I have encountered many paddlers, both in person and through pictures they share on social media, enjoying time on the water in a canoe or kayak with their four-legged, furry companion. And why not? Most dogs are well suited for paddling adventures and will relish the opportunity to go paddling with their master (I use the term "master" loosely, as I consider my dog part of my family and more her dad than her master). Camping trips are much more enjoyable when your dog comes along.
However, when bringing your furry friend with you on a paddle trip, whether it's just a short paddle on a lake or a multi-day expedition, some common-sense measures need to be followed to keep you and your dog safe.
Remove the leash from your dog as soon as your pet gets in the boat. I can't stress this important rule strong enough! Leashes become quite dangerous when they're still attached to your dog while he/she is in the boat. Never, I repeat, never, secure the end of the leash to your boat. This borders on animal endangerment and cruelty.
The reason for unleashing your dog is a simple, no-brainer concept. In the event your boat capsizes, both you and your furry companion are going for a swim. If your dog is leashed and tied to the boat, your he/she is going to most likely drown. Even if the leash isn't secured to the boat, there is a good chance your dog, and possibly even you, are going to drown.
Leashes do not float! They can become wrapped around your boat, your dog and, yes, even you. The problem is made worse in swift currents. Because leashes don't float, in shallow water the free end of the leash can become caught on submerged rocks and snagged on branches and other debris commonly encountered in or under the water. Leaving your dog leashed in your boat while paddling could end with a tragic, heartbreaking outcome to an otherwise enjoyable day on the water for you and your pet.
I'm going to say this right now, and it might earn the ire of some in the business of manufacturing personal flotation device (PFDs or life jackets) like Ruffwear, but these are often a waste of money. Now why would I say that? We're talking dogs, folks, an animal whose swimming habit is instinctual. How do you think wolves got from the mainland of Michigan and Minnesota to Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior? They swam there. I consider doggy PFDS to be one of the biggest marketing gimmicks of all time in the outdoor recreation industry.
That said, I don't wish to imply that there isn't ever a time when your dog should be fitted with a PFD. Water conditions, distance from the shore, and the health of your pooch should factor into whether or not a PFD is necessary.
Some dogs such as Labradors, pointers, spaniels, and poodles are better swimmers than other breeds. Still, your dog's physical condition and the water temperature should dictate whether or not your dog should wear a PFD.
Cold water can affect dogs just as it does in humans, so when paddling in cold water, a PFD for your dog becomes a vital piece of safety gear. A dog’s normal body temperature ranges between 101° F to 102.5° F, so dogs can suffer hypothermia in water colder than 100° F. The effects of cold water will affect your dog quicker if your pooch is short-haired. The fact is, if you have to wear a wetsuit or dry suit to survive in the cold water, then the water temperature is probably too cold for your dog to be in without a PFD. Now a doggy PFD won’t prevent your furry friend from possible hypothermia, but cold water can tire a dog, so the PFD will help keep your dog afloat should he/she tire from the cold.
Depending on how strong of a swimmer your dog is, you might want to consider fitting your pooch with a PFD if you're farther from shore than you feel your dog can safely reach while swimming without the aid of a PFD. When considering this, take into account your dog's weight, age, and any physical limitations your dog might have, like arthritis.
Keeping your dog hydrated while out in the boat is critical. Dogs can overheat, just like humans, sitting under direct sunlight. Make sure to carry along a water bottle and a bowl for your dog. If your dog appears lethargic, that’s a sign your pooch is beginning to feel the effects of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion may even cause your dog to begin to vomit. You need to get off the water, find shade in which to cool your dog, and give him/her water.
You’re on the water, so you think, “Why bring along a bottle of water for my dog? He has the whole lake or river to drink out of.” Under most circumstances, your dog drinking out of the lake or river is fine to a limited extent. However, here in Oregon, and I image in other states as well, many lakes in the summer months incur toxic algal blooms as water temperatures rise. These algal blooms can be dangerous, downright harmful to your dog. That’s why it's best to carry along a bottle of water for you dog.
Dogs are naturally curious, sometime too much so. You know what I mean if you’ve ever had your dog come home smelling like Pepe le Pew. Dogs have had serious, sometimes deadly encounters with bears and cougars, even coyotes. If you dog is small, it might even be mistaken for a meal.
If you bring along your pooch on a wilderness paddling trip, it’s best to leash your dog for his/her protection. Keeping your dog on a leash not only keeps your dog from coming into contact with wildlife, like predators and squirrels, it also keeps your furry companion from drinking water that may be high in protozoa content that could give your dog diarrhea—trust me, that's not something you want to have to clean up inside your tent—but also helps protect your dog from coming into contact with animals that could potentially be rabies vectors.
Following these simple rules will help ensure that both you and Fido have a safe and enjoyable time paddling.