Training a Dog to Be a “Boat Dog”

By Carolyn Shearlock, copyright 2011 . All rights reserved.

Train Dog to be a Boat Dog

Training your dog to live on a boat isn’t really part of The Boat Galley’s core purpose, I know.  But over the past year I’ve written several posts on various cruiser forums about how to effectively train your dog to poop and pee without having to go ashore several times a day.   And several people have encouraged me to write more about this — and I’ve resisted until today:  last night I got one more comment that I had given details they were unable to find elsewhere.

And so I finally decided to write a full article.  I hope the frank discussion of training your dog helps you enjoy your cruising and does not offend anyone.

Anyone who has a dog knows that they love to sniff around and go where other dogs — or even other animals — have gone.  This is the key to training YOUR dog.

Almost every boat with a dog has a piece of carpet or Astroturf somewhere on deck as the designated “spot.”  When we first rescued Paz, we didn’t really think about how we were going to train her to use a carpet — we just knew several friends with dogs aboard and since they’d trained their dogs, we figured we could do the same.

Our friends Jo and Lance from Milagro came over the day after we got Paz, bearing several gifts.  Jo was a little embarrassed but also excited to give us the last one:  their dog’s old carpet.  “It’s got the right scent,” she told us.  And it did.  We put it down on the bow, took Paz up there, and she did her business immediately.  We praised her lavishly.  And with that, our 4-week old puppy was trained!

She immediately understood that was the ONE place on board to poop and pee.  What I found even more astounding was that when we took Paz to other boats that had dogs aboard (say when we were having happy hour), she had no problem using their piece of carpet once we showed her where it was.  And ditto when “guest dogs” came aboard our boat.  But the proof of how well it worked was when a friend who lived ashore brought his 13-year-old dog aboard — the dog had never been aboard a boat before — and his dog immediately used the carpet.

Okay, you’re saying, that’s great.  But where do I get a “scented carpet?”  And how do I keep from smelling it?

The first question is whether you have a friend who has a dog that uses a carpet.  If you do, you can try asking for an old carpet, but it’s unlikely they have one (we were really lucky).  So instead, ask if you could put your piece of carpet under theirs for a few days.  Some of the urine will seep through theirs and scent yours.  This is what we did whenever we replaced Paz’s carpet: put the new one under the old one for several days before throwing the old one away . . . or giving it away as a training aid.

If that approach won’t work for you, there are two alternatives:

If there is snow on the ground, you can bury a piece of carpet under the snow and then get your dog to go on the snow right above the carpet (use a leash to keep them in the correct spot).  I’ve never known someone who could just put an unscented carpet on the grass/dirt/sand and get the dog to go on it, but if it’s covered by snow it seems to work.  Then when the snow melts, the urine will sink into the carpet.  But it’s unlikely you’ll have snow when you need it, so (with a bit of embarrassment) I’ll tell you about the second method.

I really don’t know how to put this delicately, but the other option — which does work well — is to scent it yourself.  It’s how we scented a brand new carpet after three years of living ashore when we recently spent several days cruising on a friend’s boat.  Paz refused to use the unscented carpet, but immediately did her business after one of us sprinkled it with our own urine.  And yes, I know of others who have used the same technique very successfully with their dogs.  How you do this will probably depend on where you are, but if you’re in a marina or crowded anchorage I suggest a specimen cup . . . oh, the things we do for our dog-children!

I know of very few people who have had luck with purchased puppy-training “scent” that you are supposed to spray or drip where you want your dog to go. Despite it seeming to be a simple way to give your dog the idea, I wouldn’t waste my money trying it.

Recently, I’ve also seen ads for various “indoor dog potties” and a grass patch called “Potty Patch.”  You can also buy “puppy pads” that are similar to disposable diapers but lie flat on the floor or a tray.  We found that just a “welcome mat” size piece of carpet, sold for about $2, worked just fine.  And no, she never got confused and used any of our other carpets by mistake and friends also reported no confusion.

To get your dog to use the carpet the first few times, when it’s time for them to go, put the dog on a leash and take them to the carpet.  Let them sniff.  Stay there until they go.  It may take a while, particularly with an older dog.

