Kayaking with your dog can be smooth sailing

    Updated Oct 15, 2011

Water provided a respite from the relentless heat this summer for my dog and me. We learned to kayak together.

Yes, she rides in the kayak, a two-person model since she's about 60 pounds, the size of a small child. No, she does not help propel the boat, not even by doggie paddling.

Ginger likes sitting in water when she's hot, and she loves walking around Lady Bird Lake. But she's nervous in new situations and shuts down when really scared or panicked (I call this dazed look "Ginger has left the building"). How she would react to our first water excursion was unclear.

I decided to give it a try, though, after our walks were shortened by temperatures that had reached surface-of-the-sun territory. The Canine Center for Training and Behavior offered classes through the Texas Rowing Center. I'm a longtime client of the canine center, and I love activities with Ginger that aren't traditionally dog oriented.

"The first time I went kayaking with my dog I was able to put together two things I really enjoy in life, getting out on the water and spending time with my dog," says Jess Forte, a trainer and dog tutor at the canine center who teaches the kayak classes. "Being able to do this in a group setting allows for great social experiences for the dogs."

Having the safety net of a professional dog person around was good for my nerves, too. The thing I most worried about — Ginger falling into deep water — happened on our second outing. It was hot, even on the water, and I could tell she was getting uncomfortable. Ginger is used to sitting in baby pools and the edges of lakes. Before I could react, she suddenly stepped off the boat — and into the unknown when she didn't hit solid ground.

My dog can swim. Because of her tendency to panic, I had her in a dog life jacket (Forte recommends having any dog on the water in a life vest or at least a harness). Besides helping her float as she frantically dog paddled toward shore, the vest served a second purpose: The handle makes hauling a big wet dog back into a boat much easier.

I grabbed the leash hooked to the vest. A little maneuvering to get her alongside the kayak, and a lot of leaning in the opposite direction by me and coaching from the trainer, and I soon had my now much cooler dog back in the kayak. I was proud of myself for staying calm and being fit enough for the task, and of her for not shutting down afterward (cheese helps).

Forte says anyone can kayak with a dog. "Some dogs may need some basic training to learn how to work around people and dogs," she says, "but once this is done anyone can and should try kayaking with their dog no matter how big or small their dog is."

Some other things to consider, based on my experiences and input from Forte:

"For the people, having familiarity with a kayak is good but not needed," Forte says. "For the dogs, having some balance as well as basic skills such as a sit-stay are very beneficial." Ginger does agility training, which has made her more sure on her feet, and I've been kayaking for several summers in Austin. It is good to be comfortable enough on the water yourself that you can focus on the dog.

Take a bath mat, yoga mat or something like it to put in the kayak so the dog doesn't slip on the smooth surface of the boat.

Bring plenty of dogs treats, plus water and a bowl for your dog if you don't think she'll drink from the lake.

Look for a place to pull over and let your dog out part-way through your paddle. The dog can swim a little, go to the bathroom, just get a break.

Some dogs will face their people, rather than looking out, if nervous. Ginger mostly faced me the first few times we went out, with a few moments of bravery. But on our last trip, she got all the way on her mat in the front of the boat, facing the water and taking in the sights. It was a lovely, peaceful experience I plan to repeat.

Ready to row?

The Canine Center for Training and Behavior's next kayaking with your dog class is scheduled for Oct. 23. Go to www.morefunthandirt.com for more information.

Kayaks are for rent on Lady Bird Lake through the Texas Rowing Center (www.texasrowingcenter.com), the Rowing Dock (www.rowingdock.com) and Zilker Park Boat Rentals (www.zilkerboats.com)

New pet column

Today marks the debut of an occasional pet column by Entertainment Editor Sharon Chapman, proud owner of Ginger, the dog, and Mr. Pink, the cat. Sharon will write about adventures with Ginger as well as share stories, information and tips related to raising pets — especially our beloved dogs — in Central Texas.