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Don't Leave Your Adventure Dogs at Home

How to kayak with your dogs

By Brianna Madia

In our family, we believe there’s never a reason to leave the dogs behind. Any activity we do, we do with our dogs. That includes technical canyoneering, climbing, mountain biking, rappelling, snowboarding, and kayaking. Teaching our dogs to be the ultimate adventure partners has taken time and effort that has paid off ten-fold. There’s nothing better than sharing something you love to do with your best friend.

Our dogs, Bucket and Dagwood, have spent a solid amount of time like little hood ornaments on the front of our Oru Kayaks – navigating the salty ancientness of Mono Lake in California and the brine-shrimp ridden thickness of the Great Salt Lake, braving a very windy Sea of Cortez in Mexico, traversing Lake Powell after perilously climbing down a narrow canyon to reach it, and navigating some Class 3 rapids on the Colorado River outside Moab. We’ve picked up some major do’s and don’ts along the way that we’re stoked to share.

Here are some of our top tips for helping your dog develop their sea legs:

Kayak life jacket for dogs

Put A Lifejacket on Your Dog. 

I don’t care if you have the fastest swimming Labrador Retriever this side of the Mississippi…put a lifejacket on your dog. Lifejackets not only keep them afloat, but make your dog easy to see and easy to retrieve. If your furry friend takes a flying leap off your boat to go chase after a duck, you’re going to want a safe way to pull them back up into your kayak. A key component of a good dog flotation device is a handle on the back for easy lifting. The last thing you want to be doing is pulling your sopping wet dog up out of the water by their neck. Invest in a good dog lifejacket for peace of mind and also because it’s a dog lifejacket, like are you kidding me? So cute. Our all-time favorites are Float Coats by Ruffwear.  

 Hanging with your dogs in Oru Kayak

Make the Kayak Seem Appealing.

If you pull up to the beach and drop this gigantic folding monstrosity into the sand in front of your dog, chances are, they’re thinking what the hell is that… So try setting your kayak up in your driveway or your backyard. Put a blanket that belongs to your dog in the boat. Sit in there with him on dry land and recite the closing monologue from The Perfect Storm…make your neighbors think you’ve totally lost it. I’m serious. It helps. You want your dog to understand that this object is safe and familiar. Take it one step further by getting a brand new mouthwatering treat they’ve never had (maybe little shredded pieces of real turkey or chicken) and giving it to them only when they’re sitting in the boat. Dogs have really powerful association skills so if your dog associates your kayak with delicious shredded chunks of turkey, he’ll be totally stoked when he sees you pull it out of the car at the lake, and subsequently receives that special treat. (Pro Tip: if you’d also like to associate your kayak with chunks of turkey, maybe leave a sandwich in there for yourself…everybody wins.)

Kayaking on Mono Lake

  • Set Realistic Expectations.
  • Bucket and Dagwood are known for the adventurous activities they do with us – rappelling 200+ feet out of slot canyons, taking on rapids, sprinting alongside us for miles on our mountain bikes… I can promise you they didn’t get there overnight. You would never expect yourself to be great at something on the first try, so keep that in mind when you introduce your dog to kayaking.  For a first trip, don’t expect to successfully float the Grand Canyon. Instead, find some calm water and fully anticipate to not get more than a couple hundred feet offshore for most of the day. If you plan an epic overnight trip, only to have it ruined by the fact that your dog is refusing to get into your kayak…you’ll feel like a failure. Go out for a short, day trip with the only intention being to get your dog comfortable with your boat. Start slow, and expect to get really wet.  
  • San Rafael River with Dogs

    Paddling an Oru Kayak with your dog

    Make Frequent Trips to Shore.

    The first time Bucket was in my kayak, she stood up the entire time…and I let her. She was very much trying to feel out her stability and balance in this thing and I wasn’t going to interrupt. I would paddle out into the water, float out there for a minute or two, then paddle back in to the shore so she could jump out onto solid ground again. I wanted to introduce her to the feeling slowly and make her realize that when the boat leaves the shore, it always comes back to the shore. I also used it as an opportunity to teach her when it’s okay to jump out of the boat. I could see her tensing up as we were approaching the beach, but held onto her lifejacket until we were close enough. Then I said, “Okay go ahead!” and out she went. Having an established command for leaving the boat will help teach your dog that there are times when it is and isn’t okay to jump out.
    How to kayak with your dog
    A Tired Dog is a Good Dog.

    If your dog has been sitting by the front door for 8 hours, the last thing they’re going to want to do is sit more. Attempt the first few kayaking trips when your dog is good and tired…when laying down between your legs seems like an appealing activity and not a watery prison. If your dog has been at the park playing with her buddies, or just finished up a Saturday morning jog, it could be a perfect time to go out for a paddle.

    Kayaking with your dog on Mono Lake

    NEVER Tether Your Dog to Yourself or Your Boat.

    You might think this is a good idea at first, but this is one of the most dangerous things you can do…especially in flowing water. If you flip your boat and your dog is attached to it, your dog is now getting dragged down the river with that boat. If you flip your boat and your dog is attached to you, you increase the likelihood of that tether catching on a log or rock and pulling you both underwater. If you find yourself in the water, you want both yourself and your pup to be free to swim ashore or away from the boat. And remember, don’t panic. On my most recent trip down the Colorado River, Bucket and I flipped our boat in some rapids. Keith and Dagwood had gone through the rapids first and were waiting on the other end to “receive” anything that came floating down, which just so happened to be our wet little heads and our upside-down boat. I kept my eye on Bucket’s red lifejacket and followed her to the shore she swam to where we reconvened, had a snack, and continued down the river.

    Dogs in Oru Beach LT Kayak

    Know Your Dog.

  • This might sound obvious but these 3 words are my best advice to any dog owner anywhere about literally anything. Understand your dog. Understand what they’re good at…what makes them scared…what might startle them…what might coax them into a new situation. If your dog hates water or is a poor swimmer, kayaking may not be the best hobby to take up with them. Knowing your own skill and comfort level and matching it to your dog’s skill and comfort level is what makes an amazing adventure team. And lastly, don’t push it. So, what if your dog isn’t going to be the next whitewater kayaking champion of the world? You still have an amazing dog who would follow you to the ends of the earth…you’re just gonna have to get there on foot 😉.
  • Using Oru Kayaks with dogs