Any dog I’ve worked with has gotten the message almost immediately, but some friends have told me it took a bit of patience with their dogs.  The critical thing is NOT to take the dog ashore until they go on the boat; praise lavishly the first few times they do use the carpet so they know they did the right thing. Patience and persistence will pay off — you can teach your dog if you stay calm and positive and keep at it.

After the first few times, you’ll probably find that your dog goes to the pad on his or her own.  Underway, we kept Paz on a leash or down below (she couldn’t get up the companionway) and she learned to “ask” to go forward, just as a dog in a house learns to “ask” to go outside.  We then took her forward on her leash (we had also installed netting on the lifelines so that even if she slipped, she wouldn’t go overboard).

Even ashore, it can be helpful to teach your dog a “special phrase” to indicate that it’s a good time and place to take care of business.  Most cruising locales allow dogs in many stores, outdoor restaurants and the like.  And you don’t want your dog to have an accident in one of these places.

The day we got Paz, we met some other cruisers on our dock who had been puppy trainers for service dogs.  They suggested that we use the phrase “get busy” and told us to say it every time before and — very importantly — AS Paz was pooping or peeing.  This has worked really well not only before entering buildings but any time that she seemed unsure if it was okay to do her business in a particular location.  This is something that you can work on even before moving aboard that will help you explain to your dog that the carpet is the place to go, as well as helping on shore excursions.

And so for the second question:  how to keep this carpet from stinking up the whole boat?  Remember that your dog’s sense of smell is far, far greater than yours.  So if you tie a line to the carpet and dunk it overboard once or twice a day, you won’t smell it but your dog still will.  We permanently tied the free end of the line to a stanchion so we wouldn’t lose the carpet if we accidentally dropped the line when dunking it.

I’ll finish with a funny story.  We initially adopted Paz when we were staying in a marina in La Paz, Mexico (that’s how she got her name).  And we trained her to “get busy” both on the boat and ashore.  Then about a month later, we left La Paz and crossed the Sea of Cortez to Banderas Bay.  And with the passage, it was about a week from one time when we took her ashore to the next time.  Well, somehow in that time, she’d gotten the idea that her carpet was the ONLY place to go.  And in the reverse of most boat dog scenarios, we now had the task of teaching her it was okay to go on grass.  The magic phrase of “get busy” helped . . . as did watching where another dog went and taking her to the “scented spot!”

There are plenty of boat dogs out there who have learned to use a carpet, some at advanced ages.  Spending the time to teach them will make life with your boat dog so much easier than having to plan multiple trips ashore each day, particularly if you’re planning any passages longer than a few hours.  Use your dog’s natural instinct to go where others have and you’ll have a quickly trained boat dog!

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Comments

  1. Katrina Drahos says:

    This is awesome…..exactly the information I have been looking for. My dog is 18 months and we will be spending a lot of time on the boat this year and one of my top goals is to carpet train her on the boat (right now she will not even use the dock…we haven’t cut our land lines yet…..just a few more years). anyway I would love to see more “Boat Dog” Articles! Thanks!

    Katrina
    Belles & Whistles

  2. And I thought potty training my dog inside my house was hard. I cant imagine how many added difficulties potty training a dog on a boat would be.

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      It’s very do-able, particularly if you use the dog’s natural instincts. And very worthwhile to have your best friend along! Paz really enriched our cruising.

  3. Elyse Schoenig says:

    Carolyn,
    Thank you for the article. We have just moved aboard our sailboat home with our 6 year old dog. We have not yet begun to potty train him on the boat as just getting him accustomed to living on the boat has been a steep learning curve. We don’t have a land home anymore and have been on our boat at the marina for a month. We put up safety netting and he is getting used to his PFD. We walk him up the dock to the grass in the morning and evening. We will be taking off up the ICW in about 2 weeks. This information gives me hope that we will be successful in potty training. Thanks again and yes, please more articles about pets aboard.

