What’s the most common question people ask when they see Honey on board? “How do you keep your dog from jumping off the boat?”
The answer is a few parts training and a few parts management. Oh, and a whole bunch of luck.
Dogs Jumping Overboard
It happens all the time. Many dogs jump overboard when they’re not supposed to. Just a few things we’ve seen or had happen to friends:
- A yellow lab got impatient during anchoring. He jumped overboard and promptly took a big dump in the shallow water near a popular, lake swimming beach (yeah, it ended me going in the water that day).
- A curious pup saw dolphins and jumped off the boat to go play.
- A tennis ball goes off the dock and the excitable lab follows.
And what about Honey? Does she jump off the boat?
We’ve taught her to sit, stay, and wait. That’s the training part.
We limit her access on the boat to the cockpit only. That’s the management part.
And Honey just happens to dislike swimming. That’s the luck part.
But Honey has been known to jump off the boat when we’re docking to greet the dock hand making kissy sounds at her (damn you, dock hand dog lovers!). When it happens, I know I need to work more on Honey’s impulse control.
Impulse Control Keeps Your Dog From Jumping Off The Boat
Impulsiveness is the desire to get something one wants without any concern for consequences.
Dogs don’t have the higher reasoning that tells them, “If I gulp down this chicken bone on the street I might make myself sick.”
Humans do, and it still doesn’t help. How many times have we known something we wanted was a bad idea and done it anyway?
To help dogs control their impulses, we need to teach them that waiting brings greater rewards than their impulses. And we need to reinforce it all the time.
If we don’t work on impulse control, our dogs pay the price.
Recently, I left Mike and Honey on the boat so I could work at the library in downtown Beaufort, South Carolina. They dinghied down the river to pick me up for supper.
I walked toward Mike and Honey as they approached me in the library parking lot. Once Honey saw me, she started pulling on her leash. Mike dropped her leash so she could run to me. But he didn’t notice the parked car that was running in its space.
Luckily the driver had stopped to check her phone before pulling out as Honey dashed behind her car tires. And yes, I let Mike know that dropping Honey’s leash in a parking lot was unwise (not quite the word I used but this is a family blog).
But Honey’s reaction to seeing me showed I needed to work on her impulse control. The next day, things went differently.
As soon as Honey noticed me and started pulling, I stopped walking towards her. I knew that standing calmly would help her mirror my calmness. Next, I asked her to sit and I used the hand signal to tell her to stay. Then I slowly approached, stopping if she showed any signs of getting up and pulling toward me.
When I was within a step of Honey, I released her from her sit and stay and give her a big greeting to reward her for showing so much self-control.
It takes a similar process to keep your dog from jumping off a boat–or indeed, doing anything they’re inclined to do that’s just unsafe.
Teaching Impulse Control
Before creating a plan to teach your dog impulse control, answer these questions for yourself:
- How impulsive is my dog? Each dog is unique. Some are fearless adventure dogs. Others, like Honey, are timid. Your impulse control training plan must work for your dog.
- Is my dog old enough to learn impulse control? Dogs, like humans, get better at impulse control as they grow older. Until your dog is at least two years old, don’t expect miraculous impulse control from them.
- What management tools must I use while I’m teaching my dog impulse control? A dog who jumps overboard in swift currents or who dashes through open doors on a busy road is at risk. Have a backup management plan for when impulse control fails.
Once you know the answers, you’re ready to start implementing your impulse control plan for your dog.
How We Keep Honey From Jumping Off The Boat
If Honey ended up in the water, she’d be frightened. Swift currents in the areas we travel could sweep her away from the boat in seconds. And it would be challenging to get her out of the water and back on the deck of our boat which has a freeboard (distance from waterline to deck) of about 4 feet.
So we use training and management to keep Honey on board.
Teach your dog the cues that keep them in place—sit, stay, down, and wait. These are among the most important cues to train your dog if you travel–click through for step-by-step training instructions.
The easiest way to train a dog is to catch them doing what you want and rewarding them for it. For “stay,” reward them quickly at first but eventually reward them only for longer stays.
Don’t make the common training mistake of confusing “sit” or “down” with “stay.” I’ve seen many sloppy trainers get irritated with Honey when she sat on cue but popped back up again quickly. They don’t seem to realize that “sit” is one training cue and “stay” is another.
Like all training, keep sessions fun, frequent, and fleeting (short—but, y’know I like alliteration). And practice all the time. If you get lazy, you might find your dog jumping off the boat like Honey looking for her friend the dock hand.
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We encourage Honey to stay in the cockpit. Although she will go exploring in strange circumstances, she’s generally happiest (and safest) in the cockpit.
Because Honey doesn’t usually roam around on board, we have not opted for lifeline netting (Amazon) around the boat. But if your dog has access to the boat, especially if they use the bow as their bathroom, netting is a good way to keep them safe on board.
A stretchy tether (Amazon) is a good management tool for some dogs. It won’t keep them from going overboard. But it will at least keep them attached to the boat.
We put Honey in her life jacket (Kurgo) when we’re underway. Not only would the jacket’s flotation keep her from tiring if she went over, the bright color makes her more visible. And most importantly, the sturdy handle on the back makes it easier for us to retrieve her from the water.
Finally, I’ve gotten much better about asking for cooperation from people who challenge Honey’s impulse control. Our standard docking procedure now includes asking dog-loving dock hands not to flirt with Honey.
Your management plan might include keeping toys on deck. Or bringing your dog below when dolphins are swimming by.
If you emphasize both training and management, you should be able to keep your dog from jumping off the boat.
And whether you live on a boat with your dog or not, impulse control is a crucial skill to work on. It helps keep Honey safe on board. It can do the same for your dog.
Your Turn: What makes your dog most impulsive? What have you done to improve their impulse control?