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Abby chillin' on Lake Koocanusa

Me too!!  I love being on the water, and I love spending time with my dog.  Suffice it to say that I’m in heaven when I am able to do both at the same time.  While some dogs are naturally drawn to water, not every dog takes to it; some don’t even like being near it!  Being in a kayak or canoe in the middle of a body of water is NOT the same as playing fetch from the shore or a dock.  Nor is it always an easy accomplishment.  My goal is to bring to light some important considerations to help make spending time on the water and in your boat a relaxing and rewarding experience for all involved: you and your furry four-legged friend(s), as well as the two-legged friends who may join in on your water adventures.

Enjoying the day in the Tripper with Higher Pursuits Outfitters


First and foremost, as difficult as it may be to believe, not all dogs like the water.  This is particularly difficult to fathom if you, like me, are a waterbaby.  That said, with patience, consistent and respectful training, and plenty of non-water related exposure to your boat, a non-water loving dog can learn to tolerate – and even enjoy – venturing on the water with you.  Regardless of the length of trip you are planning, it is absolutely imperative that you acclimate your dog both to the water, your boat/SUP, and to his PFD.

Ernie trying to ignore the canoe...

Abby hangin' out in the Journey while I work in the garden.

Yes, she really is asleep!  I'd say she's fairly comfortable being in and around boats; you?!

Yeah, she really is sleeping in the boat. Snoring, actually. I'd say she's comfortable in it.


There is a huge long list of important things to consider that will help make for a positive boating experience for you and your furry friend, the least of which is the age of your pet.   Abby is now 14.  She literally grew up participating in outdoor sports.  The first 7 years of her life, she was my training partner on the trails; she was also one heck of a crag dog.   She didn’t start boating with me until boating was literally the only thing I could do anymore.  Age was certainly a consideration in regards to taking her on the water.  But she was only a middle-aged dog at that point, and as she seemed interested in the boat…  Thus began her conversion to water sports.  Would I start her now, at 14?  Absolutely not.  While I’ll admit that she’s surprised me of late and actually swam out from shore to join me, I rarely take her any more; it stresses both of us out too much!  Sometimes, however, I don’t really get to vote about leaving her on the shore.  She can have a mind of her own, and just doesn’t want to be left out of the fun.  I should know by now to never leave her PFD at home; so what if she’s 14 and on arthritis meds!

Don't leave me!!!

Abby had other thoughts on Pepper paddling with me.


As to some of the other items on that aforementioned list of considerations?  Here ya go…

Does your dog consistently respond to basic commands within one or two seconds of the command being given?  Lack of training becomes a safety issue on the water.  Minimally, if your dog cannot sit and stay on command, these need to be mastered prior to any other training involved in hitting the water with your dog.


Hangin' out with Higher Pursuits Outfitters

Ruby livin' the dream and SUPing with Brent on Old Hickory Lake


Health issues come into play in the form of severe arthritis, vision and hearing loss, cardiac issues, and/or any number of other ailments.  All of these decrease your dog’s ability to enjoy themselves.  If they are trembling because they are struggling to brace themselves on the boat, disoriented because they can’t see and/or hear, and/or are so stressed that their heart rate is through the roof, there could be potential negative health ramifications.  They will be miserable.  So will you!  Add to that the fact that an arthritic dog will be so sore from bracing on the boat/SUP after even an hour on the water, they will have difficulty even going through the motions of daily living for several days to come.

Comfort in regards to not only PFD fit, but also air and water temps, is essential to monitor.  Anymore, Abby simply cannot tolerate being cold, much less cold AND wet.  Other dogs, however, are much more tolerant of a colder water plus ambient temperature sum total.  Consider your dog’s breed, size, and age when factoring in this part of the equation.  Watch your dog; they’ll clue you in if they’re not comfortable.  They’ll also clue you in if they’d rather be swimming along side you.  If you DO have a larger breed – or one who is happier in rather than on the water, just make sure you are close enough to shore that your furry friend can get out and walk on the shoreline as needed!!

Skadi the Goofy Newfie enjoying a swim in Lake Koocanusa while her mom, Kath, keeps a close eye on her from nearby.


Speaking of PFDs, your dog needs a PFD as much as you do, and for exactly the same reasons.  Your dog’s a good swimmer?  AWESOME!!  They still need a PFD.  Load yourself and your dog in your car and go visit your local outfitter.  They’re sure to have a bunch of friendly, knowledgeable folks that would love to help you find the perfect PFD for your furbaby.  Also, make sure you take time to acclimate your pooch to actually wearing and playing in his PFD.  Desensitization to both being in and around your boat, AND to wearing/playing in their PFD are imperative components that will either make or break your time on the water with your pooch.  Bonus: your dog will revel in the extra attention, making on-the-water time with you even more rewarding for the both of you!

Cush lovin' life fetching sticks and diggin' his Float Coat.

A whole new world opened up for Skadi once she realized how much buoyancy she had while wearing her Float Coat!

Cush takin' a break on the bank.


Traction & center of gravity are both affected by the type of boat you will be paddling, and by the size and type of dog that you have.  Big dogs on little boats are not a good pairing for obvious reasons.  Not so obvious are the issues of deck camber, cockpit size, and whether your boat is a sit-on-top (this would include most of the fishing kayaks out there), SUP, rec boat (such as the Ibis), or a touring boat.  I will say that while Abby seems enjoy being on the water with me in the Journey, she does tend to prefer boats with flatter decks and larger hatch covers; anymore, she seems particularly fond of SUPs.

