How Do You Teach a Dog to Sail – A Plea for Help

Golden Retriever under sail boat

I don't understand this sailing business. When does the fun start?

My big learning project for the summer is sailing.

Yep, I’ve made it to 45 years old without thoroughly humiliating myself. That means it’s time to take up something new.

With its own language (you need to sail a beam reach on a starboard tack to approach the canal entrance). And lots of new skills (did you know docking a sailboat is like parallel parking–without brakes or a gas pedal?). Oh, and let’s not forget the physical embarrassment of being told to wrap a halyard around your butt and lean back if you don’t have the strength to raise a sail with your arms alone.

For all that, it’s exhilarating be a total beginner. To see the wind and the weather with fresh eyes. And to just be moving quickly on the water hearing only the sound of the wind.

I could see this becoming a lifestyle.

Where does Honey fit in? I would never make a decision that didn’t take my dog into account. Honey is family.

So how do I acclimate Honey to sailing and boats without buying one first? Pets are not allowed on the boats at the community sailing program we’re enrolled in. She can’t come with us for our liveaboard lessons scheduled for next month. And I wasn’t raised around sailing and don’t know lots of other people with boats.

There are some excellent sailing forums online with links to sites where people have written extensively about cruising with their dogs. The Park family cruising on Charbonneau answered all kinds of questions about cruising with their two (?!) Golden Retrievers, Max and Bailey. And Toby the Entelbucher’s family wrote a great article on their first time cruising with a dog aboard.

And, although I can’t find the link now, I’ll never forget reading the story of a family who discovered their dogs hated the heeling of their monohull sailboat. What did they do? They sold it and bought a more stable catamaran.

And that’s what worries me.

Golden Retriever under sail boat

You couldn't find me in the big picture? Here I am.

You see, I have a confession to make. I’m not rich. The only boat we could afford to buy would be too small to take us and Honey out on the water.

If we get to a point where we want to seriously pursue sailing, we’d probably have to sell our house to do it. That’s a big decision. And one that I’d want to be sure our whole family was prepared for if we made the leap. Our preparation will take years. And Honey’s might too.

So how do you teach your dog to sail if you’re not allowed to take her sailing?

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • Gotten her used to wearing a life jacket (see a cute picture here).
  • Taken her out in my kayak with me (see another cute picture here).
  • Walked her around the boatyard dry dock in winter to get used to being around massive things.
  • Taken her to the marina where we visit the boats and get used to them moving against the dock.
  • Been working with her to increase her comfort around suddenly moving objects or flapping canvas (two of her fears).

So where do we go next? Any readers who happen to own a sailboat somewhere near the Finger Lakes interested in participating in a puppy socialization project? I’ll bring the beer and kibble.

I thought not.

So here are my questions for anyone interested in dogs, boating, and dogs and boating:

  • What else can I do to prepare Honey to feel comfortable on a boat?
  • Is there anything off the water I could do to teach Honey that a boat leaning to the side is perfectly safe?
  • Do you think agility would give her confidence and skills that would translate to being comfortable on a boat?
  • To the boaters–what would you think if you saw a note on a marina bulletin board asking for help socializing your dog?
  • Are there other things I should be concentrating on first?

So thank you, dear readers. I can’t wait to read your insightful comments. My future is in your hands.

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  1. When I was younger, my friends and I would sail on a little sunfish sailboat. Not big. Not expensive either, but still fun. I wonder if you could try that first. It certainly would lean in the wind and get Honey used to the waves and rocking motion. It also might offer you a little more room than the kayak did. :)

    As long as Honey has her lifejacket on I think you two (or 3) would do well on it.

    We had a blast that summer and even though we next to nothing about sailing (the friend who owned it did know a little). Congrats on picking up a new skill and interest. I’m feeling very much like Kristine these days – too much focus on dogs and not enough on other interests.
    Can’t wait to read what you end up doing!

    • We’ve looked at Sunfishes as a possibility. Our two big questions were if we’d have room to keep one and how we’d get it to the water.

      Does anyone know if a Sunfish is light enough for two people to lift onto the top of a regular car–like we do our kayaks?

      But you’re right, it would certainly give her the motion and she’d have to learn to balance her weight like we would. A side benefit–she’d have to learn to swim. :)

  2. Well, I’m afraid we can’t help, but we’re interested in how this turns out! You’ve gotten her used to being on boat-like crafts with the kayak, and I think that’s a huge step. Best of luck!

  3. In agility to get those dogs used to things moving beneath them before they tackle the teeter obstacle, we started with a wobble board. It not only helps the dog get over the fear but it also helps them improve balance and hind-end awareness. Wobble boards are super-easy to make: it’s just a square piece of wood with something underneath it to make it stable, you could even use an upside down garbage can lid. Start small with clicking and rewarding if Honey even looks at it or puts one foot on the board and build up from there. It might be worth a shot.

