Boat Training For Humans And Dogs

I know you’re hoping for cute pictures of Honey on exotic beaches or barking at pelicans. But life aboard a boat takes lots of training.

For us. And for the dog.

Honey the golden retriever chews a stick.

The pelicans can wait. I’ve got a stick to chew.

Learning To Live On A Boat

All three of us are learning to live on a boat.

Even everyday activities are quite different here.

For me, just cooking dinner means turning on the propane valve in the cockpit, turning on the gas control button on the electrical panel, turning on the solenoid that allows the gas to get to the stove burner, and lighting the stove.

And when I’m finished, doing everything in reverse.

Honey the golden retriever wants to go ashore.

I see some puppies who need a new friend. Get me off this thing.

For Honey, getting off the boat to play with another dog means getting lifted into the cockpit, waiting for one of us to move her ramp into place, negotiating the ramp while the boat is moving in the slip (small boats are never totally at rest; even stepping on or off shifts them in the water), and then greeting her new friends.

Hold on. I'm coming to play.  Just gotta walk the plank first.

Hold on. I’m coming to play. Just gotta walk the plank first.

Just when we get good at one new thing, we have another new thing to learn. And the next one will be huge for Honey.

The New Boat

You know that kid’s song: “Row, row, row your boat, gently with your dog…”

Yep, our new dinghy (the small boat that we’ll use to go to shore when we’re anchoring) is a rowboat. A folding rowboat.

Mini Mea our folding dinghy.

Meet Mini Mea, our new dinghy.

While Honey watched skeptically, we spent yesterday afternoon assembling our folding boat, lowering it into the water using halyards (the ropes/lines that lift the sails) and winches (rotating drums with gears that make it easier to lift heavy objects attached to lines), and bringing it back on board.

Bringing the dinghy on board.

Honey’s eye view of bringing the dinghy on board Meander.

Oh yeah, and we also got to row it for the very first time.

I thought Honey would be upset when each of us rowed away from the dock. But she wasn’t fazed one bit.

I think she was just glad not to have to go along on our maiden voyages.

Honey the golden retriever dockside with Mike in the dinghy.

Yeah, I’ll just stay here and wait for you to get back.

Honey’s New Car

Many cruising sailors refer to their dinghy (small boat) as their car. It’s what they use to go shopping or visit other boats while at anchor.

For Honey, the dinghy will be how she gets to shore for walks, playtime, and potty breaks.

So she’d better love it.

And that’s why neither of us took her along in our first exploratory row. Because we stink at it.

Okay, Mike stinks at it a little less.

Mike rowing the dinghy away from Meander.

Mike stinking only a little bit. At least he was able to get away from the boat going in the right direction.

But we’re both pretty awkward. Rowing is harder than it looks.

We’ve both canoed and kayaked. But rowing happens backwards. With two paddles instead of one.

Just getting away from our boat to row down the center of the marina was pretty tough.

Pam rows the dinghy.

Don’t look now, Pam, but you’re drifting toward those pilings again.

It was probably best we didn’t also have a scared pup slipping and sliding on the bottom of the boat while we tried to row straight.

But we’ve got to get good soon so we can start getting Honey used to it.

Okay, I'm in the boat. Where's my treat?

Okay, I’m in the boat. Where’s my treat?

Honey’s Next Trick

Honey will have a few skills to learn before riding in the dinghy.

First, we have to figure how to get her in and out of it.

Some dogs jump in and out of the dink while someone holds it close to the boat. Some dogs are carried. And some dogs are put into a harness and lifted using the halyard and a winch to airlift them in and out.

U.S. Army working dog in harness.

How the army transports dogs in awkward settings. Not sure Honey is ready to enlist.

Second, we’ll need Honey to find her place in the boat and stay there. Rowing in one direction will be tough enough without Honey throwing off the balance in first one direction and then another.

Third, Honey will have to wait patiently while we bring the dinghy up on shore or tie up to a dock. If there are other people or dogs nearby, this will be the tough one.

Time to break out my rules for training. I think they’ll be useful for all of us.

Honey the golden retriever puts her paws up on the seat.

Hey, I’m paws up on the seat. Is this good enough?

Rules For Dog (And Human) Training

I’m usually better at remembering these rules for Honey than I am for myself. But they work for humans too.

  • Break training into small steps.
  • You can never go too slow.
  • End on a high note.

