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I started kayaking with my dog at 16, purely by happenstance. I was on the dock getting into our sit-on-top Pungo kayak when Sophie, our family’s Australian Shepherd, jumped aboard with me. Sophie went up to the front, positioned herself like George Washington crossing the Delaware, looked at me happily, and we were off. All summer, Sophie and I skimmed the lake, picking blackberries, sharing snacks, swimming, and visiting friends. We were hooked.
Since 1992, a lot has changed and the industry has evolved. I used to bring along an extra children’s lifejacket in case I needed to perform a rescue, but now my dog Frances has her very own PFD (personal flotation device) with a sturdy handle and dog-friendly fit. Back in the day, our pets sat on an old beach towel, but now I see people with high-tech dog kayak seats, porthole covers, sunshades, custom-built puppy platforms, and more.
I’ve brought all the best information I’ve gleaned from more than 25 years of kayaking with my dogs (and cats) to bring you this ultimate guide to kayaking with your dog, which includes:
- Easy-to-master training so your dog can be safe on the water and have just as much fun as you do
- Safety tips for what to do if you capsize or your dog jumps in
- The best kayaks currently on the market for dogs
Before you take your dog out for any water-related activity, it’s important to make sure they have the necessary skills and training to be safe.
Ask yourself the following:
- Is my dog at ease on and around the water?
- Can my dog swim? (Not critical if they wear a life jacket, but helpful.)
- Will my dog tolerate a lifejacket or PFD?
- Does my dog follow commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “get in your spot”?
- Is my dog able to ignore exciting distractions, like other kayaks, ducks, seals, floating sticks, or other boats, without jumping in the water and trying to go after them?
If you’re able to say yes to these questions, your dog is a great candidate for kayak life!
Bring your kayak into a neutral space where your dog can check it out. Placing the kayak in a yard or park where your dog can sniff it, walk around it and even play around it, that’s ideal. Kayaking with your dog is great because it’s really fairly simple. If your dog can sit in a car, they can probably learn to go in the kayak in a few minutes to an hour.
Here are some quick tips for getting your dog to love your kayak:
- Hide little treats inside the kayak and let your dog find them.
- Every time your dog goes over to the kayak, praise them and/or give them a treat.
- Sit in the kayak yourself and pet your dog when they come over to say hi.
- Have your dog sit in the kayak while you pet them and/or give them treats and praise.
Once your dog connects the concept of “kayak” with “fun,” you’re ready to move on.
The key commands you’ll use are pretty basic, but on and around the water, you want to make sure your dog knows the steps to safely board and disembark.
Here’s what I practiced with Frankie before we set sail:
“Get in your spot”
I use this to tell Frances to go to her designated space. My kayak is a “sit on top” kayak, so Frances sits or lays down on the front of the kayak where there’s a nice flat space. To practice this, put a familiar blanket or towel where you would like them to ride. You may need to guide your dog the first few times, but once they’re comfy with their spot, you’re golden. You can reinforce this with a “sit” or “stay” when they get to the right place.
This command lets your dog know they can jump out of the kayak if you’re close to shore. It also works for letting your dog know they can jump in and swim. To practice, every time your dog is about to jump out of the kayak, anticipate their move and say, “Okay!” Follow with a treat, pat or praise.
Practice the first two commands several times with your dog, getting them on and off of the kayak (or in and out, if you have cockpits).
This is an important command to ensure that your dog doesn’t get too hooked on something exciting, like a pod of dolphins. Make sure that you’re in control of what grabs their attention and that you’re prepared to break their gaze, if needed, to prevent them from jumping out of the kayak.
Depending on the weather and where you’re kayaking, you may encounter some waves or rough water. When this happens, I give Frankie a very no-nonsense “Lay Down!” I also use this if there’s a huge flock of ducks or seagulls. It lets her know that walking around is no longer an option. When the danger is gone, I pet her and say, “Good girl!” to let her know the coast is clear.
Optional: “Get in the water” / “Get in the boat”
If you want your dog to be able to swim while you’re out and about, you can give them a command that lets them know they can jump in. Just be sure they know how to get back in again. Some medium and larger dogs can pull themselves up out of the water themselves, but if they’re fatigued, they may not be able to. Because of this, I strongly recommend consistently using a lifejacket or PFD with a sturdy handle on the back so you can pull them out.
