It’s your dog’s first time on a boat—you hop on board and off you sail, right?
Maybe. If you have a confident dog and a comfortable boat everything might be fine.
But a timid dog, or one with poor impulse control, might have a harder time settling in on a boat. And if conditions aren’t ideal, any dog can be uncomfortable.
Why It Matters
Introduce your dog to the boat carefully. After all, mistakes the first time on the boat can ruin things for a long time to come.
You certainly don’t want your dog to feel terror on the boat if you dream of lazy days on the water every weekend. Or maybe you hope to take a long cruise or even move onboard forever.
With a little thought in advance, you can set your dog up for success and many years of happy cruising. Just by paying attention your dog’s first time on a boat.
Do These Things Your Dog’s First Time On A Boat
It can seem like a formidable list. But every dog will benefit from you doing at least some of them. And scaredy pups will gain even more.
Our dog Honey is well socialized but a bit on the fearful side. We did all these things before introducing her to her first recreational sailboat and we’ve been cruising happily together for the last four years.
If your dog is timid, you can’t go too slow.
Start by visiting the marina. Let your dog explore the smells. Feel a floating dock move under her feet. Get a chance to walk on a ramp made of a metal grate. (Most dogs avoid metal grates when walking on the sidewalk. It’s a skill that many have to learn).
When she appears comfortable at the marina, take her on board. Let her explore the ramp or jump onto a swim platform. Sit in the cockpit, play, and have fun.
If she’s comfortable sitting on the boat, perhaps try starting the engine. Or put up the sails and let them flutter in the breeze.
At each point, if your dog looks calm and relaxed, you can go onto the next step. If she shows any sign of discomfort, slow down. Go backward to the previous step she seemed comfortable.
If your dog is fearful, you won’t regret taking it slow.
Heck, even if your dog is a daredevil, it won’t hurt to be conservative in helping her feel comfortable on the boat.
Look for signs of fear or discomfort
Do you know what it looks like when your dog is stressed? Are you sure?
I’ve identified 13 ways that dogs show stress. Some are subtle. Some are extreme.
But they’re all important to know.
Before you ever take your dog on board a boat, understand how they show stress so you can identify it before it becomes too serious.
Figure out how to get your dog on and off
I’ve seen some awkward dogs getting on and off boats at marinas. Probably the worst situation was when high winds were causing white caps in the marina!
A couple was alternating between coaxing and yelling at their pit mix to jump off their trawler onto a narrow finger pier. The dog was terrified and they weren’t listening to him. (Listening to your dog is an important boat skill).
After turning down my offer to lend them my boarding ramp, they eventually got their dog off. But wouldn’t it have been better if they had considered ahead of time how to get their dog on and off the boat in all kinds of conditions?
We’ve used two kinds of ramps and a block and tackle to help Honey on and off Meander. All of them have made her much happier getting on and leaving the boat.
Sure, we could carry her on and off. But I prefer to let her choose to board when she’s ready.
Let your dog choose
Any dog will feel more comfortable deciding how and when to get on and off the boat. Especially if you have a small dog, it can be tempting to pick him up and carry him aboard. But it’s better for your relationship if you give your dog options.
Try to save forcing your dog to move at your pace for the day the Coast Guard is rescuing you at sea. Until then, there’s no reason you can’t go at your dog’s pace.
Give him choices on walks too. Let your dog pick the route. Allow him time to sniff until he’s done.
Dogs do our bidding most of the time. Giving them the ability to make choices (when reasonable) builds your bond and stimulates their brains.
Groom your dog
On a boat, good grooming doesn’t just keep your dog looking nice. It’s essential for safety—theirs and yours.
How can that be?
Grooming to keep your dog safe
Non-skid on a boat means it’s non-skid for shoes. All bets are off when it comes to paws.
To keep your dog safe on a boarding ramp or deck, their paws need to make full contact with the surface. That means short toenails. If you hear clicking when your dog walks, you’re putting them at risk for slipping off the boat.
Some dogs need an extra step in foot grooming. Until I adopted a golden retriever, I had no idea that some dogs grow hair between their pads.
If I’m not watchful, Honey can grow hair from the bottoms of her feet long enough to get matted! And when that happens, she’s definitely at risk of slipping.
