Category Archives: BOATING WITH DOGS

The Incident

Let me first put your worries to rest, the dogs are fine. Better, in fact, because I figured out the best way to provide traction for them on the boat: a 9×5′ carpet with rubber backing that covers the entire section from the rear human seat forward, with a yoga mat runner down the center. I still threw another 5×3′ mat over the bow, just to make sure they had grip in case things got wet and paws pushing would make it slip. It worked like a charm! So the answer is: cover it all. I’ll get you a photo soon.

But, that’s where the incident started. I had a great couple of photos on dry land of what the new set up looked like. We went out, the ‘regulars” showing pure delight, Zeal was trying to dive off after every thrown toy (impressive for a dog that hunkered down in my lap for most of the 1st trip out, quite the change of heart!). I had one “newbie” on her 2nd trip out, she might need her story told as she handled the experience uniquely. I had just gotten a video to so clearly show you how much better this setup is (hopefully encouraging more responsible dog-boating), when I thought ‘I have the chance to capture new behaviors’.

I haven’t told you yet about how my youngest dog, who’s pretty much a star at everything (except herding, I “ruined” her for that, but I’m Ok with that), kind of overreacts when she gets too far away. If she’s too far from the boat or I’m paddling counter to her direction of motion, she panics. She panics a lot. Not because she’s in the water, but because she perceives she’s getting left behind. Originally, I had to prioritize training other components of the experience (being comfortable on the boat, entering, exiting, etc). Since those things have come along nicely, time to start working on teaching her to settle in, relax, and swim for longer periods, ultimately working towards getting her to develop a solid long-distance form (she excels at sprinting, not pacing herself). It’s quite the training skill, so it should prove to be a really constructive topic for the blog.

So, there I was attempting to film how she over-reacts and how I’m trying to work through it, when, “Whoops”, there goes the camera. One would think that it wouldn’t go down like a diver, but there was not a split second of lag before it plummeted. By the time that I could ask myself, “Do I go for it?”, it was too late, even though I was ready to try. It was so sudden and I was so focused on making that split-second decision that I didn’t even get a chance to show off my truck driver language. Just a little “Whoops” escaped my lips then I sat in silence.

Sigh, such brilliant photos went down with that ship. Anyone have a diving mask?

Needless to say I’m pretty scared to try and make more video, and unless enough readers want to donate to a lifefloat for my device, I might have to take it easy on those fantastic action shots. I’m a dog trainer, not a pro-photographer, unfortunately. Although you might think otherwise if you saw some of those photos ūüėČ

It’s hot! Get these dogs in the water

It’s unbelievably hot in Seattle this summer, so what’s a hiking service to do? I’ve been wanting to develop a good swim program anyhow,¬†but a lot of the beaches offer inconvenient footing for running dogs. Here’s a few things I learned:

  • Depending on where the tide is at, even limited running on the beaches in the Pacific NW can result in serious cuts to their feet from the exposed barnacles.
  • Finding a dog-friendly beach where your dog isn’t mobbed by other dogs isn’t easy, and dogs aren’t welcome everywhere.
  • Jumping around and landing on underwater rocks is risky.
  • Dogs aren’t good about easing into exercise with a nice warm up or cool down. And settling in to a functional pace is preferable to ballistic sprints, although tuning up those fast-twitch muscles has it’s uses (especially for agility dogs!). So, most dogs need to be managed and directed to use their body correctly. A difficult feat from a distance while your dog’s in the water.

So,¬†that’s how the dogs “convinced me” to

Beat the Heat with a “dog boat”!