When it’s time to get back on board, I say, “SUP!” because it’s a command Frances already knows from paddleboarding, but we also use “Get in the boat!” because we use it when we’re boating. To Frankie, “SUP!” means get out of the water and back on board. I always have to pull Frankie back into the kayak. It’s just too slippery for her to do by herself, so the lifejacket handle really helps.
Now that your dog knows the basics, take your kayak down to the water’s edge so you can practice getting in and out of the kayak. Depending on where you are, you may be entering from a beach or off a dock. Always get in the kayak first and don’t push off until you’re both in place. Your presence will reassure your dog while they get used to the sudden movement and strange new feeling of floating.
Don’t be surprised if this step takes a few tries. Lots of dogs jump right out when you push off the first few times. If your dog starts to panic, however, praise them, snuggle them, then try again another day so they don’t associate the kayak with fear and danger.
Beach Entry & Exit
- Have your kayak half-in/half-out of the water, then tell your dog to get in their spot. For sit-on-top kayaks and dog seats, your dog can basically walk it like a plank. For sit-inside kayaks, they may need to jump into their seat from the water. If you don’t want them to be wet while you’re out kayaking, you can always lift them in, but they’ll dry out pretty quickly on the water anyway, so I don’t usually worry about it unless it’s a cold day.
- Make sure you’re both seated and your dog is laying down before you take your paddle and push off. The sudden jolt of launching from the beach is easier to handle if your dog is laying down and you’re there to reassure them.
- Take the kayak out a few feet, paddle in the shallows, then turn around and come back into the beach.
- If you don’t mind your dog jumping in the water, let them know it’s okay to go. If you want them to stay dry, you can get out first, then lift them out and put them on shore. I just let Frances jump out and splash around because she loves it and my Subaru is full of sand anyway!
Dock Entry & Exit
- Bring your kayak to the edge of the dock and get in. Your dog wants to be with you, so if you’re already in the kayak, this will encourage them to take that first step.
- Once in, hold the dock tightly, pulling your kayak right up next to it so there isn’t a gap.
- Tell your dog to get in their spot. For sit-on-top kayaks and dog seats, this is a simple step off the dock directly onto their spot. For sit-inside kayaks, they may have to maneuver a bit to get in.
- Tell your dog to lay down, then push off the dock with your paddle.
- Paddle around near the dock, then turn around and come back.
- Again, sidle up dockside and hold tightly, then let your dog know it’s okay to disembark. They’ll usually leap right out onto the dock, easy-peasy!
It’s nice to have a leash handy, so once you’re both out, you can clip your dog and keep them close. Keep the leash short. You don’t want your dog to be able to jump in the water while they’re on the leash. In the kayak, leashing your dog is dangerous, so just keep the leash for the shore.
I had the great fortune to grow up in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by water. In the picture above, my mom, author MaryAnn F. Kohl, paddles on Lummi Bay while Frances rides shotgun on our Pungo kayak. Our resident volcano, Mt. Baker, stands watch in the background.
Once you’re confident your dog is ready for a longer trip, it’s time to enjoy all that nature has to offer. Our national beaches, lakes, coastlines, and waterways are beautiful and diverse and a true joy to share with your dog. From my experience traveling and being out in nature with Frankie, I have found that our pets—and all animals—enjoy nature as much as we do. We inhabit this earth together and we all take pleasure in the wonder around us.
Because so many of our waterways are home to endangered and protected species, it’s important to make sure you’re safe with your paddles and your pup, so while you enjoy being out and about, keep in mind that it’s our privilege to share the space with plants, mammals, birds, and fish.
Even the best dog can get twitterpated by a seal or a piece of kelp, like Gracie the Dachshund in the video below when she sees a pod of dolphins. This type of thing can happen to anyone, so having a pet-friendly lifejacket is key, as it helps greatly with pulling your dog back out of the water onto the kayak and gives you extra time to rescue them if needed.
- If your dog jumps out of the kayak without permission, keep your voice calm, but firm.
