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Cruising with Canines

Land Ho! Prudent mariners rely on several different types of navigation systems. A dog's heightened sense of smell, hearing, and vision can benefit its seafaring owners.
Five days had passed and there was still no sight of Bermuda. Joe was starting to get concerned. Because of the dense cloud cover, he hadn’t been able to take a sight for over 24 hours, but according to his calculations, they should be seeing land by now.

Suddenly, Buster, a seven-year-old dachshund, climbed out of the cockpit and ran to the bow. "Buster never leaves the cockpit!" Joe exclaimed to his crew. "What the devil is he doing up there?"

Buster stood steadfastly at the bow, nose pointing 30 degrees to port and ignored both the drenchings of salt water and the repeated commands to return to the cockpit. Joe started to get mad and this time yelled for Buster to return. Still Buster held his ground, nose into the wind.

After much fussing and cussing, and Buster still not leaving his post, it finally dawned on Joe and his crew that Buster must smell land. They quickly adjusted their heading to Buster’s new course, and lo and behold, a tiny speck of land appeared just two hours later.

This episode of sailing with Buster happened long before GPS was around, but today our friend Joe loves to tell the story. "I never had a GPS, but I did have BPS—Buster Positioning System!"

Dogs and boats have always seemed to get along well. It’s hard to find a dog that doesn’t like water or doesn’t love the wind in his face. Just look at how they’re always sticking their heads out car windows. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that we run across so many fellow cruisers that have one or more dogs on board. Let us share with you some of the tricks and techniques we’ve learned that will help make your dog and cruising experience safer and happier for both man and beast.

If you’re choosing a dog to go cruising with, keep in mind that a small dog is going to take up much less space. He’ll be more transportable in your dinghy and on shore, plus you won’t have to carry as much food. It’s been our observation that cruisers with large dogs on board usually had these pets before they decided to cast off and couldn’t bear leaving them behind.

The biggest issue you’ll likely face with your dog on board is what to do when nature calls. Cruisers that fail to train their dogs to relieve themselves on the boat quickly become slaves to their pets and are tied down in their travels. They must stick to cruising only the areas where they know they can go ashore and take their dog. Having to dinghy your dog ashore regularly, twice a day, regardless of the conditions outside soon gets tiring and is a task that should not be taken lightly.

Getting Spot to use the designated mat is no small task initially, but it's easier than lugging a fire hyrdrant aboard or making multiple trips ashore.

Many cruisers have successfully trained their dogs to do their duty on board. Methods are wide-ranging in this department. Some train the dog to use an astro-turf grass mat on the deck, either inside a large plastic box or straight on the deck itself, depending on the size of the dog. Sprinkling some dirt or grass from a familiar spot on top of the mat helps when getting started. Another initiation to the mat technique is to scent the mat with the dog’s own business, if you catch our drift.If you decide to try the mat on the deck method, tie a line to the mat to facilitate dunking it (and box if applicable) overboard for cleaning. Periodic soakings in vinegar help eliminate lingering odors. Other ingenious cruisers build platforms off the deck at the transom for the dog to use, designed so that the dog's efforts go straight overboard. It pays to be creative.

Regardless of the method you choose, the trick seems to be outlasting your dog in the waiting department when you are in the training phase. It’s common for a dog to sometimes wait as long as 30 hours or more to relieve himself when the owner and dog first face off on the boat. Many owners break down long before this point feeling sorry for the animal, and take him ashore—like always. So what's the result? Dog 1, Cruiser 0.

Although most dogs are natural swimmers, you should introduce your dog to the water before you take off in the boat. Watch how well your dog swims, maneuvers, and how quickly he tires. Make a game out of throwing a life ring or other floating device on the end of a tossing line, and train the dog to swim to this and grab it. Not only will it be good exercise for the dog, but it may save his life one day by making a potential rescue easier.

Ease of handling, storage, and feeding concerns are among the compelling reasons small (and sometime vocal) dogs are the choice for many cruisers.

Practice a dog overboard drill under controlled circumstances just as you would a man overboard drill. Getting your dog out of the water and back onto the boat can sometimes be a challenge. Boat designs with swim platforms can make this task much easier. Other boats with high freeboard and no swim platform can make this much more difficult. Make sure you have a well-rehearsed plan for your dog.

Small dogs can be easily lifted from the water to the dinghy or to boat. Even if they’re in the water and you’re on the boat, if you have a harness on them, you can pick them up with a boat hook or even a large fish net. A grab loop added to the back of a harness at your dog's balance point can facilitate lifting the dog comfortably and safely.

Larger dogs are a different matter. Some can climb swim ladders, but others seem to rely completely on their owners for retrieval from the water. Again a harness is a good idea, and in situations where you can’t lift the dog manually from the water or from your dinghy onto the boat, you’ll need to have a lifting device figured out in advance that you can use to retrieve your dog. Some cruisers use a block and tackle device (often their boomvang or preventer, so as not to duplicate equipment on board) that they rig up on the end of the boom. The block and tackle is set up with a cam cleat at the top end and can be controlled from both the dinghy and from on deck.

