Paddling With Your Pup

patrick-hendry-dog in life vest on boat
Photo credit Patrick Hendry

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.

Contact me for live, online training sessions, or in-person sessions by reputable trainers.

Be sure to review the best practices Guidelines for you and your dog’s safety.

Best Practices Guidelines. 

Is Your Dog Ready to Try SUP PUP?

Firstly, you should learn how to ride a Stand Up Paddle board without a dog on it because it can be tricky to maintain your balance when it’s just you on the board — the added weight and movement of a dog can complicate things significantly.

To determine if your dog is ready to try SUP PUP, you will want to consider a few things:

When you SUP PUP, you will be on a moving Stand Up Paddle board, paddling and trying to stay upright. Does your dog obey your verbal commands for basic manners like SIT, DOWN, and STAY?  Does your dog normally require any sort of hand signal, physical prompt, or coercion or force (e.g. leash corrections, prong collars, etc.) to do the behaviours you ask for?

Is your dog extremely fond of water and has a difficult time resisting the urge to swim?

Does your dog bite at the water a lot? If your dog is ingesting the water, it can pose a health risk, even if the water is clean. Ingesting too much water is life-threatening. 

When your dog is around water, will he/she come to you reliably when you call from 15 ft away?

Does your dog know how to swim? Is your dog physically strong enough to keep its head above water?

Is your dog afraid of water? Is your dog overly cautious about new objects or experiences? Do you want to PUP SUP more than your dog wants to? 

When you are holding a broom, shovel, rake, or other similar object, does your dog try to attack, play with, or run from it?  

Does your dog chase, bark at, or try to grab moving objects? Something floating past the board will look like it’s moving. What about objects that resemble balls? Buoys can look like toys to a dog. Does your dog bark at or chase wildlife? Ducks and geese may seem extra exciting or interesting to a dog floating on a SUP board. 

How does your dog react to strangers or other dogs that are nearby? You don’t want your dog barking its head off at things nearby.  You don’t want your dog jumping off the board to go say hello. You don’t want your dog showing aggression to others nearby, either. If something went wrong, could someone approach to help you or your dog?

Does your dog have an injury or weak/painful joints? Riding a SUP board requires constant balancing and it can be too much for some dogs who do not have the strength/stamina. 

Is your dog a young puppy? Is your puppy’s immune system ready for the water environment (e.g. bacteria, parasites)? Or do you need to take things more slowly and gradually socialize your puppy to the water and the board?

Fearful or unruly behaviour by your dog while on the SUP board will make things unpleasant and dangerous for you, your dog, and others (including wildlife). 

The SUP PUP Prep Training teaches you how to help ensure that your dog is safely enjoying the experience.


SUP PUP: Not for all dogs

Young Puppies: Please do not SUP PUP with young puppies. Puppies are more susceptible to heat stroke, hypothermia, water intoxication/toxicity, drowning, and (depending on their vaccination history and health status) infection from bacteria/parasites that may be present in or near bodies of water.  When appropriate, socialize puppies to the board and to the water in very short sessions (keep an eye on the weather and temperature), but for safety, you must not stand on the board, you should stay along the shoreline in very shallow water (no deeper than the minimum amount to float the board), and use your arms to prevent your puppy from jumping off the SUP board. Do not attach your puppy to the board. Your puppy must be wearing a dog life vest. Do not use a pet carrier on the board.  You  may need a pet carrier if you have to carry your puppy and the SUP board by yourself, but leave the carrier off the board. (A soft-sided one might be able to be safely stowed on your board, but it will get wet.) If your puppy is difficult to manage on the board, train on dryland and wait until your puppy is older before training on the water.

Ill, injured, exhausted, fearful, over-reactive, or un-trained dogs: Do not put your dog’s safety at risk by riding a SUP board, and don’t cause your dog distress. Learn to recognize your dog’s stress signals (especially the subtle ones that humans usually miss). Do not bring your dog if there will be things in the environment that will cause your dog to become overly aroused (due to excitement, fear, frustration, aggression) which may lead to excessive barking, pacing on the board, jumping off the board, redirecting stress towards you or the paddle, etc. You want things to be safe and pleasant for the dog, you, and others on the water (including wildlife). Get the help of a skilled dog professional to help your dog learn to be less sensitive to the things that trigger such an intense reaction. All dogs on a SUP board should have a very reliable recall, especially around water. As well, the dog should be able to perform the following skills reliably while floating on a SUP board: sit, down, stand, stay, and be able to drink water from a container you have brought. (When distressed, your dog may not be comfortable enough to drink water, which can quickly lead to more stress, dehydration, and heatstroke.) Another essential skill you dog needs is Leave It, especially for things that may be floating past, such as other dogs, people, wildlife, sticks, buoys that look like balls/toys.

Should your dog wear a leash while riding on the SUP board?  Weigh the risks carefully. Generally, it’s not a good idea for your dog to be on a leash while riding a SUP board. For training purposes a leash might be appropriate, but always consider the safety implications (for yourself and the dog). The leash may become tangled in the dog’s legs, your legs, and if the leash goes into the water, it may become snagged on things under the water (dragging your dog and perhaps you into the water).  Keep the leash safely stowed on the board (you’ll need it for when you come to shore, and it may be a useful item in case of an emergency on the water). If your dog will not follow commands while off leash, you will need to work on these skills before you SUP with your dog.

SUP PUP: Building Relationships and Improving Behaviours

Stand Up Paddle Boarding with your dog (SUP PUP) can be a fantastic opportunity to bond with your dog, and as a bonus, improve your dog’s behaviours.

  • Build your dog’s confidence by teaching a new skill using positive reinforcement (while avoiding coercion, corrections, pressure)
  • Improve your dog’s ability to show self-control with SUP PUP skills (especially around distractions)
  • Foster a closer bond with your dog as you enjoy the activity together
  • Enrich your dog’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being

You can also book a private SUP PUP playdate for your dog and the instructor. This is a great option for people who are unable to SUP PUP with their dog but want their dogs to have the opportunity.

The gentle, positive, fun SUP PUP training can help shy, timid dogs gain confidence.

For exuberant, lively dogs (especially ones that are overly excited by the water), this SUP PUP training can help build impulse control and manners.

SUP PUP equipment and safety equipment provided. Instructor is CPDT-KA Certified with over 13 years experience in force-free dog training and behaviour modification. Certification in Pet First Aid (with Walks ‘n’ Wags) and Red Cross Standard First Aid/CPR. Paddle Canada Basic SUP Course and over a year of SUP experience.

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