NOTE: Training a dog to ride the paddle craft is only one half of the instruction. Managing the added weight and sudden weight shifts of a dog on the craft requires a fair bit of skill, so be sure to seek paddling instruction from a qualified paddle instructor.
Safety should be the first priority in the training. It is essential that you have appropriate water safety equipment, including a dog life vest, and begin with dryland training. Be sure to understand the risks to your dog such as drowning, heat stroke, hypothermia, shock, and water intoxication/salt water toxicity. (It would be a good idea to take a pet first aid course, as well.) Depending on your location, there may be other safety considerations to be aware of, such as water hazards and contaminants, wildlife in the area, and government regulations pertaining to operating a paddle craft.
An unruly dog can endanger itself and others, so your dog’s training should include proofing off-leash skills like Come, Stay, and Leave It. However, before you can train and proof effectively, it’s essential your dog is enjoying the experience and is under threshold. When a dog’s nervous system becomes overstimulated, behaviours degrade and the ability to respond to commands weakens, which many people interpret as disobedience. It’s very helpful to use training methods and equipment that focus on positive reinforcement because aversive methods that suppress or “correct” behaviours can increase stress and mask how the dog is feeling. Too much stress — both eustress and distress—can cause dogs to be less tolerant of weather, physical exertion, and emotional stressors. This can be a health risk, such as an increased susceptibility to shock. Paddling involves equipment and experiences in an environment that can be highly stimulating for dogs, so you need to be able to recognize canine stress signals. and be cautious about overwhelming a dog’s nervous system. Sometimes it can appear that the dog is “fine”, but the dog has actually begun to “shut down” or exhibit learned helplessness, a state of extreme distress.
Some dogs are ill-suited for coming along with you on a paddle. For example, dogs that are fearful of strangers, dogs with over-reactive behaviours, and dogs that are obsessed with water or wildlife could be difficult to manage and be a safety risk to you and others. As well, some dogs do not have the strength to balance on the craft or climb onto the craft from the water, and weather conditions can be dangerous for brachycephalic breeds and dogs that are small, very young, very old, or in poor health.
Dryland Training is an Essential First Step:
Begin by conditioning a positive emotional response to the equipment. Introduce the paddle craft in a low-distraction environment where the dog is very comfortable (e.g. living room or backyard). Place the craft on the floor/ground in such a way that it won’t wobble when the dog touches it, and then let the dog investigate it. If the dog is cautious about approaching it, you may want to leave it out for a few days to let the dog habituate to it. Avoid coaxing or luring a cautious dog near or onto the craft because this might cause the dog to be much closer to the scary thing than the dog wants to be. You’ll also want to condition a positive emotional response to the paddle and the dog’s life vest, but do these separately before combining them.
When the dog is showing a positive emotional response to the craft, it’s time to begin training the dog to step onto it. Remember to be generous with reinforcements at the early stages of teaching a new skill, and divide the behaviour into small steps that the dog finds very easy to do, for example, moving towards the craft, touching it, two paws on it, then fully onto the craft. The dog should be “getting it right” at least 80% of the time to ensure that the dog is finding the experience positive. Some less-resilient dogs require a higher success rate to maintain the confidence to keep trying, so the steps might need to be smaller.
Insert 30-second breaks every couple minutes to test if the dog wants to continue to train and to allow the dog’s nervous system to calm itself. The dog might stop and scratch, sniff around the room, or exhibit other displacement behaviours, and this could be an indication that it’s time to modify or end the training session. Resume the session only if the dog wants to continue and is under threshold. Several short sessions are more effective than one long session, so keep training sessions brief. If the dog seems more amped up each subsequent training session, adapt the sessions to be less intense for the dog; for example, you may want to modify your voice and body to convey calm happiness, and to insert mini-breaks before the dog’s nervous system becomes too aroused.
The remaining steps for dryland training involve gradually building duration and adding distractions to simulate what the dog will experience on the water. After mastering the skills at home and in the yard, the dog should be ready for dryland training in a slightly more difficult environment.
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Be sure to review the best practices Guidelines for you and your dog’s safety.