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My five-year-old rescue lab, Hugo, has historically been the worst boat dog ever to walk the earth with four paws. I have exactly ONE photo of him in a boat because that is the only time he’s ever stayed in a boat long enough to have his picture taken in it.
So when I got a new puppy, I was very excited to have a dog who I could train up from puppyhood to be a calm and happy boat dog. Since I’ve gotten into packrafting, I really wanted to have a dog that I could take with me because there are so many cool adventures to get up to in a packraft. To that end, Hobbes the puppy started getting gently introduced to water and my packraft from when he was about four months old. His first trip to the river as a baby:
Hobbes has taught me a lot about getting a puppy started off on the right paw to be a great packrafting companion, and now he loves it. Every dog learns new things differently, but these are a few basic things that I’e picked up along the way that really helped!
Hobbes was completely feral when I got him so he was pretty skittish. The way I worked on general trust with him was through socializing and training; puppy classes, exercises to build his confidence, taking him all sorts of different places with me, and letting him dictate what he was comfortable with so that he always knew I had his back if there was a situation he wanted out of. His big brother Hugo helped a ton, too. Hugo isn’t scared of anything except sitting still, so he really helped to make baby Hobbes feel safe.
Because of his socializing and our bonding, when we started working with the packraft, we already had a good foundation. He knew I wasn’t going to throw him into anything that he couldn’t handle. I started by blowing up the packraft in the living room and teaching him his get in/get out commands (load up and okay) with tons of treats. Teaching him to jump in with me and sit right down was important so that he learned to jump in and settle down, not to jump in and immediately launch back out.
Have the dog get in the boat and give him an occasional treat and some butt scratchins while you watch an episode of Bob’s Burgers and kick back a beer, hang out, and make it a comfy place to chill. When he got good at that, we took to the water. It was the middle of winter and the lakes were frozen but I had a conveniently flooded backyard, so there was a miniature training lake to use right out the back door. He could practice loading up, being in the water, and then jumping out when we were back to shore. He’s a champ at this now and can load and unload from just about anywhere!
I knew I eventually wanted to get Hobbes into some rivers, but before that he’d need to get used to just being on the water and how that felt. It might seem second nature to humans, but I imagine dogs look at us like, what sorcery are you using to sit in that tippy weird couch-thing on top of that lake, wizard?? So I started with some small lake paddles early in the morning when the water was calm.
Hobbes would get a little whiny from time to time in the packraft (mostly at ripples in the water, noticing how far from shore we were and ducks), but one of the most important things I learned from a trainer friend is you get what you pet, meaning that if you pat and console your dog when they’re whining, that reinforces that there;s something to whine and be concerned about. So I’d ignore the whining and give him treats and lovin when he was being chill and quiet and he learned pretty quickly that the road to chicken snacks is paved with calm and quiet puppies.
A lot of people have asked me about dog toenails in packrafts. I’ve never had a problem with a dog putting a hole in any of my rafts. Hobbes has paddled in three different Kokopelli models with me (the Hornet Lite, the Castaway, and the Nirvana Self-Bailer) and he’s been fine in all of them. For the sake of comfort and traction, however, I made a special dog floor for my packrafts. I bought a really cheap closed cell foam sleeping pad and cut it to fit in the bottom of my packraft, which serves two purposes: it keeps the dog a little more insulated from the water if we’re paddling in cold water, and it makes the floor more grippy so the dogs feel more stable on it.
Hobbes prefers an open deck boat so that he can sit inside and snuggle between my feet. Our husky Odessa comes with us sometimes and she prefers to stand on the bow like a hood ornament, so she could probably hang on a spray deck but I find that generally, the open deck packrafts make better dog boats. Hobbes prefers to be tucked in (this is the self-bailer):
Whether you choose to use a doggie pfd (personal flotation device) is your own choice. Though all of the dogs we have are good swimmers I generally use one for a few reasons: in Hugo’s case, he will swim until he is actively dropping under the water with exhaustion so I keep one on him so he can still float if he gets tired. For Hobbes and Odessa, it protects them if they get launched in rapids and since most good dog pfd’s have a nice handle on the back, it makes it way easier to haul them back into the rafts.
Either way, if you use one make sure to get your dog used to it at home where he can wear it around and get accustomed to how it feels. I would put Hobbes’s pfd on him at home then take him for a walk or play games with him so he’d forget he was even wearing it; now when I take it out, he knows that super fun time is happening and he gets stoked!
We just started taking Hobbes into some rivers and it’s so fun. The same basic principles apply; start small and get your dog used to moving water, and make sure it’s a good time for him.
There’s a little more safety to think about if you’re moving up into any hydraulics. If you’re running anything where you think you or your dog might go for a swim, make sure you know how to self-rescue and try to have a safety boater on hand for dog grabbing, if needed. Find a lake and practice keeping your dog calm and getting him back into the boat from the water in case he goes for a dip.
You can find a lot more specific information out there about training, whitewater safety, and dog first aid, but hopefully this will give you a good foundation for getting out onto the water with your fuzzy best friend, whether you’re chilling in a lake or sending some rapids. The most important thing is to try not to force it, and to make sure that both of you are having a good time!