#Tipstuesday How to train your dog in a canoe

It’s #tipstuesday and our very own Bearded Portager is here with some tips on how to make your pup and canoe besties.


Let me start by saying this is obviously not the only way to accomplish this. This is just the method I used to train my last 2 dogs (a chocolate lab and golden retriever) to be my canoe buddies and it has worked GREAT!

I am no dog trainer but I have learned a lot training my dogs over the years and the one thing a professional trainer said that has always stayed with me is that “it is far easier to teach your dog what you want it to do rather then yell at it for what you don’t want it to do”. This is actually a very profound statement. I mean think about it; a puppy is going to do almost exclusively things you don’t want it to do (just like kids) so if you keep yelling “Callie no, Callie NO” then when you go to try and teach your dog to say, recall off leash, the moment it hears its name it will be conditioned to think it is in trouble. In the beginning be sure that everytime you say your dogs name it is in a positive way and praise it! Correct negative behaviors by either giving it a “sit, down, stay” command or if you’re like me and always had a leash on your puppy you can correct it silently by guiding it away from the behavior with the leash. It doesn’t always have to be a treat for positive reinforcement either. You can use the dogs favourite toy as a reward as well for when it accomplishes a command properly. I have always had retrievers so finding a preferred toy they love to chase and bring back or play tug of war with was always a good substitute but lets be honest, retrievers are very food driven so that was my default.  I truly believe the way to train your dog is through positive reinforcement. Sure, you can probably get similar results with fear based or negative tactics but all it takes is one instance of this going wrong and you might never recover your dogs trust.

To start off make sure you participate in a puppy training class with your dog as soon as they are able to. This not only socializes them with other dogs and other owners but, depending on the skill of the trainer, teaches you how to use a positive reinforcement approach. If you don’t have the time or money then simply go to youtube and watch some videos on positive reinforcement and make sure you master the “sit, down, stay and come” commands with your pup. With all training at a very young age I find the best approach is to use your dogs kibble as treats. That way even first thing in the morning when they seem to have unending energy they will still be motivated and they wont be overeating with meals PLUS treats. This also accomplishes the goal of saving “higher value treats” (like liver, bacon, etc) for situations that your dog is struggling with and needs more motivation. Be consistent with your training and start as soon as they are comfortable with you in your home. I spent 15 minutes every morning and night for 6 months, no matter what, working on commands and behaviors I wanted and I feel very fortunate to say that I had people asking ME if they could look after my dog when I went on vacations, not the other way around. 

The approaches mentioned here are amazingly transferable and can be used to acclimatize your dog to everything from the vacuum to riding in the car. If you think about the goal of each step, it is very easy to apply it to any situation you can think of but for the sake of this we will keep it to the canoe. And remember, don’t force the dog through any of these steps! Use a logical approach to make sure increases in comfort with the canoe are on the dogs terms otherwise, as mentioned above, it only takes one negative interaction to ruin weeks of work. In order to complete each step your dog must be able to follow your commands in a calm and settled way as our end goal is to be on the water in a tippy boat so we need a calm dog at all times. 


I began with my canoe outside in my back yard but this can also be done in the garage, shed, basement or wherever you store your canoe. I then simply had my dog on leash and allowed her to approach the canoe as far as she would naturally. Once she stopped say 5 feet from the canoe and did her puppy downward dog bark thing I simply encouraged her to move a few feet closer with a treat. Once she was close enough to almost touch the canoe with her nose I then placed treats on the gunnel, so if she wanted the treat she had to touch the canoe.

Now with my other dog he was not as brave and I had to up the reward so I stuck some peanut butter to the side of the canoe as this was his favourite treat and I knew he would get to it and lick it off, which he did.

Now your dog may sail through this step or start to get nervous before they are even close to it but the goal here is safe and incremental increases in comfort with simply being as close to the canoe as possible in a calm and ok way. Even if they lie down and chew on their favourite toy beside it with their butt touching it, that’s great!


The next step in the process is for you to get in the canoe while the dog is still on the outside. Again each dog will be very different with this step but the goal is to show the dog that you think the canoe is not only a safe environment, but that the dog should want to be in that environment with you!

