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 aware 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.