How To Keep Your Crazy Dog From Jumping Off The Boat

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.

How to keep my golden retriever dog from jumping off the boat.

Photo credit: Alice G Patterson Photography

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.

Honey the golden retriever stands on the bow.

I should always ride on the bow. It’s the best place for flirting with dock hands when we’re coming into a marina. Photo credit: Alice G Patterson Photography

Impulse Control Is Crucial For Boat Dogs

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. 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.

Honey the golden retriever pulls on leash.

Got. To. Pull. Must. Get. Closer.

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.

Honey the golden retriever walks on a loose leash.

I’m keeping the leash nice and loose. I better get a big prize.

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. The easiest way 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.

Honey the golden retriever lies down on the dock.

I’m lying down nicely here on the dock. Isn’t that your cue to toss me a treat?

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 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 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 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.

Honey the boat dog with her Kurgo Surf N Turf Jacket.

I don’t mind wearing my life jacket. But it’s also nice getting naked at the end of the day.

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.

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?

We are pleased to be joining the Positive Pet Training blog hop with Tenacious Little Terrier, Wag ‘N Woof Pups, and Travels with Barley.

  1. It’s so interesting to see how different people train different things. For us, sit means sit until I release you, but I’m not going anywhere–so if we’re on a trail and a dog is walking towards us, the girls better keep their butts on the ground until I tell them they can get up, but I’m right there waiting with them. Sit-Stay means that I’m walking away (like at the first jump in agility) and you better sit and stay until I release you no matter how far away I get or what weird things I might be doing out there. So, I’d probably be just like other people with Honey getting up if I met her!

    • He he, Honey is a literalist. 🙂

      But seriously, we broke the cues up because we started training Honey as a puppy. She learned to sit long before she was really capable of any kind of stay. So we just kinda stuck with it.

  2. What a great post! I love how you tie in training and management together, because it’s so important to have both to keep your dogs safe, in my opinion. When we had our fishing boat and our Lab mix, Maggie, we also used both. She loved to swim, but she knew she was not to jump off the boat until we were stopped and said it was OK. But when we were underway (even though it was a fishing boat, it was power, and could go pretty fast), most often I had a leash on her just to be sure, even though she was very good about that waiting. If we were just “trolling” we’d usually let her off the leash, since she was such a good swimmer and we were usually on small lakes. Our beagle, Kobi, however, was almost always on leash, and he wore a life jacket, because he didn’t have very good impulse control at all. He loved to be on the front of the boat with the wind flapping in his ears! 🙂
    Thanks for joining the hop!

    • And every dog is so different–as your stories of Maggie and Kobi show. The training/management plans has to be suited to the dog.

      Of course, as we all know, even the best training and management doesn’t always work perfectly.

    • We did the traditional mother’s day thing here–scraping woodwork in preparation for varnishing. 🙂


  3. I don’t worry about Mr. N jumping off boats because he doesn’t believe in getting wet! When we were kayaking though, we saw a Lab almost upset a float because he saw ducks in the river. His owner was quite upset. Mr. N’s vice is other dogs. He wants to go say hi to everyone.

    • That’s something Honey and Mr N have in common. She would NEVER jump into the water. But jumping off the boat (sometimes even when it was still moving) t0 make a new friend–now that’s another matter.

  4. Does she wear a life jacket at all times on board? And I wonder if so, does this affect her skin underneath after a time?
    We are working on impulse control with Petey but at age one, he has none. We’re trying to make his exuberant greetings when Mike comes home from work more manageable and less painful (teeth, toenails).

    • We know of dogs who wear their life jackets any time they come up on deck. In their case, it is because they’ve ended up in the water more than once.

      For Honey, we always put her into her life jacket when we’re traveling. But if conditions are calm and it’s very hot, we take it off. We figure the danger from heat stress is greater than the risk of drowning.

      In rough conditions, we ALL wear life jackets.

      And no, I haven’t seen any issues with her skin. But she’s not prone to skin issues like many goldens are.

      Yeah, a big part of Petey calming down will be just getting older. But since he finds jumping on Mike so rewarding, perhaps that should be his reward. Maybe keep him behind a door when Mike gets home. And shut the door if he’s too rambunctious. And if he comes out calmly, he can jump up on Mike (who puts on padding).

      Or maybe Mike could arrange to sit down on the couch and invite Petey to come up beside him as a reward.

      Good luck.