How To Teach Your Dog To Kayak With You

I ran my first river without Alta this summer. No, Alta isn’t the name of a well-loved boat—Alta was my dog. And my long-time boating partner.

Yes, I taught my 100-pound dog how to kayak with me. In my single inflatable kayak.

I met Alta at the pound outside of Missoula, Montana, in the winter of 2009. She was three years old, and huge. Her papers listed her as a lab/husky/shepherd, which is code for “giant mutt.” She refused to leave my side from the moment I adopted her.

She became my favorite adventure buddy. She ran trails and backcountry skied with me. So, come summer, I figured she’d love running rivers with me. After many comical tries, we got a system worked out. I rarely left her at home for a river trip after that. She perched in the stern, strapped into her extra-large doggy PFD running rapids like a champ, our overnight gear crammed into the bow, me folded in the middle. She’d reach her long neck to rest her head on my thigh in lazy flat water with her tail floating off the back like a rudder. Nights at camp, she’d stretch out next to me to watch the stars come out until we’d settle into the two-person backpacking tent I bought to fit both of us. I loved waking up on the banks of a river next to her warm bulk, when she rolled into my arms for our morning cuddle session.

Being back on the water, after her passing last winter, made her absence feel fresh all over again. I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder for her furry bulk, feeling a stab of loss each time I remembered the back of the boat was empty.

I keep those times in the kayak with Alta close to my heart. And, if you’re wondering, How can I take MY dog boating with me? Let me share some tips. It may come as a shocker, but it turns out that getting a confused 100-pound dog in the back of a tiny rubber boat is no small task.*

*It’s worth noting that this will only work if your dog has serious separation anxiety and will do literally anything to be right next to you.

1. Ensure there are plenty of onlookers to observe the ensuing hilarity.

Hilarious for them, let’s be clear, not me. And Alta wasn’t amused either, as far as I could tell.

2. Strap her into a PFD.

Alta swam better than some fish, but I thought the handle on the back of the doggy PFD would be handy for pulling her back into the boat when she jumped out. Turns out the handle was superfluous, since it’s logistically impossible to haul a giant soaking-wet dog into a small rubber ducky.

3. Coax her into the boat.

Alta could not figure this one out. Standing knee-deep in the water, she’d put her front feet on the tubes and look at me incredulously. I patted encouragingly at the floor of the boat, and when that didn’t yield results, patted harder and pitched my voice higher. She jumped in and sat right in the middle, so I patted the back of the boat, which caused her to bail in total confusion. We repeated this approximately 76 times until she was perched uncertainly in the stern.

4. Stay as close to river center as possible to avoid unpredictable flying leaps for solid ground.

Alta was ready to bolt at any given moment. She’d send the little ducky spinning with her explosions for land, leaving me rushing to the next step:

5. Chase dog down riverbank trying to convince her to get back in the boat.

I can still see the expression on Alta’s face at this point that so clearly said, “Mom, this is stupid. Why would I ride in that completely unacceptable vessel when I can obviously run right next to it?” This is when, in an example of a model dog owner, I paddled away to exploit her separation anxiety until she frantically jumped back in the stern next time I approached shore.

6. Troubleshoot. 

I realized Alta hated wet paws, so I installed my old Thermarest behind my seat (which makes no sense whatsoever, because this dog would routinely lay down in shallow water and just sit there). For her part, Alta finally realized that boating was actually mobile squirrel watching. #winning in dog culture.

Last spring, after countless river trips together, I learned that Alta had cancer, a difficult-to-remove tumor on her liver slowly eating away at her lifespan. I’d known for months that we were on borrowed time, but I still wasn’t prepared for this. I lost Alta last November as winter set in, eight years after the day we met.

She let me know when she was ready. She’d held out hard for me over those last months, and she went down fast. We said goodbye in the same house I brought her home to all those years ago, a beautiful closing of the loop of all the other places we lived in between, the rivers we’d run, the sunsets we’d watched reflected in their waters. Her body sank into her bones, and she looked into my eyes until hers slipped closed.

A week later, I retraced the familiar steps of our daily walk to the creek, which had been the site of one of our early kayaking adventures. I stood on the banks of her favorite swimming hole and scattered her ashes into the water she’d loved so much.

I miss Alta every day. And I like to think some part of her is still riding in the back of my boat, keeping me company on the current and watching for squirrels with a smile on her big face.