How I coach my dog, from beginner to white water junk and expedition hound.

Blodyn my Welsh Collie enjoys his time canoeing and camping, to the point that he sulks when if he thinks I might have been canoeing without him. This isn’t an authoritative guide on how to train a dog to tolerate sitting in a canoe, it is a reflection on how I have been lucky enough to have a dog that is a great adventure companion. 

Blodyn came in to my life a week before the first lock down. He came from a North Wales hill farm, the last of the puppies to be homed, a tiny ginger boy who loved cuddles too much to have been a good sheep dog. I took him home and over the next week the reality of the impending  lock down sank in. Now I had the challenge of socialising a puppy in a socially distant world, and preparing him for a life living along side an adventure sports coach at a time when all activity had ceased.  I had visions of the lock down ending, and the first person who came near me being savaged by a full grown Blodyn Dire Woolf who had been starved of human contact.

So, I spent hours walking along the A5 hoping that traffic would come by so Blodyn had some exposure to the sights and sounds of normal life.  I played with Blodyn in and around the Affon Machno outside our house, encouraging him to paddle, swim and explore the river banks. When I had to go to the DIY store, I would take him for walks on the beach. My aim was to spend as much time as possible around signs of human activity and watery places as possible.  Above all I aimed to associate rivers and lakes with fun times and adventure.  Doggies are hard wired adventure seekers!

Throughout the lock down I would go 'away' for ‘trips’ with Blodyn. We would sleep in my van, outside the house, for a couple of nights, then the spare room, or a caravan holiday in the garden, then a tent or a hammock. Meal times were at random times, and I tried never to take him on the same walk twice. 

When it became possible to go canoeing in Wales, I took Blodyn to play with Lina, Maya and Billy dog. Blodyn loved playing with Billy around the lake shore and got on Lina’s paddle board with Billy and Lina.  I think a lot of Billy's confidence round water rubbed off on Blodyn.  Even when Blodyn was too nervous to jump in, he would bark enthusiastically, encouraging Billy.  

Eventually the moment came... and it was a complete anti climax. When I asked Blodyn to get in my canoe, he simply did so, with no fuss, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He had no reason not to like canoes, no reason not to trust me. I kept the canoeing sessions short to begin with. Blodyn had a go on a variety of craft, SUP, kayak and canoes. He went canoeing with as many different people as I could find. Over the summer I worked as a freelancer running canoe trips on canals and calm rivers. Blodyn would love every minute standing on the front airbags. I now know where the vikings got the idea for the figure heads on there boats. 

Blodyn came to try white water for the first time at Mile End Mill, he was mesmerised by the movement and sound. He went to his usual position on the front airbag and got a surprise when the waves splashed him. He has since developed his river reading skills; when he sees harder rapids he comes back and sits in front of me. When he sees very big rapids, he jumps over the kneeling thwart and sits behind me! As with training any animal to do anything, educating a dog to be a canoeing companion isn’t a quick fix, it is a lifestyle, a world view. It starts long before the dog even puts a paw in a canoe.


Paddling - When we daren’t can’t, won’t and don’t 

We just cancelled this weekend's Canoe Leader Assessment.  The forecast is for gale force winds, far exceeding the remit of the award.  There might have been ways of ‘ticking the boxes’;  Hiding in a sheltered bay, finding a short and sheltered river trip.  This would not have been a full or fair assessment, and as a National Trainer I have to be seen to be setting the standard.   Apart from this, many of those involved, (the candidates and people they would have been leading on the assessment) were traveling with canoes.  In 50mph gusts that would be ‘sporting’ to say the least. So we can't and won’t.  It was an easy call to make. 

Other times when I daren’t , can’t, won’t and don’t can be more complicated, some instances are almost inexplicable to those outside the situation.  In the world of outdoor professionals we talk about the ‘row of lemons’ theory of disaster.  The idea being that accidents and incident are rarely caused by one simple disastrous factor.  For example, it is rare that there is a catastrophic failure of equipment, or someone gets struck down by lightening.  Most incidents are caused by a conspiracy of factors, or ‘lemons’.  

