Introducing your dog to boating early helps water time be just another part of dog life rather than something to be afraid of. In my opinion, as soon as a dog is ready to be adopted, it’s ready to try out boating. Just like with kids, however, you’ll want to adjust the intensity of your day to the age and heartiness of your puppy. An eight-week-old puppy probably isn’t ready for big swims, extreme temperatures or long days without snacks, treats, and getting on shore to run around.
Meet Hank: A poop-eating, water-hating, rescue short-haired border collie, living the Idaho river dream.
The first and most important part of training Hank to be a boat dog was emphasizing that boats are for sitting, not for roaming. A well-allocated package of hot dog bits went a long way in helping me train him to always sit or lie down when the boat was in motion.
(Hank): So no joke, there I am, a sixteen-week-old puppy just living the cow dog dream. January’s snow is starting to recede, I’m learning all about the smells of dirt and mud and all the turds that have been frozen all winter are starting to thaw. It’s just dinner, run, chew up Mom’s shoes, repeat. Sometimes, I even get to spend long afternoons napping on the deck in the sun. The only water I knew was the water in my dog dish, exactly how I liked it. Because to be honest, while I may have been transported to Western Montana to live with this river guide in the middle of some college town, in my heart I’m a ranch dog. At least I was, until Ms. Kibble Dispenser decided we were going boating.
Ugh, boating. I don’t want to even think about the river right now, being all comfy curled up on the couch. But Mom says I have to start paying my way around here, so I guess we’re going to tell you ‘How to Introduce Your Dog to Boating’. I wanted to make sure you get the REAL story, so I’m going to help her out.
Canine Flotation Device
This may seem like an odd concept for you. Dog lifejackets? But aren’t all dogs great swimmers? I mean, it’s called Doggy Paddling for a reason, right? Wrong. Well, kind of. Some dogs are great swimmers but not all dogs are. At the same time, when I’m guiding, guests give me that same excuse all the time: But I’m a strong swimmer. I believe you. And your dog probably is, too. But no one, or dog, is a good swimmer in cold water, in class III+ rapids, if your swim takes longer than you expected or if you fall out of the boat and, god forbid, hit your head on something.
We need to take the same precautions with our four-legged boating companions as we do with our two. Dogs can still enjoy pawing around in the water (and running) in their CFD, it just gives them a little help—and helps the humans out too. Ever try hauling an 80-pound, soaking wet dog onto a raft from the water? It’s not easy. But with the grab handle on most CFDs, the lifejacket just became a harness and made helping your dog re-enter the boat ten times easier. Not to mention the little pocket, which is a perfect size for treats and poop bags—leave no trace!—and it blocks a little sun for your fair-furred pups.
(Hank): I knew I was in trouble the first time she strapped on the canine torture device or as she calls it, my Canine Flotation Device. She says this is for my “safety” and to help me “swim” but mostly she just uses it like a puppy handle to pull me away from rotting fish along the shore. What a buzz kill. Luckily, the buckles snap over the canvas reinforced foam and don’t catch my delicate belly fur. I’m making fast use of the kibble she lets me eat and trying to grow so big it will never fit again. But Mom keeps adjusting these straps and the vest still fits. I’m getting closer to the end of those straps though, it’s only a matter of time before…wait, what?! They make CFDs in large too? NRS is the worst. Mom likes the bright red color because it shows up when I’m poking around on shore. I hate the red color because I’m just trying to sneak up on some chipmunks over here. So much for camouflage.
Teach the “Wait” Command
Dogs of pretty much all breeds can agree—the best part of boating is getting off the boat. In on shore training, Hank and I practice “wait.” I have him sit, then I hold a hand in front of his nose and say the command, then walk away, then release with an “okay.” On the water, this command makes sure that he exits the boat when we are actually pulling over (not just near-ish to shore) and when we’ve had a chance to survey the scene for any dog risks.