- Tell them to “get in the boat” as you paddle towards them.
- When you get close, lift your paddle so it doesn’t hit them or scare them, then lean over and grab your dog by the lifejacket handle and pull them on board.
- If your dog isn’t wearing a lifejacket, lay down your oar so it won’t fall in the water, then reach down and pull your dog parallel alongside the kayak. Try to calm them a bit by keeping your voice soothing.
- Put your arm across their back and hook around under their front legs so you can get a grip and scoop them back onboard or at least get them high enough out of the water so that they’re able to scramble back on.
Once your dog is back on board, praise them and give them a treat. They’re thinking about how they just barely survived getting out of the water, not about how they jumped off the boat without permission, so reassure them that they did the right thing by coming back to you. Some dogs will be pretty much done with kayaking after this happens. Some will take the lumps and keep going like nothing happened all at.
A flip can happen to the most seasoned kayaker, especially when circumstances conspire against you. One minute, you’re tooling along enjoying the quiet, singing a little song to your dog about blackberries (yes, I’m talking about myself), the next, you’re blindsided by the wake of a speed boat, your dog freaks out, you overcorrect and—sploosh!—everyone goes overboard. This can also happen if you’re trying to pull your dog out of the water back up onto the kayak, so it’s good to be prepared, at least in spirit.
- Find your dog and bring them close to you.
- Swim back to the kayak and keep your dog near, calming them and speaking in a soothing voice like it’s really fun to be in the water together.
- If needed, flip the kayak back over.
- Find your paddle and throw it back in or on the kayak. Try to put it where it won’t just roll off again.
- Put your dog’s paws up on the kayak and push them back onto the boat. Take a breath. Pat your dog and reassure them that everything is fine. They might be nervous that you’re in the water and they’re not. You can also pull yourself up first, then pull your dog out by their lifejacket handle, but I like to know my dog is safely on board so I can stop worrying.
- Pull yourself back into the kayak. This takes a good heave-ho, but having a lifejacket on will increase your buoyancy. I’ve never mastered this move with panache, so I always have to take off my lifejacket, throw it on board, and then pop myself back up by flinging myself across the center and pulling myself up by the far side. (It ain’t pretty, but it does the trick!)
If you can’t pull yourself back into the kayak, swim it over to the dock or beach. If you’re too far away from shore to swim safely, flag down help. If there’s no help available, start kicking!
For a sit-inside kayak, it may be easier to get back in first, then pull your dog aboard. I recommend practicing capsizing in the shallows so you’re prepared if it ever happens for real. You don’t have to throw your dog overboard, just start in chest-deep water with your kayak upside down, bring your dog with you or have them swim out to you, and go through the moves.
If you’re just paddling around and not staying out for long, there’s no need to bring a load of stuff with you, but it’s always helpful to have a ziplock of treats, fresh drinking water, and a bowl, so you’re prepared.
For trips longer than a half-hour, here’s what I bring:
- Lifejacket or PDF. My top item!
- Dog treats in a ziplock or watertight container. Very helpful for calming, reassuring, and distracting your dog.
- Fresh drinking water and a bowl.
- Food in a watertight container and a food bowl if you’re out for the day.
- A leash—never for in the kayak, but very helpful once you’re back on shore.
- Something comfy for your dog to sit on. A folded beach towel is easy and serves two purposes, but you can get as fancy as you want to be with kayak seats and cushions, etc.
- Water-friendly dog toys. Great for playing if your dog likes to swim or for keeping them occupied on board. If you don’t want them to swim, select a toy they don’t associate with fetching.
- Sunscreen, sun balm, doggie goggles/sunglasses, and/or a hat. Dogs can get sunburned, too, especially with light reflecting off the water.
- Basic First Aid Kit
- Bags for scooping le pooping. (Yes, I have seen a dog poop on a kayak! Thankfully, not mine!)
If you’re ready to buy your own kayak, there are a few styles and models that consistently float to the top. A tandem kayak is ideal for paddling with your pet, but there are also single-person kayaks with ample surface space for an animal. So whether you’re headed downstream, across a glassy lake, or down a rocky saltwater coastline, there’s a kayak that’s right for you and your dog.
