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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?