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Kevin Callan’s Guide to Canoe Tripping with Your Dog

Kevin Callan, aka The Happy Camper, discusses tips and tricks for safely bringing your dog on a paddling trip.

by Kevin Callan, aka The Happy Camper

I love solo canoe tripping – but to be quite honest I’m not truly alone. I always have my dog with me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

I’m on my third dog now. Angel is a “Gollie” – a mix between a border collie and a golden retriever. She’s a great dog, and the best part is she loves canoe tripping just as much as my other two dogs (Bailey and Ellie – may they rest in peace). Angel carries her pack full of her kibble on the portage, doesn’t whine or bark in the canoe, and she stays close to me most of the time, except when a squirrel or chipmunk wanders into camp. We’re still working on that one. 

Dogs can make a great paddling companion.

Dogs are a strange breed. Some are well behaved and considerate, while others are just a plain nuisance, which is why the question of having them join you on a canoe trip is not all that cut and dry. Much of it depends on the actions of the owners themselves. I witnessed someone’s beagle harass a cow moose by leaping out of the canoe and swim after the poor beast. Half my food pack was once consumed by a golden retriever at the take-out of a portage. At a public campground I saw a poodle, which was leashed to a tree during the night, torn apart by a pack of coyotes. I had the displeasure of mistaking an over friendly and unleashed black lab for a marauding black bear while walking the portage. And more than once I’ve set my tent on top a mound of fresh dog do and didn’t realize it until I packed up the next day. I blame these incidents, not on the dogs, but on the owners themselves.

Remember that dogs can suffer from heat exhaustion and heatstroke just as much as you can. Fixing a small sun umbrella to the canoe gunwale works wonders.

Taking care of your dog on a trip, and making sure it behaves, is a prime point to make.

A well-trained dog will make for an all-around positive experience

First thing to consider before taking your dog on a canoe trip are the biting insects: black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies, ticks,…etc. My general rule is not to take my dog during prime bug season – early May to mid June. Only a few breeds are independent enough to curl up under a balsam branch and tolerate being chewed by the biting insects. Using bug repellents containing DEET is not a choice for dogs. They will lick the toxin off their fur and ingest it. Make sure to bring along bug repellant that’s free of nasty chemicals such as DEET. My vet supplies me with repellant made of oil of peppermint, eucalyptus, pennyroyal and citronella.  

A fake dragonfly may help deter deer flies

A trip to the vet is a must to make sure your dog gets the shots it needs. Ask your vet if your dog needs additional vaccines to protect against Leptospirosis, which is contracted through rodents and deer populations, or Lyme disease, which is spread by deer ticks. Your dog may also need an oral medication to prevent heartworm.

My dog sleeps in the tent with me. Unless you own huskies and are in the midst of running the Iditarod, your dog can sleep inside the tent with you or can be leashed inside the vestibule. I pack a compatible sleeping matt and blanket for Angel. It not only keeps her cozy and warm but it provides a place for her to settle for the night.  

A mat gives your dog a place to call their own

Never assume your dog will protect you from black bears or grizzlies—although a few breeds such as the Karelian Bear dogs are bred specifically for confronting and herding problem bears. Instead, stick with regular bear safety practices. In my own experience, I’ve found that more often than not, a dog will chase a bear out of the campsite only to come running back to hide behind you, bringing the bear with it!

Remember that dogs can suffer from heat exhaustion and heatstroke just as much as you can. While canoe tripping on a hot day, let your dog go for frequent swims to lower their body temperature. According to Dogs Ultimate Care Guide, fast, heavy panting and excessive salivation are the first signs of heatstroke. Some dogs’ noses are prone to sunburns. This is easily preventable by applying a little bit of waterproof sunscreen (just make sure it is free of zinc or PABA). Try to keep them shaded on hot, humid days. Fixing a small sun umbrella to the canoe gunwale works wonders.

A sun umbrella can offer shade for your dog

Plan to take two extra days of dog meals beyond your planned stay, just in case. All dog food and treats should be stored like your own food—away from the campsite in water-proof and critter-proof containers. Feed your dog in the kitchen area and pack up any kibble that falls out of the bowl. It’s also important to use the same food brand your dog is accustomed to at home. Canoe trips are a bad time and place to deal with allergic reactions or a picky eater.

