Top 10 tips for sailing with dogs by Michelle Segrest
Whether you are taking a day sail, enjoying a holiday at sea, or sailing the world and living aboard full-time, you don’t have to leave your furry, four-legged family members behind. With some preparation, planning, and a little extra work to potty train and equip the ship for safety, it’s possible to provide a safe and comfortable environment for your sailing dogs.
When our two beagles—Cap’n Jack and Scout—first stepped aboard our 43-foot steel ketch, Seefalke, they walked around the small vessel and curiously sniffed every corner. Then, tails wagging, they looked up at us, and it was as if they shrugged their shoulders and said, “I guess we live here now.” Then they curled up on the settee in the main saloon and settled in.
After sailing to more than 15 countries on four continents and across eight significant bodies of water, including a three-week Atlantic Ocean crossing, we are convinced now more than ever that dogs just want to be with their humans. Dogs acclimate well to new surroundings as long as they have consistent training, plenty of rewards, and lots of attention.
With the experience of sailing with dogs in heavy, offshore conditions, we have learned many lessons about how to keep them comfortable, healthy, and safe. Here are the Top 10 tips for sailing with dogs.
1) Equip your ship for safety.
This clearly should be your top priority. Be prepared with many extra safety features before welcoming your dog on board.
A classic wooden boat is beautiful on the sea and a joy to sail, but polished teak can provide slippering footing for a dog, making it dangerous for him to walk around the deck. One without a railing or sea fence is especially dangerous. Choosing a boat that is safe for dogs is the first step. Seefalke has a center cockpit that is four feet deep on all sides, making it especially safe for dogs, especially in harsh conditions.
When you know the boat is as safe as possible, it’s time to think about a life vest. Just as sailing humans need a PFD (personal flotation device), it is crucial to have a high-quality life vest for your four-legged crew members. I can highly recommend life vests that secure tightly around the waist and around the neck with easy-to-use, secure Velcro closures as well as safety clips. If you can find one with handles on top, this makes it easier to retrieve your pet in an overboard situation. It’s also helpful for transferring your dog from the boat to the dinghy.
Your safety preparation should not end there. The simple installation of a sea fence around the entire perimeter of the boat adds extra security, safety, and peace of mind. Our sea fence can handle an impact of up to 750 pounds, so it has the added bonus of protecting humans and equipment from sliding overboard. It’s important to have a well-practised pet-overboard procedure, but it’s even more important to do everything you can to avoid the overboard situation altogether.
Heavy-duty harnesses with tethering lines will keep your dogs’ movement restricted in dangerous situations. Most importantly, if conditions are especially rough, secure your dog in the main cabin in a barricaded spot to ensure their safety and to allow you to focus on safely sailing your ship.
2) Potty train your pet for onboard living.
After a few weeks of trial and error, we discovered that using a fake-grass mat on the bow of the boat is the best option for onboard potty training. You don’t have to place yours on the bow but be sure to establish a spot that your dog knows is the “place to go.” When we are at sea and conditions are not safe for the beagles to go to the bow to potty, we have a spare fake-grass mat that we put in the cockpit.
Practice your potty routine every day. In the beginning, I would leash the dogs and walk them to the bow as if I was taking them for a walk. As they began to get the hang of it, the potty mat began to acquire the potty smell that would attract them. It’s not a bad idea to transport some of their “smell” to the mat deliberately while training.
Remember that patience, routine, repetition, and reward are important. Be sure to celebrate with lots of attention and treats when your dog has success on the potty mat!
3) Dogs need routines, especially on a boat.
You will most likely have different routines when in port, on the hard, at anchorage, and at sea. This doesn’t only apply to the potty routine. It also applies to how they eat and how they get exercise. It’s all right, even appropriate, for the routine to change slightly depending on the situation.
While at sea, for example, the dogs get less exercise and therefore, they do not need as many calories, so we feed them less than we do when we are in port or at anchorage. Studies show that dogs don’t have a concept of time, but they do have a concept of order, so try to establish an order of routine even if the feeding or the walking doesn’t happen at the same time every day.
4) Be prepared for first aid at sea.
What if you are at sea or at anchorage and your dog experiences a bad cut, has an allergic reaction, or falls and breaks a leg? What will you do? You may not be able to take him to the nearest veterinarian or be able to communicate in the local language.
