If you hunt waterfowl, odds are you’ll need a dog that can behave in a boat. Waiting until the morning of the hunt to introduce them to watercraft is a recipe for disaster, not to mention dangerous.
Dogs that aren’t properly introduced to a small boat can become anxious and unsure of themselves and you. When a canine is psychologically stressed, it won’t react and behave as it would in a normal situation. Attempting to enforce perfect behavior (and it doesn’t matter if you use positive or negative reinforcement) under these conditions can just compound the problems. The stressed dog might pace in the boat, disregard a sit/stay command, jump overboard and refuse the ride or, even worse, capsize a small craft like a canoe.
To avoid stressing your dog and endangering your gear and life, take these steps to properly introduce and train your dog to ride in a boat:
Desensitization: Introduce your dog to a boat well before you ever plan on making them ride in one. Beach it on shore and allow them to explore it on their own. Then, incorporate it in to your obedience training and yard work. Make them load up, sit and stay. Get in with them and just sit. Practice getting in and out and just sitting.
After they’ve become comfortable with that, start running some drills or marking setups from the beached boat. Run them for marks from the boat and on the return make them climb back in, sit and deliver to hand. If pup will be expected to use stairs or a hang-on stand, now is the time to introduce this, too.
After they’re comfortably running setups from the shore-bound boat, move the craft into shallow water and start over. Make sure pup is comfortable sitting and will stay as you float. The fact that the ground will move under them and the boat rocks will freak them out at first.
After pup is comfortable with that, start polling or paddling around in the shallows. When they’re confident with the moving craft, try running setups in the shallows and go through the same scenarios you would in a hunting environment; make them sit calmly, shoot a mark and then send the dog by name. On the return make them use the stairs or climb onto their stand. Move to water or areas that you’ll hunt prior to the season and repeat the exercises in as close to real-world scenarios as possible.
Leadership: Your demeanor will go a long way to leading your dog. Stay calm; this is no big deal. If you act unsure of yourself and your dog, he might pick up on that and make things worse. Sit calmly and wait. He’ll see that you’re confident and calm and that’ll translate to his behavior as well.
Obedience: Don’t repeat commands and act differently than you do in any other yard situation. You’re just extending his obedience and expected behavior to another venue. If you’ve properly introduced pup to the boat, there’s no reason to change your expectations/standards.