This is Alfie. When I adopted him, the rescue agency told me that he was one of the most abused dogs they’d ever found. Even though I’ve babied him for ten years now, he is still a nervous little mess. It doesn’t take much to send him into a tizzy. When we started sailing, we had concerns about how he would do on a boat. We didn’t want to leave him at home alone for extended periods of time but we worried about how well he might do on a boat.
Imagine our surprise when this little nut ball took to sailing like a champ! He becomes a whole different creature once he’s on the deck of Zen. He’s confident and cocky, happy as can be. When company comes to our house, he hides upstairs under our bed. When the same guests come to the boat, he sits on their laps. Go figure. I’ve never figured out if Alf is into the Zen of sailing or if he just loves being out with us. I’m just glad that he’s taken to it so well because we would have had a serious problem had he not.
There are, of course, some basic factors to consider before taking your dog sailing. First, is your boat big enough to accommodate you, your dog and any guests that might come aboard? If you have a large dog, you’ll obviously need a big boat if he is going to come along. Most trailer sailboats are large enough for small to mid-size dogs.
Is the dog’s temperament right for sailing? If you have a highly energetic dog, he might not do well being confined to the boat for long periods of time. Also, if you have an aggressive dog, avoid taking him to public docks. It won’t be a pleasant experience because you’ll spend far too much time trying to keep him from bothering other people and their dogs. Also, consider whether you can safely manage tending to the dog while under sail. You don’t want a rambunctious, attention seeking pet endangering your safety by distracting you while you’re at the helm.
Finally, do you have the right equipment? Not much is required to keep a dog safe and comfortable on a boat but a few little things can make all the difference in the world.
The most important piece of equipment you can get for the pet’s safety is a life jacket. Dogs can swim, but like humans, not always reliably so. Panic or injury could inhibit your dog’s natural swimming instinct in an emergency. Pet PFDs (personal flotation devices) not only keep pets afloat but make them more visible whether in water or on land. The handle on top makes boarding and retrieval quick and easy.
The very first time I put a life jacket on Alfie, it proved its value. It was a windy day and, being the skittish fool that he is, he decided that the rocking boat was too much for him to abide. He jumped off of the boat and onto the dock where I was standing. Well, he kind of jumped onto the dock. He landed on the dock but immediately lost his balance and fell into the lake. Having never been in the water before and being terrified of the violent waves, he did not swim. It wasn’t a problem because I was able to drop to my knees and scoop him up in an instant thanks to his new PFD with its trusty handle on top. Thanks to that minor incident, I am a staunch believer in pet PFDs.
Don’t try to go cheap when buying a life jacket for your dog. The first one I bought was the cheapest one I could find and it didn’t make it through one season before shredding into pieces. My first warning came when I read the tag and it said, “Do not lift pet by handle.” Everyone lifts small dogs by the PFD handle. I replaced it with a much better model that cost a mere $5.00 more but has lasted three seasons now.
This is the one that I like.
Although most pets will naturally shun a lot food when they are riding in a car or on a boat, you will need to bring along food and water bowls. Cheap plastic bowls work fine on a boat. We use two plastic deli tubs that Alfie recognizes as his dinner dishes. They are stowed under the sink until needed.
Non-slip rugs or mats will make the salon more comfortable for your pet, as well. The companionway steps are too narrow for Alfie to walk down, so he generally takes a flying leap from the deck to the cabin sole. Rugs give him a softer landing. The rugs also give him a steady place where he can sit comfortably without sliding around when the boat starts rocking and rolling. I use simple, washable, non-skid porch rugs.
Your dog will also need a leash for going ashore. Most marinas demand them and it is in your dog’s best interest to keep him near you on the docks. You never know when someone else on the dock will bring along an ill-behaved pet who might view your dog as a nice lunch treat. I like this leash because it has a place for clean-up bags (also required at most marinas) and a flashlight for those late evening trips ashore. It’s no fun to search for poop in the dark.
If your cabin is large enough, you might want to bring along a dog bed. Zen is too small for that, so Alf just sleeps with me in the v-berth. He’s not allowed on any of the furniture at home, so that’s probably one of reasons why he loves the boat so much – he gets to cuddle up with me at night.
Now that you have all of the equipment you need, you can plan your pet’s maiden voyage. That first sail should be a short one. If it doesn’t work out, you can just turn around and take him home. Don’t set out for week-long trip if you haven’t tried at least a short day sail first. We started Alf with a day sail and, after that went well, we tried some overnights.
Another thing to keep in mind is that dogs thrive on routine. Your pet will be happier and feel more secure if you develop a routine for him during loading and unloading. It is comforting for any pet to understand his place in the greater plan of all of your activities.
Establish a routine for getting the dog on the boat. Alf knows to sit and watch patiently as my captain takes the dingy to the mooring ball to get the boat and brings it back to the dock. He knows that after we move the coolers and gear bags, I will take him on a short potty time walk, then put his PFD on him and walk him out on the docks. On the count of three, he knows that he will be lifted by his PFD onto the seat cushion on the boat deck. He also knows that when we are done sailing for the weekend, the process will be reversed. If, for some reason, we go off of that routine, he becomes nervous and uncooperative.
If you leave your dog in the car while you are moving your gear, be sure to leave the windows open so that the poor creature doesn’t roast while waiting. I leave the side doors of the van open so that he can watch us while we unload and we can keep a bit of an eye on him at the same time.
Schedule regular shore visits for your dog throughout the day. It is best if you can maintain the same schedule that he observes at home. If he goes out mid-morning and mid-afternoon at home, try to maintain the same schedule on the boat.
It is important that you protect your dog from extreme heat and too much sun. As you can see, Alf is very dark and the sunlight just bakes him if we don’t shade and/or cool him regular. Zen doesn’t have a Bimini top and Alf wants to be with us on deck rather than below in the cabin, so we have to be a little creative in making sure that the sun doesn’t get to him. I generally soak an old, light-colored towel in the cool lake water and drape it over him on those hot, sunny days.
If your dog is a jumper, you will want to secure him to the boat. You really don’t want to practice your man-overboard drills with a panicking dog. Alf sits pretty well most of the time but if it’s windy or rocky, he gets a little edgy and seems to want to jump off or wander all of over the boat in a panic. It is simple enough to find an out-of-the-way spot to tie a line to the boat and the dog to keep him safe and out from under foot. I tie a short rope from his PFD to the lifeline that blocks off our swim deck. In an emergency, Alf can be quickly released in three ways: 1) I can open the lifeline and slide the rope off of it; I can untie the other end of the rope from his PFD; or 3) I can unzip his PFD and slide him out.
Preparing and training your dog for sailing can reap so many rewards for you and your dog. You will be free to enjoy sailing without worrying about what to do with the dog and your dog will enjoy spending the time outdoors with you.