How to Transform Separation Anxiety On A Boat

You may know the signs your dog is anxious when you leave him alone in the house. But what does separation anxiety look like when your house moves?

And how do you transform separation anxiety to strengthen your relationship with your boat dog?

Honey the boat dog in the waterfront park in Beaufort, SC.

Everyone I love best is in my sight. I have nothing to feel anxious about.

What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like

Our first dogs, Agatha and Christie had dramatic separation anxiety.

By the time we locked the door, they had started howling. Yes, howling. Sometime between our leaving and returning from work, they managed to destroy floors and walls and left puddles of urine and feces all over the floor. Some dogs’ signs of separation anxiety are worse than even Agatha and Christie’s while other dogs, like Honey, might show their anxiety in a mild way.

From the time Honey was a puppy, we made leaving her and coming home a drama-free experience. She usually got a small treat to occupy her when we left. And when going out the door, I’d simply tell her to “be a good pup” without stopping to love her up.

As a result, she’s usually calm when we leave her on the boat—sometimes even continuing to doze under the table as we leave. But living on a boat, Honey appears nervous at some separations.

Honey the boat dog sleeps in.

What’s with the camera? Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep in?

Separation Anxiety For A Boat Dog

What Honey loves most about boat life is how easy it is to keep track of her family. We eat, sleep, and work on a vessel that is 34 feet long and ten feet wide on the beam. It is almost impossible to lose someone (although if Mike is topsides I’m always listening for a splash).

What makes her most nervous is splitting the family up.

This isn’t new. When we lived on land, I’d occasionally walk Mike to work with Honey. When Mike entered his office, Honey was reluctant to return home. She hated leaving him behind.

Honey looks back on the beach.

What are you doing all the way back there? Aren’t you coming?

But on the boat, this mild anxiety reflects the fact that Honey knows that home can move.

On travel days, we feed Honey early. And Mike and I buzz around storing things safely, getting ready to sail, and pulling out life jackets, charts, and binoculars for the cockpit. Honey, who likes to sleep in, looks unconcerned by all the activity—until Mike takes her off for a walk.

Although Mike never rushes Honey on travel days, she does her business quickly and is less likely to play. She knows we’re getting ready to weigh anchor and she wants to get back to the boat as quickly as possible. Honey appears to want to return before I leave without them. She’s smart, but not smart enough to realize that in 2 1/2 years, I have yet to move the boat before she and Mike return from a walk.

Knowing that Honey feels mild anxiety at the family separating, we make an effort to keep it from harming our relationship.

Transforming Our Relationship With Our Boat Dog

Although it might be wonderful for our relationship with Honey to be together all the time, it’s just not practical. Splitting up:

  • makes it easier for us to leave on schedule—a necessity in cruising grounds that include scheduled bridge openings and tidal changes;
  • keeps us from killing each other when facing work deadlines or messy boat jobs;
  • and allows us to get twice as much done in half the time.

But since our relationship with Honey is at least as important as any of those things, these are a few steps we take to make separations less anxious for all of us.

End Uncertainty

Honey starts getting anxious when she sees us moving around but is uncertain of where she fits into our plans. If Honey is going with us off the boat, I make a big show of grabbing her leash. The leash is a visible sign that the turmoil in the boat will end with Honey being included.

Honey the boat dog waits to go off the boat in her Ruffwear harness.

My people put me in my harness. I guess I’m going for a walk soon.

Stay Organized

Yep, keeping stuff cleaned up and stored in the same place is always important on a boat. But it also helps Honey feel comfortable when I’m not scrambling around looking for sunglasses or my wallet.

Keep Calm

Just like when I left our house with little drama, we try to leave the boat as quietly and calmly as possible. It’s not as easy to start an outboard motor and jump into a dinghy as it was to lock the door and walk down the sidewalk. But within the limitations of boat life, our farewells are as calm as possible.

Give Her Something To Do

Honey often gets a Kong with some kibble and peanut butter when we leave. Or I’ll hide treats around the boat (more challenging when your dog is watching from five feet away) and tell Honey to “find it” as we leave.

Use The Same Reassuring Phrases

When I’m walking Honey and separating from Mike, I tell her “he’ll be back” as we leave. When we meet up again, I tell her, “let’s go find the dad.” I don’t know for sure that she understands what I’m saying. But I hope that using the same phrases is helping her understand.

Honey the boat dog is reunited with Mike.

Where have you been all my life?

Be A Creature Of Habit

Every travel day, Mike takes Honey off the boat. Then, while they’re gone, I get the boat ready so we can leave as soon as the outboard is back on the stern rail and the dinghy is in towing position. Doing things the same way every time helps Honey know what to expect. And most of the movement happens while she is off the boat.

Honey the boat dog wears her life jacket in the cockpit.

My people put me in my life jacket. I guess that means we’re traveling.

Living on the boat is supposed to be fun (challenging, but fun). And if the uncertainty of a nomadic life or separating the family causes Honey stress, we need to do something new. After all, it’s all about the relationship. And watching Honey to see how she responds to separation is a perfect way to transform that relationship into something even stronger.

Your Turn: Do your dogs show more anxiety when you leave them alone on the boat (home)? Or when you split up the family?










  1. http://Lynda says

    Honey is such a cool dog.

    • And with the temps in South Carolina tipping into the 90s this week, we’re hoping to keep it that way. 🙂

  2. Incredible! I had no idea of this aspect of boat living. Since I tend to operate better on routines, I suspect he dogs do too. I’ll keep these things in mind to make life easier and thus stress free for them. Here’s to more smooth sailing!

    • There are lots of routines on a boat–especially around getting ready to go and returning to port. But the routines are not linked to time the way going to work is, for instance. So I’ve had to get more creative about how I think about routines for Honey.

      She’s a pretty flexible girl. But I will admit she seems a little grumpy when we wake her up early to eat and go off the boat when we need to travel. 🙂

  3. http://Emma says

    We don’t really care when Mom leaves. Most of the time when she is getting ready to go, we know it and we just go to our beds to nap until she returns. Thankfully, none of us stress about it. Sometimes when she is out of town with my sisters, I won’t walk because I don’t want to miss her in case she comes home, but I’m not stressed out with my pet sitter.

    • That’s interesting, Emma, that you want to stay close to the house when the Mom is gone. It sounds like you have your own way of keeping track of everyone in the family.

  4. Shadow and Ducky both tend to be more anxious when we split up the family. Yet, they both adjust fairly quickly. And, when the missing human returns, wagging tails and puppy kisses prevail for a bit before we move on to the life as normal stage. I think, though, that the anxiety stems from having had to say goodbye to Callie nearly three years ago, because I don’t remember them ever having been anxious at all (before then) when one of us had to go somewhere without the other.

    • That is interesting that your loss of Callie seems to be showing in Ducky and Shadow’s behavior toward family separations. I suspect it’s more common than we’d think. But that not everyone is as good an observer of their dogs as you are.

      • I see it more with Shadow than Ducky; but I think that’s because she was more deeply affected by Callie’s passing than Ducky. Plus, Ducky is a bit more independent than Shadow, and she’s 7-1/2 years younger.