302 days left until Canoecopia!     March 13 - 15
The Making of a Canoe Dog
-Darren Bush

I needed a canoe dog.

I love Alice, our old lady, a Great Pyrenees who just decided she really wasn't that into water. My previous two dogs were respectively a German Shorthair and a Black Lab, who were drawn to water as if by a magnetic pull. They were trained to be canoe dogs quickly with the liberal use of treats. Alice, she would sit on the sidelines and let someone else do the dog/canoe thing.

Alice okay not canoeing.

We waited a few years after Gracie, our sweetly neurotic lab crossed the Rainbow Bridge to get another dog. Thing is, we really didn't want a sporting dog, as we had become accustomed to the ever present mellow of a guardian stock dog (GSD). If they were people, Great Pyrenees would be southern ladies sitting on the porch sipping sweet tea and waving to the neighbors, unless the neighbor were a coyote, then the lace gloves come off and it's all business.

I did the internet search thing, and somehow found a GSD breeder in the middle of Wyoming, a working sheep ranch that bred Great Pyrs with Newfoundlands. Newfies love water, so maybe adding a little Canadian maritime into the French mountains would be a good mix. It was a good bet, so we waited, picked a puppy (the smallest female), and waited.

We did a lightning fast trip to Lovell, racing against weather (it was March) and just trying to traumatize the pup as little as possible. Lucy was waiting for us and we fell in love. Her brother Ted was there too, the last of the litter. So we took Ted too. Not for us, but a few phone calls and Ted had a home in Madison.

The trick with a canoe dog is to get them introduced to canoes quickly. Easier said than done in April, but part of the training is to take the water out of the equation. We start with land training.

When she was a fifteen pound fluffball, finding a boat to fit her in wasn't tough at all. Throw a mat in the bottom, tap the gunwale, throw treat in and say "boat up." Gingerly at first, Lucy would hop over the gunwale and gobble up the treat. Another treat and "stay." Repeat until the attention span of trainer or trainee is exhausted.

Fast forward to mid-May, and it's time for her first paddle. She was already growing a little too big for the Pal. Not her weight, but her length. She was growing like a weed, and the EM White Guide 16 was wider, flatter on the bottom, and has some substance to it (meaning it's a hefty boat to load and unload).

She whined in the car for five minutes, watching every single move I made. When we were set I brought her over to the canoe on the small landing and said "Boat up, Lucy."

Of course, she ignored me. It was her first smell of real wild water. The sour smell of lake weeds with a subtle overtone of winterkill bluegill was irresistible to her. Of course it was. I can't blame her. But soon she remembered the treats (because I remembered the treats) and "boat up" was answered with appropriate action. After a few minutes she stood up on the gunwale and poked at the lake surface. I nudged her back into the boat with a little hitch of my hips and all was good.

I knew that at some point she would have to learn the lesson. So I waited until she was doing a full-on Kate Winslet in Titanic on the gunwale, and gave a little hitch the other way, and she was in. You never know what's going to happen at this point, so you just watch. In three strokes she was swimming like her father's ancestors did, plying the frigid waters of the Atlantic, rescuing shipwreck victims.

I let her swim around until she started giving the side eye, so I guided her toward shore. Lucy jumped out, gave a good shake, and curled up in the sun while I loaded up the canoe to head home.

Each time we went out, it became easier, but with setbacks when a new waterfowl species came migrating through. She was fascinated by the big birds. Unlike our sporting dogs, Lucy didn't want to retrieve them; she wanted to play with them. As this happened more and more often, I became more and more happy I was in a wider canoe. A 65-pound Lab can squeeze into a larger solo; 100 pounds of Pyr/Newfie needs a little more cargo space. Truth is, when you buy a GSD, it's a lottery. Lucy has topped out at just over a hundred pounds at two years old now. Ted (the stowaway) is over 120. Pilot, their dad, was 140. Note: this is why you pick a small female puppy.

A couple of seasons in, we still have some work to do, and we have yet to do an overnight, but I'm not worried. She's settling into young adulthood, and her velociraptor episodes are fewer and farther between. She's still an active one, but will hop onto the foot of your bed at night, and slowly inch up until her nose is under your elbow. She'll just get a few snuggles, and then she's off to the top of the stairs, where she can see where everyone is, and set watch.

There are for sure more practical canoe dogs than a sweet, goofy, waterfowl-obsessed Pyr/Newfie. That said, she's only dumped me once, on a small stream with a fallen tree. I scooted past it safely, but Lucy didn't like the branches and promptly placed her substantial hindquarters directly on the gunwale and sat down. You can't brace much...you just slowly fill up and flush downstream.

Spring project? I'm converting the 16-foot Nova Craft Pal into the ultimate solo canoe that just happens to have half of it set up for canine cargo. I'll keep you posted.
Canoecopia is presented by Rutabaga Paddlesports