Having a dog onboard a sailboat

Should I have a dog onboard my boat?

That is a legitimate question with no easy answer. I will limit my discussion to cruising boats, particularly cruising sail boats. Day cruises are similar, but without some of the problems or concerns related to destination cruising.

If you already own a pooch, then the die is somewhat cast. If you are preparing for a seasonal cruise to, say, the Bahamas or even Florida, I emphatically say do not get a dog to take with you. It is patently unfair to the dog andHaving a dog onboard a sailboat to the human sailors onboard. Assuming that you don’t listen to that bit of sage advice, read on.

I love dogs, but sort of like children in that I love MY dog. I had been dogless for approximately ten years due primarily to a sailing and seasonal cruising life style. Then, my first mate and fiancée said that she wanted a dog. She had sailed with me twice to the Bahamas for the winter and understood the ramifications of having an animal onboard. She pressed the issue and because I love her and do love dogs, I relented, but said that if we were to get a dog it must be a water dog. That, my friends, was the beginning of the slippery slope.

I wanted an English springer spaniel for the temperament, size (for the boat), and the fact that they love the water. After a lengthy search we found a pet quality springer in the far western part of North Carolina. The four month old pup bonded with the first mate on the six hour drive back home to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The dog never whimpered, not the first time. He was so glad to get away from the “puppy mill” that had been his beginning.

Mr. Spaniel’s full name is Wind Rider of the Outer Banks, shortened to Rider for everyday use. He seemed to be a pretty good pup; maybe this would be OK after all.
Within six to seven months we were to head to the Bahamas for our third winter sojourn. I knew that the dog must be trained to urinate onboard my beloved sail boat, not something you really want for your boat, but, something that had to be. My neighbors must have laughed themselves silly watching me run around behind Rider the pup, attempting to collect his urine for training purposes. I did collect samples on several occasions and poured them on to a 3’x4’ piece of outdoor green mat. I had previously affixed grommets to the corners of the mat and tied short lengths of polypropylene line to the corners. I tied the mat to the boat’s bow and then lead Rider to the mat. He bent down to sniff the mat and quickly jerked his head up, turned away from the mat, and looked up at me as if to say, “ It wasn’t me, I didn’t do it Dad!” Well, I collected more samples and applied them to the mat, to no avail. We purchased scented “Pee pads” and scented spray from the pet store in hopes that one of those items might convince Rider to do the deal. Noooooo, no way that was going to happen.

Here is the problem, when traveling by boat for any distance; we all have to relieve ourselves from time to time. Humans have options. Dogs do not. A well trained dog is not going to “go” in his home and when traveling via boat, the boat becomes home to the pooch. Sailing from North Carolina to the
Bahamas or Florida, or even a week end trip on the Chesapeake Bay for example requires stops along the way, or a lengthy ocean passage. Anchoring out becomes very difficult with a dog onboard who will not do his/her business onboard. Why? Often we are anchored along some marshy area with no place to go ashore. At other times we are anchored alongside someone’s very expensive property with no place to go ashore. Onboard Southern Heat we find ourselves taking a slip for the night much more often than I like. On a three to four week trip to the Bahamas that can get very expensive when paying transient fees for slips along the way.

Once in a while, we have had to anchor out, no marina available, in an area where the dog cannot go to shore. That means that he cannot find relief until the next evening when we stop where he can get off the boat. That may sound cruel, but it is fact. Worse is ocean sailing where we might be out for three days and two nights before we reach land again.
Rider has his own safety gear to include a doggie personal floatation device (pfd or life jacket), dog overboard strobe light (water activated), and tether. When sailing the ocean, he is required to wear his pfd at all times, even when below. If an emergency were to happen, there would be no time to collect the dog and put his vest on him.

