What Big Ships Can Teach You About Walking Your Dog

On the water, we’re on a constant watch for warships, submarines, cruise ships, commercial fishing boats, recreational fishermen, tugboats, powerboats, sailboats, kayaks, and yes, even seaplanes.

It’s almost as challenging as walking the dog.

Honey the golden retriever is being rowed for her walk.

What’s challenging about taking me for a walk?

Rules of the Road (for boats and dogs)

Sailing down the Chesapeake Bay, we don’t have traffic lanes, stop lights, or signs to help us avoid accidents.

What makes travel even trickier is that much of the Bay is too shallow for us to navigate. We need at least five feet of water to keep from grounding our boat. We can’t just hug the shore and expect to stay out of the way of big boats.

So we travel the expected routes and follow the rules of navigation to keep from hitting someone (or being hit).

Nav rules are detailed and complicated.

The Pride of Baltimore under sail in the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis.

Loved seeing the Pride of Baltimore under sail near Annapolis. Luckily we weren’t in a collision situation–I might have been so busy staring I forgot the navigation rules.

But without drilling down into whether a fishing boat with nets out has more rights than a boat under sail, you’ll be safe most of the time if you remember the cardinal principle of navigation.

And it’s a rule that can help you walk your dog too.

Want to know what it is?

The More Maneuverable Boat (or Dog) Gives Way

Every recreational boat captain should have the following rule tattooed on the inside of her eyelids: “The More Maneuverable Boat Gives Way.”

For example, it’s much easier for a zippy little powerboat to avoid colliding with a sailboat than it is for the sailboat to move out of the way. Especially if the wind suddenly dies.

So if a powerboat and a sailboat are in danger of crashing, it’s the job of the power boat to move out of the way and it’s the job of the sailboat to keep going on the same course so they’re predictable to the powerboat.

Y’know those big old container ships carrying sneakers and computers from China?

They travel much faster than we do. But even under sail, it’s our job to get out of their way.

Container ship and tugs in the Elizabeth River.

Is it a container ship? Or a floating city?

Why? Because a big container ship, fully loaded, may need about 40 feet of depth to travel. While we can move out of the channel and travel just fine in ten feet of water.

 So against a container ship, we’re the more maneuverable boat and we need to stay away from their course.

Do you see how this applies to dog walking yet?

Let me explain.

The More Maneuverable Dog (or Boat) Gives Way

Before Honey came along, I adopted three reactive dogs in a row.

Dog walking on the busy city sidewalks always required looking ahead for whatever would set my dogs off next.

When I couldn’t walk my dogs at 5:00 a.m. to avoid most other dog walkers, I’d duck behind cars. Or start feeding treats to keep my dog from reacting to the dog walking toward us.

Now that I live with Honey who loves all people and tolerates all dogs with kindness, I no longer have to worry about maneuvering my pup around other dogs or people who arouse a fearful response.

Honey the golden retriever with Mike at Chitterchats in Reedville.

Sure, I love other dogs. And people. But I love ice cream even more.

Instead, now I look ahead to see if other dog walkers are dealing with issues. If they are, I move Honey because she is the more maneuverable dog.

Here are a few examples of when and how we maneuver around other boats dogs in public.

Less Maneuverable Dogs

Here are a few examples of some perfectly nice dogs we meet that are less maneuverable than Honey and how we deal with them.

Choptank light.

This abandoned lighthouse off the Choptank River is definitely less maneuverable than any boat.

Little Dogs

Many of our dog walks take place on busy docks at marinas. And most dog-loving boaters travel with small dogs. (Gee, I wonder why? You’d think someone thought it might be a bad idea to live with a large dog in a 150 square foot boat.)

Some of those small dogs, particularly those who haven’t been socialized around larger dogs, can be fearful.

We see their body stiffen or they strain at the leash or they duck behind their person’s legs.

On a six foot wide dock, the only way to move aside is to go for a swim. So when we’re coming close to a little dog who has potential to be afraid of Honey, I ask her to sit with her side facing the little dog.

That gives the little dog confidence that Honey is not going to chase him and allows the small dog to approach first for a sniff if he wants one.

Dogs Being Trained

There is nothing I love more than seeing someone training her dog on a walk.

We see no reason to make things harder for a trainer. So I often ask what would make it easier for them to reach their training goals.

At the very least, I will ask Honey to sit or lie down, or at least move farther away to allow a dog in training to have fewer temptations to lose their focus.

Fast tug on the Elizabeth River.

This tug may be little but it doesn’t appear to be afraid of anything.

Dogs Behind Fences

Because we travel all the time, all the places we walk Honey are new to us. And we never know what we’ll find.

Last week, anchored in Jackson Creek near Deltaville, Virginia, we took Honey to shore at a large boat ramp.

Apparently, someone let their dogs out into their yard about the same time we landed our dinghy. We could hear them barking from blocks away.

When we discovered which yard the barking dogs were in, we made sure to pass at the greatest distance.

Why rile them up more?

Reactive Dogs

I know all the signs. And if you’ve worked with a reactive dog, you do too.

If I see them before they see me, Honey and I change our route.

Heck, I’ve been known to hide behind cars or bushes to make it easier for a dog walker with a reactive dog to manage the situation.

What I wouldn’t have given to have walkers with calm and well-socialized dogs cross the street instead of walking right by my obviously out-of-control-and-getting-worse-dog as the distance decreased between our dogs.

Tug and barge on the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal.

Don’t know what’s scarier: the gigantic barge being pushed by a tug or whatever is hiding behind it?

Dogs Whose People Are Clueless

Unless you live on Mars, you must have met at least a few clueless dog walkers.

You know the ones I mean. They’re talking on their cell phone while their dog (always on a retractable leash, am I right?) poops and pees indiscriminately and chases down everything that interests him.

