Preparing Your Dog for Adventure (or Teaching Your Dog To Sail When You Don’t Have a Boat)

Honey the Golden Retriever poses with the keel of a sailboat out of the water.

I heard sailing was all about sitting in the cockpit, drinking margaritas, and watching the sun go down. Where’s the cockpit? Where’s my margarita? And what’s the sun?

Let’s say you want to do something dramatic. Like selling your house and moving onto a boat.

Before you up-end your entire life, how do you know your dog will be happy with your choice?

Introducing Big Change to Your Dog

Before you stop reading because you have no intention of putting your dog on a boat, let me remind you that changes you are thinking about could be a big deal for your dog:

  • Moving to a new town
  • Taking a long car trip
  • Leaving your dog in a kennel or with a pet sitter
  • Going camping
  • Adopting another dog (or adding a cat or other animal)

How do you know your dog will handle the change well before you just go ahead and do it?

Here’s how we’re preparing Honey for sailing. By the end of May, we’ll know if it worked.

Making Honey a Sailing Dog

I’m a newbie sailor. This will be our third season on the water.

The good thing about that is that sailing is still a bit strange to me, like it will be for Honey. If I had sailed my entire life, I’d find it much harder to figure out what things about boating will feel strange to my dog.

I started by noting all the things about sailboats that could feel unsettling to Honey:

  • Boats are big
  • Boarding a boat is awkward, requiring a gangplank or scrambling over a bow pulpit or around stanchions
  • Boats move when you step aboard or move around them (at least the small ones)
  • Parts of the boat move unexpectedly, like the boom swinging overhead when you turn through the wind
  • Wind causes sails to flap noisily
  • Moving parts, like halyards, clank against the mast
  • When a boat is in motion, it may heel (lean to the side) so you find yourself sitting or standing on a tilting surface
  • Big gusts can blow a boat over dramatically
  • Spaces in a boat are compact and crowded
  • Wet boats are slippery to walk on

And that’s just the beginning. I haven’t even mentioned house training a dog to a boat on a long passage with no access to land.

So how do we expose Honey to a sailboat without buying one we can’t afford?

We expose her to similar experiences on dry land.

Honey the Golden Retriever practices being calm near a blowing tarp.

I have to say that this tarp blowing in the wind is kinda scary. I think I’d feel better if I had a margarita.

What Reminds a Dog of a Boat

Once you start looking, it’s amazing how many boat things you can do on dry land.

Our trainer, Russ Hollier, suggested a wobble board and a wobble plank to teach Honey to feel more comfortable with traveling over new and potentially moving surface. You can see her early experiences with these scary, moving objects in her video, Adventure Dog in Training.

After many months of training, she’s a natural with moving surfaces. She’ll sit or lie down on a wobble board even as I move it under her.

We’ve used drop cloths on the clothesline to simulate flapping sails. A flag pole is a good stand-in for halyards hitting a mast. Metal playground equipment in the rain is not unlike climbing around a slippery boat.

With all this practice, Honey has gained a lot of confidence.

Now we just have to test it with the real thing.

Honey Goes Sailing

Thanks to our friends at Go Pet Friendly, we found Dog Gone Sailing Charters in Provincetown, Massachusetts. At the end of May, Honey is going for a sailing day cruise.

I don’t expect any problems.

But if Honey has misgivings about sailing, we’ll see them—before spending thousands of dollars on a sailboat.

I read about a couple who wanted to go cruising with their miniature schnauzers. They took off on their new sailboat to discover quite quickly that both dogs freaked out every time the boat heeled. Luckily for these little dogs, their people were wealthy enough to sell the monohull and buy an even more expensive catamaran that would ride upright in the water, no heeling.

Poor Honey was not adopted into money.

So we have to count on training and socialization ahead of time to avoid making a big mistake.

Honey the Golden Retriever rides in a kayak.

Okay, I finally made it into a boat cockpit. Now where’s my margarita?

Training Your Dog to Accept Change

Are you thinking of any big changes in your life? Moving? Fostering? Travel?

How about big changes you don’t plan for? Like the Hurricane Sandy devastation our friends at Life with Desmond are coping with? Can you do anything to help your dog tolerate big change?

Based on our efforts to prepare Honey for sailing, I have a few pieces of advice. If she freaks out on the sailboat in P-town, I’ll take it all back.

1. Get professional help.

Our trainer, Russ, suggested things I would have never thought of in a million years. Honey’s confidence has increased a thousandfold thanks to the advice we got from a pro.

