Dogs on Boats 101

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2012 • all rights reserved

A few things to think about if you're considering taking Rover on the boat, whether for an afternoon or a lifetime.

Thinking of taking your dog on your boat?  Or considering getting one and wondering about the realities?

I’ve had a number of email questions about this since I’ve posted some “boat dog” articles, and I’m happy to give my thoughts.  But just remember that this is my experience and every person, boat, dog and situation is different.

I’ll start with the fact that adopting Paz was one of the best decisions we made while cruising — and we did lots of great things.  But it was a decision, not an impulse — we thought long and hard about our cruising plans and how a dog would fit into those and also how a dog would alter them.

If you already have a dog, you may be wondering if it’s possible to cruise with him.  And you know your dog better than anyone else, so I can’t really say.  But most dogs love the lifestyle, with lots of new people, places and smells to explore.

Puppies are usually very adaptable and readily take to boat life or a combination of boat and land life. An agile, surefooted dog usually takes to the boat more easily than one that isn’t.  They don’t have to be a super-athlete, and a lot of this also depends on boat design and how much they have to clamber over on deck, etc.

Small dogs are easier than large dogs.  Now, plenty of people do cruise with larger dogs.  And if you have a large dog, you can find ways to make it work.  But the reality is that smaller dogs are easier:

  • If you can carry the dog under one arm, it’s helpful when getting them into the dinghy, from the dock into the dinghy and particularly if you’ve living on the boat while on the hard and have to go up and down a 10-foot ladder.
  • A dog that can’t get up the companionway can be safely left below when docking or anchoring.
  • Smaller dogs take less space themselves, less space for food and other supplies and less water for drinking and bathing.
  • In general, a small dog that’s having a bad day can do less damage than a large dog.  The trick is to ensure that there are no bad days — and many dogs that we’ve known don’t have bad days as their people are around almost all the time.  They’re rarely left alone for hours, which is when boredom (and destruction) set in.
  • If you’re actively cruising, land travel is much easier with a small dog.  Depending on the country you’re in, you may be able to take a small dog on buses and trains (sometimes in an airline carrier, sometimes just holding them).  Motels are much more likely to allow small dogs.  And if you need to find someone to watch the dog, it’s generally easier to find someone willing to take in a small dog.  Obviously, if you ever have to fly with the dog, ones that are small enough to go in the passenger cabin are easier to take along (and cheaper).

A dog will impact what you can do.  If it’s hot, you can’t leave one in a closed up boat while you go ashore, which may be a security issue in some places.  Other times, a dog may not be allowed in a place where you want to go and you’ll have to make alternate arrangements.  In general, we found fewer restrictions on us in Mexico and Central America than in the US.

If you’re even remotely thinking of heading to the South Pacific, New Zealand or Australia, it is almost impossible to take a dog (and extremely expensive if you do manage it).  Regulations change all the time, so check for yourself, but the best advice I can give if you’re heading to those areas is not to try to take a dog.

In many popular cruising grounds, both in the US and other countries, dogs are welcome in outdoor seating areas at restaurants.  Cruiser gatherings are typically very dog-friendly.  We never had a problem at a marina but I have heard that there are some marinas that don’t allow dogs.

It may not be fair, but a cute and friendly dog will be allowed more places than one that’s not.  And a non-threatening friendly dog will give you lots of opportunities to meet local people.  Paz is known as a “chick magnet” and we’ve even had guys want to rent her for a hour just to meet girls on the beach!

We had no problems finding vets in our travels, but we sometimes had to make detours or take a taxi for an hour or more.  And it’s one more “crewmember” that you have to provision for, deal with paperwork for, and in general remember in your planning.

Training your dog to “go” on the boat is well worth the time and effort.  Being able to make longer passages and not having to make middle-of-the-nights trips to shore are priceless benefits.  And in many places, it’s a good idea to hoist and lock your dinghy at night, which makes trips to the beach just that much harder.  You can read my tips on teaching a dog to use a piece of  Astroturf here.

Instead of a collar, get a harness for your dog.  That way, if they fall should or slide across the boat while hooked up (and they should ALWAYS be hooked up when on deck underway), they won’t break their neck.  Don’t rely on lifeline netting to keep the dog aboard — they can find ways to get under or over it, as well as the places where it’s impossible to have it.

Figure out a way to get the dog back on the boat if it falls overboard BEFORE it happens.

Be sure to give the dog a quick fresh water rinse when they’ve been wading or swimming in salt water or you’ll get salt water on settees and rugs — and just like people tracking salt water in, it won’t totally dry out . . .

Be sure to create a place on the boat where the dog feels safe and secure even when conditions get “boisterous.”

A friend that had been a puppy trainer for guide dogs told us to get Paz playing games when thunderstorms and other bad weather were making her nervous.  I’m not any type of a dog training expert, but this worked wonderfully and Paz has no fear of thunder, fireworks or the diesel.  She may not really like them, but she’s not a basket case.

Remember to put some sort of a non-slip mat under their dish!