Funny enough, my lab who was the most scared of even seeing the canoe flew through this step. We had built such a positive relationship up to that point that he just wanted to be where I was and he jumped right in. So, because I had mastered my commends I had him sit, lie down, sit, lie down, etc over and over again and gave him a treat each time. The goal here is to increase the time between command and reward. So I’d make him sit ,give him a treat; make him lie down, wait 5 seconds then give him a treat. Every few times I’d up the time until he was all treated out and wanted to do something else. But I got him up to almost 30 seconds between command and reward on the first try! A puppy only has so much attention span so when they are done with the drill, they are done. Whether you get 5 minutes or fifteen minutes, take what you can get and pretty soon in all these steps they will become more motivated as you’ve created a positive learning environment.

Increasing the time between command and reward is fundamental in dog training as eventually they can hold a command for 20 minutes before a reward is given, and at that stage sometimes just a pet on the head and a ‘good boy’ is a treat for your dog. 

Now if your dog doesn’t jump in the goal would be to have them comfortable performing sit, down commands on the outside of the canoe while you are in it. What this does is now makes the canoe also a place where the dog should listen to you, not just the same living room or backyard you’ve always trained them in up to this point. As mentioned, we want these skills to be transferable to all environments and all situations.


Up until now it is relatively easy to work your way up from your dogs starting point to the end goal but this is a very crucial step. As I said above my lab was great, my golden was and is a far more skittish. 

What I suggest is picking your dog up and incrementally working towards stepping into the canoe and sitting down with the dog in your arms (I am assuming they are a puppy but if they are a full grown 80 lb dog, you are going to have to coax them to jump into the canoe with a high value treat). It is very important to read your dogs cues to know when you have reached their starting point. It could be when you pick them up and simply move towards the canoe, it could be your first step in, it could be that the dog is fine with you standing while holding them in the canoe but when you go to sit down the shaking or ‘leap out of your arms’ instinct kicks in. Regardless, we use the same principles of finding where your dog starts to get fearful and making that a positive experience to move that “scared” point closer and closer to our goal.  

Once we can sit down with them in our arms and its no big deal, now we need to get them on the canoe floor and be comfortable there. Again, move to putting them down incrementally and take whatever your dog will give you. I suggest having some high value treats for this as the feel of the canoe floor, the side walls around them and the instinct to jump out onto solid, familiar ground will be high. Remember, we want as little negative setbacks as possible so it is important to set your dog up for success! 

Once we get them ok with being out of our arms and on the floor of the canoe we go through the same sit, down process described above with my lab. Increasing the time between command and reward and making it a positive experience.


Ok so now our dog is not only comfortable in the canoe but also comfortable following commands in this environment. Now we need to introduce some common things that happen in a canoe, but not on the water where things can go south quick. 

To start I would pack a kong full of treats and leave my dog in the canoe while I put my pack in, slid my paddle in, attached my thwart bag, etc. You know, common loading a canoe things. Next we can sit in the canoe with the dog and gently rock it back and forth. Start with very small rocking motions!! If I rocked the canoe more then an inch in the beginning with my golden it got her attention but my lab was so food driven we could have been in a hurricane and with enough kibble and peanut butter he would have rode it out with me while wagging his tail. The goal is to simulate the environment of being in and around a canoe on a real trip and have the dog be comfortable. 

As with every other step so far, now we introduce “sit, down, stay” commands while doing this. I’ve seen more people with their dogs in canoes get all loaded up, get the dog in, start to push off and jump in right as the dog jumps out onto the shore. The stay command is the most important at this stage, so make sure you practice in in conjunction with “sit, down”. 


At this stage we want to simulate as close as possible every aspect we can of what the dog will actually be experiencing while canoeing with us. This not only applies to what packs will be in the canoe, getting the dog use to our paddle, our fishing rod, etc but also what the dog will be wearing ie life jacket, rain coat, warming coat, etc.

