Brindley on the Manchester Ship Canal last year, firmly strapped into his buoyancy aid

Tim Doyle

Tim Doyle


Some of you will know that I’ve lived afloat for the last 6 years, with my partner Maz and our greyhound Brindley aboard our narrowboat. In that time, we’ve covered a fair amount of the inland waterways, from East Anglia to the West Country, up to North West England and into North Wales. In that time I have rescued three dogs from drowning in the canal, although the most recent, which happened last week, was probably the most dramatic. It gave me food for thought that people may need to be more aware of the risks to dogs around waterways and what they can do to prevent a tragedy.

An unexpected rescue

After just starting out on a run along the canal, I heard a dog crying out from the opposite bank. Looking a bit further along, I could just about make out the white fur of a young border collie who was trapped half in the water, half in the brambles. I tried to cross a bridge to access the opposite bank but the vegetation was far too thick. Seeing a moored boat not far away, I knocked on the window to get their attention. It turned out they had lost the dog overboard the night before and had been out searching for him. They assumed he had drowned and were clearly very distraught.

It became clear at this point they were in no fit state to move their boat towards the dog and, after gathering opposite where the dog was, it became obvious there was only one way to fetch him! I slipped off my running shoes, slid into the water and swam across to fetch him back. The dog was clearly exhausted but rallied once he was out of the water and back with his owners. I was so glad I could help reunite them, and I did give them some gentle encouragement to purchase a lifejacket for their dog ASAP!

Unknown water, unknown risks

It’s at this point I have to be clear I absolutely do not advocate getting into unknown water to rescue a dog, particularly if you are on your own with no help around. The stretch of canal I entered was one I knew very well – I knew its depth, the type of material on the bottom, and that there were no sluices, outlets or currents nearby. Even then, entering the water yourself is not to be recommended and carries significant risk. It is natural when you see a dog in distress to want to help, but always take a deep breath first and make a realistic plan based on the people and tools you have available. Never risk your life to rescue a dog, no matter how distressing it may be.

Luckily, there are things you can do to protect you and your dog and make sure that, if your dog does end up in trouble, you can help them quickly and in a way that does not place you at risk of harm.

Basic equipment

Nowadays, there is a range of water safety equipment available for dogs to suit all kinds of needs and budgets. These can range from a basic harness all the way to a full lifejacket with strobe lights and fins to increase visibility.

For most trips near the water, a robust, well-fitting harness may be enough for a small-medium dog who is a strong swimmer. The handle on the back will be sufficient for most able-bodied adults to pull them out of the water if needed.

If you are venturing out on the water however, I would always recommend a buoyancy aid. The collie I rescued recently was a perfect example of how people never expect a dog to be in the water for long, but if you have ever seen a dog struggle to keep its head above the water after falling in, you will know how valuable such a simple piece of equipment is to both the dog and its owners. Given how exhausted that dog was when he was lifted out, I suspect he only had a matter of hours left to live in the water. Had he been wearing a buoyancy aid, he likely wouldn’t have been lost in the first place, saving a significant amount of distress.

Near the water…

Dogs are notoriously poor at picking out hazards around waterways. They fall off the side of locks, mistake floating duckweed for solid ground, and are generally oblivious! We do have to have eyes in the back of our heads sometimes to protect our furry friends. Dangers that are obvious to us are often meaningless to a dog, so keeping them on lead until you reach a safer area is often a good idea, particularly where there are hazards such as locks, weirs, high walls and steep drops.

…and on the water

If you’re lucky enough to spend some time on the water, perhaps on a narrowboat trip or paddlesports with your dog, there are some things to be aware of in addition to the equipment mentioned above:

  • If your dog falls in, don’t panic. Take a few seconds to assess the situation and plan how you will retrieve them. If it is obvious you will need help, call for help straight away before you do anything else. Don’t put yourself in danger in addition to the dog, it is a lot more difficult to rescue a dog and a human!
  • If you are in a powered boat, do not manoeuvre up close to the dog. There is a risk you could crush the dog against the bank or the dog could be dragged into the spinning propellor. You may need to secure the boat before you can attempt a rescue. Dogs will often try to swim back to where they fell from, especially if you are calling them, so be aware. It is often safer to secure the boat and let the dog come back to you than risk moving to them. If you can’t get the dog to come to you, consider slowly moving near to the dog (15-30 feet away) and then throwing a lifebuoy on a line, or using a boathook to pull the dog back towards the boat. Regardless, your boat should never be in gear when humans or animals are nearby in the water.
  • If you are paddling, it may be easier to approach the dog, but be careful not to strike the dog with your paddle or fall in yourself as you attempt to recover them.

Have a plan

Much like we do with humans when we are out enjoying the water, we should have a plan for how we will recover dogs should they get into trouble, as well as reducing the chances in the first place! Think about things like:

  • How big your dog is vs. how strong you are – could you pull a 40kg greyhound out of the water at a moment’s notice, or would you need time to get help? How would you call for help if you needed it? (e.g. mobile phone)
  • Your dog’s temperament – are they likely to run off and chase by the water? Are they nervous on bridges or narrow paths? Are they generally clumsy?
  • Your dog’s swimming ability – is your dog comfortable and capable in water? If not, consider keeping them on a lead by the water, or secured inside the boat on the water.
  • On the water: how familiar are you with your craft? – e.g. is this your first time on a boat? Are you confident you would remember all the safety points if your furry friend fell in? If necessary, do a ‘dummy run’, and practice what you would do. You can use something like a lifebuoy or drysack to simulate a dog in the water.

Have fun!

The reason we take our dogs to the water with us is because we enjoy it! It is much easier to relax and have fun knowing you and your dog are safe and that, if they do fall in, the worst they will get is a bit wet and muddy. The UK has over 4500 miles of inland waterways, so there is plenty to explore with your four- (or three-) legged friends this Summer.

For more information on taking your dog narrowboating, visit:

For general advice on water safety for dogs, visit: 

To find waterways and activities local to you, visit: