dogs, kayaking

Kayaking with Mellow: lessons learned from our first season

When I bought my first kayak seven years ago, I dreamed of taking my dog with me. It was a dream that never became a reality due to the size and nature of my dog. At the time, we had an eighty pound chocolate Lab named Levi. Besides not fitting in my sit-inside kayak, Levi was obsessed with swimming. The last thing Levi wanted to do was look at the water without being in it. I tried to teach Levi how to ride in a canoe, thinking the larger size of the vessel might make a difference. I was able to keep Levi in the canoe, but he whined and trembled the entire time, wanting to jump into the water. I realized that Levi was completely happy swimming next to me while I paddled a kayak back and forth from shore. He didn’t want to ride in the boat; he only tolerated the canoe rides because I commanded him to sit and stay. I put the idea of kayaking with my dog on hold and focused on the kayak as a way to provide no-impact exercise for Levi.

The idea of kayaking with my dog resurfaced this past summer. Being a teacher means I have free time during summer days when most people are at work. Since I love to kayak and no one is typically available during summer weekdays, this time includes solo paddling on the many small lakes near my house. I always felt guilty after Mellow, my rescue pup, and I finished our morning walk and I would prepare to go kayaking; she knew I was going somewhere without her. She was destructive when I first adopted her, so for her safety she has to be kenneled when left alone. I decided that I would try to teach Mellow how to kayak so she could accompany me.

Mellow is content to wade in shallow water, so I thought that would make it easier to teach her to stay in the kayak. We completed an introductory obedience course over the winter, so I felt confident that Mellow understood the basic commands required to train a dog to ride in a kayak. I just needed a plan to make my idea a reality.

Mellow is a naturally shy and cautious dog. Much of this I attribute to the lack of socialization and experiences she had before being rescued. I knew that she would be fearful if I took her to a lake and tried to get her to enter my kayak without first getting her used to the boat. That meant the first part of my plan was to have Mellow get so used to my kayak that it would not be a fearful object in a new location. This explains the image of my kayak in the living room!

Mellow getting used to my kayak in the living room.

For more than a week, my kayak was a piece of furniture in the living room. I sat in my kayak to play the PlayStation 4; sometimes I was joined by Mellow or Minnie, my cat. (I was on a Far Cry 5 kick at the time, so I logged many hours in the kayak gaming chair.) The purpose was not only to have Mellow practice sitting in the kayak, but for her to perceive the kayak as just another ordinary, everyday object in her life.

Mellow relaxes while I game on the PlayStation 4.

The second part of the plan was ordering a dog life jacket. Since Mellow is a wader and not a swimmer, I knew that for her safety she needed a PFD. I did some research and ended up buying the same PFD that I had purchased for Levi many years earlier. It is made by Ruffwear and is the highest quality dog life jacket that I’ve seen. The sizing took a few tries to get perfect. I ended up ordering it from REI because it is easier for me to return items to the store than mail them back to the company.

Mellow in her Ruffwear life jacket.

The real test came the following week. I took Mellow for about a two mile hike at a state park near my house. I’ve learned over the years that exercising a dog to burn off excess energy is the best thing to do before a training session. I figured that I would use the same routine every time we kayaked together: a long walk and then a kayak session.

Afterwards, I planned to paddle a small lake in the same state park. I regularly paddle this lake, so I knew that it is not busy during weekdays. It also has good access for entering the water with a dog. Although the lake is smaller and I typically paddle the perimeter, I knew I had to keep the session brief so that Mellow could get used to being confined to the kayak. I figured I would paddle down one side of the lake, get out on a sandbar there for a break, then paddle back to the access point.

I loaded the kayak with my waterproof bag and lined the foot well with beach towels. Then I approached the kayak with Mellow. She was reluctant to get into the boat on her own, so I picked her up and gently placed her on the beach towels, firmly telling her to stay. The access point allows for a beached entry/exit, so I pushed my kayak off the sand and climbed in behind Mellow. Since I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, I wore my PFD.

While Mellow was in the kayak, she wore her regular Martingale collar with her ID tags and her training pinch collar. I left a four foot leash clipped to the training collar; the other end I kept looped on my right wrist. Mellow is comfortable with this training collar and leash since it is what we use every day for her training. I wanted her to have on a leash so that I could communicate what I wanted to her in a way that was familiar. Please note that I did not tie Mellow directly to the kayak which would be dangerous.

Mellow initially tried to stand up which made the boat rock. She stepped forward onto the deck of my kayak and balanced there for a few minutes. I slowly paddled us away from shore. Mellow seemed curious but not afraid; she stared at the water. For a moment I was afraid she would try to step onto the water’s surface, but luckily she sat down between my legs. I scooted her forward a bit, and I was able to comfortably paddle to another area along the lake’s perimeter where we could take a break.

The area where we took our break is not accessible from the parking lot: you have to paddle or swim to get there. It was the perfect distance and place to play with my pup for a few minutes to give her a break. She chased her favorite water toy, the Chuckit! flying squirrel. I always keep a couple of these around since they were a favorite toy of Levi’s too. They are rugged and float on the top of the water. I’ve had good luck with them lasting for years, so even though they are typically pricey it is worth it.

Mellow did a great job on the way back to the access point. Occasionally she would try to “sit” on my knee by leaning against it. This is less than ideal since it throws off the balance of the kayak. For the most part she understood that she needed to sit while in the kayak. I used simple, clear basic commands to remind her to “sit” and “stay” in the kayak before I pushed us off the beach and while I was paddling.

When we arrived back at the access point, I told Mellow to “stay” while I beached the kayak. I decided to emphasize this with her for safety reasons. She realized we were approaching land and became a little anxious, ready to jump off the boat. I wanted her to wait for my command to release her from the boat.

Mellow and I repeated the kayak session multiple times. One of our sessions included a friend of mine. More often, it was just the two of us. We paddled the same lake each time because it is the ideal training location. So far, the longest we have paddled together is about an hour and a half with a break in the middle.

There were two issues that I found during our paddling sessions. The first issue was that Mellow’s weight in the middle of the kayak caused water to come up through the self draining scupper holes into the foot well; this soaked the beach towels serving as Mellow’s bed and traction in the boat. Mellow didn’t seem to like the wet towels. She shivered even though it was a warm, sunny day and she was wearing her life jacket.

To remedy this, I purchased some scupper plugs. I plan to plug only the scuppers in the foot well. This will leave the self-draining scuppers behind my seat open in case we capsize. I haven’t had a chance to use the scupper plugs yet because they arrived at the end of the summer.

The second issue was that Mellow got a sunburn on her nose. The skin above her nose blistered and generally looked painful. Needless to say, I felt terrible. Her nose put a damper on our training sessions because I felt like I had to keep her out of the sun until her burn healed. Since we hike on wooded trails, our walks weren’t an issue. I need to figure out a way to protect her from the sun so that we can continue our kayaking. I know that I could kayak earlier in the day, but I think she would still be at risk of burning since she is so fair. I researched dog sunblock a little, but I need to make time to investigate the ingredients and reviews to find a quality product. It is on my list of things to accomplish before the next kayaking season.

Despite Mellow’s sunburn, training my dog to kayak was an overall positive experience. I’m excited to continue training this summer with the eventual goal of being able to take Mellow on a river trip. We have a lot of work to do before Mellow will be ready for that, but I look forward to our training sessions and getting back out on the water this summer.

#kayakingwithdogs #summerwithdogs

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