If you’re making a big change in your life, why leave it to chance? Give your dog the best chance of success by working with an experienced, positive, and relationship-based trainer.

2. Make a list of the specific things your dog will have to cope with in your planned change.

Once I had my list of potentially scary things about a sailboat, it was easy to take the next step.

3. Expose your dog to your planned change a little at a time.

We spent a lot of time just walking around the docks with Honey before starting actual training.

If you’re planning to foster dogs, why not try walking your dog with a neighbor and practice introductions to new dogs in the yard and house? Taking a cross-country car trip? Better plan a multi-hour road trip first.

4. Practice something every day long before you make your change.

If you’re going on a trip in the fall, it’s not too early to work on crate training if you’re planning on taking your dog to a kennel. Maybe you can plan some trips to the kennel with really fun treats so every time your dog sees the building, she gets all excited.

Sure, your ego will suffer if your dog doesn’t give you a second glance when you leave her behind. But wouldn’t you want her to be happy while you’re gone?

5. Have another plan if your dog just can’t make the shift.

Some dogs tolerate change better than others. It’s the same with humans.

If Honey doesn’t like sailing, we won’t go sailing. You may face a similar issue. But it will be easier to consider if you have a back up before you find out your dog just can’t handle the change you’re hoping he will make.

We’re family. We have to figure out how to make all of us happy.

Planning a Change? Start Today

If you’ve ever wondered if your dog could handle a new dog in the house, travel around the country with you, tolerate a stay with a pet sitter, or even something as crazy as living on a sailboat, now is the time to see.

You have nothing to lose. Except your wonderings of what your dog is capable of.

Your Turn: Do you have big dreams of an adventure with your dog? How about another change that’s less dramatic? Have you done anything special to prepare your dog?

Frosty Paws Giveaway Caption Contest

I am pleased to announce that our impartial judge, reading the captions to yesterday’s picture,without the names of the commenter attached, has chosen two winners.

Honey the Golden Retriever takes a bath.


“I don’t know what this ‘doggy smell’ thing is, but ever think maybe it’s YOU?” from Carma Poodale


“I love my people… I love my people… I love…” from Roberta of Silverwalk Hounds


As I look at the judge’s notes, I see it was a tough decision. Many of the captions have smiley faces by them. Comments mentioning “pee” seemed to go over quite well with this judge. But in the end, he chose the two who seemed to best capture Honey’s expression.

So Roberta and Carma Poodale, please send me your mailing addresses by Saturday, April 27 so I can mail your Frosty Paws prize packs.

Congratulations to you both. And to all our other entrants with wonderful senses of humor and sympathy for my poor wet dog.


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  1. Wow, is it really possible to live on a sailboat for a length of time? Do they make sail-houseboats? I guess I know very little about boats.

    Sounds like you are well-prepared and your journey with Honey should be smooth sailing, so to speak. What great ideas for preparing a dog for big change, rather than just hoping for the best.

    • Long term sailors are called cruisers and there are thousands of them all over the world.

      The life has a bit in common with living in and traveling by RV. A 30+ foot sail boat has a small galley (kitchen), compact sleeping quarters, and a head (bathroom) about the size of a phone booth.

      The big difference? If you’re crossing an ocean, you can’t just stop in the middle of the night. Someone has to keep watch to makes sure you don’t sail into a tanker.

      So I’m thinking the life will be as big a change for us as for Honey. But we have a choice, she doesn’t. Hope you’re right and the preparation pays off.

  2. Excellent advice on thinking through how things may impact your dog. We’re not sailors, but would take our dogs on ‘pontoon’ boats for fishing. Sally, being a Lab LOVED it…ready to jump out in the middle of the lake and into the water. Tino HATED it as soon as we got within jumping distance of the dock he jumped out and ran down the dock until he was on dry land. Poor thing – we didn’t take him again.

    • You raise a point we’ve thought about a lot. Honey doesn’t know she’s a water dog and she isn’t interested in swimming. That could be a very good thing so she doesn’t jump in the water like Sally.

      She’s never jumped out of the kayak so I’m hoping a sailboat will feel even more secure to her.

      • Jack & Maggie are like Honey, no interest in swimming or water. I used to try to keep one hand on Sally all the time though – she really wanted to just jump in that water and swim and if a duck happened by…oh no…made me so nervous. I see she has a life jacket, so that’s good. But you are probably right the sailboat will seem more stable and safer. Good Luck!

