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John Mairs

Kayaks are an increasingly popular way to enjoy the water. Whether it’s sit-in or sit-on, kayaks allow you to explore the wilderness and get back to nature. But unlike a motorboat or canoe, you can’t just put your dog in the boat and go. Does that mean you can’t take your dog out on the water? Of course not. With some patient training and simple acclimatization, your dog can learn to love the kayak and be a safe passenger.

Kayaking With Your Dog Requires Basic Skills

Sarah Mairs is a dog trainer at Tamsu Learning Center with over 20 years’ experience with pet dogs and dog sports. She’s also an experienced kayaker who finds the sport even more pleasant when she includes her dogs as passengers. Mairs believes anybody competent with a kayak can include their dog if they’re willing to teach some basic skills. “Assuming you are confident in the water and in your own ability to operate a kayak, adding your dog to the picture with some key trained skills will make your experience that much more enjoyable.”

Developing Confidence With Movement

According to Mairs, to build your dog’s confidence, early kayak training should take place on land. If you start with a floating boat, it will move and rock unpredictably which can scare your dog and put them off future kayak adventures. On-land training lets you have more control over the boat’s movement while helping your dog adjust to the instability.

First, teach confidence with movement. Eventually, you want your dog to hop in and out of the kayak on their own, but if they aren’t used to plastic, hollow, slippery surfaces, that first step might be tricky. Plus, many dogs want to step on the side of the kayak and depending on the model you have, it could move and frighten them. Mairs suggests simply rewarding your dog for watching you rock the kayak. This will help them associate that movement with good things. Next, build up to your dog touching the kayak then eventually getting in, rewarding at every step. Finally, teach on and off cues so your dog understands they should wait to be invited on the kayak and should only jump off with permission.

You can also work with your dog on other wobbly surfaces. According to Mairs, “Developing the skill of self-control with the challenge of movement is very important. Having your dog sustain a sit, lie down, or stand position on something that is unstable will build their confidence for motion in the kayak.”

Teaching Your Dog Where to Stay on the Kayak

Your dog needs a place to stay on the kayak while you’re on the water. Mairs says the size of the dog and the type of kayak will be a factor in where you place your pet. A sit-on kayak will allow for more space and most dogs will lie down when they relax. While training, reward your dog when they’re in the chosen position to reinforce that location.

However, Mairs says although it would be great to have a dog who stays stationary for as long you paddle, the reality is often quite different. Your dog may move around or shift positions. To make the kayak as comfortable and safe as possible, add padding and nonslip material for safe footing. Mairs uses yoga mats for the areas her dogs are drawn to and marine traction tape along the edges for safer entries and exits.

Getting Your Dog Comfortable With Your Paddling

The final step in on-land training is getting your dog used to the motion of you paddling behind them. Mairs suggests introducing the paddle first and pairing it with rewards. Next, have your dog on the kayak with you and begin to introduce the paddling motion. Keep things positive so your dog enjoys the experience.

Teaching Your Dog to Love Their Life Jacket

Of course, your dog will be wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) when you’re on the water. So, they should be training in one too. Find one that fits your dog’s body type and allows fluid motion from the shoulder. Mairs prefers PFDs with a strong handle and solid clips rather than Velcro attachments.

Be sure to introduce the life jacket before you get to the water. Mairs suggests letting your dog wear their PFD in the house, taking them for walks in it, feeding them in it, and so on so they can become truly comfortable. It’s also important your dog learns how to swim in it. “It’s not a given that they will enjoy swimming with it on,” says Mairs. “Take them swimming and allow them to build confidence wearing their new outfit by getting them to retrieve or just swim around.”

Taking It to the Water

Your last training step is introducing your dog to water life such as geese, other boats, and people swimming. Mairs advises that if your dog can’t show control around distractions, you aren’t yet ready to kayak together. But once your dog can exhibit proper self-control, you’re ready to hit the water.

Look for a shallow entry point and beach the kayak. If possible, enlist the help of a friend to hold the kayak still while you get on. Mairs says, “I prefer to get my seat first so it’s hopefully dry. I will then invite my dog to hop in and because we’ve rehearsed this on land, they will understand the direction they need to face. Once I feel organized and settled, I will ask the friend to help push us out onto the water and we can put our training to purpose.”

Related article: Bikejoring: Is This Adrenaline Inducing Sport Right For You and Your Dog?
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