As an added bonus, dogs can also deter would-be thieves from boarding while the boat is out on the hook.
Many people fit their animals with life jackets designed just for dogs. A good one will have a strong lifting handle sewn on the back. These jackets can not only help your dog stay afloat longer and tire less if he falls off the boat, but the bright color will help you spot him more easily. Fluorescent patches on the back of the jacket will assist tremendously in a nighttime retrieval.

There may be additional training your dog will need to help you enjoy safer and more pleasant cruising. A dog should know that it can never jump off the boat without your command. Terrible situations can develop if a dog jumps off at an inopportune time. Approaching a dock, high traffic situations with motor boats speeding by, nighttime, strong currents—the list goes on. Train your dog to go to a certain predetermined safe spot on your boat and stay there on command. Tether him if necessary. This is essential so that if you find yourself in a hairy situation, you don’t have to worry about finding and containing your pet as well as getting things back under control.

Some dogs bark incessantly if left behind at anchor while the owners go ashore. It may not be the easiest thing, but effort on your part to keep your dog from barking will definitely be appreciated by the rest of the anchorage. Make it a practice when you leave your boat to return immediately if you hear your dog bark. Discipline him and let him know his behavior is not acceptable before you leave again. Some suggest leaving a radio on so the dog doesn’t feel alone.

Some technique is involved in transferring a dog to the dinghy. A harness can help, but keep an eye out for passing wakes.
When sailing offshore or at night, a harness with a tether for your dog whenever he is on deck is just as important for the dog as it is for you. Adding netting to your lifelines can be very beneficial if your dog likes to roam the decks. Dogs don’t have the best traction on decks of sailboats, and it could save them from an unwanted swim or two. Keeping the dog's nails clipped will also help with traction.

Food and water bowls are best contained by being glued inside another plastic box, so that any spills will not get all over the boat. Make sure your dog has water available to drink, especially in hot climes. If your dog becomes upset or nervous when you start the engine, try feeding him or giving him treats each time you turn the engine on. He’ll soon view the noise of the engine in a new light.

If you’re not in a position to take your dog ashore for regular walks, you will need to either allow the dog to exercise by swimming regularly, or you must cut down on the amount of food he gets each day. Maybe both will be necessary. Boat dogs often gain weight due to the dramatic decrease in the amount of exercise they get.

Having any pet on board can complicate cruising to foreign destinations. The main issue is that countries that don’t have a rabies problem want to keep it that way, and don’t want your pet to spread it. Even if your pet has had shots, it can still be a carrier of rabies. Some countries insist on a quarantine period; others allow pets to stay on board the boat only; and yet others may seize the animal and put it down if it is discovered there illegally. This is not an issue you’ll want to mess with, so check with local authorities and find out what the rules are before deciding to set sail for your chosen destination.

Larger dogs present, well, more dog to work with, but this happy crew proves it's possible.

Dogs are wonderful companions and forever faithful. If you’ve enjoyed dogs in your life ashore, you’ll probably not want to leave them behind when you go cruising. Whether an older dog or a new puppy, adjustment to life on a boat is going to take a little time, just as it will for you. However, with proper training and a few specially devised "boat-friendly doggy devices", your new life of cruising together will be rewarding for all. And hey, you never know when your GPS might go out on you and you’ll need to rely on your own "Buster" for his incredible nose to get you back on course.

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Here are some quick, simple tips to make your life a little easier if you decide to go voyaging with canines on board:

  • Don’t let your dog beat you at the bathroom battle! Outlast him and train him to relieve himself on board. You’ll enjoy the freedom it offers you in cruising destinations.
  • Introduce your dog to the water before he falls in. You’ll both be more comfortable knowing in advance that he can swim.
  • Train your dog to swim to a certain spot around the boat for retrieval. If your boat design allows it, set up a self-rescue system for him to climb out of the water. Swim ladders may need to be modified so that they go out at an angle from the boat and not straight down into the water. If this isn’t possible, train your dog to pull himself up onto a floating raft that you tie and leave behind the boat when at anchor. The raft must be of a buoyancy that matches your dog’s weight. Too much buoyancy, and the raft will push away from the dog. With just enough sinkability, the raft will go under water a little so that your dog can climb up onto it. Inflatable rafts are not recommended because they can be easily punctured. Experiment with closed cell foam type rafts until you find the right floatability for your dog
  • Like humans, some dogs experience varying degrees of seasickness. In general, dogs tend to get over seasickness quickly.
  • Some breeds of dogs are prone to sunburn. Check with your vet about your breed. You may actually have to use sunscreen.

    Keep your dog’s nails clipped so that he doesn’t slip on deck.

  • Have your dog wear a harness at all times. This will assist with rescues and with tethering the dog to the boat in rough weather.
  • Keep a boat hook and a fishnet handy for retrievals.
  • Always carry pet health records with you when you cruise.
  • There are quite a few retired veterinarians cruising about. We’ve found that, especially if you have a SSB radio, help is often only a couple of calls away within the cruiser’s network to get advice if your dog falls ill.
  • An identification tag should be worn at all times in case you ever lose your dog.

Suggested Reading:

Pets Afloat by Tom Wood

Cruising with Cats by Sue & Larry

Saltwater Wash Down Pumps

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