Sure, it’s tempting to deliver a lesson in manners to the dog walker, Rude-y McRuderson. Especially after you step in his dog’s leavings. But it won’t do any good and it will raise your blood pressure for no reason.

And of course, when the dog walker stops to respond to you, his dog will manage to get tangled up with yours and you’ll end up with whip marks on your leg from the retractable leash.

Take a deep breath, repeat to yourself “more maneuverable dog; more maneuverable dog; more maneuverable dog” and walk on.

Just remember, the captain of that container ship might be a jerk. But it will hurt you a lot more than it hurts him if you collide.

Honey the golden retriever being carried in the cabin.

I’m so maneuverable someone is always carrying me around.

Which Is The More Maneuverable Dog?

The reason asking which dog (or boat) is more maneuverable is so powerful is because it allows for changing circumstances.

That fishing boat that could not maneuver with its nets down is suddenly more maneuverable than a sailboat when it takes its nets in.

Honey is almost always the most maneuverable dog. But if we’re trying to get her off the boat onto a tiny finger pier in rough conditions, Honey is not maneuverable at all.

Honey the golden retriever on the finger pier near the boat.

As the tide goes down, I have to make bigger jumps to get onto the boat. You better not distract me or I’ll be going for a swim.

I have no problem asking some person hanging out on the dock if they could move farther away to keep from tempting Honey to jump off our boat at the wrong time.

If your dog is generally more maneuverable, think about how you can help less maneuverable dogs and their people taking a walk.

If your dog has health issues or reactivity that makes her less maneuverable, don’t hesitate to call out to other dog walkers if you need their cooperation to help you work with your dog.

On the water, we are required to call on the radio to warn other boaters if we’re disabled and could be in their way as they approach. And those boaters are obligated to help us if they can.

Why shouldn’t dogs get at least the same support as boats?

Honey the golden retriever lies under the table.

The only place I’ll be maneuvering is off to bed.

Your Turn: In general, are your dogs more maneuverable or less maneuverable on a walk?


  1. What a great analogy. Mom is always scanning the area ahead of us when we walk, determining what we may need to do to navigate a situation. We are usually walking pretty fast and most others pull off to the side if their dog has any issues. Mom doesn’t like to use avoidance, so she walks right into the fire with us and we work through challenges on the spot, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Our biggest issues is always a squirrel or wabbit. There is no control to be had if we see those critters.

    • Smart dog moms are ALWAYS scanning the area ahead, right?

      Just curious–Honey only pays attentions to squirrels sometimes. Usually when there’s a nice brisk, fall breeze. Do you and your sisters find squirrels and rabbits more exciting sometimes than others?

  2. It does make sense for the manouvrable one to do the moving. Now I’m grown up that’s me, but it wasn’t always the case when I was a pup!

    • You can’t do much with a wiggly puppy. At least at first.

      Luckily your bipeds did a nice job growing you up into such a polite dog.

  3. That’s pawfect advice and analogy for dealing with the scared and the scary. As always your photos and captions complete the story perfectly. Well done. I only wish it was allowed to toss Rude-y McRuderson dog walker in the drink to wake them up to their surroundings. Guess that isn’t the right way to parlay, is it? 😁

    • Y’know, when you’re on the docks, accidents happen… 🙂

      But no, I’m not sure even a surprise swim would make a difference for some of the McRuderson’s I’ve met.

  4. Really great analogy! It is a perfect way to think when out walking dogs. Mine are definitely the more maneuverable dogs and I always get out of the way! Just never thought of it in boating terms 🙂

  5. Believe it or not we are the more maneuverable dogs. While we don’t see many (if any) people out, with dogs or not, it is always easier for us to move at first sight of people/dogs.

    I have run into people and their dogs where we were both maneuverable and we worked together so our dogs avoided each other.

    Interesting. I didn’t know about maneuverable about boats.

    • I can definitely see you being very attentive when you’re walking. Doesn’t surprise me one little bit that your dogs would be the most “maneuverable.”

      Hope you and your family enjoy a lovely Thanksgiving!

  6. Interesting analogy, to say the least, but an excellent one as well.

    I remember back when I used to take Callie and Shadow to the park (while Ducky was at daycare). I usually had Callie on my right (stronger) side and Shadow on my left. And, because Callie was a little territorial/predatory at times (and protective of Shadow), I always made sure to move WAY off the path into the grass when I saw other dogs coming toward us. I figured I knew my dogs but not the ones coming toward us so it was my responsibility to do what I could to avoid confrontations. Most of the other humans were pretty good about keeping their dogs under control, too; but there were the occasional few with little yappy dogs on those idiot flexi leads. The dog would be yapping it’s fool head off and wrapping itself around its owner’s legs while the owner fumed and fussed about the leash. And would give me a dirty look for having the audacity to be on the same path with my dogs, even though I had moved mine way off the path to let Yapper and owner go by. Sheesh! But, when Shadow started struggling to get into and out of the car (after Callie had passed), we stopped going to the park. The parking spaces there are too tight for the ramp, and I’m not strong enough to lift her out of the car. So now she walks on the treadmill and plays in the yard. But at 13, she’s happy just being with us wherever we happen to be.

    • ” I figured I knew my dogs but not the ones coming toward us so it was my responsibility to do what I could to avoid confrontations.”

      Great point. That’s another part of the navigation rules that I didn’t mention–everyone on the water has the responsibility to do whatever they can to avoid a collision, no matter who has the right to stand on.

      Yep, what Shadow wants most is to be by your side. Perhaps Sam could take you to the park if you really want to enjoy a nice day?

  7. This is **brilliant**! And so thoughtful. More maneuverable dog, more maneuverable dog. This has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever read about leash walking. Thanks!