How Do I Teach My Dog to Like Paddleboarding?
We’ve all seen those beautiful photos of a dog majestically balanced on the edge of a stand-up paddleboard.
But for many of us, our first experience paddleboarding with our dog is anything but majestic.
The first time I took Barley paddleboarding, he jumped off the board repeatedly to swim back to shore. Don’t get me wrong: my dog loves water. He’s an otter at heart! But there’s something about the rocking board that didn’t sit right with him.
The second time I took Barley out, he laid down with his claws gripping the board, his ears pinned and eyes wide. The waves were so rough that he didn’t jump off, but he clearly wasn’t having fun. We took some time to train and didn’t put him back on the paddleboard until we thought he was ready.
Like many things, the third time was the charm. Here’s how I taught my dog to like stand-up paddleboarding:
- Set Aside Time Just to Train. If you’re really itching to hit the water right now, today, leave your dog at home. Your dog’s first few experiences with the paddleboard may not go smoothly. It’s best to avoid rushing it, or you’ll risk making your dog even more nervous! Plan on at least a few sessions that are just to help your dog learn to love the paddleboard, not necessarily full-on outings.
- Make Your Paddleboard Dog-Friendly. Consider starting out on a yoga paddleboard or a paddleboard with a grippier surface for your dog. Yoga paddleboards are extra-stable and extra-wide, which is perfect for your pup. If you’re renting, ask about dog-friendly options. If you own your own board, consider adding grippy materials to help your dog feel stable.
Start on Land. Even the most water-loving dogs don’t tend to like the rocking, smooth surface of a paddleboard at first. We helped Barley deal with this by taking some time to put the paddleboard on the ground. We rewarded Barley to sniffing it, stepping onto it, and standing on it. We taught him that every time the paddleboard shifted under his feet, he got a treat! He got a treat even if he jumped off. You don’t want your dog to feel trapped – constraint doesn’t make anyone feel safer. Instead, you’re creating a positive association that shifting paddleboards = treats. He’ll learn to love it! Go slow at this stage.
- You can even start putting the paddleboard half in the water, half out. Keep rewarding your dog with food for staying on the board, giving bonus treats if the board rocks.
- Don’t worry – we’ll wean your dog off treats as he gets more confident.
- Pick a Quiet, Calm Day to Start. One of our biggest mistakes on our second day of paddleboarding was that it was a windy, choppy day. I was really struggling to paddle, and Barley had it even worse! Pick a quiet day for your first water adventure. Smaller bodies of water are often smoother, but they can also get choppy. Avoid ocean swell or rivers at first.
Keep it Short. Your first paddleboarding excursion with your dog is all about your pup. Most dogs will be much more comfortable with several short excursions. Just gently push off, paddle around a bit, then come back to shore. Take a break, then go out again.
- For extra-nervous dogs, you can even stand in the water while your pup is on the board. You can help hold the board steady for a few repetitions before you stand up too.
Practice Rewarding Your Dog for Stillness. It’s no good to have a fidgety dog on a paddleboard! We don’t want to fall in left and right. I rewarded Barley for sitting between my legs (a cue he knows as “carwash”) or standing at the front of the board. If he was pacing, putting his paws on me, or otherwise being fidgety, I didn’t reward him. I also took that information as a clue that he was “over it” and we needed a break!
- If your dog doesn’t already have a great “relaxed down,” you might want to teach that as a foundation behavior. Here’s how to teach it using Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. I firmly believe that this training helped transfer to Barley’s calm behavior on the paddleboard.
- Don’t Be Afraid of Breaks and Small Steps. If you push too fast, you’re more likely to teach your dog that paddleboarding is overwhelming and scary. Some dogs might “get over it,” but others won’t. This should be fun! If you need to take lots of breaks, go back a step, or take small steps towards success, that’s just fine.
- Have Fun! Do everything you can to make paddleboarding fun for your dog. It’s no good to force your dog to stay on a paddleboard if he’s terrified or uncomfortable. We let Barley carry a stick and jump off for intermediate swim breaks. When he learned that paddleboarding was fun (and that he could choose his own adventure a bit), he loosened up a lot!
With a confident dog, you can probably do all of this in a single day. Some shier, more sensitive dogs might take longer to get ready for paddleboarding. Go at your dog’s pace and don’t push it – just relax and have fun!