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Boating With Your Dog- 7 Tips for a Four-Legged First Mate

By: Scott Way

Two dogs on stern of sailboat
Jesse Orrico / Unsplash

Owning a dog and owning a boat are two of life’s greatest joys. One offers unwavering companionship and the other offers freedom, solace, and a source of adventure. Combine these together and it’s no surprise boaters bring their K9’s aboard for life’s on-water adventures. Bringing your dog, just like bringing friends and family, offers a chance to bond while enjoying recreational time. Whether your pup is a self-professed fish inspector who examines every salmon coming over the rail, or a BBQ enthusiast who wants to taste-test your steak, including your pup is a great way to enhance the boating experience. That being said, there are several things to consider before Fido becomes your first mate. To make sure your dog is comfortable on the water, you need to implement some boat training so Buddy doesn’t feel the urge to jump overboard. There’s also some safety equipment and some practical accessories you need to invest in to ensure your furry fish inspector has as much fun as you do.

Dogs, like humans, vary in size and temperament. Some dogs are laid back like a California surfer, and others are high-strung like a New York City corporate executive. Small dogs can handle stresses that larger dogs can’t, and vice versa. Knowing your individual animal is a big part of making them a successful part of your boat crew. As a result, you’ll need to cater your training, and your equipment, to your individual dog. This means getting them the right PFD, the right amenities for the boat, and undertaking the right training so they can enjoy the ride along with you. If you have concerns about taking your dog aboard, always consult with your veterinarian beforehand. Here are 7 things to consider when bringing Snoopy onboard:

1. Invest In The Right PFD

Even if your dog loves the water and is an excellent swimmer, a quality PFD is always a smart choice. Like humans, even good swimmers should wear a PFD while boating, and dogs should be treated the same. The type of water a dog encounters in day to day life, like small rivers or creeks, won’t compare to the rolling waves and distant shorelines of a large lake. To reduce the risk of them becoming tired or scared while swimming, a proper PFD will offer a safer swimming experience. Dogs can become easily distracted while on board (and so can humans if there’s a lot going on), so making sure your pet wears a PFD will provide valuable rescue time in the event of a mishap. However, PFD’s can be extremely hot to wear during summer, or affect your dog’s movement depending on the fit/style, so you’ll want to do your research. Thankfully, there are some great resources for finding the right canine PFD. Finding the right PFD for your dog is like wearing your seatbelt while driving; it’s a simple thing to do that can make all the difference.

Dog wearing PFD
Dog In Proper PFD

2. Add An ‘Overboard Plan’ To Your Safety Procedures

As a boat owner you should already have procedures in place for you and your crew to implement during an emergency. As part of bringing your dog aboard, you should also add procedures in the event of a canine mishap. Dogs are unpredictable, and even experienced ones may react differently to bad weather, waves, people on board, or something exciting in the water or on shore. In the event your dog becomes distressed or jumps overboard, have a plan in place you can respond with quickly. If the dog goes overboard, the first action should be to cut the engine and find their location, and then have a rescue plan to get them back onboard. If you’ve trained your dog with good recall, they should respond to your calls even if they’re excited or scared, or at least dissuade them from going further away from the boat. Good PFD’s have a handle on the back for grasping the dog, so utilize this instead of grabbing their collar, which may cause further distress. Stay calm and make sure everyone onboard does their part.

3. Add Canine Supplies To Your Boat

Every boat should have a first aid kit, and adding an additional one for your pup so you don’t mix and match emergency supplies is a wise choice. There are pet-specific kits you can purchase, as well as useful items you can add to your vessel to increase your pup’s comfort. Things like antibiotic ointment, sunscreen (formulated for dogs), a bed/resting area in the shade, an extra leash, food/water bowls, bug repellent (formulated for dogs- human versions can be harmful), and training treats are all worth keeping stocked up. Your veterinarian can make recommendations about sunscreen and insect repellent since individual breeds and sizes respond differently depending on the strength and concentration. Making your dog as comfortable as possible, and have emergency supplies available in the event of an injury, means your dog will be rightfully treated as a regular crew member.

4. Dockside Training

Getting your dog comfortable with your vessel before going on the water is absolutely necessary. Just like humans, dogs like to get acquainted with their surroundings before feeling comfortable, so give them a chance to spend time onboard before leaving the dock. Bring your dog to the dock, or onto the trailer, and let them wander around the boat under supervision. They’ll want to examine all the smells and check every area, and you can take this opportunity to introduce them to their equipment. However, do not begin any training if your dog shows signs of anxiety. It may take time for them to get used to being onboard, even while docked, so go slowly and watch for signs of stress. Once your dog feels comfortable you can introduce them to their PFD, the location of their food/water bowls, and their rest area or bed. Let them spend as much time as needed and encourage positive behaviors. This may take several repetitions, as well as ongoing training, to build them into a reliable crew member.

Dog training on boat
Pre-Trip Dog Training

5. Check Local Paw Laws

There are few restrictions or laws banning animals aboard recreational vessels, but it varies by province, state, and country. Check with your local government office to ensure you’re in compliance, and if you plan on entering international waters at any point you’ll want to consult any foreign laws along the route. Recreational vessels typically won’t be any issues, but commercial boats will likely have some considerations. If you’re Canadian, the government of Canada offers a comprehensive guide that covers rules/laws for travelling with your dog.

6. New Passenger New Focus

If you’re the captain, the safety of the crew is your responsibility and adding a dog will change your boat’s dynamic. Dogs don’t respond to stimuli the way people do, so you need consider the canine response when something happens onboard. For example, if you’re fishing and the crew becomes enthralled in what’s going on at the stern downrigger, there’s no guarantee your pup is doing the same. He or she may be interested in birds flying off the bow, or something floating below, or may become scared or anxious about the commotion, so you need to keep an eye on them as much as your human crew members. A captain already has enough responsibilities like navigating the boat and monitoring the crew, so if you’re concerned about your pup’s supervision you should assign a particular crew member to be responsible. A good first mate or family member may serve best as the canine supervisor.

7. Walk Before You Run

Even with quality training and investment in good equipment, keep your dog’s first outing short. Things are different at the dock when the boat isn’t moving and the shoreline is next to you, so your dog may become uneasy when circumstances change. Until they’ve accrued some time on the water keep their PFD on at all times (as long as they don’t overheat), or keep them on leash until you’re confident they’re comfortable with the movements of the boat. Give them a chance to experience some normal events on the water, like catching a fish or waterskiing, and do so while they’re on leash and well supervised until they get used to the experience.

With time and good training your dog can become a valuable member of your crew. Invest in the right PFD and on board comforts like a bed and food bowls, and your canine companion will hopefully enjoy boating as much as you. Give them time to get their sea legs and you’ll enjoy years of on-water fun with your four-legged first mate.

Dog wearing sunglasses on boat
Josh Rakower / Unsplash
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