You dream of strolling distant beaches with your dog. But what if your boat dog won’t pee on your boat? Is there anything you can do?
Training Your Dog To Pee On Board
Astonishingly, I’ve met several cruisers who have given no thought to training their dog to potty on board before planning a long passage.
Most dogs will eventually learn to “go” on board if they have no other choice. But some will experience stress. Others might end up with medical issues, like urinary tract infections.
And forcing your dog to do something they don’t want to can irreparably damage your relationship with them.
Cruisers who have been successful in training their dogs to potty on board have good advice. So why not start by following the suggested methods from The Boat Galley, Shaggy Seas, and Even Keel Traveller?
Or for a more detailed plan with one sailor’s actual results, check out How to Potty Train a Boat Dog.
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Generally, the best advice suggests you put a fake grass mat (affiliate) or piece of carpet where you want your dog to go and then wait her out. Praise her heavily when she does the deed.
But what if after following the conventional wisdom, your dog still won’t pee on your boat? Maybe it’s time to try something new.
Listen To Your Dog
I’ve watched a lot of dogs pee.
Besides my own dogs, I’ve fostered about a dozen puppies and dogs. One thing I’ve learned is that dogs have as many quirks and preferences as any human.
The reason not every dog will pee on board is because the advice you’re following doesn’t work for her. You need to train your dog. Not someone else’s.
I’ve definitely learned this with my dog who is reluctant to pee on board, even after four years.
Based on years of watching dogs pee, here are some reasons your dog won’t pee on the boat. Along with a few suggestions to try in response.
Reasons Your Dog Won’t Pee on Board
If you’ve tried to get your dog to potty on board and she just won’t do it, there might be a few reasons.
Let’s take a look at them and some possible solutions that might work for your dog.
Not far enough from where they eat and sleep
The core theory behind crate training puppies is that dogs are reluctant to eliminate close to where they eat or sleep. If you crate train a puppy that will grow into a large dog, you need to put a divider into the crate to keep them from soiling in a distant corner.
One thing I’ve observed when fostering smaller dogs is that they’re far more willing to eliminate close to the house than large dogs. But my dog Honey and every other large dog I’ve fostered went to the far reaches of the yard to potty.
Even if we’re sitting outside on the beach, Honey will cry when she needs to pee. She wants to get far away from where we’re hanging out before relieving herself.
On a boat, you’re only going to be able to get so far away from your dog’s eating and sleeping areas. Observe your dog’s behavior on land. Maybe it’s a problem for him too.
Solution: Don’t use their potty area for any other activities. Stop hanging out to watch dolphins with your dog on the bow or the trampoline of your catamaran. At least not if you expect him to consider it his bathroom. Or check your boat carefully for an even more remote spot.
No scent from other dogs
This tip is for people with avid scent-markers on board.
Bogie was the strangest dog we ever met. He would just follow Honey around the park like a stalker. But the instant she peed, he sprang into action, covering her scent with his.
Does this sound like your dog?
It’s a myth that every dog will eliminate over top of another dog’s scent (see my next point). But many will—especially (but not exclusively) males.
If your dog lifts his leg at every light pole or fence post, he may need another dog’s scent to stimulate his urge to pee on the boat.
Solution: Rub your potty mat on an area where another dog just peed. Or get another boat dog to “go” on the mat first.
Too much scent from other dogs
When we take Honey off the boat at a marina, she’ll sniff the first grassy spot where every other boat dog pees. And then she’ll walk at least twenty feet farther away before she relieves herself.
It doesn’t matter how long she’s been on board without a break. She has no interest in putting her paws where another dog has just pottied.
Is your dog that delicate too? You’ll only know if you watch her carefully. If you see every other dog in the park peeing on the same spot but your dog doesn’t, you might have the same issue we have with Honey.
Solution: If you have already “scented” your dog’s mat, use Nature’s Miracle (affiliate) or some other enzymatic cleaner. Or buy a fresh mat—dog noses are amazingly sensitive. Be careful not to use ammonia-based cleaners where you want your dog to pee; the smell may be too similar to urine.
No absorbent surface to “go” on
If you’re walking your dog in a city, where do they prefer to go? On the concrete walkway? Or on grass or dirt?
City dogs, with few other options, learn to go on hard surfaces. But most dogs, given the choice, prefer a more absorbent surface.
Let’s face it, would you want to be standing in a puddle of your own pee? I thought not.
You might have to create an absorbent area on your boat for your dog to pee on.
Solution: Use an absorbent pee pad (affiliate). Have them go on your catamaran’s trampoline. Use real sod or something else that absorbs moisture.
No target to pee against
Does your dog lift his leg to pee? He might need a vertical target to pee against.
Solution: Get them a fire hydrant or other vertical surface (affiliate) to target.
Your dog doesn’t understand what you want from her
You dog wants to please you. They just might not understand you.
Be very clear about your potty ritual. Don’t take your dog to their pee place and start playing with them. If you plan to reward them with treats, put the treats downwind from your pup or deep in a pocket.
Basically, avoid doing anything that will distract your dog from what you want them to do.
Solution: Teach a potty cue. Use the same methods you use on a walk – take them on a leash. Use their scent on the mat.
Don’t like the place you want them to go
People have preferences. Why shouldn’t dogs?
But there are understandable reasons for a dog not to feel comfortable peeing in the place you’ve set up for them. The most important thing to ask yourself is whether your dog feels safe.
If your “pee spot” is exposed, like a swim platform or a bow with only lifelines, you might have to make some adjustments before your dog feels comfortable enough to eliminate.
