Do This To Make Your Dog’s First Boat Trip A Good One

This was the moment. We had spent hundreds of dollars and worked for hours on training. All to move toward living on a sailboat with our dog. But would Honey go for it? Would our dog’s first boat trip be a good one?

Honey the golden retriever looks happy on the boat.

Do I look happy?

How To Make Your Dog Comfortable On A Boat

Years before we bought our sailboat, Meander, we worked to help Honey be comfortable on a boat.

Her first boat was a kayak. But we didn’t just toss her in the cockpit and paddle off. We spent a long time preparing so she would be happy from the very beginning.

If you want to make sure your dog will be comfortable on a boat, here’s what you need to do, step-by-step. Because introducing your dog to a boat begins before you even put your swimsuit on.

Ask What Your Dog Is Like

What is your dog’s nature? Is he cautious and timid? If so, take your time exposing him to the boat.

Abigail the boat dog, guards a sailboat in a marina.

Meet Abigail. She was on a neighboring boat at a marina we visited. And she is much bolder than Honey.

If your dog is fearless, your bigger issue will be keeping him from jumping off the boat. Be honest with yourself about your dog’s personality. Because it will help you plan a happy experience for both of you.

And speaking of you

Ask What You’re Like

How will your fear, impatience, or cockiness affect your dog on the boat?

If you’re afraid of capsizing your kayak, grit your teeth every time you feel another powerboat’s wake, or become anxious when the sailboat heels, your emotions will affect your dog. Especially if they are fearful themselves.

And if you’re a daredevil, be careful not to race ahead with fun on the water before your dog is ready. If you want to kayak on Lake Superior with a storm coming in or sail with the rails in the water, leave your dog home.

At least until you know he’s as much of a thrill seeker as you are.

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Black dog waiting in boat.

This mellow fella was waiting for his people at the Georgetown public docks.

Gather Your Boat Dog Gear

For a minimalist like me, it’s painful to realize that only taking tiny humans on adventures requires more gear than taking your dog. But I have certainly come to appreciate well-made boat gear.

Depending on your dog’s personality and your boating plans, you might want to consider the following:
Honey the boat dog wears her life jacket in the cockpit.

  • a life jacket (actually, EVERY dog and human should have a life jacket, no matter how good they swim)
  • a stretchy tether to keep them on board
  • recovery gear, like a block and tackle, so that if your large dog went overboard you could lift them back on the boat. I’ve seen strong men struggle to lift a squirming 80-pound dog out of the water onto a floating dock. Imagine how hard it is to lift them back onto a sailboat in even mild chop. Recovery is another reason to put your dog in a life jacket since dogs don’t come with handles.
  • a spill-proof water bowl to keep your dog hydrated. On a powerboat, it’s easy to step in your dog’s water bowl and spill it. On a heeling sailboat, the water bowl slides right across the cockpit. If you plan to take your dog on a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, you might be better off using a water bottle with an attached bowl.Honey the golden retriever sits on the dock with her spill proof bowl.
  • an automatic dog-overboard signal, a simple device that clips onto your dog’s life jacket and will notify you through your cell phone if your dog goes into the water and you don’t notice (yes, it happens more than you’d realize).
  • a ramp – can you get your dog onto the boat from the dock? Or will she need some help? And if you like to swim off your boat, a floating ladder can also help your dog get back on board.Honey the golden retriever smiles on her ramp.
  • seasickness medicine. Your vet can give you the proper dosage of over-the-counter medicine that is safe for your pup. And they may suggest some natural treatments as well.
  • sunscreen for your dog’s nose and possibly, the inside of her ears. And don’t forget your own.

Training

Sure you can take your dog on a boat ride without training them first. But your trip will be much safer and less stressful for both of you if you teach them the cues every traveling dog should know. These are the cues we use most often for Honey on board:

  • wait – when we want her to stay in one area until we release her
  • stay – when we need her to stay stock still either sitting or lying down
  • jump – to get her to jump on or off the boat onto a dock
  • walk – to ask her to use the ramp to get on or off the boat onto a dock
  • stand – for putting on a life jacket or harness
  • sit/lie down – to keep Honey low in the kayak when water got rough.

In addition, make sure your dog knows how to swim. Don’t assume they know without being taught.

Little Vic's dinghy going to shore with the dog.

We met this friendly boy and his captain on our travels. I know he would have swam over to our boat if we had encouraged him.

Your First Boat Visit With Your Dog

You’ve thought about the nature of your dog and your own personality, gathered your gear, and done some training. Now it’s time to check out the boat.

If the boat is a kayak, canoe, standup paddleboard, or some other kind of small watercraft that you own, expose your dog to it out of the water.

Honey’s first time in our kayak was in the backyard. We braced it so it wouldn’t move too much and tried to train her to jump in on her own. When it became obvious that the cockpit was too small for her to feel comfortable jumping in, we practiced our variation of her jumping up on the edge and us lifting her in.

Our “dry” run was also where we realized that Honey would never sit in the kayak looking forward. She insisted on facing me in the kayak cockpit. I was glad we learned all of this before we experimented in the very cold water of our then-home in Ithaca, New York.

Honey the Golden Retriever rides in a kayak.

My first kayak trip. And I don’t know why you’d complain that I don’t face forward. Who wouldn’t want to look at this face?

If Honey had been a more excitable dog who loved jumping in and out of the kayak on her own, we would have also wanted to know that before getting to the creek.

If your boat is already in the water, can your dog board by himself? Or using a ramp, can they walk on? If so, and they climb aboard with no issues, you’re nearly ready to go. Allow your dog to explore the boat, reward them mightily for their bravery, and make sure they still feel comfortable when you start the engine or raise flapping sails.