In hot weather, grooming also protects your dog against extreme heat. Shaving long-haired dogs can put them at risk of sunburn or worse. But regularly dematting fur and brushing undercoats will help to keep all dogs cool and protected from hot spots.
But regular grooming protects more than just your dog. A grooming practice that you start to keep your dog safe on their first boat trip will also help if you decide to cruise full time.
Grooming to keep your boat safe
When you don’t groom your dog frequently in a dirt house you see the results when you move a chair or wash your bedding. There are tumbleweeds of fur everywhere!
Where do you think that excess loose fur goes on a boat? Somehow it finds its way into any delicate mechanical part you have on board.
It’s good advice to check your bilge pumps frequently. It’s even more crucial when you’re boating with a furry pet.
And believe me, brushing your dog is way more fun than taking a bilge pump apart and cleaning its filter. Just make it part of your daily routine.
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Speaking of routine…
Keep your dog on a routine
On the day of your dog’s first day aboard, don’t change his routine. Even if you’re just going for a day sail, set your alarm to make sure you feed your pup on time.
(Of course, make sure you brought his food on board. Never assume you’ll make it back home before dinner. That’s a sure guarantee that the wind will die or change direction and you’ll spend hours tacking back to the dock.)
Routine looks very different when you live on a boat. The time we wake up to travel depends on tides, currents, and bridge openings. Our meals may be pushed aside by boat chores or weather conditions.
But we always keep Honey to a regular routine.
When we leave an anchorage at the crack of dawn, Honey gets a full play session to relieve herself and let off some steam. No matter what else is happening on board, she gets fed on a set schedule.
Fit them with a good life jacket
Not all dogs like wearing clothing. My Honey doesn’t even like wearing a bandana around her neck. So don’t assume your dog will take to wearing a life jacket with no issues. Try it out before you go boating.
There are lots of good life jackets for dogs out there. Honey currently wears the Kurgo Surf n Turf life jacket (Kurgo) which doubles as a rain jacket when you remove the floatation. Other popular life jackets include the Ruffwear Float Coat (Amazon) and the Paws Aboard Life Jacket (Amazon).
You should experiment to find the one that fits your dogs. Dogs with barrel chests or long bodies might be hard to fit so try them on in a pet store or order them from companies with a good return policy.
Make sure the life jacket you choose has the following characteristics:
- flotation under the chin to keep your dog’s head up while swimming
- a bright color that you can see easily in the water
- sturdy handles for pulling your dog back onto the boat or dock
- well-made straps that don’t cut into your dog’s body when you’re using the handles.
We know cruisers who put a life jacket on their dogs every time they step onto a dock—just in case.
Apparently, one scary fall off a dock in a high current is enough to make any dog-loving sailor plan for the worst.
Make a plan for if your dog falls in the water
When we took sailing lessons before moving on board our instructor had us practice retrieving a fender from Lake Ontario while sailing. Crew overboard drills are how you train your body to react quickly when the worst happens.
If your dog goes in the water, do you know where your boat hook is? Does everyone on board know how to manage the sails or engine to recover her?
What if your dog goes off the dock? Do you understand the currents? Know where the nearest ladder or ramp is located?
Of course, the best thing you can do it make sure no one goes overboard at all. You can find many varieties of dog safety tethers (Amazon) to keep your dog secure in a car. I’m not convinced any of them are ideal for our boat. But perhaps they’ll give you an idea for something that might work on yours.
And when walking on the dock, keep your dog on leash. Don’t allow them to play around. And save fun and games for dry land.
Give your dog a comfy place to doze
If you’re lucky, your dog will spend most of her time on your boat sleeping—just like at home. But it’s more likely to happen if you provide a safe place for them to doze.
In our small cockpit, it’s challenging to move around without stepping all over each other. But the high coamings give Honey a safe place to curl up. She’ll often curl up in the curve of the aft starboard side of our cockpit. It keeps her close to whoever is on the helm and out of the way of crew managing lines.
Don’t forget that keeping your pup out of the sun is important for keeping them happy. Shade is your friend. And if it’s really hot, you may find a wet towel or cooling pad (Amazon) keeps your dog comfortable.
If you can find a spot in your cockpit (or below, if it’s a better choice for your dog), he’ll be happier. And you’ll have less to worry about too.
