Canoeing with Dogs

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A shorter version was originally published at the now defunct Dogs In Canada online.




The gentle movement of paddles breaks the water’s calm on the tranquil, sunny day. In the lone canoe, a man and woman make their way across the horizon. Their dog is fast asleep, the gliding of the boat gently swaying him. Birds, periodically flying overhead, are the only sounds causing him to open his eyes.


Tucker, an eight-year-old golden retriever, joins his human parents on their canoeing trips. The popular pastime has been a part of Sherry and Bart’s recreational life for ten years. Being mellow, Tucker took to canoeing easily. When he travelled with them as a pup, he always settled right away in the bow. Now at his full size, he lies down in the stern where there is more room.

Many dogs are comfortable in a canoe once they become used to its motion. In depth training may not be necessary. Teaching the animal to stay in the unsteady boat while it’s on land is one way to get him used to it. Another method is to start at the water’s edge where one person can hold the boat still while the other person positions the dog in it. Enticing a pet with a treat can be helpful in either case.


Tia, Nancy and Bob’s seven-year-old West Highland white terrier (Westie), has been included on most of her family’s canoeing trips. On her first excursion, she jumped out of the boat. Her shock was immediate when she hit the cold water. Considering the May weather was chilly and windy, they had to stop at an island to let Tia run so she could warm up.

A calm animal helps keep the canoe steady as any movement can cause it to become unstable and even dump. The size of dog also makes a difference. Tia, at eight kg (17 lb), shifts the balance less than the 36 kg (80 lb) Tucker. There are canoes designed to be more stable and having one fully loaded increases its stability. No matter what the contents are or how the canoe is built, 99% get swamped close to shore because of an excited dog that is eager to land.


Nancy keeps Tia outfitted in a life jacket during the time spent in the canoe. Although Tia can swim, she doesn’t have the endurance Tucker has. Nancy also likes that doggy life jackets come with a handle on the back, making it easier to grab Tia out of the water if she falls or jumps in.

Whereas wearing a life jacket can keep a dog safe in the water, attaching a leash can keep him safe on land. Letting a dog loose is only advisable if he has excellent call-back, as some canines are prone to chase porcupines, skunks, bears or other wildlife.

One incident occurred where a Yorkshire terrier, which teenagers had brought car camping in Algonquin Park, had taken off and gotten lost. Three weeks later canoeists found the small terrier swimming in one of the lakes. Amazingly, he had survived, albeit barely. A happy ending was realized when a vet was able to fix him up. Some endings, however, are not always so fortunate. Lost pets not only can get seriously hurt, but can become prey for other animals.

Parasites and Bacteria

Other perils to be aware of in the backwoods include parasites and bacteria that can lead to sickness, such as leptospirosis (lepto), a bacterial disease. A dog can contract it when he drinks from a contaminated outdoor water sources.

Tucker is offered filtered water, but would have already satisfied his thirst from the lake they had been travelling on. Bart makes sure Tucker has the lepto vaccination—though it only covers a few strains of the bacteria. And he realizes Tucker could pick up something else from a lake or river such as giardiasis—an infection by the Guardia parasite.

All Tucker’s usual vaccines are up-to-date by the time they reach the backwoods, including the recommended heartworm vaccine, which protects dogs from the serious heartworm infection that can be contracted from infected mosquitoes.

A well stocked first-aid kit for any minor injuries is always included in the family’s baggage.

Finding the appropriate bug repellent is important as some dogs will lick it off themselves and become sick as a result. Nancy uses citronella on Tia. Spraying repellent on a bandana worn by a dog can help minimize bites.


Keeping the load as light as possible is always a challenge for canoeists. One way is that they can easily condense their food given the wide variety available (such as freeze-dried). In comparison, the choices in dog food are limited. Dry is preferable since it is lighter than canned. Tucker carries some of his own provisions in his doggy backpack, with Sherry and Bart carrying the rest so that Tucker isn’t overloaded.

Renting vs. Owning

Sherry and Bart rent a canoe for their outdoor excursions. They’ve never had a problem being allowed to have Tucker along. Nancy and Bob own a canoe, but have to be careful with the cabins they rent, since sometimes dogs aren’t allowed in them.

Dogs love to be with their family and typically love the outdoors, whether they are in the northern wilderness or canoeing on a river running through town. Each couple—Sherry and Bart, Nancy and Bob—have had their trips enhanced from the addition of their family pet. With careful planning, anyone who loves canoeing need not leave his four-legged friend at home.

For Further Topic Related Reading 

 (c) Cheryl Smyth, 2008

This article is dedicated to Tia, who is now struggling with cancer. She has been a joy and an awesome travel companion to Nancy and Bob. June 2014

Photo©Gary McGuffin




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