Dog Paddling: How to Take Your Pooch Canoeing

by A Manly Guest Contributor on February 23, 2011 · 10 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Darren Bush.

Most people who know me know I have a dog-friendly house.  There’s always one to three dogs at the house, depending on who I’m dog-sitting.  Once I was getting a boat ready for a trip on the front lawn, with Amazing Grace (Gracie, my black lab) sniffing at all the gear. A lady with a lab puppy walked by and said, “You’re not taking your dog in that canoe, are you?”  I answered that I was indeed taking Gracie with me.

She told me she’d love to take her dog and she wanted to know how to deal with dogs in canoes. That’s like asking, “How do you raise prizewinning tomatoes?” There are as many ways to deal with dogs in boats as there are dogs. Dogs’ temperaments are different, the canoes they’re in are different, and the paddling skills of their humans are at different levels.

That said, there are a few things I’ve learned from having Gracie (now 10) and Winnie (our German Shorthair Pointer, R.I.P.) as paddling partners for over fifteen years.

The way to have a successful outing with your dog requires that your dog is comfortable, both physically and psychologically.  There are a few ways I’ve found that work very well.

First, dogs appreciate sure footing. They don’t like sliding around the bottom of a wet canoe. Many modern canoe materials are fairly slick when wet, and what isn’t wet at the beginning of the day will be once a dog jumps in and out a few times. Royalex or polyethylene canoes are especially slick.

I’ve found that bathtub tape or textured dock tape will adhere nicely to a canoe if you give the boat a good cleaning. The chemical agents that manufacturers use to release boats from molds are not adhesive-friendly, so be sure to scrub them good with Dawn and a greenie pad. You don’t need to cover the whole bottom of the boat, just the areas where your dogs like to go. (Note that this abrasive tape will wear holes in your packs if you put them on the tape and let them slide around.)

Another idea that I hear works but that I haven’t tried is one of those bathtub mats with suction cups all over the bottom. I’ve also heard of people using indoor-outdoor carpeting or, in some flat-bottomed boats, a thin piece of plywood or OSB. At any rate, it’s a good idea to give them something into which they can dig their claws.

Aluminum boats can become very hot in the sun. A dog with sensitive pads might not appreciate the reflective capacity of an aluminum canoe. Keep that in mind as well.

Second, dogs don’t like laying in bilge water. Even though your dog might be jumping in and out of the boat constantly (more on that later), they don’t like laying in a puddle of water. A little is fine, but some boats, especially those with shallow V hulls, collect significant bilge water. Dogs won’t lay down in an inch of slimy river goo.

A small platform can be called for if you have a smaller dog—they like to see over the gunwales, and it will keep them out of the bilge water and much happier. A 1/4″ piece of plywood is plenty strong. You will want to make sure that it fits your boat, doesn’t move around, and does not pose an entrapment hazard to human or canine.

Third, some dogs need lifejackets too. I don’t care if your dog, like mine, is a natural born swimmer. Labs can be headstrong, and I’ve seen strong dogs exhaust themselves trying to swim against current, and there are hazards in rivers and lakes that are as dangerous to dogs as they are to humans—perhaps more so, because many dogs lack the judgment necessary to deal with snags and strainers (trees that have fallen into the river, straining the current). A good dog flotation device will help your dog keep his or her nose out of the water easily, they will ride higher in the water and are therefore safer, and there is a nice handle on the back of most dog floaters to facilitate grabbing them when you need to get them out of the water quickly.

Fourth, never leash your dog to the boat. You wouldn’t tie a rope around your own neck and the other to your yoke, would you?  If you must keep a leash on your dog, put the leash under your foot.  Under no circumstances should you tie anything to you or to your dog. If your dog strains at the leash constantly, the answer is more training, not a bigger leash.

Don’t assume because a dog isn’t a natural “water dog” (Lab, Pointer, etc.) that he or she won’t enjoy the water. Our friends have a Staffordshire Terrier that loves the water but has the density of plutonium.  A little flotation makes Petey a happy pup.  Their pug Violet, however, is pretty much a shore dog.

That takes care of the physical set up of your canoe (and your dog).  The psychological part is just as important. Training your dog to like a canoe is not always an easy task. Mine was trained as a puppy, and although the dock was solid and the boat anything but, Gracie would rather do anything than be left behind.

