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Living about a 15-minute walk from Falls Lake near Raleigh, North Carolina, one of the first things I did when I adopted my dog, Idris, was to take her for a walk along its shores. I was surprised to see her warily approach the water’s edge. Perplexed by the water, she advanced and retreated by turns. It took two months of regular exposure and adaptation to the water before I was convinced that she was actually enjoying herself.
Your dog’s comfort in and around water is the most basic link between her wanting to try new water activities and enjoying them. Regardless of the activity — swimming, canoeing, kayaking, boating, paddleboarding — it should be entered into willingly by both you and your dog, and patience can make all the difference.
Want to give it a try but still not sure? Don’t worry. The size, breed, and even age of your dog has very little impact on her ability to master water activities of any kind.
You’ve got to start somewhere, and swimming lessons may be the best place. Costs are often reasonable, around $50 for a 90-minute session, and vaccinations are the only prerequisite.
Diana Boos, owner of Lap It Up, a dog swimming and training facility in Durham, North Carolina, said “the key is getting the dog to relax in the water.” Recognize and respect a dog’s limitations, and she’ll thrive, both as a swimmer and in future water activities.
Amusing though it may sound, Boos’ primary safety advice for swimming dogs is to keep a close watch on their butts. When a dog has sufficient energy, the entire line of her spine, from head to tail, should be visible. When a dog’s rear starts sinking, it’s a clear sign that her energy is flagging.
Want to take your dog on a boating adventure? A one-day tour with an organization like Dog Paddling Adventures in Ontario, Canada, starts at about $150, and reputable organizations require dogs to be current on vaccinations and responsive to basic obedience commands.
Your dog’s comfort in water is the first step; the next is ensuring that she’s comfortable aboard your chosen vessel.
Darren Bush, the Chief Paddling Evangelist at Wisconsin-based Rutabaga, has 20 years of experience canoeing and boating with dogs. For nonsporting dogs, who may be unfamiliar with the irregular motions of watercraft, “the earlier you start working with a dog, the better,” Bush said. He suggested starting “on dry land and using treats and praise to get them to enjoy the boat.” If your dog feels at ease in a kayak, canoe, or boat prior to launch, the less stress there is on dog and owner alike.
“A well-trained dog is pretty much a requirement for doing anything that involves being in strange or novel environments,” according to Bush. Where your dog sits in the craft is less important than keeping her steady once you’re both in. Basic obedience training is crucial. A dog’s responsiveness to directives as simple as “come,” “sit,” “down,” and “stay” can be reassuring and mitigate any inclination to panic.
Of all the water activities you can try with your dog, there’s no question that stand-up paddle- boarding (SUP) is not only the most intriguing, but also the most involved. In terms of training and equipment, it can be the costliest for beginners to attempt, and it can take the most time and effort to master with your dog. Beginner lessons with a dog run about $90 for an hourlong session.
Take heart! Maria Christina Schultz, American Canoe Association-certified trainer and author of How to SUP With Your PUP, said that while “it may take a week, it may take months” to prepare a dog for regular paddleboarding, “if you start small and work them up, they’ll be successful.”
According to Lara Schindler, founder of San Diego’s Happy Dog Happy Owner, “teaching the dog to be calm and relaxed on the board is key,” and that starts with an owner who is familiar enough with the physical demands of paddleboarding to anticipate the dog’s needs. Whatever the craft, if your dog is familiar with its contours, she’s less likely to be unsettled as you move into the water.
Schultz started by placing a paddleboard in her living room — a nurturing and safe environment for her dogs. In her experience teaching SUP to dogs and their owners, Schultz knows that “you’re going to fall off the board” and “the dog’s going to fall off the board.” Any dog can learn SUP, but a dog who’s comfortable with water, board, and owner is ideally suited to share the adventure.
Central to enjoying water activities of any kind is the bond of trust you’re building with your dog. Is your dog terrified of the water? Does she keep jumping out of the canoe or off the paddleboard? We all inherently know what Bush affirmed, that “dogs don’t always do what we want them to do.” Mishaps are inevitable; embrace the learning curve as part of the process.
Schultz agreed that taking up a water activity with your dog provides a unique bonding experience and one that should be enjoyable for all involved. Whatever water activity you embark upon together, keep it lighthearted and pressure-free so both both you and your dog have more fun and make the kind of memories that will last a lifetime of summers.
Before jumping into any activity in open waters, a canine life jacket should be your first investment. Also called pet flotation devices, or PFDs, these range in price from $30 to $80, and are available for every size of dog. They “can compensate for what a dog may be lacking” in native swimming ability, Schindler said. For Schultz, “the handle on that life jacket is what makes it possible to get dogs, especially big dogs, back on that board,” into that boat, or to wrest them from any body of water.
You want these water activities to be fun for you and for your dog, and a reticent or resistant dog can make for a frustrated owner. “Don’t force your dog to go in a canoe or kayak. They’ll just be more afraid,” Bush told me. Whether you’re trying swimming, boating, or stand-up paddleboarding, view setbacks constructively. Ultimately, they are steps toward enriching the relationship between yourself and your dog.
Do you enjoy spending time on the water with your dog? Share your advice in the comments!
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About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.