I Need Your Advice For My Timid Dog

We all worry about our dogs.

You might worry about your dog getting injured or sick. I worry about my dog going overboard and being lost at sea when we move aboard a sailboat next year.

I’m working on ways to prevent that from happening.

But I need your advice for my timid dog.

Honey the Golden Retriever rides in a kayak.

What do you mean it’s time for our canine overboard drill?

Protecting The Dog At Sea

How important is it to keep from falling overboard?

When Europeans set sail to exploit explore new lands, most sailors did not swim. Falling overboard was such a horrible fate that knowing how to swim would only delay the inevitable.

It’s easier to turn a 35 foot sailboat around than a multi-rigged, wooden schooner. But it’s still not easy.

And it’s very difficult to find someone in the waves. Many captains recommend tossing every floating object out of the cockpit if you see someone go overboard so you have a trail of litter to help you get back to your crew member.

We’re planning on installing netting on the boat’s lifelines, clipping ourselves to the boat at night or when we’re alone in the cockpit, and, of course, using life jackets.

And here’s where I need your advice. Because I wonder if the safest life jacket for my dog Honey might also freak her out.

Honey the Golden Retriever is training new sailing skills.

I’m snuggy enough to sleep thanks to my life jacket keeping me warm.

Canine Life Jackets

Honey is used to wearing a life jacket. We’ve never taken on a kayak or sailboat without her wearing one while we’re underway.

But summer temperatures where we live now are usually in the 70s (24 C). So Honey doesn’t suffer too much from wearing an extra coat over her fur. And she only has to wear one a few hours.

What about when we get to Grenada, Hispaniola, or Panama? And when we’re aboard a boat all day, every day? Is it fair to make her wear a bulky life jacket because I’m scared of something that may never happen?

Honey the golden retriever naps on a sailboat.

Good thing we’re in Canada. This life jacket would be pretty hot in the Tropics.

But I read a review of an inflatable life jacket for dogs. And I became very interested in it for Honey. Until I saw the video.

I wonder if the whoosh of the jacket inflating would freak Honey out. Check it out for yourself.

See the complete video, including fitting the vest to the dog, at YouTube.

If you watch the video, Rusty looks startled when the life vest inflates. And he swims to shore so he can figure out what’s going on.

But Rusty is obviously a confident dog. He’s not concerned enough about wearing what looks like a raft to stop fetching and swimming.

Would Honey’s potential fear or the inflating life jacket make a bad situation worse? Or is going overboard at sea such a serious danger that her discomfort at the strange noise and motion not worth considering?

And if we do choose the inflatable life jacket, should we buy extra cartridges to practice desensitizing her to it? Or would that just make her reluctant to wear it in the first place?

Honey the golden retriever at Treasure Island marina.

This ramp is freaky scary at home on the porch. But here, it means adventure.

For example, Honey was never comfortable with the telescoping ramp when we were training her with it at home. But once we used it to give her access to the boat from the floating dock, she became pretty comfortable with it. Maybe the same thing would happen with the life jacket.

I’m open to any advice you can offer, based on your experiences with timid (not severely fearful) dogs. Should we try the inflatable life jacket? Or not?


If you want to read about dogs on boats, check out my reviews of Sophie: The Incredible True Story of the Castaway Dog and A Sea Dog’s Tale.


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  1. Margaret T says:

    Whoa, that’s a hard one. How expensive are the cannisters? Is it not to be inflated until the dog is overboard? Can it be inflated and then put on?

  2. Yikes, a tough one. Having a fearful dog, I can relate. I think I might not desensitize her – with Maggie I know it would take forever. I’d use it, but hope that it never has to inflate :)

  3. Hmmm, yeah, I can see how that inflation could freak her out. I guess I would side with the “a brief freak-out is better than drowning” theory.