    Hope it helps! From the sounds of things you are doing everything perfectly right. With all this awesome preparation Honey is bound to love sailing as much as you do!

    • A wobble board, huh? And an upside down garbage lid sounds like just the thing–cheap!

      Now I just have to figure out the right high value treat to pair with it.

  4. Oops, I meant “unstable”. It would be useless if it was stable! 😛

  5. I have very selfish reasons for wanting to know how this turns out, reasons that you are of course privy to. In fact, I am going to put a link to this post — with its links — in my chapter outline, which will remind me to look at it again. And bug you for that guest post.

    But you’re in luck. I’m waaay behind schedule on my book, so you have plenty of time to get this all sorted out.

    • Edie, you do realize submitting a piece of writing to a professional writer and editor is an awesomely intimidating prospect, don’t you?

      I have pulled something together to submit to you. Now I just have to get up my nerve. :)

  6. In the marinas where we live we often watch people docked who have dogs on their boats. I bet if you keep taking Honey on walks in the marinas, you could start a conversation with another family sailing with their puppy companion seeing that you are interested in two of their interests: puppies and sailing. In fact, with Honey’s magical charm, you may even get an invite to walk Honey on to the boat. It at least would be another step in the direction you want to go even if she doesn’t actually charm them into taking her for a sail!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Mel. I will indeed keep taking Honey on “charm walks” at the marina. At the very least, it exposes her to the movement of boats against the docks.

  7. So cool! I used to sail and I would love love love to take the boys. Felix would adre it…I’m not so sure about Kolchak. As you take your lessons, I am sure you will meet other sailors who will have some great tips, but my first suggestion would be to see if you can find a rental of the boat you’d consider buying. I’m not sure where you are, but here, most rentals are dog friendly, so you could take her out a few times and try it. The other way would be to introduce yourself to other sailors with pups at the Marina. Once they hear what you are doing and your reseverations, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone offered to take you out!

    • So, as a former sailor, you know the kinds of concerns I have. First I need to make sure Honey’s comfortable with all the motions of a boat, the sails, and the sheets. But then I’ll need to work on teaching her how to stay out of the way.

      I will certainly look into dog-friendly rentals and hope I can find such a thing.

      BTW, if you go back to sailing, don’t underestimate Kolchak. I’ve seen some very cute videos on YouTube of smaller dogs who seem to enjoy lying in their comfy bed in the cockpit feeling the wind in their ears.

  8. I grew up with boats and dogs, but not sailboats. I’m not sure how much different a sailboat is from another boat. Honestly, we just took the dogs out in the boat and that was it. Our dog loved swimming, so he’d hop out and swim in the river with my sister and I for a while, then we’d help my dad haul him onto the boat when he got tired.

    Have you checked to see if there might be a Meet Up group of sailors in your area? If you got in with some people who had boats and were sailing, they might be willing to take you out and see how Honey would do. You might also try putting a flyer up in your vet’s office to see if anybody there would be willing to take you out.

    • Two really great suggestions–I will try both of them. I always read the notices in the vet’s office so maybe it will find the right person.

      Truth be told, I see fewer sailboats with dogs than power boats. Since I live on an inland lake, we usually see day sailors. And with the slightly more complicated factor of wind being less predictable than an engine, I think a lot of sailors just leave the dog at home. It’s the long distance sailing cruisers who are most likely to have their dogs along.

      Hmmmm, maybe a trip to the Bahamas is in the cards. Y’know–research.

  9. Daisy loves the boat!! She isn’t fearful of any noises so the motor (we dont’ sail) doesn’t scare her. But don’t the sail flap in the wind some? Has she has aversions to noise? Setting up a tarp to blow in the back yard might help her get used o the sight and sound of somethign making noise over her.

    The part Daisy did have to get used to is the movement. I think the wobble board is a great idea! I know some agility folks start their dogs on a human half ball trainer so they can get used to movement too.

    Is there anywhere you can go kayaking?

    • After we discovered Honey was afraid of flapping tarps on a very windy camping trip, I followed up with the tarp on a clothes line. It really seemed to help. So maybe I’ll go back to it and add some ropes to the grommets to simulate the movements of a sail. Boy, will that give my neighbors something to laugh about!

      Thanks for sending the picture of the wobble ball. I had a hard time picturing what you were talking about. I will definitely give it a shot.

  10. No real experience with that, but my first thought was getting even a small rowboat (or borrow one) or if you know anyone with any kind of boat that would let you use for some test runs. Maybe even just rocking in one close to shore.

    Bravo for you trying something completely different and new! How exciting! Just don’t give or go to fast, Honey will let you know when she is ready. It might be just a trial and error kind of thing. See what seems to work for her and go from there.

    I have no doubt you will figure it out. :) Enjoy the adventure!