Both of my dogs have a low tolerance for hot weather. Even in the¬†upper 70’s I’ve seen my intense Border Collie dive under the ferns to stretch her belly on the ground in the shade. It’s¬†important to exercise regularly, but it’s hard to keep dogs with a lot of drive from overheating and cooking in their own skins.
The hot weather this year proved my idea to buy a “dog boat” to be¬†a very clever way to keep everyone cool. It’d been an idea I’d had a long time ago, but, since I’d never been on a kayak, the smart thing to do was to rent one first. When I finally got around to it, I couldn’t wait, and started scouring the area for a tandem sit-on-top kayak that would work. I bought the last in stock and we all love the boat. But what do the dogs think about it? That’s a little bit of a story…
Visit the links under on the left to read more about boating with dogs.
Please keep in mind we are riding on a tandem sit-on-top kayak…
Situations may vary depending on what you’re floating in ūüėČ


Step 1: Get the dogs comfortable on the boat

20140714_121628When I first set out, I brought a helper (human;) and my own 2 dogs, and no electronics (although video and photos from that adventure would have been priceless). Someone had given me a doggy life jacket, which, I never imagined I’d use. I put it on my smaller girl, as she’s not a very experienced swimmer. Pushing off that first time everyone had their doubts, from the helper to the dogs. After moving a little ways out, it was time to investigate if the dogs could be coaxed into the water. I wanted them to end up liking it and trusting me, so lowering or pushing¬†them in was not an option. No rush, we paddled along to let them get used to it some more. Then, luck smiled on us. What happened to be floating a little distance farther ahead? Yup, a tennis ball. In my opinion it’s all about motivation, so, I pointed out the ball to my ball-obsessed Irie with lots of encouragement. She was hilarious, whining and wanting it, when, her desire for it overcame her inhibitions, she went for it.¬†End of story for her.

Zeal, my other dog, was not so easily won over. I played around with letting him jump out to get on land for a break…and it was tricky getting him to commit to getting back in. First we tried paddling away to see if he’d swim after us. He paced the shore and tried everything but swimming up to the boat. So, we paddled back to the shore and he’d jump in, but was not secure so part way out I let him choose to stay…which he did not. He jumped back out. So, we had to let him jump in then hang on to him till we were a good distance out. Since his biggest motivation is prey, I tried to show him some ducks but he had wedged himself against me and wasn’t taking in the scenery. So, we found him some geese that were appealing enough to override his worry. We made progress: first step, he was able to turn around instead of lie down almost in my lap. I quietly goaded him and he finally bit and launched off the front of the boat to have a swim chase.¬†This is probably where I should inform some that geese can¬†supposedly drown a dog, and don’t disturb wildlife. Zeal’s allowed to swim after things that are superior swimmers or herd things that can fly away. One of Zeal’s most favorite activities is herding seagulls while they’re coasting along the shore on thermals. Oh, he’s not actually influencing those gulls at all, but he thinks he is, and gets excited when they change direction and he cuts hard and races the other direction…that’ll be another blog entry unto itself.


Since then a number of dogs had made their debut boat swim off of my little orange kayak. Surprisingly nice, 3 of them¬†were¬†Portuguese water dogs, all with the same great swimming form, some Border Collies and mixes, a mini Aussie with lots of fear issues who did great :)!, and a Flat-Coated Retriever that can sniff out water if there wasn’t hardly a drop left on Earth, and subsequently will try to attend each and every “spa” the wild (or man) may have to offer.

Most dogs were already in love with swimming. Most dogs settle in by the end of the first float. Having dogs on board that already feel extremely comfortable usually helps. I say “usually” because sometimes Irie feels too comfortable and will walk around pushing past dogs to stay on top of the toys, and for those that haven’t gotten their sea-legs yet, that can be a little disconcerting. As each dog’s experience grows, they get more and more comfortable and then launching off of the boat becomes their next challenge to overcome…Read about that in¬†Step 3: The 6 inch plunge!

You can see below how comfortable Bisou and Gaia are. It’s Bisou’s first time out, and Gaia is a pro standing with her paws on the edge of the bow!



Step 2: Making dog-boating safe

Allow me to help prepare you because you’ll probably find you have your hands full when you first head out with your pup.