When considered in isolation these ‘lemons’ are harmless enough… but together they are a world of badness, like on an old school fruit machine where a row of lemons means ‘game over’. Say, the weather comes in a bit sooner than expected, the coach has a hangover, one of the group is carrying an injury.  All the things independently are incidental fluff.  However, when they start adding up the ‘lemons’ can come together in a catastrophic combination, and you end up with a ‘whole row of lemons’ and disaster strikes.  Part of the skill of coaching, leading or participating is being able to spot the lemons racking up well before the point of ‘game over’.  

It is not only recognising the gathering lemons, but verbalising it.  If you are thinking things aren’t going well, chances are other people are thinking the same thing... but not saying it.  When I was involved in outdoor education I always worked on the principle that I would rather finish a session early when the lemons were gathering, and come back with everyone in one piece.  This was often difficult to explain to my boss… because nothing had actually happened! 

The ‘sunk cost fallacy’ is another one to look out for. If you have invested a certain amount of time, money, energy in to something, and even though it doesn’t look like there will be a good outcome, you continue to invest in it, simply because of the outlay you have already made.  The beauty of the English language captures this perfectly with expressions such as ‘you can’t polish a turd’.  Often people are tempted to put themselves and others in situations that they wouldn’t otherwise; simply because they have done things like drive across Europe to get to the river, spent money on accommodation, or it is the only day they can paddle that month even though the rivers are brimming. 

How about times when I don’t because I daren’t?  There is some seriously weird head stuff involved here. I scrutinise my own worth, ability and credibility.  I used to really struggle when running away from a trip or rapid that I am qualified to lead and coach on.  It is a big thing!  Questioning if I should even be able to call yourself an Advanced Water Coach?  Feeling like an imposter.  Sometimes things just aren’t right, and I have no idea why.  Paddling is a massively psychological game and even the experts struggle to conceptualise what is going on there, and we, as human beings probably aren't clever enough to understand why anyway.  I recon boating is 10% physical 90% emotional (that isn’t a scientific figure!) For me, it is enough to have faith in the idea that there will be other days when things are going to be right, when everything is going to flow. It took me years to learn to be kind to myself about this. I don’t  *need* to paddle that rapid today, it will be there next time and who gives a stuff what anyone else thinks anyway.  Everyone gets scared.  If you aren't afraid of anything then you need to be in hospital.  Scared is what looks after us, it is all about whether we use the power of 'scared' for good or bad.  Ultimately, be kind.  If it isn't your time to feel discombobulated, someone else probably is.


SMART Goals, WILD Goals and intentions.

I was running a British Canoeing Coaching The Mind course at the weekend.  It got me thinking about goal setting.  Every school student, and anyone who has done any form of management training knows about SMART goals.  They are Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound.  You can chunk down your long term SMART goals in to a series of sub goals, in the medium or short term.  You can chunk down your big, long term goal in to to some positive action that you can do right now, today.  After all, you can't eat an elephant in one sitting! 


One of the challenges is 'establishing current reality’ for the people we coach. Delusion is a rare thing, most people get it that, for example, chances are that a 40 year old with a full time job and a gym phobia you won’t achieve gold in the next Olympics. They know that.  SMART goal setting is a valuable developmental tool, and widely used. However, would Margaret Hamilton have been laughed at if she had set herself a long term goal of number crunching with enough skill to put people on the moon? Imagine Hamilton as a university student being told; “So you are aiming to get so good at maths that you can do calculations that will enable people to walk on the moon... that isn’t a SMART goal, it’s crazy talk!” SMART goals are great, but so are dreams and crazy aspirational world bending goals. I once coached at a club where a 10 year old newcomer proudly told me they wanted to kayak in the olympics... and years later that is exactly what they are on track to do. If that young person hadn’t had a crazy dream they would probably still be setting themselves SMART goals that are perceived as ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic.’ Thank goodness no well meaning coach came along with some SMART goals.              