Watch the Weather
Dogs can’t really tell us when they’re too hot, too cold, dehydrated, hating life. But there are some telltale signs. The obvious: panting, shivering, or the tail tucked between their legs. Just be aware of the weather and how it affects your pup and be willing to leave them at home or eddy out and let them have a break in the shade, a short swim, or pack some layers to wrap around them in the colder months. Also, sun screen. Yes, dogs can get sunburnt, too. Short haired dogs with light fur are the most susceptible. The CFD comes in handy with this, but it’s never a bad idea to lather a little sunscreen on the tops of their heads. I normally don’t advocate the use of aerosol sunscreen, but in my experience, it’s a lot easier to put on a dog than lotion. (And not as greasy.)
(Hank): Listen up. While this silky black and white fur coat looks multipurpose, it’s got nothing on your fancy petroleum-based human clothes. I don’t have the option of throwing on a Gortex jacket when it’s raining or using a sun hat on a hot afternoon. (I would chew that sun hat to shreds, I promise.) Especially when I was a puppy, it was pretty nice that Mom kept in mind that it was important for me to stay dry, warm and styling. We discovered together that a small Tupperware bin can be a great “bed” in a self-bailing boat, or a dry bag doubles for a wind block in dire, 35 mph circumstances. On hot days, she gives me lots of chances to get out, lay in the shade and drink water.
Bring a Leash
My dog is definitely an off leash kind of guy. But you never know when your lunch spot of choice will have an exceptionally delicious rotting animal or the put-in will be busy with backing trailers and other vehicles. For short time periods, a leash (or spare cam strap) helps keep your dog safe and out of trouble.
But never, ever tie your dog into the boat. Especially in whitewater stretches. I would never tie my guest into the boat by their PFD and you should never tie a dog’s leash or harness into the boat. If a boat flips or pins, you want the dog to be able to swim away and to shore, not be trapped underwater. Even if you think his lead is long enough to let him swim away from the boat, it poses substantial risk to the pup’s safety. Maybe he doesn’t get pinned under, but the excess leash could snag a tree limb or a rock.
Simply put, don’t do it. If your dog isn’t well-behaved enough to stay in the boat when you’re on the water, he isn’t ready to be on the water. Go back to flatwater, practice the wait command and the basics of on-the-boat obedience before heading out into whitewater.
(Hank): Don’t doooo it. Any of it. Don’t listen to her…leashes are for the DOGS (but not this dog). And, I take that back. Listen to part of what she says. Leashes on boats are bad. Come to think of it, leashes on land are bad. Just sayin’.
Not Everyone is a Dog Person
While your perfectly behaved pooch might change a naysayers mind, sometimes the logistics of the trip or the space on the boat just doesn’t allow for your furry friend. Always be respectful of other’s people’s plans when considering if you should invite your pup along.
(Hank): Can you believe that? Not everyone loves dogs?! Not sure what’s up with them but just to be sure I’m the celebrity guest not the uninvited mooch, Mom always checks in with our group ahead of time to see if they mind a dog tagging along. If they do mind, I never snuggle them again and make a point of trying to pee on their tire.
A Final Tip from Hank: Don’t Adopt a Lab
Uh oh, cue the angry onslaught of comments from lab-lovers telling me off. All I’m saying is, have you ever been on a boat with a lab?! They’re all: “Oh boy water so exciting!” and “Gee, I can’t wait to jump in at ANY SECOND for ANY REASON.” Those big oafs love swimming and that’s not always an advantage, especially when they’re swimming to shore randomly, paddling around with the trout you’re trying to catch or anxiously jumping from side to side in the boat wondering when they get to get in that WATER!
I, on the other hand, am a dry land mutt. I’d rather lie in a pile of weeds than go anywhere near that water, thankyouverymuch. I’ll just be hunkering down on the bottom of the boat hoping to not get splashed and wondering when we get to debark this torture craft.
Good luck and let Hank and I know in the comments how you keep yourself and your pup happy on the water (even if you own a Lab).
Editor’s Note: Follow all of Hank’s escapades on Instagram: @hanktheadventureturd.