dog and owner in kayak
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.

Tips for First-Timers

1. Practice getting her in the boat/on the board. This can be a tough thing to maneuver if you’ve got a big wiggler, so here’s where your partner comes in: Starting from a solid location (secured to a dock or beached on the sand), place your dog inside or atop the vessel. Tell her to sit (or down) and stay. Offer a reward for good behavior. Repeat until calm. Have your friend help push you off the beach or dock as you continue to offer rewards for calm behavior.

2. Don’t be afraid to let your dog swim. In my experience, most larger dogs who like the water still tend to get a little anxious about jumping in. That’s OK. That is, as long as the waters are safe enough for you to swim in. Otherwise, you might want to select another location for your first few times at bat.

3. Have a plan for getting your dog back in/on the boat/board. Whether it happens or not, you should know how you’ll get your dog back in if she should happen to fall out, and it’s always best to test this under controlled circumstances. Enter your friend (again).

If your dog is small, you should be able to reach out and grab the life vest handle and pull her up handily. If she’s large, however, this may not be so doable. This can be especially problematic should she attempt to re-board in a panicky manner. Trying this out in shallow water and/or with the help of a friend is the best way to gain confidence getting your dog back aboard.

Note: Always attach the leash to the boat in an easily detachable way so that she can’t get away from you (in a strong current, for example). I use a carabiner at the end of the leash, and I attach it to one of the many handy hooks on my kayak.

4. Make the first one a short one. Keep the first time out a brief trip. Why risk a bad experience? Keep it short and sweet and she’ll be way less likely to balk at the next run.

5. Paddle with a buddy until you’re a pro. This only makes sense.

Confidence Comes Gradually

All told, Violet went out on the water five times this weekend, and each adventure was increasingly more successful than the last.

So am I confident enough to take her out on an overnight trip in the Everglades? Absolutely not! But I now know that I’ve got a great kayaking companion for an average day out on Biscayne Bay. And we’ll eventually work up to that backcountry overnighter — slowly.

What say you? Are you willing to give it a try?