Here are my top picks for the best dog-friendly kayaks:
Best All-Around Kayak: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two Tandem
The Malibu Two from Ocean Kayak consistently ranks at the top with dog lovers and is the most popular tandem sit-on-top kayak in the world, and for good reason.
The Malibu Two is compact, lightweight, and ideal for both ocean and freshwater kayaking. It easily accommodates up to two adults, as well as a variety of combinations of adults, kids, pups large and small, even cats. I love that the versatile design lets you paddle from the back seat while your dog rides up front with plenty of room to turn around and lay down.
Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, this tandem kayak accommodates all paddlers. It features tri-hull construction, is designed for stability, and is safe for calm waters to moderate waves.
- Large open cockpit designed for two paddlers and one small child or pet
- Two adjustable Comfort Plus seat backs with extra foam padding
- Overlapping foot wells so you can brace your feet comfortably
- Side carrying handles and bow/stern toggle handles for easy transportation
- Gear straps for storage
- Max weight: 425 lbs. Weighs 57 lbs.
Best Bang for Your Buck: Sea Eagle 370 Pro 3-Person Inflatable Kayak
I actually owned this kayak when I lived in New York City and loved it. I brought it back to the Pacific Northwest with me, where it sold for nearly its original price. In five years, it held its value and it’s easy to see why. The Sea Eagle comes with everything you need, from paddles to comfortable seats, and can be set up and inflated in about 10 minutes.
Inflatable kayaks are a favorite with river rafting companies for going down the rapids, so rest assured that this “blow up” boat won’t pop. Another top feature of the Sea Eagle is the ample floor space, which gives you the capacity for three adults. We had family friends borrow this kayak and comfortably go out on the river with two parents, two young kids, a Border Collie, and a Chihuahua.
- Three-person capacity means you, your friend, and your dogs can all get out on the water together
- Suitable for up to Class III whitewater rapids
- Two movable, comfortable Deluxe Kayak Seats
- Two paddles, foot pump, and carry bag
- Open and close drain valve, 5 deluxe 1-way inflation/deflation valves
- Max weight: 650 lbs. Weighs 26 lbs.
Best Inflatable Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Convertible Inflatable Kayak
If you’re worried about your dog’s nails puncturing the kayak, don’t be! The Advanced Frame Convertible Inflatable Kayak has three layers of material for extreme puncture resistance. With enough room to fit two adults and a large dog, there’s plenty of space for everyone, as well as supplies.
What’s really cool about the AdvancedFrame Convertible is that it offers a conversion deck that turns your sit-on-top kayak into a closed hull, which is great for rougher waters since it keeps you much drier. It also acts as a natural platform for your dog to sit on. Win-win!
- Built-in aluminum ribs give it great tracking in the water
- Three layers of material for extreme puncture resistance
- Folds up into its own bag (Folded size 35″ x 21″ x 12″)
- Pre-assembled—just unfold, inflate, and attach the seats
- High support, adjustable padded seats provide comfort for hours of paddling
- Three seat locations allow for paddling solo or tandem
- Max Weight: 550 lbs. Weighs 52 lbs.
Best Single Person Kayak with Room for Pets: Old Town Vapor 10 Kayak
The large cockpit opening of Old Town’s Vapor kayak gives you ample room for your dog, even a larger one, while the back cargo bay is an excellent place to create a nest where your pet can ride in comfort. With its fantastic price point and no-nonsense design, this single person kayak somehow has more usual surface space than much larger tandem models.
- Molded-in cockpit tray with cup holder, a molded-in paddle rest
- Stern (front) day-well for storing gear
- Built-in carry handles, a drain plug, skid plate, and more
- Only 10 feet long and 47 lbs to carry
- Max weight: an impressive 325 lbs
For a fantastic, comparably priced sit-on-top version, check out the Old Town Twister Kayak. It has ample surface space with room for multiple dogs and a single rider. At 11 feet, only 46 lbs, and just $467.49, this is a fantastic choice for beginner to intermediate-level paddlers.
Alright, you’ve read the ultimate guide to kayaking with your dog—now it’s time to get out on the water with your favorite furry friend!