Solution: Find an alternate potty place on board. Modify the setting (add netting or other protection) so your dog feels more secure.
Your timing is off
I’m a huge proponent of Dr Ian Dunbar’s errorless house training for puppies. Pups learn quickly if you take them out regularly and every time they’re likely to need to pee—after eating, sleeping, or playing.
Even as adults, dogs will have patterns for when they’re likely to need to go. Pay attention to your dog’s.
If she always likes to pee immediately after waking, do your boat training then. Work with your dog, not against her.
Solution: Watch them to see when and where they like to go. Adapt.
Your dog is anxious about “going” in the house
Remember our #1 reason your dog might not pee on the boat? Their designated potty spot is too close to where they sleep or eat?
If you’ve followed the suggestions there without success, you may need to build your dog’s confidence.
The saddest story I ever read was from a cruiser who waited out her sensitive dog until he could wait no longer. When he finally relieved himself on the spot they had designated for him (after 40 hours!), his people praised him lavishly. The poor pup, however, ran back to the cockpit and trembled for hours.
Finally giving in to his urge wasn’t relief for that poor dog. It was a trauma.
I can’t guarantee that building your dog’s confidence will get him past his reluctance to go on the boat. But it can’t possibly hurt.
And anything you can do to strengthen your relationship will be good for both of you.
Solution: Follow suggestions for the first reason on this list. Practice calming and trust-building.
Training My Dog To Pee On The Boat
Here’s the method we followed to prepare Honey to pee on the boat.
While we were still living in a dirt house, we put the mat we intended to take on board into the yard. Honey wouldn’t go anywhere near it.
When she did pee, we followed the guidance of other cruisers and wiped the perforated fake grass mat on the wet spot. Still, she showed no interest in going on it.
Finally, with a light covering of snow on top, Honey peed on her own mat. We knew she would still smell the scent when we moved on board.
But we wanted to be sure.
Knowing that Honey would be reluctant to pee anywhere near our “living” spaces, we never allowed Honey to go forward of the gates on our boat unless it was to potty.
When we set sail, we walked Honey forward to her spot. She sniffed. We said, “Hurry up” (the cue we taught her to pee on cue on land). She stared at us dumbly. So we walked her back to the cockpit to repeat later.
In the end, Honey waited us out 33 hours without peeing on board. When we finally got to shore, she still waited to pee until she found the perfect grassy spot.
I decided that I wasn’t willing to defy her obvious hesitance. We’d just work around her.
But Honey surprised us one night.
We were anchored at Carolina Beach, North Carolina in a driving storm. In the middle of the night, she started crying and wouldn’t be comforted. We wondered if she was bothered by the storm.
But then she stood up on the edge of the v-berth. It was obvious she wanted to go out.
It wasn’t safe to dinghy her to shore. So my husband took her up on the bow and encouraged her to pee.
When she didn’t, he brought her back to the cockpit where she promptly squatted on an old cushion.
At last! Maybe this was the turning point we had been hoping for.
Honey peed a couple more times on the boat. It was obvious to us she had a urinary tract infection (UTI) we’d have to treat.
But with the barrier broken, we thought our fastidious pup had finally decided to pee on board.
Nope. Never again.
And after several courses of antibiotics, a urine culture, and a cancer scare, we resigned ourselves to taking Honey off the boat every day to take care of her business.
Will Your Dog Ever Pee on Your Boat?
Many “experts” on Facebook cruising groups insist boat dog potty training is simply a battle of the wills. You just have to wait out your dog.
And in a sense, they’re right. Your dog will eventually be forced to potty on board if you don’t take them to shore.
But what’s the cost?
If your dog is a confident, happy-go-lucky pup maybe all he needs is to have the choice taken away from him. And if you trained your dog as a puppy to use a scented potty pad inside the house, they can probably recover that memory with no problems.
But if your dog is the least bit sensitive or fearful, that might not be the best approach.
So what should you do?
Watch your dog
When do they eliminate? Where? What makes them hesitate? On land, do they prefer to potty in the yard or away from your house?
Your dog’s behavior at your dirt house provides a wealth of clues.
Make a plan
Follow the advice of others with boat dogs who potty on the boat. It’s worked for many pups. Maybe, with a few tweaks for your own dog’s individuality, it will work for you.
But take your cues from your dog to find a plan that works for both of you.
Let your dog take the lead
Let your dog show you the path forward. After all, this is something you’re working on together, not something you’re trying to make your dog do.
Finally, if all else fails–
Create your backup plan
If your dog won’t potty on board, look at other options that will work for all of you.
We met a couple in Panama with a dog who refused to potty on board. Amazingly, they managed to get him to the Guna Yala islands by taking the shortest passages possible until they made it all the way to Central America.
Other cruisers we know have left their dogs behind with children. It’s not a suggestion I make lightly. But I always think it’s better to choose the path that your dog will find happiest.
We opted to make our cruising grounds the eastern United States where we could stop each night to take Honey off the boat.
While I dream of sailing to more distant shores, I have no complaints about our lives.
I’ve loved visiting tiny towns. We’ve especially enjoyed anchoring off the shores of lovely spots such as South Carolina’s Edisto Island State Park while other cruisers rush by on their way to the Caribbean.
A dog isn’t an automaton you can switch into a new mode of being by flipping a switch. Your dog is someone you’re in a relationship with.
And the ultimate solution to your dog not peeing on the boat is finding the best solution that works to make both of you happy.