If your dog shows any signs of hesitance, take a step back. You don’t want your dog’s first associations with your boat to be you scooping them up and forcing them aboard or of them falling overboard in a panic at the first sight of flogging sails. The more your dog willingly chooses to follow you on the boat, the happier you both will be.

And if your dog is a gamboling fool jumping all over the place like a rabbit on crack, now is the time to test your safety gear.

Remember, this whole process is to make sure everyone is safe and happy. And while a video of your dog going overboard to greet the dolphins might be YouTube gold, it’s a lot less fun when the wildlife in your waterway is an alligator. Even if your dog feels sheer joy at being on the boat, make sure you can keep him that happy.

Alligator on the river in the Francis Marion Natural Area.

How big a worry is an alligator? Well, they’re shy. But they’re also very hard to see unless you’re looking for them.

The First Big Day On The Water With Your Dog

I don’t have to remind you to check the marine weather forecast before you go out, do I? Good. I thought not.

Now you just have to do the things you always do to make sure your dog is comfortable when you travel.

Pack enough fresh water for the day. Don’t assume your dog can hydrate herself, even if you’re boating in fresh water. You could end up stepping in the results of a case of giardia or other waterborne illness in the middle of the night.

Be ready to watch your dog for signs they feel overheated (panting, drooling, disorientation, etc.). A covering that shades at least part of the boat is ideal. But if you’re in a small vessel, a compact umbrella will fit easily in your dry bag and give you relief from the beating sun when you take a break and lazily float together.

And if you’re in a gasoline or diesel-powered boat out on all but the calmest conditions, watch for signs of seasickness (panting, whining, lip-smacking, drooling, or vomiting).

Finally, are you and your dog having a good time? Because you want your dog’s first time on a boat to be fun. If the answer is yes, then you’re ready for the last step in getting your dog comfortable boating.

Honey the golden retriever gets treats in the dinghy.

I’m getting yummy treats. So if this continues, I’ll like boating just fine.

Repeat

Go out as often as you can.

Just be careful. Remember how I mentioned that we spent tons of money and time getting ready to sail?

We found a dog-friendly sailboat charter in Provincetown, Massachusetts. After sniffing the boat’s captain, crew, and canine mate, Honey was ready for her first sailboat ride.

Once underway, Honey was content to cuddle up with me or my husband while the captain and her crew sailed. She was happy to be where we were. And that was what we needed to know before going any further in planning to live on a boat and cruise full-time.

Now, many thousands of dollars and hours of toil later, we live and travel on a boat every day. I guess we made our dog’s first boat ride a good one.

If you’re not careful, it could happen to you.

Honey the golden retriever on Meander.

I wonder what adventures I’ll have next on my boat.

Your Turn: How does or would your dog react to a boat? Are they the timid type? Or a crazy adventure dog? Or are they somewhere in the middle?

We’re joining the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. This month’s theme is Transportation: how do you prepare for traveling with your pet? Be sure to check out the hosts Travels With BarleyTenacious Little Terrier and Wag ‘n Woof Pets and the other great blogs joining the hop this month.

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  1. So much good advice here! I never would have thought so much went into training a dog to sail if I hadn’t been following your adventures with Honey. Honey is so lucky to have a family that puts so much effort into making sure she’s comfortable, safe, and happy! Thanks for joining the hop 🙂

  2. I remember much time spent in our driveway getting the dogs used to the boat before we ever took them out on the water, and that was just for day fishing on lakes. Those dogs weren’t very timid so it was easy. I imagine it would be a far longer process with Luke!
    I never did get brave enough to try taking any of the dogs out in my kayak. I guess I was smart enough to realize that if I was afraid of tipping over, I’d have a hard time teaching them to relax!
    Thanks for joining the blog hop – great post!!

    • Glad to hear you worked with your dogs before going out on a boat. I’m kinda horrified when I talk to some cruisers who do very little preparation before moving onto a boat full time.

  3. Mr. N is the crazy adventure type but he also doesn’t believe in getting wet unnecessarily so… I don’t have to worry about him jumping in! We did paddle past this Lab who was trying to go after a duck and almost capsized the float he was on. He hasn’t been on any big boats yet. It takes him a few minutes to acclimate before he realizes he’s not getting wet (much).

    • Lots of people think that a dog who is crazy about swimming is the best one to take on a boat. Actually, it just adds a whole new level of risk.

      I have a friend who is single-handing with her medium sized dog. Recently he jumped overboard to play with the dolphin. Luckily she saw him and was able to retrieve her in the dinghy. But if she had been below, she might have never known she had gone over.

      Now the pup wears a monitor that alerts her person if she goes overboard.

      Personally, I’d rather boat with Mr N or Honey BECAUSE they don’t like getting we unnecessarily. 🙂

  4. Great tips! And sound advice, especially the part about knowing your dog and yourself. When we had our boat, Callie and Shadow were both young, and in Callie’s case especially, a bit dare-devilish. And I was a bit nervous about taking them out on the boat. We had a hard enough time managing the boat without having to worry about watching the dogs. So, they never got to go for a boat ride. And then the cost of maintenance and gas just got to be too much for us. So we sold the boat. And to be honest, I haven’t missed it at all.

    • OMD, I think of a daredevil dog as more than I want to manage along with our boat.

      In truth, I wouldn’t own a boat (bigger than a kayak) if I had a house myself. It is an awful lot of work for a hobby. And with dogs? Yeah, it’s a lot.