Reward good behavior
Recently I noticed Honey hanging around my husband’s legs while he cooked dinner. It looked strange to me because when I cook Honey stays planted in her bed.
Because I reward good behavior.
When Honey was very young I’d tell her to “go to bed” as soon as I started cooking. Then, every few minutes, I’d toss her a little morsel of whatever I was making.
Ten years later, she still plants herself in her bed whenever I approach the kitchen. And I never have to worry about tripping over a dog when I’m carrying a hot pot of pasta to the sink to drain.
When you set out on your boat, fill your pockets with your dog’s favorite toy or treat. Then, when you spot her doing something good (settling down, resting in a safe spot, walking easily up your boat ramp, etc.) reward her with something she loves.
Eventually, you won’t need to provide a reward every time your dog does the right thing (intermittent reinforcement is stronger than constant rewards; just ask any gambler). And you’ll have a very well behaved pup.
Assign someone to watch the dog
Last year, I took a three-day trip down the Chesapeake to deliver Meander to a boatyard for a refit. My only crew was my sister who is a non-sailor and Honey.
I had been planning on doing the trip alone with Honey. But when on the second day the winds came up, causing choppy conditions, I was happy to have my sister along to take care of Honey.
Honey’s not fond of rolling seas (well, really, who is?). And she will show her discomfort by being unable to settle down. Of course, it makes me a nervous wreck when she’s walking around the boat in rough conditions. So I was thankful my sister was there to comfort her and keep her sitting in one place.
If you’re as new to boating as your dog is, it can be easy to get distracted by sailing and miss noticing how your dog is coping with conditions. That’s why it’s good to have someone specifically assigned to watch the dog for signs of discomfort when you’re first starting out.
What you learn the first few times on a boat will help you manage future trips so they’re good for everyone.
Of course, no matter how well you prepare, the weather can always make a good day less fun.
Whenever you encounter sporty conditions, it’s always in your best interest to keep your head. But if you have a furry little alien traveling with you, it’s even more important.
If you’re calm, it will help your dog stay calm. If you’re excitable, they may mirror your behavior.
Have a contingency plan if your dog reacts badly
No matter how much you prepare your dog, they may still react badly to the boat. Fearful pups may become terrified. Active, daring, and excitable pups may become a menace as they race up and down the deck barking at dolphins.
If your dog doesn’t respond well the first time you take them out on a boat, have a backup plan. You may have to simply turn around and come home.
I read an article about a couple who set off cruising from California with their West Highland white terriers. By the time they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, the dogs were in a panic over the boat heeling. They turned around and headed back to the marina, only resuming their cruising plans after trading their monohull for a catamaran.
It’s a pretty expensive contingency plan—to replace your boat. But at least they were committed to their dogs’ welfare, knowing that they were responsible for making certain everyone in the family was happy with their cruising choices.
Of course, if they had read this piece first, maybe their dogs would have been better prepared for the trip. Or the couple would at least have known what they were facing before they took off cruising.
Your Dog’s First Time on the Boat
Some people reading this won’t get past the first paragraph. They’ll say to themselves, “It’s a dog. They’ll do fine.”
And maybe some of them are right.
Dogs are intelligent and amazingly adaptable. Many well socialized and confident dogs could hop on a boat, set out across the ocean, and do absolutely fine.
But mine wouldn’t. Despite having the best start in life and excellent socializing from the very first day, Honey is a timid dog. She needs time to build confidence when trying scary things.
Because I know that about her and give her time, we have a very strong bond. And when I really need her to, she will do anything for me. Because I’ve built up a strong reserve of trust with her.
(Well, almost anything. Although we’ve followed all the best advice to get a dog to “go” on board, Honey has no inclination to use the boat as a potty.)
Dogs with poor impulse control will also need time to adapt to boat life. They may look brave. But that bravery could result in some dangerous choices.
I’m willing to bet that nearly every story I’ve ever heard of a dog going overboard underway was about a fearless dog.
Besides, haven’t you spent time preparing yourself for going on the boat? Haven’t you talked to other sailors? Read websites? Watched YouTube videos? Chartered a boat?
Why should you do any less for your dog? Give them the same chance to get used to being on a boat before you take them out for the first time.
I guarantee you won’t regret the time you spend making your dog’s first time on the boat a good time.