Paddling With Dogs 101

dog and owner in kayak
Photo courtesy of Dr. Patty Khuly
Violet enjoying a ride with her owner, Dr. Khuly.

Want to step up your pet adventures? Consider teaching your dog to enjoy paddling with you! Whether you kayak, canoe or paddleboard, most dogs can make great companions.

Speaking as someone who just spent the last five days of her life teaching her unruly, half-trained 5-month-old pup to kayak in the Florida Keys, I can vouch for the fact that it’s not that hard to do. If Violet can learn to behave in a vessel barely big enough for one person, chances are, so can your dog.

If you have a small dog, all you’ll typically need are a few simple tools and a little patience. If it’s a bigger, bouncier dog you’ve got, you may need some strength, too, so make sure you have some help before committing to this experience.

In either case, solid basic training skills are vital. Significant paddling experience with your vessel of choice is similarly essential. By contrast, swimming skills are helpful but — believe it or not — not strictly necessary, as long as your dog is wearing a life vest. However, if you have a brachycephalic (flat-nosed) breed that can't swim and overheats easily, like a Bulldog, splashing in a backyard baby pool might be a better option.

What to Pack

1. Leash. Just because she’s on a boat doesn’t mean she’ll stay there. Dr. Patty Khuly just spent 5 days teaching her unruly, half-trained 5-month-old dog to paddleboard, kayak and canoe in the Florida Keys. Here are her tips. m under a neighbor’s dock. With a leash attached to her life vest, she can go only as far as the length of her line.

2. Training gear. Oh, and it’s not just a leash you’ll need. Since lots of what’s happening here comes down to basic training, anything that works well for training purposes works here, too. Treats and a head halter (Gentle Leader) device are Violet’s training must-haves. They made things much easier on our second outing. (Again, I learned this trick the hard way.)

3. Life vest. This one I did not learn the hard way. It seemed fairly obvious that I’d need a lifesaver vest, but little did I know how much. Turns out what Violet likes best about kayaking is jumping out of the boat and swimming. (Who knew?)

With a life vest, you can relax about the swimming thing. The key is to get a good one. Luckily, there are about a zillion of them on the market nowadays. I recommend one with handles that allow for “easy” lifting, regardless of the dog's size.

4. Sunscreen. Paddle crafts offer precious little sun protection. That’s why light-haired dogs, dogs with hairless spots and dogs with short-clipped coats should all wear sunscreen when the UV index is high. Even Violet’s one little hairless patch above her nose (where she rubbed her fur off the first few times she wore her new head halter) gets treated to baby sunblock several times a day. Ask your veterinarian for a product recommendation.

Note: This recommendation may differ depending on the anatomic location it’ll be applied to and whether or not it might be licked off.

5. Water. Obvious, but I thought I’d mention it just in case you forgot how hot the sun can get on a quintessential summer day. 

6. Patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is the average dog’s affinity for spending hours in a cramped, unstable vessel atop what must appear to be the world’s largest and least desirable bowl of water. So bring some patience along, too.

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