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Boating Safely on Virginia’s Waterways with Your Family Dog

By Kristy Fike

Photos by Shutterstock

Bringing our family dogs along with us on waterways should be an enjoyable and safe experience. To help prevent accidents, injuries, or worse, it is important that we take appropriate safety measures.

  1. To help prevent your dog from jumping overboard, flipping your canoe, or running about on your vessel, acclimate your dog to your vessel before you get out on the water. Have your dog practice both getting in and out of and taking commands in your boat or paddlecraft. Try this in your yard first, as some dogs will be more comfortable trying something new in an environment that they are used to rather than a busy boat ramp on the weekend. After practicing in your yard, it may be ideal to take your dog out on an informal trip to the boat ramp at a quiet time. This would allow you to practice making your dog take commands while at the boat ramp and while on the boat.
  2. As you get your dog acclimated to the boat, consider teaching your dog that they have a designated spot or place on the boat. This place should be where they are less likely to knock gear overboard, get underfoot, or fall overboard themselves.
  3. “Wear it” applies to dogs as well as humans. A dog life jacket can help keep your dog safe if it becomes fatigued while swimming, gets caught in strong currents, falls overboard, or has a medical condition that could increase their risk of drowning. There are many dog life jackets on the market, but it is imperative that you choose one that is made with enough flotation to support your dog’s size, is durable enough to withstand your dog’s weight and strength should you clip a leash to it, and is overall high quality (durable seams, materials, closures, etc.). This is important, as some life jackets for dogs appear to be more of an accessory than a lifesaving piece of gear. Furthermore, ensure that the life jacket fits your dog and allows them to move as needed. If it restricts your dog’s swimming movements, it can do more harm than good.
  4. It is also important to consider the timing of your outing, as your dog can get overheated while out on the water. This is especially true if your dog is not acclimated to the heat or is riding in a metal boat. Therefore, it is wise to get out on the water first thing in the morning or later in the evening. Some may feel that allowing their dog to swim in the water will cool them off. However, surface water temperatures are warmer than you think, especially if the water is in the direct sun.
  5. Pack drinking water for your dog. Saltwater can cause your dog’s stomach to become upset and dehydrate your dog, as the salt draws water from your dog’s blood. Some sources even explain that too much salt water can be toxic to dogs.
  6. Beware of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in the water and along the shoreline. Toxins produced can cause illness in both humans and animals. According to the EPA, “Cyanobacteria, formerly referred to as blue-green algae, are found naturally in lakes, rivers, ponds and other surface waters. When certain conditions exist, such as in warm water containing an abundance of nutrients, they can rapidly form harmful algal blooms (HABs).” To learn more about cyanobacteria visit the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council website and use the search bar to look up cyanobacteria or harmful algae blooms.
  7. Ensure that your dog doesn’t have access to any human foods that are poisonous to them. If on the water with kids, ensure that they understand what foods may be harmful to dogs.
  8. If you allow your dog to get out of your boat to play, be aware of hazards that could cut or puncture your dog’s paws. A few examples include glass, barnacles, and boards with nails from old duck blinds.
  9. Along similar lines, beware of hazards in the water if you allow your dog to swim. A few examples may include large rocks, logs, or parts of old duck blinds or structures. Aside from these factors, boats are another hazard. Try to position yourself in a spot along the waterway that is fairly straight, as this will allow you to see inbound boats. With that, keep any radios turned down so you can hear inbound boats. Keep an eye on how far out your dog is swimming. If they do not have a reliable recall, especially if swimming after a toy, consider not allowing them to swim.
  10. Beware of strong currents if you allow your dog to swim. Even the most experienced or fit dogs can go under, especially if they are tired, hot, or dehydrated.
  11. Beware of fishing hooks while boating with your dog. Some dogs may be intrigued by your lure or want to taste your bait, especially if they see it moving about as you cast your line in the water. As you would be aware of other two-leggers when casting your line in the water, watch out for four-leggers too. If your dog does get a hook in them, ensure you know how to remove it. A common procedure for removing a fishhook with an exit wound includes the following:
    – push the hook barb through the exit wound
    – cut off the barb
    – pull the remainder of the hook from the wound
    – flush out the wound to aid in preventing infection and consult your veterinarian on how to care for the wound
  12. That being said, it is ideal to have a comprehensive first aid kit with you on the boat and tools you would need to administer first aid (i.e. pliers for removing a fishhook). If you are in a kayak or a small vessel that may not accommodate a comprehensive first aid kit, consider carrying a small compact first aid kit aboard and keep a comprehensive first aid kit in your vehicle. Keep in mind that extreme temperatures are not good for medications and ointments for long periods of time, so avoid leaving your kits in your vessel or vehicle long term.
  13. If you are planning a long outing or one that is far from home, ensure that you have both a local and an emergency veterinary office’s contact information. To aid in accessing quick directions, add their addresses into your smartphone.
  14. Ensure that your dog has identification on its collar. Should they get away from you if you stop along the shore, you want to ensure that someone finding them will have a way to contact you. If you plan to go boating with your dog often, it is ideal to keep extra collars and extra identification plates or tags in your vessel and vehicle.
  15. Consider keeping a tie-out cable on your vessel, so you can tether your dog as needed. This would come in handy if you had an unexpected boat repair or wanted to eat packed food on the shore. *Ensure you are not on private property when you pull up on land. If you must tether your dog while you are in the boat, ensure that they do not have enough slack in the cable or leash to jump overboard. This will help you avoid what could become a fatal accident for your dog.

Keeping everyone safe is the best way to have a great day boating on Virginia’s beautiful waterways.

  • June 24, 2024