If you’re heading to an area where you may have to fly “home” (or anywhere else) with the dog, take an airline approved carrier with you.  It can be very hard to find them in some cruising areas — we went nuts finding one in El Salvador!

A dog can be a wonderful companion on a boat.  Paz added so much to our cruising.  But she also complicated it and the decision to take a dog on a boat shouldn’t be an impulse decision.  But neither should it be automatically out of the question — the number of boats with dogs aboard is rising every year!

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  1. Michelle Beatty on Facebook says:

    think you so much for this..xo

  2. John Ahern on Facebook says:

    I have a black lab and have made the decision not to cruise with my buddy and that choice was tougher than selecting a boat…..

  3. Oh John, that would be a tough choice. But sometimes the best one, unfortunately.

  4. Michelle Beatty on Facebook says:

    Hmmmm i am taking my Ridgeback…he is my water baby!! loves the water!!

  5. We took our 9-year-old mini dachshund on our 5-year cruise. In the beginning, she could jump out of the cockpit, so we added netting to catch her if she went sliding out of control. Largely because of her, we went to Europe instead of the South Pacific, and we did skip the UK because we couldn’t bring her in on our own boat. She adjusted fine, we enjoyed having her with us, and she liked having us full time.

  6. Amazing the things we do for “family” 🙂

  7. We hear conflicting reports about whether or not there are dangerous snakes ( eg. Rattlesnakes ) on the Baja peninsula. As we will be taking our dog ashore often, this is a concern. What has been your experience along the anchorage beaches on the Baja ??

  8. I never heard of anyone running into one. That’s not to say there aren’t any, though — just that I never heard of any dog or person encountering one. The bigger problem is coyotes, which are around many beaches. Most cruisers kept dogs on leashes or if they let them go off leash, had them trained to stay fairly close. We hiked all over in Baja with Paz (we kept her on leash except right on the beach) and the only problem we had was once she got a few fire ant bites. Be sure to take lots of water and give it to them often!

  9. We started cruising with a 60-pound Border Collie (Skyler) and a 12-pound mutt (Pepper). We thought for a LONG time about whether or not we would bring Skyler with us before deciding we didn’t want to delay the start of our cruise and couldn’t give her away. We lost her to a brain tumor about two months ago, but are so glad she got to share in a bit of our adventure with us. However, I must admit that life is MUCH easier with just our little dog aboard. For one thing, we marvel how long the dog food lasts! It is also much easier to lift Pepper up and down the companionway, on and off the boat, and to have her in the cockpit while underway etc. than it was to manhandle Skyler. We miss her terribly and definitely wish she was still with us. But if we do get another dog, it will probably be a little one.

  10. We had thought about the idea of having an animal aboard with us, a dog or cat, but decided we want to simply sail by ourselves for awhile. We had two dogs, who have since passed on, that we adored. However, they took a lot of extra energy, money, planning time for vacations without them, etc. Loved them to pieces and still miss them terribly. Now is time for us. (Our granddaughter suggested getting a fish, or a hamster. haha)

  11. We just became the proud owners of a 67 Chris Craft Cavalier and are looking forward to weekend trips in the San Jaun Islands with our 28 lb puggle, Cooper. Thank you so much for the great insight and advice on dogs on boats and doggy potty training on the boat!

  12. We have a 54 pound pit bull living with us. I’m a huge dog lover so I’m okay with limitations due to having a dog on board. However, this is not for everyone! We had no problems cruising the Bahamas with him but we also know we will never go to the BVI (and many other ports) because of restrictions. Our worst experience was the Chesapeake during a hotter than hell summer and we couldn’t leave him locked down below in the heat. And thanks to the good old USA laws, there were very few places on shore that would allow a dog (even parks!!), so my husband would usually go ashore for supplies and I’d stay (and sweat) with Wilbur. We sometimes questioned our selves as to whether we were being fair to him but in the end I’m glad we have him along with us. He’s our family!

  13. Had to share this one for Lia Noland!

  14. Smart! Thanks Pam!

  15. This is our third year sailing the Sea of Cortez with Sparky the Salty Dog. Having him onboard has forced us to make two trips to shore daily. We have not regretted one of them. Keeping up his portion of our website with his views can be challenging at times. Soon he will have his underwater doggy cam posted. Sparky is 13 now and we have taken him to the vet just about every three months down here. There are a lot of “bugs” they sniff that can make the belly not feel so well. Sparky is work but always a joy to have.

  16. My dog Odie is loving being a “boat” dog! 🙂 Awesome article!

  17. Got a sheltie onboard at 12 weeks. She adapted quickly, knows what “boating” means and is still pee pad trained at four years old. We never have to row to shore, just drop a peepad on the floor of the head and tell her to go. Awesome.