Many times while at sea I have escorted Rider to the bow to encourage him to urinate on the pad. We are both geared up with our safety gear. He just won’t do it. He enjoys being up on the bow, but he just won’t “go.” I have gone to the extreme of urinating on the pad while he watched.” Nope, not gonna do it!” After hours and hours have passed, it becomes obvious that the dog is uncomfortable. Duh, no brainer. I have done risky things such as escort him to the bow of the boat in the dark, even when Camilla was down below. That was a very dangerous thing to do and I am uneasy in reporting that behavior, all to try to get Rider to relieve himself. Folks, he has lasted 48 hours twice before he finally gave in. The first time was at 0400 (4AM). He was extremely anxious and I had taken him to the bow while Camilla was down below (no excuse, but we were desperate) about 30 minutes earlier, to no avail. Camilla came up on deck to stand her watch and as she did, Rider asked to go out on the aft deck of our center cockpit Hunter 420 where he dropped his head in apparent shame and finally urinated. He was tethered in and wearing his pfd. We made a big deal of the event and celebrated with him, hoping that he would get the message that what he did was good. No, he did not get it. He still refused to “go” on the boat.

The second time was no better and after about 48 hours, Rider was asleep in the cockpit when he started urinating in his sleep. He jumped up and sprayed the entire cockpit, cushions included, like a fire hose. We couldn’t complain, we again celebrated and cleaned up when Rider was not looking. HE STILL DID NOT GET THE MESSAGE. To this day he will not “go” on the boat until he is in dire straits. Yes, he did get a bladder infection and had to be treated in the Bahamas.

Some few dogs can be trained to “go” onboard, but, I read of one pooch that was so trained to “go” onboard that he would not “go” on land. Another boater wrote about a dog that as soon as the boat pulled into a slip in front a fancy water front restaurant did a bowl movement on the bow of the boat, just feet away from diners. What are you going to do?
Socialization on docks can be problematic too. Docks are narrow and some dogs just don’t like other dogs. It can be challenging to keep them separated. Some dog owners think all dogs must love their dog and do nothing to keep the animals apart. Many allow their pet to approach any leashed dog. That is just plain bad form.

Another point to consider is that any medications that your pet needs must be brought along, oh and where are you going to store all of that dog food? Have you ever carried a 30lb bag of dog food ½ mile back to the boat from the store? Going to the Bahamas? Your dog needs a health certificate before arriving.

Disappointingly, we have found that in Florida dogs are not allowed on most beaches, even when on a leash. A few jurisdictions have “dog beaches”, but they are generally far away from the regular public beaches and not in walking distance at any rate. I have yet to find a place where it is legal to allow a dog to run off leash in Florida. Yes, there are dog parks in some locales, if you or your pooch can tolerate them.

The last issue that I wish to bring forward is that of what to do with the dog when leaving the boat for a few hours or even longer. If you are in a marina and plugged in to shore power and you are running your boat’s air conditioning system, it might be OK to leave Fido for a few hours, but you had better hope that the AC does not fail for whatever reason. In the Bahamas, we have witnessed boaters leaving their dogs, yes plural, in the cockpit while they get in the dinghy and motor to shore for the afternoon/evening. It can be unbearable when two dogs feeding off of each other’s emotions begin to bark/moan incessantly for hours on end. Yes, that really does happen.

One last story, a number of years ago, we were in a transient slip in Crisfield, Maryland for a week end visit. A nice new looking sport fisher with two couples and a large dog took a slip and few spaces away. We had to walk by that boat to get to land. When we returned from a nice sea food dinner, we again had to walk past the sport fisher to get to our boat. What we saw was unbelievable except for the fact that we saw it with our own eyes. The sport fisher folks had left the dog on board while they too went to supper. What we saw through the double sliding glass doors of the sport fisher was sad and hysterical at the same time. The large yellow lab style dog had shredded the couch and the couch’s stuffing was emulsified in the air. Yes, the air inside the boat was thick with couch stuffing and the dog was still at it. Wow.

Having said all of that, Camilla and I love our dog. He is good for me in the aspect that I take him walking at least twice a day and we truly enjoy some of his antics. He loves to run and he is a very good swimmer. Here in St. Petersburg, FL, he would love for us to unleash him so that he could catch just one squirrel, just one.

Capt. David P. Hope
S/V Southern Heat
Author, “Summer Heat”—-Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com