Getting A Big Dog To “Go” On A Boat–Is It Harder?

What question are we asked most often about living with a big dog on a small sailboat?

It’s “does Honey go potty on the boat?”.

We’re working on it. But it isn’t easy.

I’m starting to wonder if it’s just harder to get a big dog to “go” on a boat. Here’s why.

Honey the golden retriever wonders why big dogs find it hard to "go" on boats.

I wonder too. I wonder how long you’ll be wondering before you take me for a walk.

How To Boat Train A Dog

Everyone gives the same advice for training a dog to go potty on a boat:

  • Get a pee pad or patch of fake grass
  • Put the pad or grass on the bow (front) of your boat
  • Take your dog to the bow
  • Give your potty cue
  • Reward your dog when he or she does what you asked

Some people add another wrinkle: add some enticing scent to the grass pad to tell your dog it’s where he needs to “go.” I’m sure it’s helpful if your dog scent marks on walks.

According to many boaters, it’s easy to train your dog to “go” on board.

Sometimes they start with puppies. Which you’d expect would help the process along.

But I’ve noticed something else about the dogs who adapt easily to eliminating on board—nearly all of them are small.

Is it actually easier to teach a small dog to potty on a boat than a big dog?

Honey the golden retriever puppy pees on the floor.

You said I was “house” trained. You didn’t say anything about puppy kindergarten.

Not All Dogs…

There are people cruising with large dogs who never learn to potty on board.

We met a couple in Panama whose 40 pound setter mix needed to go to shore every day, rain or shine.

Loki is a dog cruising on the sailboat Infinity.

I won’t potty on a boat. No way. No how.

Apparently they hopped island chains from Florida to Panama, never going more than 2-3 days offshore so they could get their dog off the boat.

I’ve read stories about large dogs who held their bowels and bladder nearly four days before finally— well, you know.

I’m sure there are cruisers who crossed oceans assuming their dogs would eventually learn to “go” on board and not make themselves sick.

And probably many more who changed plans when it became clear their dog would suffer a lot to keep from breaking their house training.

Every story I’ve heard about a dog who failed to potty successfully on board, or who only succeeded after many days of stress, was about a dog who was medium-sized or larger.

Is there something about big dogs that makes boat training harder?

A paddle boarder in Hampton, VA with two large boxers.

A paddle boarder out for a relaxing ride with his two boxers. Or is he?

What’s Different About Big And Small Dogs?

When a couple of my small, adult foster dogs had accidents in the house, I wrote “What’s With Little Dogs Who Pee In The House?”

Many people agreed with me that people treat small dogs differently than large dogs and can hinder their perfect house training. Others pointed out that small dogs have smaller bladders and have to “go” more often.

But there’s another difference between small dogs and big dogs. And I wonder if it is the key to making small dogs more successful at adapting to boat life.

The difference is that small dogs are small and big dogs are big.

Paddleboarding sailor takes his dogs for a break.

Oh, I see. The paddleboarder took his dogs to shore for a potty break from his anchored sailboat.

How Do You House Train A Dog

Okay, stay with me.

Have you crate trained a puppy? How about a puppy who was going to grow into a big dog?

Large metal crates come with a removable insert. The insert makes the crate area smaller for the puppy but still allows you to adjust the crate area as your puppy grows into a large adult dog.

Why does a puppy need a smaller crate?

Because the key to crate training is that dogs don’t like to soil their eating or sleeping area.

Honey the golden retriever puppy in her crate.

Honey in her crate with just enough room to sleep.

If you put a ten pound puppy into a large crate, they can go to the other side of the crate to do their business while still feeling far enough away from their food bowl to be comfortable. And if they do that, they don’t learn to avoid soiling their crate.

We crate trained Honey.

I really don’t remember her soiling in her crate. She learned to signal to us very quickly that she needed to go potty. And within two weeks of coming home with us, Honey was nearly perfectly house trained.

If we took Honey outside as often as her tiny body needed, she would not “go” anywhere in the house.

As Honey grew, we saw the desire to soil away from her living area influence her behavior in the yard.

By the time she was fully grown, Honey would go as far back in the yard as possible. She would sometimes urinate at the bottom of the porch stairs. But she would always go as far from the house as possible to defecate.

When Honey had other large dogs visit for play dates, I’d see the same thing. The large dogs would go off to the back corner to do their business.

Little dogs were different.

Often, they would take care of their business at the bottom of the porch stairs. And, a few times, when it was extremely cold, I had small dogs pee or poop right outside the back door on the porch.