  11. You have already done everything possible. The wobble board is a great idea. Maybe you could also visit a club that trains SAR to use their obstacle courses. They usually have swing-bridges, etc. I used that for Kenzo as well.
    As soon as you overcome Honey’s fear with flapping canvas in the garden, you can take her with you to the marina and raise the front sail of your rental a couple of times. She wouldn’t have to come with you on the boat for that.

    And I am sure that using the marina bulletin board to find help is a great idea. My sailing days are long ago, but as I can remember the sailers (especially them) in a marina form an awesome community, just like pet bloggers do. I am sure somebody will want to help you out.

    • All great ideas. We’ve already started on the wobble board. Honey’s happy to look at it but she’s very reluctant to climb aboard. We’ll just have to be patient.

  12. zero experience in this so can’t help. sounds like you’re already doing heaps of prepwork. how exciting that you might one day live on a boat. sailing round the world …sigh…envy :)

    hope you had a great holiday weekend xox

    • I may never get all the way around the world. Taking turns keeping watch in the middle of the ocean is not my idea of fun.

  13. Hey Pamela,

    A few thoughts. I’m not sure if a sunfish would be a good boat to start with. It’s not that light (I believe the hull weighs somewhere around 120 lbs), and the floor space on the inside of the hull is very small, so Honey would have to sit on top– this feels much less stable than a boat with a deeper hull with more space. Also, because sunfish are so lightweight compared to their sail square footage, they are much more likely to capsize than other boats.

    We own a little Flying Scot, which is a smallish but heavy and therefore really stable– much less prone to tipping. It’s not a big boat but it does have a lot of “floor” space, which would be great for a dog to sit in. Down there, there is no risk of falling off the boat. The sad thing is, we keep it at a marina that doesn’t allow dogs, so poor Sir Chick has never been on it (we have only owned it since last fall and are trying to come up with a way to get him onto the boat without violating marina rules).

    If you do buy a small boat, look into places where you can store a boat and trailer on dry land in a boat yard of sorts. Many marinas offer a grassy area where you can park for a low cost– between $20 and $50 per month depending on geographical area and size of the boat. Our marina has a boat lift/hoist that picks the boat up and sets it in the water, but with most smaller sailboats you could also easily launch it from a trailer via a ramp. The nice thing about keeping a boat onsite at a marina is that you don’t have to put the mast up and down every time you sail– it takes a lot of time and makes rigging the boat up much more time-consuming. We can get into the water in about 20 minutes from the minute we park our car at the marina, but if we had to assemble the mast, run all the lines, etc, every time, it would be more like an hour at the front end and a back end. Just something to think about.

    Email me if you want to “chat” about it any more!


  14. PS- I don’t know what your budget would be like if you were on the market for a boat, but you could buy a decent daysailer for less than $2,000. The reason we loved the flying scot is that it is a simple boat (easy to sail, few parts that can break), heavy (therefore stable), and it ages really well (ours is from 1973 and in awesome shape). Not that you’re looking right now, but just to illustrate my point, here is a listing for a good Flying Scot in Michigan AND a trailer for $1500!

  15. What a great adventure! Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience with sailing – but I do know all about selling your house and embarking on a rather unusual journey. Our experience has been that with enough patience (and treats) dogs will adjusted to pretty much anything. I can’t wait to see how this turns out for you.

  16. Post an ad on Craigs List that you’re looking for a chance to expose a dog to a sailboat AND put up fliers at local pet shops and marinas, you’ll be surprised at the fact that sometimes people do go ahead and contact you to help out with the socializing part.

    Doing the desensitizing to flapping tarps is good also get dog used to moving objects like a wobble board… Agility actually would be good for a few different reasons. It teaches dogs where their legs are under them in tight spaces like the dog walk and teeter AND the teeter is also moving. Those are good things for sailing or powerboat life for a dog. Start teaching your dog to go potty on a piece of astro turf or sod… if you will spend long hours on the boat there is not always a chance to get to shore to potty the dog so going on a piece of astro turf or sod on the deck of the boat is priceless.

    Also make sure your dog is used to being confined… when water is rough you won’t want them up on deck, you’ll want them down below in the cabin area so they don’t get inadvertently tossed off the side of the boat. Another thing you will want to consider doing is getting dog used to wearing booties. Good ones can help them grip wet decks AND keep your gelcoat from getting scratched up.

    If you haven’t already, start teaching your dog to potty on command on lead so when you CAN dock and get off onto land, dog will go potty then not wait until it’s a 9-1-1 situation.

    Outside of that, you really need to be able to get the dog on a boat.

  17. What an awesome lot of advice you’ve been given! And such a great adventure for the 3 of you to be embarking on. I know you’ll get there with Honey, you’re doing everything right and I’m sure the end result will be worth the initial work you’re putting in. Good luck, I hope it’s all plain sailing … sorry, couldn’t resist:)

    Gosh, you haven’t humiliated yourself yet! I’m impressed:) I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve made a fool of myself, lol. Looking forward to reading about your experiences on and off the water.