By Arlo the Hound with help from Honor Tarpenning
Any dog-owning sailor or power boater will tell you that taking your dogs out with you is half the fun. Whether you live aboard, go cruising, or just take day trips, you will have endless hours of joy ahead of you if you take the time to get your dog comfortable with his sea legs. I just love going out on the boat. My mom has been taking me bass fishing and on trips to small islands for camping since I was a little puppy. If I could only learn to leave the bait alone, it would be a perfect trip every time!
First things first—you have to get your dog comfortable with the boat. If you keep your boat out of the water, start there; take him onboard and let him check everything out. If you keep her in a slip, you can start there too; just make sure it is a nice, calm day. If your dog has never spent time out on the dock, don’t rush things. There are a lot of sights and smells that are very different from what your dog might be used to. Gradually get your dog used to more and more time on and around the water before you try to take the boat out, and remember to reward calm, brave behavior with lots of treats and praise.
The same goes for getting used to being in the water. Don’t just chuck your dog in and expect him to swim like a pro. Start with shallow water at the shore. Go in the water and coax your dog in after you, new swimmers will be more comfortable in the water if Mom or Dad is already in the water and proving that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Get your boat ready by covering hard-to-walk-on surfaces with non-skid tape. Don’t feel like you need to cover your entire deck, but the companionway and swim ladders can usually benefit from some extra traction.
Let your dog get comfortable with using a ramp or swim ladder on dry land first. When he is frantically trying to get out of the water after an accidental dunk, it will be a lot harder than he hasn’t tried under calm circumstances on shore.
Either out of the water or in the slip (again, on a calm day) teach your dog some boat safety commands. Teach him that “onboard” means get on the boat, and “go ashore” means off the boat. Many boaters are accustomed to the phrase “wake ho!” this means a wake is coming that will jar the boat so you better hold on. Teach your dog that “wake ho!” means get in the cockpit NOW. Once he figures out that the boat rocks every time he hears “wake ho!” he’ll most likely learn to lay down flat so his center of gravity is low and he doesn’t get tossed around the cockpit.
Doggy Life Jacket
Even the strongest swimmers can benefit from a PFD (personal flotation device). It will protect your dog if he is somehow injured and cannot swim after a fall off the boat. The handles on the back of dog PFDs make it easier to lift him out of the water. They also make swimming less work for your dog. Imagine you are cruising along at 30 knots, and your dog falls or jumps off the boat! It’s going to take a minute to slow down, get turned around, and go back and get him. If he isn’t a strong swimmer, he’ll be pretty worn out by the time you pluck him from the water.
Give your dog plenty of chances to practice swimming in his life jacket before you venture out. You don’t want an accident to be the first time he’s tried to swim in it.
Ask almost any live-aboard sailor with a dog and they will tell you the same thing—Never take your dog out of his harness. It is not realistic for your dog to wear a life jacket 100% of the time, but he can always wear his harness. A harness can be attached to the boat so your dog can’t fall in, and it is a HUGE help in pulling your dog back on board if he has fallen off. If your dog falls in the water with his harness on, all you need is a boat hook to snag him and pull him in.
Especially if you are living aboard or cruising, your dog needs an ID tag that identifies your boat and marina. If you put in at a marina in Maryland, cruise down the intracoastal waterway, and then your dog gets lost in some other town, a separate ID tag that says your boat’s name, its make, and your marina and town will be a big help in reuniting you with your dog. Lots of cruisers know one another by boat name—one would be surprised how easily a dog can be reunited with his parents if the name of his boat is provided. A waterproof collar will be more likely to stay intact even after lots of use, so you know your dog's ID tags will stay put.
Keeping your dog on a regular feeding schedule will help with planning potty breaks while out on the water. However, if you are out for days, or just too far from shore to run him in for a walk, you can train your dog to go on a puppy pad or piece of Astroturf on the deck. Just put a puppy pad or Astroturf out in your yard and take him there every time you walk him. He will eventually get that that’s where he is supposed to do his business. Then, just put it on your deck and he will associate it with the proper spot to go.
Practice your “dog overboard” procedure many times before you actually need it. Everyone will be much more calm when an accident does happen if you have practiced.
Keep your dog hydrated, and watch for signs of exhaustion. We don’t like to tell you we are too hot or worn out until we are feeling really bad. Make sure your dog has lots of clean water so he doesn’t drink the river, lake, bay, or ocean water, and provide a shady place for him to get out of the sun.
This represents the bare basics of learning to love boating with your pooch. Stay tuned for a more in-depth article about living aboard or cruising with a dog. Also stay tuned for tomorrow’s daily tips about the ever-dreaded MOSQUITOES. Ick!