How to successfully sail with your dog

A dog sits on the deck of a sail boat docked in a marina

Humans have been enjoying boat life with their four legged friends for hundreds of years. Dogs would provide companionship, help with fishing, and even act as a lifeguard. You might be planning a sailing holiday, or struggling to balance recreational sailing with dog ownership. So why not tap into this ancient tradition and take your dog with you?!

Planning tips

The success of sailing excursions with any pet is in the planning. No one should expect to take an animal aboard a boat for the first time and expect them to naturally take to it. You should plan practice, routes and procedures to best integrate your dog into sailing life.

  • Take it slowly. Build up your dog’s exposure to sailing gradually. Break up your journeys to allow some land time where your dog can run off energy. As time goes on they’ll likely adapt to longer periods at sea.
  • Plan for plain sailing. Check weather forecasts and plan your routes to minimise storm risk as you’re getting your dog used to sailing with you. A bad experience early on could be very hard for your dog to get over. 
  • Keep consistent. Instil strict rules and keep them consistent. Teach your dog specific commands and areas where they are allowed to be. Some dogs are more mischievous than others, but most will accept boundaries when taught early on.
  • Maintain familiarity. Bringing your dog’s own bed can help them to feel safe and calm. This is ideal in the cockpit or cabin – especially as you’ll want to keep them off the boat seats! On deck, you could use a waterproof bed. Establishing safe dog zones is what’s important here.  

Safety on board

Of course, the safety of your dog will be your main priority. Sailing is a wonderful thing to share with man’s best friend, but as with any dependent certain precautions should be taken. 

  • Doggy life jackets. Your dog might look at you in despair, but get them used to wearing a float aid. Even a Spaniel will get tired from swimming eventually. A life jacket should fit snugly and not impede your dog’s ability to swim.
  • Tether? Some people choose to tether their dogs to the boat, others feel uncomfortable doing this. If you do, make sure that a tether or lead is attached to a lifejacket or harness rather than the collar.  
  • Heat care. In hot weather, your dog must have access to shade. They might be inclined to boil themselves on deck, but as long as they have access to a shady spot most are sensible enough to move of their own accord!
  • Nets. Consider stretching a safety net around the railings. Especially if your dog is a real water lover! For smaller breeds, you might find a scoop net good for a dog overboard.

Routine ideas

Dogs thrive on routine. The unexpected makes many of our four legged friends feel nervous and on edge. Luckily, life on board naturally has to work to routine. This element of sailing life is therefore perfectly suited to sharing with your dog. So how should you gear your routine to work best for you and your dog?

  • Walks. You’ll need to plan your routes to include going ashore for walks. But walkies is more than just exercise – it’ll give your dog a chance to relieve themselves. If you reach the stage where you can manage longer excursions, you’ll need to use a puppy pad or square of astroturf and establish this as an “allowed” place to toilet. 
  • Food. A lot of dogs are very focussed on dinner time. Make sure that your dog eats at the same time as they do at home. This gives your dog some familiarity of daily routine.
  • Disembarking. Make sure that your dog only gets on and off the boat one way. This will discourage errant leaping off the boat, either at sea or in a marina. You might use a ramp to reinforce this rule. 

The main thing to remember is to not force the issue. If your dog really hates being on the boat, even after acclimatising, don’t push them. The whole experience will be stressful for both of you. If your dog goes for it, then we hope you enjoy many years of happy sailing together!

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