Cruising: Dogs Afloat

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Some simple rules will make for a happy dog-boat relationship

Some simple rules will make for a happy dog-boat relationship

We dog owners understand the general expectations of ourselves in public places, like picking up after Fido and keeping him on a leash. There are, however, certain places where additional unspoken rules or expectations may apply—as in harbors or marinas. If you sail with your dog, it’s best to learn some basic rules of etiquette for both you and your pet.

The basics: A well-trained and loving dog is much easier to manage in public places. By well-trained we mean responsive to their owners. Tackle the basic commands like sit, stay, down and recall. All dogs respond best to reward-based training and positive reinforcement. They learn through the consequences of their behavior—if they experience a positive consequence, they are more likely to repeat the behavior. Recall is one of the most important commands when in public places. If your dog hasn’t mastered basic commands and recall, perhaps it’s a good idea to stay away from marinas or harbors.

Play it safe: If you’re in a new marina or harbor, keep your dog on a leash until you can figure out the rules of engagement. Look for signs and warnings: are there areas that dogs aren’t allowed? Are dogs to be kept on leash at all times? Are the crew lounge and local restaurants dog-friendly? Play it safe—until you can ask staff, keep Fido on leash and assume the restaurants aren’t dog friendly.

Take the essentials: Remember your poo bags! If you’ve been out on the boat, you can be pretty certain that your dog is going to need the toilet when you dock. Make this one of your first jobs. Grab his leash and take him away from the boats and docks to do his business. If he does mark his territory on a boat, docklines, a dockbox or other equipment, rinse the urine off with a bucket or bottle of water.

Keep your dog close: Dogs have a thing for wanting to investigate new places and things; this is natural and should form part of how you socialize a dog. The boats you’ve just docked next to will be no exception. Keep him close. On a boat, you don’t have the secure fence you do at home. Attach him to a longer line so he can wander but doesn’t pose a nuisance to neighbors or passersby. Fido may be super-friendly—your neighbor may not be. They may have a fear of dogs or a severe allergy or they may have a cat or a dog who isn’t that friendly—it’s just not worth the risk.

No rose-tinted glasses: Be realistic about Fido’s temperament and socialization. Is your dog used to being in busy places? Is he used to the variety of equipment and vehicles found in a harbor? Has he seen boats of all shapes and sizes?

If he hasn’t, you’re going to end up with a stressed dog. Here, you will have three outcomes:

• You may have the aggressive response; Fido will bark and lunge—the fight response.

• He may try to run away—the flight response.

• He may turn into a nervous wreck, not wanting to move and you are dragging him across the dock—the freeze response.

Consider your route before you set off—are there quieter harbors where Fido may be more settled?

Be responsible for your dog: Chances are there will be other dogs in the harbor or marina. You may notice that their owners are letting them have free roam; they are toileting wherever they feel like and wandering all over. This really is none of your business. Your responsibility is your dog and what he does. Be mindful of where you allow Fido to play with other dogs—not only of areas where he may not be allowed but where if he gets enthralled in the chase, he may fall off the jetty.

Think ahead: Sometimes dogs left alone on boats bark all day, seemingly for no reason, to the annoyance of all your neighbors. The dog has learned that barking is its best chance of retrieving its owner. This is due to poor puppy socialization, especially crate training, as the pet-parent has never allowed the dog to learn that they will come back. It’s best to start with small 10-minute increments and gradually increase the time spent away. Upon each successful return (without barking) you should reward the dog. This way the dog associates the return with praise and reward. The same technique can be learned on a boat or in a crate.

Stay safe: Get into the habit of having Fido wear a life jacket. Some dogs are naturally better swimmers than others, but even in the safety of a harbor, dogs are at risk of falling into the water. This can be potentially life-threatening for poor swimmers or older dogs. The handle found on pet life jackets makes it especially easy to grab a dog and pull it out of the water, providing peace of mind for you, your dog and those around you.

Again, a well-trained dog is much easier to manage in public places: nail the basic commands and be aware of general owner and dog etiquette. When arriving in a new harbor, play it safe and read the rules of engagement. Always keep your dog close and in your control. 

Dog trainer and sailor John Woods is the founder of All Things Dogs, allthingsdogs.com

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