Training your dog to live on a boat isn’t all that hard, but the big question is what do you do about their bathroom needs, particularly if it’s not convenient to take them ashore several times a day. I’ve written several posts on various cruiser forums about how to effectively train your dog to poop and pee on the boat. 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!