    Not sure about how to desensitize her to it – if she saw/heard it and it scared her, she might never let you put the vest back on. If she’s comfortable wearing it, falls in the water and then it inflates, she’ll probably too busy thinking about what the heck she’s doing in the water in the first place to care too terribly much about the inflation. (I hope?)

    Tough call. Does the manufacturer offer advice about getting your dog used to it? Sometimes they do…

  4. Man, that’s a tough one Pamela, not sure I know what to share that’s not already been said. The inflation would not be tolerated with Leo, but I could see Harley eventually accepting it. But once you’re on the boat you want to keep her safe…..

  5. Wow, I never thought about the life jacket thing, even for humans. Usually we are on a boat for maybe a couple hours and then back to land. Will you sleep in a life jacket? Now with all these thoughts on tethering, etc, it is starting to sound scary. Mom says the inflatable jacket sounds like the ones on the airplane, which are very loud and would most likely scare any dog. They used to inflate them in training. We really have no answers for you, but you opened up a can of thoughts for us!

  6. Okay, keep in mind this is coming from someone who has never even seen an inflatable life jacket. I, personally, would buy the jacket, and the extra cartridges, and S L O W L Y start getting Honey used to wearing the jacket around the house. Maybe even, after a few weeks, put her in a tub of water with it on so you can be there with her to calm her down when it inflates. If you’re there with her, she might be less likely to panic I would think. If you can practice often enough in the tub to where Honey will barely notice the thing inflating, then she should be okay with it. Having been a Girl Scout, my motto has always been “be prepared”; but I haven’t always put it into action. I assume there’s a money-back guarantee just in case Honey refuses to adjust to it?

  7. PS. I like Leslie’s thoughts on this better than my own, truth be known. Check for the manufacturer’s suggestions on how to introduce it to the dog. And if you decide to buy it, make sure it has a money-back guarantee just in case.

  8. I would buy about 20 cannisters if they are not too expensive, and I’d figure out a way to inflate it many many times when it’s not even on her, just near her. Make the inflation cause for a party with a lot of happy whoops and treats. Then eventually you could inflate it on her, when the noise is no big deal any more.

  9. That is tough. I imagine going overboard is traumatic in itself, especially for a dog that does not like water. Would the sudden whooshing panic her more? Could you get her use to the inflating vest?

    My thought would be to inflate the vest without it being on her, praising and rewarding when she doesn’t react to it. When she’s comfortable with the sudden whooshing then perhaps put it on her.

    Now some people may come to the conclusion that the risk of the sudden whooshing startling the dog is greater than the risk of her drowning because she went overboard. So I guess you have to weigh it out. You know your dog best, what do you think?

  10. If this is only ever going to be used for a true emergency, I don’t think that “one time” inflation is going to make any difference. It’s going to inflate and she’s going to be like Shit!!! twice. Once for hitting the water and two for the inflation. It looks like it is so stable, it won’t matter if she freaks out. I can’t see using that as the everyday life jacket. Out in the ocean, yes, but at anchor in a cove somewhere it is overkill. She will acclimate to the warmer climate and be able to wear the normal vest. She’s going to have to learn to get wet for cooling purposes.

    While we all where life jackets on the jetski (for the humans it is the law and a must to avoid a ticket and just plain good common sense), when I used to sail on the Chesapeake Bay, no one ever wore vests, even when racing, and we were all hiking out to balance the sails. The bay isn’t the ocean, but you do get where you can’t see land. I never even thought about vests. I actually think there is more risk when everyone rafts up at night and the drinking starts. Stepping across 6 boats to get back to your own can be quite treacherous!

  11. Oh God, Rusty there looks like it scares the bejeezus out of him when it inflates! Poor guy. But yes, as you say, he seems like a confident dog and though they do a cut in the video so you don’t really know how much time has elapsed, he’s back in the water after some investigation.