  4. Bruce Bibee says:

    An excellent and useful article. My (female) partner has expressed a desire to have a Labrador puppy to cruise with us in the central Philippines. She thinks of the dog primarily as companionship while I think that the dog will greatly enhance boat security. Neither of us have any recent experience with dogs although we both had dogs as young children. Not many dog training classes here in a third world country – and dogs here seem to be either: 1) ‘street’ dogs with no training or restraint; or 2) ‘house’ dogs who spend most of their lives on the end of a six foot chain or in a cage. The ‘scented’ carpet idea is brilliant and should not be difficult to obtain – but male dogs often pee standing and direct their stream onto a vertical surface, the carpet seems most useful for poo and female dogs. Do people with male dogs hang a second piece of carpet from the rail? More articles would be REALLY useful!

  5. More articles, please. We are acclimating our doxie to the boats…she loves them and the PFD is a non-issue. At home she thinks the walkin shower is her “spot” when left alone and at night. We are hoping for the same luck in the aft head’s shower. We haven’t had her aboard long enough to experiment. Or had an issue! I’m going to try the carpet this weekend. Thanks!

  6. Thank you so much for this informative and entertaining article. I started searching the web for ways to secure an elderly dog at sea and the search developed until I came across your article. We spend our time at present taking the dog ashore 2 or 3 times a day, and it can be awkward in limited daylight or adverse conditions, so will definitely give your carpet a try. We are hoping to secure the dog (‘Whisky’) if conditions get lumpy, tethered on a soft beanbag in the cockpit well so that it is held securely and so that he cannot be bumped about too much. Whether this actually works or we have to think again remains to be seen.
    Reading the other reply to your article about male dogs, from Bruce Bibee, we are hoping that if we place an object like an inverted flowerpot in the centre of the carpet he’ll pee against that!?

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Great idea with the flower pot — I asked some friends with male dogs and they said the dog seemed to find “something” (sometimes imaginary) that he was going on. But I love the idea of the flower pot. And the beanbag in the cockpit sounds workable, too. Paz always curled up on the laundry bag under the “notch” of the V-berth.

      Love to hear a follow up on how it goes!

  7. Michelle says:

    Loved this topic. We have a ridgeback we are planning on taking with us on our sailboat. This will be a challenge I know but she is our kid…and will try your suggestions ….

    Another thing I am trying to figure out is how to get her on/in the dingy ‘when’ we do want to go to land?? She is a rescue dog and very unsure of her footing..so looking for ideas on this.
    Another concern …how do I get heartworm medicine for her? I have already read my vet won’t prescribe them unless the dog is tested each year…any insite to these other issues would be greatly appreciated..
    Thanks again for all your helpful topics!!!
    Michelle

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      I don’t know where you’re planning to cruise, but we did not have any problems finding heartworm meds (and vets to do the testing) in Mexico and Central America. Ditto for flea meds, although we found different brands worked best in each country and had to ask local vets what worked best. Friends in the Caribbean haven’t told me of any problems getting any meds, but I haven’t specifically asked — we just talked in more general terms about their experience with their dogs.

      Have a great time with your “kid” — our experience is that dogs really can do well cruising. Lots of new stuff to see, new people to meet and new stuff to sniff!

  8. I love the idea of “The Boat Dog”! Anyone have experience with cats on board? We are still in the planning stage of living on-board, & your site is full of great info. Thanks

    • We’ve been cruising with our cat for 6 years; he’s done two trans-Atlantic crossings with us. He was 11 years old when we started. He’s done just fine & established his own ‘routine’. When he hears the anchor going up, he goes inside (we have a catamaran) to hang out. As soon as he hears the anchor dropping, he’s out in the cockpit looking around. We have had zero problems with having him with us. If I know it may be rough, I cut off any food to him several hours before. When we’ve had a few days in a row of rough conditions & he doesn’t want to eat/drink, I open a can of tuna in water & pour the water into a bowl. It works every time in getting some liquids into him. (He doesn’t want the tuna itself; I eat that! He’s spoiled & only wants fresh tuna!)

  9. Thanks for the article. I recently bought another boat and I’m turning my two year old lab into a “boat dog”. I haven’t yet started her onboard potty training, but I’m confident you helped us a great deal.