Basic training principles apply. Small, incremental steps leading to the desired behavior need to be reinforced. Get some of the smelliest dog treats and cut them up into small pieces. With the canoe on dry land, toss a few into the canoe. Encourage jumping in and out, playing around, and generally becoming familiar with the canoe.  You might even throw the dog bed in the canoe when you’re doing some yard work and let your dog become more accustomed to the environment.

Once your dog is happy about dry land, tie your boat up to the dock and do the same thing; treats go in, dog goes in. Coax out, treat, praise. Lather, rinse, repeat. Then try sitting in the canoe (still at the dock) and lure your puppy in. Rock the canoe gently. Reward, praise. Take a little paddle. Reward, praise.

Dogs are curious, and the rule (for Labs anyway) is that if they are in, they want out, and if they are out, they want in. If they go to sleep, chances are a duck will fly over and wake them. If they spend enough time in the canoe, they will eventually figure it out, and it won’t be a big deal at all.  They will eventually habituate and calm down.

Take all this advice with a grain of sand. It worked for me. Whatever you do, do it with a sense of humor and you will be rewarded with a travelling companion who will add a new dimension to your paddling.


Darren Bush is the owner and Chief Paddling Evangelist of Rutabaga, but he’s also an amateur blacksmith, longbow shooter, and primitive skill aficionado. He believes primitive skills are highly undervalued in modern society.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carter February 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Thanks for the tips. That looks like a lot of fun. I think that is the biggest thing, to take enough time to get them used to it so they aren’t scared of the boat.

2 Tryclyde February 23, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I love taking my dog kayaking. She stands at the bow like she’s leading the way.

3 Dave Cameron February 23, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Great Article. It’s important to remember to take things slowly and incrementally – don’t plan an epic weeklong paddle trip and expect to get the dog used to things the first day! Honestly, the best way to start would be with the boat on the grass out of the water. Remember to be on the dog’s program as far as how fast to go – you want to push him just slightly out of his comfort zone each time and end on a positive. If you go too fast you’re likely to give your dog an aversion to the canoe rather than a love for it. Take small steps and keep things positive and eventually you and your dog will love your time on the water together.

4 Wesley February 23, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Darren, I really like this article…not so much for the content (I don’t even own a canoe) as for the general tone. Great stuff!

“Whatever you do, do it with a sense of humor and you will be rewarded…” Awesome!

Thanks for the entertaining article! I learned a good bit, and it made my day just a little bit better.

5 Darren February 24, 2011 at 7:02 am

Thanks, y’all.

Take out dog and replace toddler. That works well. Oh — replace dog treat with Gummi Bears.

6 Leon Ally February 24, 2011 at 7:28 am

The first time I took my dog out in my canoe, I thought she was comfortable enough so I decided to take my rod out and make a few cast….only to hear a splash and turned around to see her heading back to shore……50 feet out!
I never tried her again that year, but the very next season,I couldn’t get in it without her jumping in with me.
One note: be aware of sudden noises (if your dog is spooked easily). Duck season is a bad time for me to take Lola out in the canoe!
Well written Darren.

7 Steve Harrington February 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Like Wesley, I don’t even own a dog or a canoe and yet I still found this article supremely enjoyable. It did really make me want to get a dog though.

8 Mike February 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I’m a little curious as to how your dog gets back in the canoe once she jumps out?

9 Darren February 24, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I should shoot a video of that, Mike. What I do is lean the canoe to the gunwale, let her get her paws over the gunwales and then scoop her in. It’s a skill that needs practice. :-) More often than not, she runs along the sand bars and when she wants to get back in, runs ahead and waits for me to paddle by. Then she jumps in.

For more pictures of Amazing Grace, here’s a link:

If you want a dog, I can recommend any lab. They’re sweet and although they require some training, you’ll be rewarded with a friend for a decade or so.

10 Gracie The Famous Adventure Dog September 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm

My dad and I just finished a 1,000 mile paddle down the Ohio River (from Pittsburgh, PA, to the Mississippi River). Check it out at

I can add a couple of tips from personal experience:

1) When you arrive at your campsite for the night, let your pooch explore the area before letting him/her go too far into the woods. We dogs have an amazing sense of where the tent is, but we need a couple of times exploring the woods, then getting called back to the tent before we get our bearings.

2) It’s not always easy getting back into the canoe (the gunwales are easy to grab with our front paws, but our rear paws slip on the smooth hull). So, make sure you’re there for your pal with a helping hand. If you want to really be a dog’s best friend, fabricate a little doggie ladder to hook onto the gunwales.

Happy Adventuring!

Gracie The Famous Adventure Dog

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