Abby SUPing and laughing at folks goofing off in the Journeys!


There are a couple of things you can do to mitigate traction issues on a touring type boat.  These include keeping your dog’s nails well trimmed, and/or doing what I do for Abby: use a small piece of carpet (AKA: the back floormat of my car.  Yes, really) secured under your decking bungee.  This gives Abby not only a place to perch, but also won’t tear under her nails like minicell does.

Getting ready to set out on Oowah Lake.

Exploring Oowah Lake

I’ve also got friends who have built literal decks for their dogs that attach to the bow of their boats either via the coming of the cockpit (better stability) or the bow hatch.

Regardless, your dog will thank you for providing them somewhere they can hang out without fear or worry of slipping not-so-gracefully into the Deep Blue.

The balance/set of your boat is something that is significantly affected when you paddle with your dog.  Essentially, how comfortable are YOU in your boat?  How do YOU take the wake of a powerboat? The winds?  Odd micro-currents?  The current in general?  Your dog’s comfort level will always reflect yours.  If you’re not comfortable in your boat, do yourself and your dog a favor: either spend more seat time in your boat working on increasing your own comfort level, or simply leave your pooch at home.  By ameliorating these concerns prior to hitting the water with Fido, you’ll both be much happier.

Pepper ready to take on anything that comes under the hull of the Journey!


Weather.  Do YOU like being out in a storm?  Extreme cold?  Extreme heat?  Even if you don’t mind, there’s a good chance your dog does.  And while you at least may have the gear to make these conditions somewhat tolerable for you, your dog might not!  You are responsible for your dog in every condition; act accordingly.  In the summer, another consideration would be having a dog friendly sunscreen for those pink-nosed, furry friends.  Make sure, however, that you use a dog friendly, zinc free sunscreen as zinc is toxic to dogs!!

Body(ies) of water may seem to be something that would be considered from the get-go, but you’d be surprised…  Regardless of how many flatwater river trips your dog has joined you on in the past, is it really a great idea to take your dog with you on your own first trip down a class two or three river, or across one of the Great Lakes?!  Might want to think about that…

The company with which you’ll be paddling. Are there going to be other folks with dogs?  Are there going to be folks who merely tolerate, don’t like or are terrified of dogs? Is your dog socialized such that they get along with (or at least tolerate) other, unfamiliar dogs, people and boats?  How about the other dogs with which you may be paddling?  Can you say the same of them??  Is this an issue that you want to have in the back of your mind while you’re on the water?  Will this negatively or positively impact your on-the-water experience?

River time with friends is the best!

It's even great when things are a bit crowded!


Going hand-in-glove (on paddle?!) with the above sentiment: never, ever, EVER tie/leash/tether your dog to your boat!! This could be a potentially horrible situation in the event of an emergency.  Do you really want your dog to go down with your boat, or would you prefer that they be free to swim safely to shore?  THAT being said, always have a leash within immediate reach and RESPECT YOUR LOCAL LEASH LAWS!! Whether you agree with them or not, they are in place for a reason; RESPECT THEM.

Lastly, there’s the alcohol factor.  Really?!  I have to say it?!?  Folks, if you’ve got your dog or kids with you, just don’t do it while on the water, or even before you hit the water.  For the benefit of all involved, wait to partake of that cold one ‘til you get back to shore or to camp for the evening.  Put yourself in the scenario of being drunker than a 9-eyed billy goat and having to perform a rescue on a panicking, non-verbal critter that you brought with you and for which you assumed responsibility.  Not a pleasant thought, and potentially not a pleasant ending, so please, just don’t even go there…

So, what’s the quickest way to create dissention on the water?  By assuming that everyone you boat with will think your dog is as cute and/or well behaved as you think your dog is!!  Having a pet on the water with you can be an amazingly rewarding experience, and something I encourage under the right circumstances.  If, however, you think it would be something cool and awesome to do, but you’re not really sure how Fluffy will react, please do yourself, your dog, and your fellow boaters the favor of letting your four-legged family member relax home until you can adequately explore the option of them joining you on the water.   You can always reminisce about your trip while looking at pictures and videos as you’re cuddled up with them.  I can guarantee that everyone will enjoy that more!

Also, think about this: you have your own gear list for when you go boating, right?  Your dog should have THEIR own gear list, too.  Keeping these two gear lists together leaves you less likely to inadvertently put the kibosh on your water trip before you even launch!

And because you DON’T see that D.V.M. behind my name, I’d like to offer many warm and heartfelt thanks to Dr. Colleen Smith at Chattanooga Holistic Animal Institute (CHAI) for taking time to review this piece and weighing in on some salient points prior to it’s posting.  The luxury here is that Dr. Smith is not only Abby’s vet; she’s also been a boater longer than I have (and that’s a pretty long time!)   Also, a huge thank you to the entire staff at CHAI for helping keep the FruitBat (oh come on… you have to admit that she does look like a fruit bat) happy and healthy in her golden years.  These folks have put some pep back in her step, and for the first time in too long Abby has actually wanted to join me again on the water of late.

Additionally, I’d like to offer HUGE thanks and much appreciation to the following folks for sharing pictures of their furry, four-legged family members: Bett Adams and Erin Mc Nealy (Ernie); Kath Myers (Skadi); Dean Rosnau (Cush); Brent Smith (Ruby); Carla Wendler (Pepper); and the fabulous folks at Higher Pursuits Outfitters.

Regardless of whether your furry friend joins you on your next water related adventure or not, here’s wishing you and yours happy and safe boating!