So, how about having some WILD goals? (I just made that up!) Think of the most impressive thing you have ever achieved. May be that was gaining a qualification? Winning a medal in your paddling discipline? Turning round a business to make an awesome profit? Chances are that at the start of the path that led you there that big achievement wasn’t something that was comfortably within your comfort zone, skill set or resources. More likely your road to achievement had certain features...


• Worry - it wasn’t plain sailing, you would be concerned that you would fail/weren’t good enough etc


• Instinct - you kept the faith, believed in your ability to achieve, even if you had no real evidence to back this up.


• Learning - you had to expand your skills set an learn new things and develop your abilities and resources to achieve it.


• Determination - it tested your grit and resilience. You had to knuckle down and see it through even when it looked like all the odds were against you, or you were seeing no tangible results.


Reflecting on how I came to progress with paddling and coaching, complete the British Canoeing Coaching Diploma, the MSc Performance Coaching).  To start off with  I just knew that in a vague and non-specific way I wanted to be better at paddling and coaching. I felt the key to this was gaining understanding by taking every opportunity that presented itself. I went on every training course and trip that I could. Sometimes I had no clear idea where these things were supposed to be leading, but eventually I found that I had experience and pre-requisite qualifications that enabled me to access higher level courses and provide my own courses and develop my own coaching practice.  I signed up for the Coaching Diploma with no idea if I had the intelligence, capacity, resources, money or ability to complete it.  Absolutely non of this was SMART. SMART goals are fab, but lets use them in conjunction with the potentially world bending WILD goals. Does it always matter if you don’t particularly know where things are leading so long as it is onwards and upwards? That sounds more of an adventure to me and I encourage those I coach to leave room for a bit of WILD, because you never know how the story will end.

How often do we underestimate people?  How often do we talk about goals when an 'intention' might be more inspirational?                                                       


Planning your coaching and leadership progression - mentoring (witchcraft!)

I am lucky enough to do a lot of mentoring of aspirant coaches and leaders.  I try to do this face to face, over a brew and cake after paddling.  It almost always involves cake.  I am a big fan of 'Headology', the preferred magic of Terry Prachett's Disc World witches. Headology  is a kind of practical psychology.  It is based upon the notion that generally speaking, people are what they think they are.  There is no need for the witches to use 'real' magic (turning people in to frogs for example); if people think you are a witch, you might as well be one.  I probably learnt more about coaching and mentoring from Terry Prachett than any coaching course, or book. 

Prachett's witches have a robust set of principles -

- Being good rather than being nice. 

- Trading, rather than selling your services.  This isn't about money, it is about the idea that mentoring is a two way deal.  The mentor and mentee both benefit from the arrangement. 

- A reliance on second sight and third thoughts. It is all about the relationship and interconnections between the person you are coaching or mentoring, and their context. 

Above all the witches (Coaches!)  are interested in stories, the unique narrative of where a person is at, how they got there, their levels of readiness.  It is all about personal context, how that person seeks and creates meaning in the things they do and aspire to do.

These are some thoughts that lie behind my approach to developing paddlers, coaches and leaders.  If you would like to chat about your progression,  and start to put together a plan to work on your goals and intentions,  email me or drop me a message on Facebook 

Hubble Bubble!


Wilderness bushcraft and canoe journeying - New Facebook group

A Facebook group I created one wet afternoon in Snowdonia…  Wilderness Bushcraft & Canoe Journeying is all about creating a community of practice and 'hive mind' for people who like go get out on canoeing adventures using traditional knowledge and skills to enhance their experiences.  

There are those old sayings,  'all the gear and no idea' and, 'any fool can be uncomfortable'.  A large part of having a safe, enjoyable experience is about developing and practicing skills, and developing knowledge... wisdom is that practical application of knowledge which comes from experience. Thank you to all the people who have shared their wisdom and experience so far. 

Everyone is welcome to sign up, whether you are someone new to canoeing and/or bushcraft, of an old pro!