Frankly, I found that very smart behavior. These smart, small dogs knew the difference between outdoors and indoors but were going to maximize efficiency to get back inside as quickly as possible on a sub-freezing day.

Okay, Pamela, what does all this have to do with teaching a dog to go on the boat?

Small Dogs Are Small…

If all dogs prefer to eliminate waste far from where they eat and sleep, how far is far enough?

Do dogs say to themselves, “Well, my food is only two feet away. I should probably move over another six feet. And since these kitchen tiles are about nine inches across, that means I should move about eight tiles away before I pee all over the floor?”

Of course not.

But dogs do have body awareness. And I suspect that dogs use the size of their own bodies as a rough measure to tell them where to move far enough away from their living areas before they eliminate.

But far away is very different measured in Chihuahua compared to measured in Newfoundland.

Perhaps dogs have an instinctive idea of a comfortable distance away from their living area before they eliminate. Let’s say it’s ten body lengths.

Ten of Honey’s body lengths would take her to the back corner of our old back yard. And ten body lengths for a  Boston terrier would be somewhere between the second and third steps down the back porch.

Let me put it back in boat terms.

At anchor, for Honey to eliminate as far from where she eats and sleeps as she was at our house, she’d have to tread water.

Honey the golden retriever wants a snack in the cockpit.

You want me to poop on this boat? I eat here!

But any of the small dogs we fostered, could go to the bow of the boat and be as far from their living spaces as they are on land.

Boat Training Honey

For a long time, I’ve suspected Honey would not easily learn to potty on the boat.

Before we left our land-based home, I put a grass pad down outside. We could not coax Honey to use it until it was covered with snow. But once she did, we assumed the scent would help her use the grass mat to potty on the boat.

My husband also took the grass mat out to wipe the ground with after Honey eliminated—just to strengthen the scent cue a little more.

Once we moved on board, I discouraged Honey from seeing the bow of the boat as her living area. I never allow her to go forward of the gates where we step off the boat.

Sorry folks. You’ll never see cute videos of Honey flirting with dolphins on the bow of the boat. Or posing with our anchor.

As far as Honey is concerned, the bow is the potty.

So how did that work out for us?

Honey At Anchor

At a marina, it’s easy to take Honey off the boat for breaks. She uses her ramp to step onto the dock and off she goes for a walk on land.

Honey the golden retriever with a ball in Hampton.

I love the public piers in Hampton. They’re just steps away from a great park.

When we anchor, taking Honey off the boat is more complicated, and can even be dangerous (as I shared in our first Boat Dog Adventure anchoring story).

On our recent trip north up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, we decided to anchor near Topsail Beach, North Carolina. We had been towing our dinghy and just needed to attach the engine to take Honey to a nearby boat ramp for her evening walk.

But instead, we decided to encourage her to go on board.

My husband put the grass mat on the bow before putting Honey on her leash and walking her forward. He encouraged her to sniff the mat and repeated our usual cue, “Hurry up.”


We waited all evening for Honey to signal to us that she needed a break.


The next morning, we raised the anchor at 5:45 a.m. so we could arrive at our first swing bridge at 7:00 a.m.

While we were lining up to go through the bridge, Mike tried again to convince Honey to take advantage of the floating facilities with the lovely, waterfront view.

No way. And still, not a single complaint.

When we arrived at a marina for that night’s stay, Honey was quiet and patient while we tied up.

I leashed her and got her off the boat as fast as I could. Once she hit grass, Honey peed for as long as it takes to binge watch one season of bad television.

It had been 33 hours since she last relieved herself.

I don’t know how long Honey would wait before relieving herself on the boat. But I’m not sure I’m cruel enough to test it.

Besides, there are plenty of wonderful places to see by boat without leaving sight of land for more than a day.

Honey the golden retriever running on the beach.

One good thing about anchoring out. Sometimes we get a beach all to ourselves.

Why Won’t She

So why won’t Honey relieve herself on the boat?

Is it because she doesn’t like the fake grass mat? Would she do better with a  piece of sod?

Does she see the whole boat as our living area and therefore out-of-bounds?

Or is the deck of the boat just not large enough for a big dog to get far enough away to feel comfortable eliminating? Perhaps if I shrank her, she’d be as good at peeing on the boat as the little dogs.

Or maybe it’s not really harder to get big dogs to “go” on the boat at all. And I just have a weird dog.

What I do know is that life on board has to be good for all of us. And if Honey won’t potty on board, I don’t see us visiting the Mediterranean any time soon.

Your Turn: Do you think my theory about big dogs and little dogs makes sense? Or is there some other reason Honey won’t “go potty” on the boat? And should we give up trying to make her?

