By Damon Bungard
Kayaking with your dog is great way to spend time outside, cooling off on hot summer days, and getting some bonding time with your dog. But, there are few factors to keep in mind in both kayak selection and training that will help both you and your dog have a safe, fun experience and want to keep going back for more. So hop on board, and let’s take a ride.
- Choosing The Right Kayak Shape
I’ve been a professional kayaker and designing kayaks for a long time – in fact it’s my job as Product Manager at Jackson Kayak. Just like when training a dog, or taking a child on their first camping trip, you want the first experience for both you and the dog to be a pleasant one, which translates to one you want to repeat.
A lot of that boils down to kayak selection and using the right tool for the job at hand. Not all kayaks are created equal, and certain design factors make some kayaks far better for paddling with your dog than others. Just like all guns aren’t created equal – would you hunt quail with a rifle? No, so let’s start with choosing the right kayak for the job.
Kayaks, like dogs, come in all shapes and sizes. In general length equates to speed – Short is slow, long is fast. Width equates to stability – Narrow is unstable and easy to flip, wide is stable and hard to flip. To counter that, width also sacrifices speed, so wider kayaks are also slower than narrow kayaks. The last big factor is hull shape, notable what we call ‘rocker’ and keel shape. Think of rocker like the arc of a banana. A kayak with a lot of rocker has a highly arced hull when viewed from the side, is banana shaped, which means it’s easy for that kayak to turn. A flat hull with low rocker, tracks better, or tends to go straight easier, and is harder to turn. Whitewater kayaks tend to have a lot of rocker because they are made to run difficult rapids and need to turn on a dime, but they’ll drive you, a novice kayaker, trying to paddle straight on a lake. Sea kayaks, touring, and fishing kayaks tend to have low rocker, and track better, because they are made to efficiently go in a straight line from point A to point B.
So what does that all mean for what makes a ‘good kayak’ for paddling with your dog? Since that generally means flat or slowly moving water, kayaks in the 10-14 ft range usually fit the bill for length. The sweet spot for most people is around 12.5’.
As for width, having the added weight of a dog, and expecting that weight to shift as the dog moves, means more stability is favorable to deal with that shifting load. 30-36” widths can generally handle those load variations, with the sweet spot being around 34”-35”.
Lastly, rocker and hull shape. Since we’re most likely to be on flatwater, look for a kayak with a pronounced keel line (ridge along the bottom), and avoid flat bottomed hulls.
- Choosing The Right Kayak Hull Style
The next big question to ask yourself is what style of kayak do you like – Sit Inside or Sit on Top. There’s no right or wrong, and a lot of that just boils down to personal preferences. Sit Inside kayaks are more like canoes, with an open cockpit. You sit down in them and seats tend to be at or below the water line. Because of that lower center of gravity, they are more stable at a given width than an equally wide sit on top would be. A lot of people just feel more secure in a sit inside, and feel like they’ll fall off a sit on top. A lot of people like sit insides because the cockpit rim tends to keep gear and dogs inside the kayak. They also tend to be lighter than sit on tops. The downside is any water inside stays inside and cannot self-bail. It must be dumped or sponged out. You can flood a sit in kayak, just like a canoe if you take on too much water. Because of this they are best suited to flat water.
Sit on Tops on the other are just that, one complete shell of deck and hull. You sit on top of the deck, so have a higher center of gravity. There will be tunnels molded in from the deck to the hull call scuppers. Those scuppers let any water that collects on the deck to run through the kayak, so no water gets inside the body of the kayak. Many people prefer this, particularly if things like breaking waves or beach launches are involved.
I personally like a use both depending on what I’m doing. My personal preferences are sit inside designs, like our Kilroy models.
- Choosing The Right Kayak Features
This is a big one and where a lot of bad choices are made that can really impact your paddling experience. First are foremost – there needs to be space for the dog to be, and sit comfortably. If the dog can’t comfortably remain in one place, the paddler will not only be fighting shifting weight, but runs the risk of the dog interfering with the paddle stroke, trying to jump out, or worst, capsizing.