  10. Bill Dixon says:

    We had no sucess with carpet, astroturf and even real grass sod. Kept the dogs on the boat for 24 hours, gave them glycerine suppositories on the foredeck. Of course they went in minutes, Gave them treats, hugs, praise and never had another problem. We live ashore now with a later model dog and when we go cruising it takes a half day or so for the new dog to remember, but he does.

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Thanks, Bill!

      I love how we’re starting to get a list of ways that have worked for people.

      Another reader, Kim, added this note on Facebook of what worked for her, too, and I wanted to add it here:

      “We just moved onboard with our 12 year old dog… We prefer to use a patch of fake grass (we tried the carpet but after 12 years of being told not to pee on carpet she wasn’t about to start now… & we tried the urine thing too but she wouldn’t even touch the carpet after that – fussy little thing!)… We worked out that we could get the scent on the new patch by rubbing it vigorously over her wee every time she went for a wee on the lawn… Took a few rubbings along with a bit of encouragement & some perserverance but we eventually got there! The biggest mistake we made was giving in & taking her ashore to toilet when she refused to use the grass patch (I was worried she’d get a bladder infection). Once we got strict & refused to let her off until she went on the grass patch she was fine, & from that day forward we’ve had no worries! She still prefers going ashore (& will hold if she knows we’re going) but at least she’s now willing to use onboard facilities when we’re away for a few days at a time *phew*… thanks for the tips – yours was the only site I found that offered any decent suggestions… Until then I had absolutely no idea how I was going to tackle that little issue :)”

  11. Mary Dixon says:

    We don’t have a washdown hose on our boat yet, so we use a sprayer filled with water to hose off the boat where the dog has “gone.” Here is link to one at Wal-mart http://www.walmart.com/ip/D.B.-Smith-1-Gallon-Bleach-and-Chemical-Sprayer/14282636

  12. We have been sailing the caribbean and the US for the last 2 years. We have a yellow lab on board who uses his piece of astro turf (a 2.99 fake grass doormat) He knows it is his patch of duty. I highly recommend a phrase like Get Busy. When on long voyages or long trips on land. He will go on command. Having a dog aboard has its issues, but the rewards are worth it. Theresa and Sailor aboard Lucky Jack

  13. Hi – my husband and I will be heading north on our Roberts Spray in July and are having a lot of trouble training our 14 year old (very spoilt) staffy to do her business on board – I too have relented after 36 hours of her being on board and holding it in (I was worried it would cause her harm not going) – any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated – we have tried the scented astro turf mat with her scent & ours but to no avail – she will happily go on command on land any time but has yet to go aboard – really need to fix this problem so any help would be good – we also plan to visit a lot of islands up around the Whitsundays and most of them are National parks which you cannot take dogs on ?? any suggestions to relieve her of too much boredom aboard when we go exploring

  14. By far the most useful and realistic article I’ve read till date. Does the carpet work for big jobs too? And is the same carpet used for both? From what i’ve observed of our fawn lab on land is that he is VERY picky about where he does the big job. I don’t mean to sound crude but I’ve seen the “business” almost coming out but he refuses to squat because he’s still searching for the perfect spot. We are due to buy our boat soon and he’s never been sailing apart from an hour in the dinghy. I’m prepared for the worst tho… Any idea whether holding it (big or small jobs) does actually cause medical harm to the dog?

    • We only had one piece of carpet and I don’t know of any boats that used two separate ones. I’m not a vet and thus couldn’t tell you about the medical consequences of holding it for certain.

      Good luck and have fun!

      Carolyn

  15. Excellent article. I appreciate your apprehension in posting on a potentially awkward topic, but appreciate that you DID post even more. Off to the store this evening to get some astro-turf type carpet and see if our Boxer puppy will take to it quickly. I sure hope so… I’m not fond of him waking me up in the wee hours so I can paddle him to shore so he can wee. :)

  16. Jill Brown says:

    We have a 7-year-old Shar Pei who hates water. Our problem will be to get him onto the boat in the first place. We’re going to try a life vest with two handles for Bill and me to pick him up with. Alley Oooop!

    • Another trick to to have a dog who is not afraid of the water walk with the one who is. Our dog has guided numerous dogs onto the dock and into the dinghy — funny to see the 7-pound “brave” dog encouraging the 90-pounder who’s trembling with fear!