  1. I recognize the space she needs. Tilde doesn’t like to use the garden too, and always prefers to wait until we go for a walk.

    Another thing that might have something to do with it could be she never wants to pee or poo the same place twice. Even if you would clean the pad, no doubt the nose would still know.

    • It’s hard to know what any dog will prefer. Many people advised us that having the scent on the mat was essential to teaching Honey that it was her place to go.

      But I suspect her preference for certain substrates beats any scent cues. And yes, Honey, like Tilde likes a clean spot.

  2. I think Honey is smart and well-trained. 🙂 She knows she’s not supposed to potty “in the house”, so she doesn’t. Maybe the grass isn’t outdoorsy enough for her. 😉 You do have a good theory about the small dogs though. I know Shiner would pee on a boat if she had to. She’s not into the “holding it” thing and will pee when she has to, especially now that she’s older. I had a UA recently, because she was having more accidents but it was normal. I would imagine her obedience level is not as high as Honey’s.

    • I know of one cruising couple who put a piece of actual sod on their boat. And no, it didn’t work. At least not yet. 🙂

      I’m not sure Honey is more obedient that Shiner. But dogs, like humans, have different levels of tolerance. I know a human who used to pee in his wet suit when he was out wind surfing. And when the wind took him upside down, urine would trickle down his face.

      As far as I could tell, he was perfectly house trained the rest of the time. But wind surfing? All bets were off. 🙂

  3. I think your theory sounds good. Roxy will potty pretty close to the RV, especially if it’s cold. Torrey will go as far as she can. I honestly don’t think I could train either dog to use a potty mat. Roxy maybe, especially now that she is older and has to GO more.

    • Glad to hear someone with a small dog backing up my observation.

      I also wonder if I did myself in by teaching Honey to “go to a mat” for treats. Because she kept sitting go on the grass mat when we wanted her to pee on it. 🙂

  4. Whoa, 33 hours?!?! Yikes, last year I had to work late for a particularly difficult and long closing and Sam was in the house all day unattended for 15 hours without a potty break. I thought that was impressive especially given that he is a male dog and an older one at that. But I’m telling him a girl beat him…by a lot. 😉 Give that girl a huge medal!

    • Wow, Sam is one impressive fella. Sounds like he really didn’t want to let you down.

      I’ve always heard that female dogs can hold it longer than male dogs. I never knew why given that human females tend to pee more often then men.

      But it just occurred to me–female dogs are often spayed. Without a uterus, they have lots of extra room for their bladders to expand. So maybe that’s why.

      Holding it wasn’t the shocker. What really surprises me is how Honey knows not to ask to go off when we’re on the water. In our house, she used to bark when she wanted to go outside. But she knows not to bother when we’re at anchor or underway. Pretty good situational awareness, eh?

  5. I think it would be hard to train a dog to go on the boat, especially any dog who has been well trained for years. Mom doesn’t like the potty pads and fake grass,. She feels dogs need to learn right from wrong with potty places, so we never have them around. It would be hard for us to learn to go on a boat. I know Bailie only will go on grass (or snow). When we went to Vegas she was 11 months old and held it for like 20+ hrs because there was only sand everywhere. We found fake grass at a food place, but she would not have anything to do with it.

    • I agree with your mom 100% about pee pads and fake grass in the house. I never took the offered pads when I fostered puppies. I’d rather teach them to go outside from the very beginning.

      Of course, that means you have to be around to take a puppy out every two hours.

      Sounds like Bailie and Honey have a few things in common. I suspect if we had started on this when she was a puppy, we would have found a way to teacher her to go on the boat. After all, service dogs learn to go on concrete and other surfaces.

  6. Your theory about body size and distance makes sense to me. It’s amazing that Honey waited 33 hours. Our boys have gone 16 hours on one occasion, but that’s it. Without knowing exactly the reason she doesn’t ‘go’ on the boat, it’s hard to judge when to stop trying to teach her to do so.

    • The shocking thing wasn’t the 33 hours–it was that she didn’t so much as whimper or complain. Not even when we arrived at the dock. I guess that’s part of the golden’s willingness to please.

      And unfortunately, it’s also probably part of why she isn’t “going” on the boat.

  7. This is a challenge, indeed, and your theory is interesting. Ruby is small but very fastidious. I expect it would be difficult to convince her to potty where we live, even if it were a boat. Boca’s a little more, er, “flexible” in her definition of house-training and I think she would go when she needed to on a boat.

    • Like humans, every dog is different. And yes, fastidiousness is definitely part of this whole thing.

      I wish I knew more about the dogs whose people swear they took to pottying on the boat with no stress.