I should probably write these training rules onto a waterproof card and tape it to the dinghy. I have a feeling we’re going to need them for a long time to come.

Your Turn: Any advice for training your dog in an area you’re also learning for the first time?


Photo credit: The picture of the military working dog being airlifted is from the U.S. Army and is used under a creative commons license. Click the image to learn more about it.

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  1. Fun boat. I’m sure you will all learn together, and be pros at it very soon.

  2. I’m wondering why you didn’t use a canoe or kayak as your Mini Mea, your teeny little dinghy instead of a more clumsy, cumbersome rowboat. I’m sure there is a logical reason that will make me slap my forehead when you tell me.

    • Canoes are really tippy and wouldn’t be my choice for a “car.” And a kayak would not give us room for groceries, supplies, or guests.

      Remember, this is how we’ll be transporting everything to and from the boat once we’re at anchor. I can’t imagine carting laundry or a month’s worth of groceries (including big blocks of ice) in a kayak or canoe.

      But if you’re game, we can do an experiment. When we get to California someday, I’ll invite you aboard for cocktails. But you’ll have to ride on my shoulders when I pick you up in a kayak. :)

  3. Treats! Buckets and pockets full of treats. Heck, I’d need treats to do what you’re doing! Clearly you have all the training tips down to a science judging by Honey’s reactions.
    Ear scratches for your sweet girl and kudos to you and Mike. I think you’ll find as you do more and more of it, rowing will become second nature and not nearly as awkward as it feels now. :)

  4. Row, row, row your boat,
    try to get to shore,
    merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
    crap, you lost an oar.

    Row, row, row your boat,
    now Honey’s in there too,
    Watch her tip the boat to the left,
    and dump Mike and you.

    Think of all the fun ditties you can sing in your new “car”!

  5. With all the work needed to cook, I’d just call for food delivery. hahahahah

    • Actually, there is a sailboat in the Caribbean somewhere (a catamaran) that sells pizza to local cruisers.

      Apparently you’re not the first person to come up with that answer for the challenges of cooking on board.

  6. Patience and baby steps are our secret weapon.

  7. I bet you all master this pretty quickly.

  8. Honey has a mat behavior, right?

    On our first ever long car trip with Nala, we were really worried that she would get agitated and crash around in the back, all board. We put the dog bed that we trained her “go to your mat” behavior with in the back seat, and it worked like a charm–she recognized her place for chilling out and relaxed the whole trip, even when we were stuck in some traffic.

    So is there a mat or dog bed that would fit in your dinghy and not be destroyed by the water? Maybe a water resistant Molly Mutt outdoor bed? It might help Honey figure out her “job” in the car faster!

    • That should say “bored and restless.” How embarrassing!

    • Great suggestion. Honey actually generalizes very well and when I tell her to “go to bed” she’ll plant herself on the closest mat, bed, or carpet.

      I’ll have to look into something that will stick well to the bottom of the boat and try the bed cue.

      You’re a genius, Meghan. :)

  9. I was going to ask why you didn’t just opt for a small electric motor, but googled it first. Sounds like battery life and weight are an issue, not to mention theft.

    Back in the day, we just hauled along the Avon behind us with a gas motor. And of course, the family had Irish Wolf Hounds…..who were left home! Two of those were way to much even for the large sailboat :-)

    • Wow, Irish Wolfhounds would need a boat of their very own. :)

      Actually, Mike wants to get an outboard motor. But a traditional one would mean we’d need to carry gas in jerri cans on the deck. And I’d prefer to get solar panels before trying an electric motor.

      Everything is a trade-off. And it will just take us a while to figure things out.

      There’s a famous sailing couple, Lin and Larry Pardey who have sailed the world over in a boat without an engine at all. And they row their dinghy. And they’re in their 70s. So I guess this won’t kill us. :)

  10. Thank you for the training reminders, I’m taping them above the motorhome’s door. Your patience is a huge inspiration to me.

  11. I never could learn how to steer a canoe right, and still get going backwards in my kayak sometimes! So I totally understand the learning curve that must be needed for a rowboat.
    I have faith you and Mike will get it figured out and get Honey trained as well. I remember you didn’t think you’d ever get her on that ramp either! :)

  12. Wow, I’ve never heard of a folding rowboat – that sounds really interesting.