    I’m not well versed in the doggie life vest industry, so have no input regarding the range of life vest styles which may or may not available. I’d say depending on cost, using one like that might still be a good plan. As Leslie said, there might be enough environmental stuff going on should Honey go overboard that the vest is just one more thing, and not necessarily isolated stimulus.

  12. Hi Pamela! Here’s my thoughts on the situation:

    I did this review back when we were researching lifejackets, and ultimately it comes down to the areas you’ll be cruising in regards to temperature, whether or not you will be going off shore or staying coastal, and the functionality of the straps.

    I found the following when looking at the Critter’s Inflatable lifejackets:
    ◾Pros: Suburb breathability, buoyancy and range of motion, automatic CO2 inflation when submerged in water, front float for head support, adjustable size S, M and L (from 6-200lbs)
    ◾Cons: Expensive $70, Automatic inflation could accidentally be triggered in damp or flooded wet lockers, support straps have no chafe protection

    That said, I chose Kyjen’s Outward Hound life jackets for our Weimaraner and Boxer/Pit mix. Check out the link for all the details about why we chose that one.

    At the end of the day, only you will know which kind you are more comfortable with. I will say that our dogs do patrols regularly around the deck at anchor, even when its rolly, and we haven’t had a problem yet. As long as Honey can swim, it will be okay :) Our dogs only wear the life jackets in rough seas or at night on passages. Day sails, we don’t worry about it, and definitely not at anchor.

    Regarding Grenada – it’s HOT! We don’t care to wear more than a bathing suit and our dogs don’t want to wear anything either :) I do keep a harness on Gunner at all times though as he is almost 14 and we need the support for helping him around the boat. It’s the only way to get him out of the water at 75 lbs.

    It’s important to have a life jacket on board for your pup, but don’t stress too much about which one you choose. She won’t be wearing it very often.

  13. I know Sage would totally freak out if one was just put on her and it suddenly inflated. But, like Taryn said above, it should only happen if Honey fell in and then you want the protection.

  14. I would say that’s it’s worth the risk. The chances of her needing it are slim, so the fear factor isn’t a huge risk. Odds are high that she’ll never have it inflate while she’s wearing it, and if the need arose I think that all the things going on around her might make that less noticeable. After all, there’s going to be a big splash and disorientation that comes along with falling overboard. My guess is that her survival instincts would override the startle instinct that happens when it inflates.

    If you really feel that you need to practice with the noise, my guess is that there are other inflatable things that you could set off so she could hear the sound without it being right there next to her body. My guess is that if she got to observe it from a close distance and got some positive rewards while it was happening, she wouldn’t be too upset. That’s just my thinking on the subject.

  15. Sorry I don’t have much advice. Maybe just try to practice inflating it a few times without her wearing it and seeing how she reacts?

  16. Hmm, this is a tricky one. You’ve had heaps of great suggestions. The inflatable life jacket doesn’t look very bulky when it’s not inflated. I’d definitely be inclined to get one for her. As for whether to desensitise her or not, that’s the tricky bit. I’m lazy and wouldn’t. Knowing she doesn’t like the water she would probably have more things to think about than that yellow thing that’s just appeared all around her. How well can she swim? I would invest more time making sure she is very comfortable swimming in as many places and conditions as possible then desensitising her to the lifejacket. Here’s hoping it never gets used!

  17. I think I would buy it for peace of mind, but I wouldn’t attempt to sensitize her to it. IF she ever sets it off, I think she’ll be so busy processing everything that the noise won’t be such a big issue.

  18. My intial thought is potentially falling into the sea in the first place is going to be a high stress moment. It is unexpected, new, scary (maybe) and so to then have something go off and make a strange noise and expand is only going to make it more scary, is it not? I would be tempted to get it now and start working on desensitising Honey to the noise, the feel and the inflation.

  19. I remember you saying that Honey doesn’t like to swim, but I’m wondering if it might be worth trying to find any new ways of helping her learn to swim or get more comfortable with being in the water. I can’t wait to read about your new sailboat adventures next year!