  • Outfit your dog with a good “handle”. You’ll want to be able to control the dog’s body. I use harnesses for most and a life jacket for 1 (because I only own one) which has a convenient double set of handles. Using a collar, too,¬†gives you even more ways to grip your wet BF.
  • Make sure your collar/harness is not too loose! Almost every dog that I am entrusted to care for arrives with a collar that is WAY TOO LOOSE! You should only be able to slide 4 fingers between your dog’s neck and collar. Loose straps can catch a dog on things;¬†in the water your dog¬†could drown!
  • If your dog is not on voice control and will be wearing a line/leash of some sort, have it running over the dogs back from the back ring of a harness, and keep it up at the surface of the water at all times. Too long is not better, a dragging line could hang up between something and drown a good swimmer, especially if there’s a current.
  • Train for impulse control a lot before throwing the dog into a situation where you’ll need to have him curb his enthusiasm while you control the boat. If you cannot break through to your dog’s brain when they see something like a squirrel, and maintain control over your dog’s movement, well, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble on the water, especially if your boat tips easily!


  • Make absolutely sure your dog can grip well when moving around the boat, or keep them out of that area! For my little kayak, I bring about 6 layers of yoga mats/rubber-backed carpet/mats so that everywhere they step they have a good foothold. I learned this on my first trip out with just a couple of yoga mats running the inside of the boat. Not even close to enough coverage for my 10 ft boat. You’ll need mats to drape over the edges if your dog will be putting their feet up on the edge. ESPECIALLY if you are going to have your dog launch off of that ledge. Additionally, you’ll need grip where you assist the dog out of the water and back onto the boat. It’s already bouncy and enough of a balancing task for the dogs. You could easily get lots of bangs, bruises, or worse! if your dog is standing on slippery surfaces. Any sport dog owner should be able to lecture you on slippery floors, jumping off of beds/couches onto hardwood or tile…an unfit dog could easily pull apart at the seams, and even a fit dog can do a pretty bang up job on a “lucky” day.
  • No entering or exiting without permission. It’s not safe for your dog to decide to launch off of a dock onto the boat, or vice versa, so permit¬†that¬†only on a command like “Ok” or “Hup” or “Off”. It helps if you already practice this sort of impulse control at doorways, getting in and out of the car/crate, when serving a bowl of delicious dinner, etc. I teach how to train these skills in both my¬†True Manners Workshop¬†and my Recall Class¬†for training these skills, with the class going into the details of how to maintain this skill when your dog is excited, too!
  • Swim your dog for only short periods. Bobby Lyons has an interesting article on sustained trotting and I know from her class she believes sustained swimming is much harder for dogs than running in and out of the water. She mentioned something like 5 minutes of sustained swimming equals 5 miles running on land. That may be a little generous in some regards, but you will see your dog need to settle in to a relaxed pace, regulate breathing, keep water out of his mouth, etc, so be very attentive to your dog’s state while swimming and pull your dog out of the water more often rather than let her swim for any long period in one go. Panicking or an awkward entry into the water might require the dog be immediately brought back on the boat to recover for a while before sending her back in. Initially, your focus is on getting your dog comfortable and built up to being able to exercise more in the future…when your dog is in shape for it. Even if your dog is in good shape, your dog probably doesn’t use the same muscle fibers she will while out on the boat and swimming like this.
  • The boat is a wobble board for the dog. Your dog is constantly having to adjust to stay balanced. If you’ve ever trained on a wobble board yourself, you’ll know how exhausting it is to fire all those micro-muscles used for stabilization. If you haven’t been on a wobble board, stand on one leg on a bed for 15 minutes to get an idea of¬†what your dog goes through on the boat. Animals tend to be much fitter than us humans (just think of the mountain goats doing “lengths” up and down the mountain while people struggle to rock-climb) but you should still be very considerate and follow my favorite “Less is More” rule and ease into boating exercise with your dog.
  • Make sure there’s enough room for your dog. The kayak we use has 3 seat positions, and with a boat full of dogs I sit far back with the dogs weighing down the nose. From my vantage point, I can keep an eye on what they’re observing and possibly thinking about doing and react immediately when necessary.
  • Pit stops. How are you going to handle this? Bring bags on board and plan to stop shortly after you begin because your dog will be all shaken up and ready for a breather on land.
  • Don’t bring your dog on challenging bodies of water. No river rafting madness, please! Find a dull lake. You’ll probably appreciate not having any extra stress anyway.
  • Only 1 dog at a time. Well, I break this rule but…