I’m Canadian and we don’t have the longest canoe season so my first trip is as soon as the ice is off the lakes in May and my last trip is usually sometime in November. While it may not seem like a big deal to dump your canoe in August, it’s a life or death situation in the shoulder seasons when the water and air temp are colder. Just like me, my dog ALWAYS wears a PFD and a lot of the time a rain jacket or warming coat. All of these things can actually help you in this training, especially the life jacket because you are smart and you’re both going to be wearing one, right? Even if you don’t think you’re dog needs a PFD (which I will emphatically say you’re wrong if you think that)  I found with both my dogs the life jacket actually functioned like a thunder/anxiety jacket (if you don’t know what this is, Google it and you’ll understand why this is a benefit.)

My golden is still a little more restless without her life jacket but as soon as the put it on her she calms right now and is very complacent.

Take some time to think about anything that you can simulate on dry land that the dog may experience in the canoe.


It is imperative that you and your dog are 100% satisfied with the completion of the steps above before actually getting into the canoe on the water. As much as we’ve tried, there is nothing like a real canoe on the water. Also, it is NEVER a good idea to leash your dog in the canoe as heaven forbid if it flipped and the dog was attached to it…well, I’m am sure you can imagine how many things could go wrong. This is also the reason your dog should always have a PFD; if you tip and you’re trying to deep-water rescue your canoe, gather floating gear, are far from shore, etc. then atleast you don’t have to worry about you dog panicking and getting exhausted because they will be floating. 

I suggest the first time out you put some gear weight in the canoe as this accomplishes 2 things: 1) A canoe with gear is far less tippy then an empty canoe and 2) It will confine your dog to his/her pre determined space. A wide open canoe means the dog may want to explore, jumping over thwarts and putting paws up on gunnels and this we don’t want.

Now its as simple as repeating all of the steps above, but with the canoe just floating in water but close enough to the shore/dock that if it goes awry you can both abort and if you tip, well atleast you only have wet gear in 3 feet of water, not at the bottom of the lake. 

As you will see its at this point that we really see the reward of teaching our dog to sit and stay in the canoe in a calm way for an extended period of time.

Once you can make it through the steps above, a paddle out on the water should be a breeze and the little things that pop up on the water that need to be smoothed out should be easy as we now have the tools to work our way through it. 

However there are 2 X factors that I encountered that the dog hadn’t been exposed to but if you’ve been working with your dog at home the skills should be transferable. 

  1. Waterfowl – I always trained my dogs to ignore squirrels and other animals while out in the woods or walking the neighborhood unless I said it was ok for them to go investigate. This especially comes into to play when that loon decides to surface only a few feet from the canoe. If your dog is use to chasing these things then they might just decide to jump overboard. 
  1. Catching fish – At home I would practice making my dogs sit, I’d move far away and then throw treats and things on the ground and train them not to go for it until I said it was ok. This paid off huge the first time I brought in a lake trout and my lab wanted to get it at all costs but knew he couldn’t unless I said it was ok. Now imagine being in a canoe with a flailing fish and a treble hook embedded in a dogs lip. Not a good situation.

As a side note, once your dog is close to full grown (or earlier if you can afford to buy multiple packs in the dogs first few years of life) I would train it to wear its own pack. There are many articles out there in the backpacking world that discuss the physical training of the dog to be able to carry its own pack but it is worth it! My dog carries her own food, treats, bowl, leash, collar, coats and sleeping mat. If it’s a cold weather trip (she also winter camps with me) then I will carry her sleeping bag and extra clothing.  As a general rule of thumb, depending on the dogs age and fitness level, is that it carries no more then 10-15% of its body weight in gear. Plus a dog with a backpack is cute as hell. 

I am sure you already know this but if not google search “Dog First Aid Kit”. There are many drugs a dog can take that we humans already have in our first aid kits (like benedryl) but its good to know dosage information and the few dog specific things that should be brought on a trip into the wilderness with our pups to make it as safe and comfortable for them as we can. They are relying on you to keep them safe and comfortable, and that takes a little extra work and more gear, but if you’re like me it’s worth it to have your best friend out in the woods!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. And while it is certainly not an exhaustive guide on how to train your dog in a canoe, I hope the skills and approaches discussed here give you the tools to be able to work through any and all situations that could arise while training your best buddy to be not only your canoe companion, but the best tent/campfire guest around. After all, I even trained my golden to sleep in her own hammock as tents are the devil and why shouldn’t she be able to experience hangers bliss, right?


Paddle In

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