      Perhaps we could hire Boca to be a tutor? Honey does like to learn from other dogs. 🙂

  8. Good suppositions…

    Maybe Honey just wants to get off the boat and go for since walk/run and has figured out if she holds it….her humans will take her to shore?

    • If only…

      Honey used to bark to tell us when she wanted to go outside when we were in a house. Sometimes even when she just wanted to play or laze in the yard. But she isn’t crazy about the dinghy and she does not ask to go to shore. So I can’t imagine she’s think to hold it in hopes we’d take extraordinary steps.

      On the other hand, I obviously don’t know what I’m doing. So maybe you’re right. 🙂

  9. I like your theory. I suspect for larger dogs that scent mark, all it would take is to have a smaller dog “go” on the bow or wherever you designate and the bigger dog may decide to go too if for no other reason than to one-up that little dog. If Honey’s not a scent marker though, that probably wouldn’t work. Blueberry is a scent marker. She wasn’t when I first got her, but now, she’ll pee on the sidewalk leading to the pet store if another dog has gone there before.

    • My first female dog was also a scent marker. She even lifted her leg.

      But not, not Honey. It is probably another part of why some people find it so easy to train their dogs to go on board.

  10. Your theory makes sense, but I’m not sure my crew really backs it up. Luke is the only one that goes as far away from the house as he can, Sheba doesn’t go any further than Cricket does and she’s 40 lbs bigger. But Luke is the only one that was crate trained, so maybe that’s a factor too.
    Snow is the great equalizer. Our dogs wouldn’t dream of going right outside the house on the deck – but if there’s snow out there? Anything goes! Too bad you couldn’t have some snow on the boat!
    I can see Sheba being like Honey, because she can last quite a while without going. Luke and Cricket both sometimes get up in the night to go, but Sheba never does. I always figured it was a size thing, but Luke only weighs just a few pounds less than her. Maybe it’s just a combination of factors – size, training, personality.

    • Dogs are absolutely complex creatures. And your crew backs that up for sure.

      Honey really likes to go in the snow. But she’d never go on the porch no matter how much snow we got.

      Every dog really does have their tolerances. Just like people do.

      We recently installed a composting head in the boat. As you can imagine it takes more management than a marine head–which takes more management than a flush toilet on land.

      We find that some of the people we mention it to say, “Cool, I’d love to have one.” And other people turn a little green at the thought. Just like pups, some are more fastidious than others.

      Hey, maybe I need to teach Honey to use the composting head. 🙂

  11. Wow, I can’t imagine holding it for 33 hours! Poop maybe, but pee…NO WAY! I know my guys don’t like to go in our fenced backyard unless they really need to, so I imagine Honey thinks of the whole boat as her home and yard. With the sensitivity of a dog’s nose, maybe they don’t want to have to smell their bathroom? I have no idea how you can get her to go if a 33 hour bladder doesn’t do it…..

  12. I can’t imagine holding it myself for 33 hours nor could I imagine my dog doing it either. Even though I swear Sampson is part camel, because he has gone up to about 20 hours once, but at that point I put my foot down and ‘made’ him go outside (it was raining). 🙂

    I’m really not sure how you can get a well trained dog to potty somewhere they are sure they are not supposed to. I wonder if you made a sort of ‘litter’ box with dirt and grass from a park that would have some ‘smells’ on it? If it was actual dirt and real grass, would it make a difference?

  13. Oh, what a sweet girl Honey is. That 33 hours is impressive! I really don’t know what Ace would do. He’s never been on a boat for more than 2-3 hours. It sounds like you are making things work by getting her to land every day.

    On a related note, my cats refuse to use the litterbox in the car. I drove from North Dakota to San Diego with them, about 14 hours in the car per day and I was impressed the chose to hold it until we got to the hotel every time even though I gave them several chances to use the box. But that’s no 33 hours!

  14. Your theory makes sense to me; but the important thing is that dogs don’t theorize, so what we think might as well fly out the window. BOL. All I can suggest is keep trying to “boat train” Honey. She’s a smart girl; one day she’ll “get it”. 🙂

  15. I think it makes perfect sense. When you talk about living on a boat – I think the bathroom routine is always going to be the most popular question once they realize you have Honey. Since dogs usually don’t “do” where they live – I believe that’s what Honey thinks when it comes to the boat.

  16. Honey is one smart dog and I think she sees the boat as her living quarters. She doesn’t want to potty where she lives but boy 33 hours is insane.

  17. I’d never thought about that side of things when you live on a boat, but I think I’d have trouble learning to ‘go’ on the boat because it’s a floating home.