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.
Large or Small Dog?
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).
Cruising with a Dog
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!