The best way to get dogs to stay in the canoe is to create a comfortable place for them. Try gluing a slab of foam to the floor of the canoe or bring their favorite mat from home. Go for an afternoon test paddle with all your gear to work out the wrinkles and get your pooch familiar with the drill.

It’s pretty difficult to stop them, but dogs can get sick from drinking contaminated water in rivers and lakes. A common waterborne parasite known as Giardia will give dogs volcanic diarrhea and could be transmitted from them to you. Provide them with plenty of clean water throughout the day as much as you can. 

All my dogs have carried their own kibble and treats in a dog pack while portaging. Dogs want to be given a job; it’s in their character. The dog will feel more involved with the trip, they will enjoy the time out there far more…and so will you. And yes, Angel gets a treat at the end of each portage for helping carry the load. 

Angel sitting on her designated mat in the canoe

The best way to get dogs to stay in the canoe is to create a comfortable place for them. Try gluing a slab of foam to the floor of the canoe or bring their favorite mat from home. Go for an afternoon test paddle with all your gear to work out the wrinkles and get your pooch familiar with the drill. Training them to sit or lie down takes time…and patience. But it’s important for the dog to settle comfortably in the canoe. If the lake gets rough or I’m about to paddle down a set of rapids, I simply give Angel the command “Go to your mat.” And she does, letting her and I to paddle in safety. I also never tie my dog into the canoe. If the canoe capsizes, your dog must be able to swim free of the boat and gear. 

I always wear my PFD (Personal Flotation Device) while in the canoe, and so does my dog. Your dog may be a good swimmer but if you capsize you don’t want to worry about your dog while you yourself are trying to stay above water. Angel’s PFD fits her perfectly, snug but not too tight. It also came equipped with extra head and chin support. The breathable mesh panels and adjustable belly straps helped keep Angel from overheating, as well. The best part, however, is the quick pick-up handle positioned on the top of the life-vest. I simply grab the handle to put her in and out of the canoe.

Angel wearing her PDF

Keep in mind that dogs are permitted in most provincial parks across Canada. However, park rules state that pets should always be kept on a leash, are never left unattended, do not make excessive barking noise and that their waste is cleaned up and disposed of properly. Some parks have dog-free zones, so make sure to check regulations before heading to your destination. My preferred choice is to go north to the less crowded, more dog-friendly parks and public land areas such as Crown land. 

Pack a first aid kit with items specific to your dog

And lastly, pack a separate first-aid kit for your dog. It contains different items than your own. My vet helped me gather what’s needed for Angel: 

  • Cotton Balls or Q-tips
  • Vet rap bandage – the kind used for dressing a horse’s leg
  • Ace self-adhering athletic bandages
  • Sock – great for keeping a foot bandage on
  • Gauze sponges
  • Liquid Bandages – works great on patching mild cuts on pads
  • Antiseptic towelettes
  • Hydrocortisone acetate — one percent cream
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Eye rinsing solution
  • Small container of Vaseline
  • Hydrogen peroxide – a good way to induce vomiting (1-3 tsp. every 10 minutes until dog vomits)
  • Benadryl (1-2 tablets every 8 hours for average size dog)
  • Pepto Bismol tablets (1-2 tablets every 6 hours for average size dog)
  • Buffered aspirin 1-2 tablets every four fours for an average size dog. Do NOT give Tylenol or ibuprofen (Advil, Nuprin, Motrin, etc.) as it is toxic to a dog’s liver.
  • Kaopectate tablets (1-2 maximum strength tablets every 2 hours for an average size dog)
  • Emergency ice pack
  • Ear syringe
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Bandage scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Blanket
  • Dog’s health record and phone number of ordinary vet

Additional resources

YouTube video: Canoe Tripping with Your Dog – KCHappyCamper

About the author

Kevin Callan  (aka The Happy Camper) is the author of 19 books; his latest being Top 70 Canoe Routes of Ontario. He is an award winning writer and a keynote speaker at outdoor events across North America. Kevin is also a regular guest on several television morning shows and CBC Radio. He has won several film awards, writes a column for Paddling Magazine and Explore Magazine. Kevin was listed one of the top 100 modern day explorers by the Canadian Geographical Society. He was also made Patron Paddler for Paddle Canada.

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