  3. Global Dachshund Crossposting says:

    Though I have not sailed recently I grew up sailing. A great post to start one thinking about changes. Thanks.

    • Lucky you. I wish I had been introduced to sailing as a young person. The learning would be much easier.

      If you decide to take it back up, we’ve seen a few sailors who take their dachshunds with them. Apparently many of them take to it quite well. :)

  4. It’s great that you are so thoughtful and forward thinking that you have started preparing Honey now. My approach with Chester and Gretel has pretty much been sink or swim with things (no pun intended) and they have handled it pretty well. I have come up against a couple of cases where I think I hurt the process by making too big of a leap.

    • I never know if I’m being overly cautious or not. But after seeing how frightened Honey was the first time we tried to get her to walk on a ramp, I guess it pays to go slow.

      Chester and Gretel just might have bolder personalities for new experiences. But we’re always guessing what our dogs’ reactions will be when we try something new with them, aren’t we?

  5. Aw dog. Now all I can think about is a margarita.

  6. Bishu didn’t care for boats, wagons or sleds, but loved car rides. She didn’t like the feel of something slipping around under her and the wobbling/swaying, I guess. Even slipping your feet under the covers on the bed caused a “harumph” and dive off the bed to more stable surfaces. This was good since we preferred her not sleeping with us. A full size bed is way too small for 2 adults and a medium sized dog!
    Great ideas for our next go ’round. Hope to get our next dog interesting in kayaking.

  7. I think it’s fantastic how you guys are taking such great care to make Honey comfortable on the boat. You’ve really thought of everything, and I can’t wait to hear how your sail in P-town goes. If I’m not mistaken, one of the skippers on that boat is a beagle. It will be interesting to see if having another dog there might make Honey more comfortable – you know, he can show her the ropes. (Let the sailing puns begin!)

    We really didn’t have many challenges with the boys in the transition to the RV. Buster’s barking when we started and stopped was a bit of a hurdle, but even that’s gotten a lot better. Just knowing that they’re with us I think helps a lot. Families stick together … dogs believe that just as much as humans I think.

  8. Good job of preping!

    I went the simpler route, I live with bullheaded dogs that refuse to admit there is anything they can’t do – I can’t figure out if that makes my life harder or simpler – probably both :-) Just a different set of considerations.

  9. True, change is not easy all the time with our pets. A lot of it depends on the animal’s temperament and sometimes there’s no way to prepare them. When we moved into our house in Oregon, after a move from Colorado, our Maggie was freaked out by the wood floors and wouldn’t walk on them. We solved the problem by putting her bed by the door and she slowly figured out the floors weren’t as alien as she thought!

  10. Really great post here. We go through major changes every 2-3 years moving with the Military and we have been fortunate that Luna and Penny are able to quickly adapt to their new surroundings and lifestyle. Penny has a much bolder personality so she isn’t shy when we introduce her to new things. Luna, on the other hand, is probably similar to Honey where we have to take our time to build up her confidence.

  11. I know my dogs pretty well and how they will react and cope with most situations. One reason I fostered Riley is because I’d love another Greyhound and while Greyhound visitors are made very welcome here, especially by Frankie, I wasn’t sure of their reaction to an overstayer. After having Riley here for just over a month the jury is still out on the decision. Not sure if it’s because he just wasn’t quite the right dog or if it’s bringing a third dog into the equation. So I’ll keep fostering whilel I work it out and even if I never add another GH to our family I’m doing something good so it’s a win/win really:)

    Looking forward to reading about Honey’s day cruise at the end of May! I hope you all have a blast.

  12. You are one smart, thoughtful lady! And Honey is one lucky dog to have such an adventure ahead of her! I have dog friends who go kayaking and canoeing. I love the water, but have never been on a boat. You make it sound a bit scary! I hope Honey enjoys it. And I bet she will! Thanks for sharing.

  13. That is really cool what you are doing to prepare Honey for a sail. I always note that understanding our dogs is so important. Also, your post is helping me because I need to start thinking what I can do now to help Kelly in the event we adopt another dog. I know she can adjust, because she did with Brooks, but I also know that she will likely have some trouble with the transition when the time comes. I will have to use your suggestions to brainstorm ways to help her. Thanks. And I can’t wait to hear more about your sailing!

  14. I believe most dogs are pretty resilient, especially if they have their owner by their side. Good luck and if you need a cabin boy, and a cabin dog, I am available.