  17. Thank you for a great post!! We are still in the planning stages of crushing but our dogs are a huge part of our life. Probably only one will make it to the “cast off the lines” phase but this is such good advice. I knew about the carpet but the special seasonings…so a very big thank you!

  18. LaDonna Thomas on Facebook says:

    This really does work. Our doxie was good to go from the first day. Much easier than house training her when she was a puppy.

  19. Wow, this is some great stuff. I always wondered how people dealt with this issue. I’m looking forward to using these techniques when I get my boat in the next couple of years. My black lab, Jake should be about 9 so hopefully he doesn’t have too many issues.

  20. Or, like we did after trying all of the above with NO luck at all…..the light bulb went off over my head to get a piece of sod. Actually we got two pieces about the size of a welcome mat, put one down and in 10 seconds we had success where we had none for the previous YEAR. Rinse it with fresh water after each pee, ours lasted two weeks and then we tossed it overboard and put out the second piece which we had been keeping moist and covered. That one lasted a few weeks but by that time, that was their potty place and we never had another problem after that. It was a teeny bit messy because it has some dirt on it but who cares? Rinse it off! Real grass/sod is what they were used to going on so…….also, this worked for untold numbers of friends dogs over our 6 years of watching folks dingy their dogs to shore in all kinds of weather! It has been proven fool proof for even the most stubborn dog!

  21. We initially spent way too much money on a potty patch and have since then found cheap Astroturf type of mats at Home Depot. And here I thought we were the only crazy ones who ‘scented’ the patch. I posted about it here three years ago
    http://knottycattales.blogspot.com/2010/08/pretty-smart-pitty.html
    I’ve found Wilbur both lifts his leg or squats depending on where he is. We also immediately clean up #2 so he can then pee. He doesn’t like trying to maneuver around it. We have a very sensitive pit bull on board.

  22. This is the article that I originally found your website via Google for bringing dogs on boats. :)

    • Looked for a site about dogs and got mostly cooking, huh? :)

      • Alex Miller says:

        I have very much enjoyed the galley articles also! After a year of setback in progressing in our sailing plans due to a relocation (from Boston with the wonderful harbor for sailing, to Nashville with freshwater lakes) we are finally getting back on track. We have started looking at boats to purchase. And yesterday, I took Badger, our 45 pound Border Collie mix to the marina to check out the docks and see the scary boats and take a ride in a kayak as a test. She did great and was not spooked by anything but the cleats on the dock which poked her in the nose. The dock was scary at first, but quickly found to be safe, and she appeared to want to get in the boats. She also did great in the kayak and didn’t cause any capsizing, minimal standing or leaning out, and mostly sat or lay down calmly. Got in and out with minimal coaxing. She actually hates swimming, and I think this is an advantage, because she won’t be inclined to go launching off the boat.
        Anyway, my question relevant to this article… and it sounds elementary. Does the configuration of the foredeck matter in selecting a boat that will be compatible with doggie carpet? Obviously, there needs to be a large enough flat area easily accesible. But many boats have hatches in the foredeck. Are those out of the question? It seems leakage might be messy. Or does it not matter if it is just going into the anchor well?

        • Sounds like you had a great first experience with the dog!

          I’ve never heard of anyone having problems with pee leaking below through a hatch and causing a problem. Paz was very good at actually going ON the carpet, and it soaked it up (we dunked it overboard a couple times a day). I doubt it’d be a problem.

  23. Thanks Laura! No one mentioned the tip about picking up the #2 as soon as they were done and then they could pee. Our dogs are picky too! Great idea.

  24. Wow, I am so happy I read this article and all the great, creative reply`s. We tried to hold out long enough for our Goldie to figure out he could go on the back of the boat…..and even convinced the Capt to mark the spot to encourage him to go….but he looked at us like we were crazy! We never toughed it out long enough. Sadly he has since passed away, but we will get another Goldie in a couple of years and I am so relieved to know we were close….but these are some much better ideas! Thanks to you all. If we were not headed for Australia, we would have had another by now. I can hardly wait. 18 yrs and two Goldies later, I am definitely feeling like an empty nester!

    Rose

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