Ask¬†yourself this first: can you control multiple dogs at once on land? If the answer is¬†anything less than an absolute, for sure, “Yes!”, my recommendation is take only one dog at a time. If you take multiple dogs, take 1 at a time for their first couple of trips out to see how they do before adding more. If you do take more than 1 dog, make sure you are fully 20140818_122921aware of how those dogs get along, and that you can create order between them with verbal control…Otherwise, you can imagine the possible disaster this could create. Think about how easy/hard it’d be for you to position those¬†dogs for a photo on land without any help, somewhere outside of their usual haunts.

Only someone crazy (or ignorant) wouldn’t be dubious and undertake handling multiple dogs while boating cautiously. I slowly worked each dog up to a level where they were comfortable before heading out with more dogs than most people should try. Be smart about going out there with your dog. There are a lot of things I shouldn’t have to mention, like don’t get too much sun (your dog’s nose and eyes might suffer), don’t let your dog swim through fishing lines in the water, make sure your dog is close to the boat in traffic, Outward Hound makes a great, double-handled life jacket that will increase visibility and¬†isn’t ridiculously expensive (I ended up replacing the hand-me-down jacket that we trashed), and bring water for your dog…especially if you’re on salt water.¬†And I don’t actually mess around with treating the dogs out there. Water sports and food don’t mix in my opinion. Some dogs may be¬†introduced to the boat while on land and in the shallows (where the dog can easily jump in) with food, if I think it’ll help them “want to” more. Most dogs are thrilled by the incredible and novel adventure, so we leave the food for other types of training, where it really has a useful impact. If¬†you’re out with multiple dogs, you don’t want them¬†getting pushy over a little tidbit.

Step 3: The 6 inch plunge!

The next big challenge, but one that is really up to the dog, is the water entry. This is the sticking point for most of the dogs. Only 1 dog so far has stepped right off the boat into the water on his¬†first outing without over-thinking it. However, I suspect that he thought he could walk on the surface (there were lily pads nearby). It’s funny how big of a deal that little distance is. In the dogs’ defense, they do need to develop a way to enter that allows them to stay more horizontally level rather than dipping their front, head and all, under by stepping down front end first. Irie is our champion diver thus far.¬†Getting video from inside the boat is hard, because it is a really wet situation. Please pray for my phone;) Here’s the best I could do:

While each dog was encouraged to launch themselves¬†into the water,¬†no dog was forced or even pressured for very long if they didn’t feel secure enough to do so*. If the dog wants¬†a toy badly enough, overcoming the challenge of dropping a whopping 6″¬†off the boat develops¬†more quickly. For those that have little toy/duck interest, and who don’t LOVE the water more than life itself, I explore different¬†ways to get them used to taking the initiative to get in the water. In some places there are floats or docks that are about the same height¬†as the boat, and those are more stable platforms than the boat. So, some dogs were unloaded onto the dock (so far all were happy to jump onto the dock from the boat), and not permitted to jump back onto the boat. Then, I’d paddle a little ways out and encourage them to leap in and swim back to the boat. A couple of the Porties made the biggest fuss over this. Gaia¬†cried as if she was abandoned but couldn’t¬†convince herself to take the leap that day. It even took her a while to figure out that she could run the dock to the shore and swim out. Another Portie refused to try and swim out, and raced¬†along the shore watching us with¬†concern instead of solving her problem. Partly, how a dog puzzles this out will be influenced by how much (or little) that dog has been given opportunities to think through training exercises. The last Portie mentioned is not a creative thinker.¬†But Gaia is. She couldn’t put the pieces together right away, but given the opportunity to learn, she figured out that she could find a suitable entry and swim out to join us.

