or rubber held in place by the elastic deck storage ropes can provide some added grip for your pup.

Inflatable kayaks

Though it sounds counter-intuitive, inflatable kayaks can also be a good choice if you plan to kayak with a dog. Models like the Sea Eagle are built with more of a canoe-like design, with higher walls that can act as a barrier for dogs prone to jumping out.

Most inflatable kayaks are made of tough enough material to resist a dog’s claws, and with multiple air chambers, even should an errant tooth or nail manage to puncture the boat, you’re not in any danger of sinking. Most of the top models also come with easy repair kits.

In general, avoid whitewater or sea kayaks, which are narrow and not as stable.

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