A lot of kayaks have big footrests or hatches or other features between your legs or in front of your feet. That is ok for lone paddlers who often use these areas for gear storage and access, but that clutter is just in the way for your dog. Look for models with large open areas either behind the seat, or in front of your feet so the dog has a place to be, that’s out of your way and clear of your natural paddle stroke. Ideally, the kayak will have an open are both behind you and in front, and the dog can be trained to use either.
Look at floor shape. You want flat areas where the dog will be. A lot of dogs will naturally gravitate to the bow of a kayak as it moves forward. If that area is arced and slippery, it’s easy for them to slip and fall off. If it’s flat or concave, they can stand or sit there more comfortably.
It’s not a big deal on our 12lb dachshund Tripper, but with any dog over 30 lbs its very notable when they shift around.
Next, look for traction aids, either built in in the form of foam padding, highly textured surfaces, or accessories available on the market or from home. Plastic is slippery, and dogs tend to get uncomfortable when they slip and slide on a foreign surface like plastic. Having some traction under foot really calms them down. I like built in foam paddling on the deck surface, or adding Dri-Dek tiles to their area. Worst case, lay down a towel, but they tend to get wet and muddy pretty quick.
Another big feature factor is the seat style. Look for a seat that can more fore and aft, and shift depending on where and if you have a dog with you. A key thing with kayak performance is ‘trim’ and that means how level the kayak sits on the water when loaded. A small 10-15 lb doesn’t have much impact on trim, but a big 75 lb lab very much does. Being able to move the seat really helps balance the load and keep the kayaks paddling characteristics where they were intended to be, help keep the dog comfortable, and help you use your energy efficiently.
So there are some guidelines to help you shop around for a good kayak for your needs. You’ll notice I’ve avoided talking about pricing, and that’s because we all have our own budgets and needs. Prices can vary widely between the used and new kayak market, from $300-$3000 or more. For a new, quality, US-made kayak that will last you and your dog a long time and many adventures, I’d expect to pay from $700-$1400 depending on the specific style and features you want. If you want to spend some time kayak fishing either with or without your dog, expect to pay more for those added features, but many fishing kayaks will have the key design aspects I’ve pointed out here already built in, like traction aids, moveable seats, and stable hulls.
From our Jackson Kayak line, models like the Tripper, Tupelo, Bite, and Kilroy family fit the bill as my personal favorites for adventures with our dogs, whether cruising the lake, fly fishing or hunting. In July Jackson Kayak launched the new Kilroy HD and Yu’Pik, two models specifically made for a variety of outdoor adventures, including paddling with your dog, and they even accept the Orion Kennel cots as a forward seating position.
Kayaking With Dogs – Three Skills of Paddling Dogs
Now that we’ve talked about kayaks, let’s talk a little about good skills for all adventure dogs that will also help you getting to, on and from the water.
- Sit / Stay
Sit and Stay are some of the basic obedience commands and helpful in so many aspects of life, but they are key in so many ways for safe, fun kayaking experiences. If your dog can remain under control and out of the way when loading and unloading kayaks from your vehicle, they won’t get hurt. If they can stay in one spot in the kayak and not move and walk all over the place, you’ll have a better paddling experience, they will to, and want to keep coming back for more.
- Calm Around Wildlife
One of the best aspects of kayaking is the intimate interaction with nature. Instead of boats where we’re often detached from the water and surroundings, kayaks are intimate with the water, quiet, and you’re just ‘down in it more.’ A lot of wildlife just isn’t spooked by a kayaker, and you can often get far closer than you could one foot. But that can also mean close temptations for dog, from deer to ducks, and having a dog that remains in control when those temptations present themselves and not try to jump out or chase them is very important for their safety and yours. Some areas of the country have real wildlife risks to dogs around the water too, from venomous snakes to alligators, and you don’t want your dog jumping in or running wild along the bank in those areas.
A lot of people seek the water in a kayak for some peace and quiet. Sounds really carry on the water, especially barking. Some dogs just bark at every leaf or stick on the water. While training to be quiet, just try to be conscious of your surroundings and others so they aren’t just hearing your dog all day.
If you ever have any questions or looking for advice, Jaeger, Tripper and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jaegertracks, and @tripperadventuredog.