But I think it all comes down to giving the dogs time to get comfortable with it all. Just the other day, Gaia finally became a diver. Her owner said she has always been hesitant at docks and never leaps in. Well, one 90+degree day she was ready to fly. At first, her form was more like flinging¬†herself high into the air. She was enjoying the water so much that as soon as I’d lift her back aboard, she was running to the front, taking her mark, and launching back into the water. It really makes you smile to see a dog “own it” like that.¬†More recently, she’s altering her entry to be less exaggerated effort. It’ll be interesting to see if she can change her angle of entry to a horizontal motion rather than a downward direction which dunks her head.

For the rest of the dogs who need help to gracefully enter, I assist by setting them in the water in such a way as to keep their face and ears from getting wet. One hand on the collar while bearing the weight with the harness works well for me. There’s an art to angles and direction, all while keeping your boat upright and handling a moving dog. If my hands weren’t so busy I’d get you lots more pictures ūüėČ It’s fascinating to watch!

After editing the video above and studying slipping, my last trips out proved the mats I have to be insufficient. Next up, instead of lots of loose little mats we’ll try a very large rubber backed carpet. Sometimes the current set up is OK, but the dogs need permanent traction and stability. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

*You can hear me in the video saying, “Go, go, go, go go!”, which is a cue Irie understands on land to mean race away from me and seek out an agility obstacle, used generously when sending her across a big distance to a jump before practicing her running dogwalks. She LOVES this command. For most dogs, that’d be too much pressure to use in excess like that. For her, it actually makes her hyper-excited because running her dogwalk is some of the best fun.

Why put a dog on a boat?

At first, like anything unknown, most dogs are going to worry about their safety. I like the saying that “Nature doesn’t give a lot of second chances” and if a dog has potential safety concerns, that will dominate their attention until the matter has been settled. That’s why when you begin introducing a dog to something like this, you want to focus more on making a positive association with it all than any other goal like distance or time spent swimming. There are some things to consider when approaching such a task:

  • Have you provided your dog with fun training activities that involve getting on something that moves, that is unstable, makes noise, or otherwise shakes up their normal world? Start off by seeing how your dog reacts to things like wobble boards, standing on a pile of cushions (and then sitting, lying down, performing tricks like sitting up, etc), walking on different textured surfaces through¬†shaping games. Using operant conditioning and playing around with clicker type training can build a lot of confidence and turn goofing around with your dog into valuable experience. The more your dog learns, the easier it gets to learn the next things (with the occasional conflict of behaviors being an exception). Want to learn how? Check out our Tricks class (both online and in Seattle)
  • Is your dog comfortable being handled by you, being close to you, being picked up/moved physically? If not, you might be biting off a lot more than just introducing the boat and would do really well to practice one of my favorite exercises where you teach your dog that you need to handle them and strengthen your relationship. This is an exercise taught only during private lessons (and almost always ends up being necessary during the first private with a new client).
  • Are you able to control the boat…AND the dog? It’s quite the physical feat and if your not sure about your abilities, don’t even try without some backup.

If you’re not feeling confident about something mentioned above, then you really should ask yourself if it’s¬†a good idea to subject your dog to such an adventure. However, if you are sure,¬†then, the answer to “Why?” is, “Because it’s awesome!” What a change of pace to get out on a lake and float around with your best friends. It’s so much fun to observe them as they discover what a great view they have out there.


They watch the wildlife, the people, the boats, check out things they’ve never seen before like lily pads, investigate strange algae, they get a terrific workout…and on a hot day nothing cools you down to the core like getting out there on the water. All this is said with a low boat that dogs can dive off of in mind. I’m not sure that all the dogs would have as good, or as cool, of a time if they were on a very different kind of boat. You’d have to work out the logistics and see¬†how you can¬†make your dog comfortable at higher speeds, without shade or the ability to take a swim on a whim, and make sure that you can get your dog the traction and assistance he’ll need to get down to the water, in and out, and move around safely. If, at the end of it all, given the training and time to learn how fun it can be, your dog tells you that it isn’t something he enjoys, well, you know what to do. Don’t bring that dog on the boat anymore. I know you wouldn’t do that to your best friend.