  18. Paulette says:

    Our 9 year old lab beagle loves to go with us on the boat, until we start moving. She pants and really never relaxes. We are going on a 10 day trip next month – wiTh Gracie. This time I am bringing Rescue Remedy drops and Rescue Remedy collar as well as home made dog ginepfer treats. (We tried Benadryl and vet prescribed Xanax without much changeh. Hopefully, this will help her settle in because she wants to be with us and we want her as well. Also, we have never been able to get her to potty on the boat so we make stops and never sleep on the hook. I have tried wee wee pds and the fake grass. Friends’ dogs have gone on it and i have slud it under her to go on it while in land. Both my husband and I have gone on it and still she hasn’t given herelf permission to go on it. Any ideas would be appreciated.

    • Paulette says:

      That is supposed tomsay ginger treats.

      • Paulette says:

        Oh my gosh I am so sorry for the stupid typos in this message. Sometimes it gets downright comical.

    • Some of the panting may be that it’s hot. I know that we have to close hatches, which makes it hotter where Paz likes to sit. So we make sure to turn a couple of fans on for her, and I’ve gone so far as to make a couple of ice cubes and let her lick them.

      Another big tip that some friends — puppy trainers for service dogs — gave us was whenever we’d do something that we knew made Paz nervous, not to coddle her then but to start playing with her. The diesel starting up, thunder, fireworks . . . I won’t say any of these are her favorite now, but she stays calm and goes to her safe place.

      On — and that’s another important one. Make sure that there are a couple of “safe places” on the boat for your dog. Where nothing can fall on her, slide into her, or anything else. Paz likes a corner where she can really wedge herself in (on our previous boat, she’d lie on top of and semi-under the dirty laundry bag).

      As far as going potty, you may just have to wait her out and then praise lavishly. We didn’t have a lot of problems teaching Paz to go on the boat (and even after living ashore for 5 years, she remembered exactly what to do when we were back on a boat), but some other readers did and in the comments on my “Potty Training” article you’ll find a number of things that worked for them:

      Good luck!

  19. Maryalice Falconer says:

    Thank you for this article!! I do have one question….
    What documentation do we need to bring our dog sailing with us into Mexico? I know I have to have my vet fill out an International Health Certificate (APHIS form 7001), but it looks like it is only good for ten days. If we plan to stay in Mexico for 6 months, what do we do beyond the 10 days? Will the dog need a dog passport? 🙂
    Thank you so much for your thoughts.

    • You just need the Health Certificate and proof of rabies shot. Once the dog is in, nothing further is needed — the 10 days is just for the initial entry. No dog passport. We always had all the docs for Paz, but were never asked when we crossed the border by car or boat, only by plane. But they have the right to require them . . .

  20. Maryalice says:

    Thank you SO much!! Your reply is very helpful! We can’t wait to take our Labradoodle sailing with us to Mexico!

  21. Happy Birthday Doggie!

  22. Happy birthday Paz!

  23. Happy birthday pretty girl!

  24. What an adorable wee doggie. May she have many more happy years ahead.

  25. Happy Happy Birthday Paz!!

  26. She is so cute! Happy Birthday Paz!!!

  27. Happy Birthday Paz! From Jack the Cat Aboard!

  28. Happy Birthday !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! from Jack’s Next Dock Over Friend, Belle.

  29. Happy Birthday Paz !!!

  30. Happy Birthday Paz-you are adorable❤️

  31. Thank You, Great advice!

  32. Happy birthday Paz!!

  33. Sweet pup!

  34. Happy Birthday Paz! Many more.

  35. Happy Birthday, pretty Paz! You look Marvelous!! 🙂

  36. LaDonn Yhomas says:

    thanks for including the pic of Baguette…..still miss her so very much

  37. Emmie wishes Paz a very happy (yappy!) birthday!!! you are such an inspiration

  38. You can’t keep a good dog down … happy birthday Paz 😀 ★

  39. Happy Birthday Paz!!! Looking forward to seeing you in Marathon! 🙂

  40. Happy Birthday Paz

  41. Happy Birthday, Paz. So glad You bounced back after the injuries from that mean-mannered dog. You are the cutest!

  42. Happy Birthday Paz and here’s to many more healthy years!!!!

  43. Excellent article! And, as a boat that had a dog aboard for 13 years, we couldn’t agree more. Our Sally enriched our cruising life in so many ways but impacted where we could and couldn’t cruise. We started off in New Zealand and imported her — you’re absolutely correct, it’s a very difficult and expensive proposition. It’s a little easier now (quarantine is only 10 days rather than 30) but it kept us from sailing to the islands and back with our pup. Basing ourselves in the US and Canada made things a lot easier!

  44. Not fair to a dog. Running off leash,….hello!

  45. I love your advice. It is always very timely for us and needed!! We are becoming full time live aboards in a week with two dogs!! We will be at a marina for about two years to get adjusted but great advice. Thank you for sharing.

  46. Abigale says:

    Brilliant article. We have two medium sized dogs, but later on I would really like a large one. I have seen large dogs on boats so it seems possible, I just hope it isn’t too hard… I guess I’ll find out one day.
    One thing I have noticed no one seems to mention, we have a mat that the dogs use for their business, but when we go on long trips or are at anchor, we just put them in the water. They go for a swim and do their business, we never trained them, they just figured it out for themselves. they much prefer it to the mat.

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