Boating With Your Dog: What You Need to Know

Sail the high seas with your four-legged bestie.
By: Carol McCarthy
Dog boating safety

If you love spending time on the water but hate leaving your dog on land, consider making her your first mate. With proper preparation, boating with your dog on a pond, lake or ocean can be fun for both you and her. Here are some easy tips to make boating with your dog a breeze, along with some must-haves to bring aboard.

Before You Set Sail

Safety is the first order of business before you and your dog get anywhere near the water, said Rachel Johnson, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council. Her organization’s most important safety advice is to get a proper life jacket for yourself and for your dog. Life jackets, or personal flotation devices, should be worn at all times by everyone on board while boating, she said.

Next, pack everything your dog will need while on the boat, including food, bowls, fresh water and medications (for longer excursions), in a watertight bag. You’ll also want to keep your dog on her regular diet before and during the excursion, said Dr. Neil Marrinan of Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Connecticut. “A dog with traveler’s tummy can be unpleasant when aboard the yacht,” he said.

A good first-aid kit should also be on hand and should include pet-safe medicines, such as Cerenia for seasickness, Marrinan said. And don’t forget sunblock for your dog’s nose. “I like the kid-safe waterproof stuff,” he said.

Among all those necessities, toss in your dog’s favorite toy, especially if she likes to play fetch in the water, Johnson says. Just make sure it floats!

All Aboard

Getting your dog in and out of a small craft, like a kayak or canoe, can be tricky. “Have your dog try to get in and out of a boat on dry land first so they can get a sense of how the boat may rock or move in the water,” said Johnson. “It’s extremely important that your dog not capsize your boat or that you not exceed the boat’s capacity.”

Pet-friendly boarding ramps, which look like a slanted ladder, are available at outdoors or boating supply stores and can make transfers onto and out of the boat easier. If your small dog is afraid to hop aboard, simply carry her. And keep in mind that a very large or active dog might be better off left on dry land when it comes to a smaller boat, Johnson said.

Lynn McCarthy of Lyme, CT, and her partner take their two black labs, Willow and Gracie, out on the Long Island Sound and beyond aboard their 47-foot sailboat. Getting in and off their boat where it is docked can be a challenge. “We stand in the dinghy [a smaller boat] and lower them up and down. Half the time I end up in the water,” McCarthy said. To improve things, they switched from a wooden dinghy to a more stable, inflatable one.

Be Prepared for Anything

While some boaters might think it makes sense to tether their dog on deck when they get underway, Johnson said her organization does not advise it.

“You never know when an accident may happen, like your boat capsizing, and this would create an even worse situation,” she said. “The most important thing is to always make sure your dog is wearing a life jacket. In both good and bad weather, this ensures that if your dog were to go overboard, they would have the security of the life jacket to help keep them afloat.”

To ensure the best outcome if such an event were to occur, Johnson advises having a well-thought out Float Plan in place that includes provisions for your dog. Consider what would happen if your dog does go overboard.

“In the case of an accident, what you should do next depends on the circumstances: Consider the weather, the size of boat, the size of the animal. You need to first consider your own safety, then decide,” Johnson said.

Remember that the deck of the boat is not familiar territory to your dog, so inspect the area for any potential safety issues. McCarthy said she learned this the hard way when she vented the cabin to let in fresh air through a screen-covered catch. “Gracie didn’t realize it was a screen, and she fell below,” she said. “Now we only open it a crack.”

Get Down to “Business”

McCarthy does not sail with her dogs overnight, so they stop to let Gracie and Willow off on land to do their business. For those heading far out to sea, that is not an option. Some people who sail long distances with their dogs recommend training your pup to do her business on a piece of Astroturf kept on deck. The turf can be tethered to a rope and lowered overboard to rinse off, and the poop can be scooped and flushed down the toilet.

Whether going for a jaunt or a journey, boating with your dog is not for everyone. If you don’t feel confident, reconsider. “If you have questions or hesitations, just leave your dog home,” said Johnson, whose own dog has turned out to be a landlubber. “Listen to the dog. They can tell you stuff even though they can’t talk. If the dog seems uncomfortable, leave the dog home.”