You wouldn’t set sail without a first-aid kit for the human crew, so don’t depart without a comprehensive medical kit for your four-legged crew. Consult with your veterinarian prior to departure and ask him to help you prepare a full dog first-aid kit, complete with antibiotics, seasick medicine, eye and skin ointments, and supplies for cuts, abrasions and breaks.
5) Every sailing destination has specific requirements.
It requires a bit more effort and research to cruise with a dog. It could limit your ability to travel to certain countries and to enjoy certain tourist attractions along the way. For most dog lovers, this is an easy sacrifice.
It’s important to know that each country has its own unique set of requirements for dog entry. These requirements have been adjusted due to Covid, as well. Some places require periods of quarantine, and some do not allow dog entry at all. The best advice is to do the heavy research before you set sail. This information is available on each country’s transportation/tourist website.
There are three main requirements for dog entry by boat when entering just about any country:
- Health certificate. This must be approved by a licensed veterinarian and have an official health department signature
- and seal.
- International microchip
- Rabies vaccination AFTER the microchip has been implanted
Some countries also require:
- Rabies titer
- Flea and tick treatment
- Heartworm treatment
- De-worming treatment
In Europe, and in some other countries, it is required to obtain a Pet Passport.
6) Be prepared for countries and cultures that are not dog friendly.
While sailing around dog-friendly Europe, you shouldn’t have any issues. In Europe, Cap’n Jack and Scout joined us everywhere we went—including restaurants, shops, and most tourist attractions.
However, there have been a few places we have visited that were not dog friendly. Morocco was our first stop where we encountered a different atmosphere for dogs. In Cape Verde, Africa and Cabedelo, Brazil, there are many stray dogs roaming the streets, so it was always necessary to keep Cap’n Jack and Scout on leashes and not allow them to run and play freely. The best tip here is to research the culture of the country you are visiting to get a good idea of what to expect.
7) Keep your dog warm.
Temperatures while sailing can hit extremes—for the humans and for the dogs. If you are cold, chances are your dog is at least chilly, even though he is covered with natural insulation. Smaller breeds and puppies have a more difficult time battling the cold temperatures. Don’t try to bundle them too much. Simply keep warm blankets or sleeping bags in their bedding area, and you will see them nestle themselves when the cold air affects them. Remember, cuddling with your dogs can provide warmth for them and for you!
8) Keep your dog cool.
If you are hot, chances are your dog is roasting. Dogs don’t sweat much; therefore, extreme heat is even more dangerous for them than it is for you. Dogs will pant heavily when they are battling the heat. Dogs can experience heat stroke or heat exhaustion when exposed to high temperatures. To avoid this, look for the signs (bright red tongue and pale gums, thick saliva, rapid panting, bloody nose, diarrhoea or vomiting, and dizziness). If these signs are present, soak your pet in cold water or place ice packs in his groin area or armpits.
If it’s less critical and you think your dog just needs to cool off, try loosely tying a cool bandana around his neck or dousing him with cool seawater. Generally, our dogs find shade when they are hot. No matter the temperature, always keep plenty of cool water available for your pets.
9) Prepare and provision the right food for your pet.
Feeding a beagle on board is simple—they will eat anything! Of course, but not everything is safe for dogs to eat. Fortunately, our beagles are fine with just about any brand of dry dog food, so we have been able to purchase dog food at almost every stop in every country to which we have sailed.
If your dog has digestive issues or allergies or requires some sort of special dog food, obviously it is important to provision accordingly. Don’t count on being able to find a particular brand of dog food at every stop you make on your sailing route.
In most cases, it’s okay to feed your dog what you eat, but be aware of people foods that are dangerous for dogs (like onions, grapes, dark chocolate, and anything too spicy or with alcohol).
10) Enjoy the experience.
Dogs require attention. They are expensive. They require additional work and preparation. And some of them leave so much dog hair you could stuff a mattress.
But the rewards of travelling with your pet make it all worthwhile. The rewards of companionship, no complaints, and having a built-in alarm system greatly outweigh the challenges and extra work. We can tell by the constant wagging tails that Cap’n Jack and Scout love being on the boat
If you are thinking of taking your pet with you on a sailing voyage, we can highly recommend it as long as you take the necessary steps to keep them comfortable, healthy, and safe.
About the author.
Michelle Segrest is an experienced journalist and sailor and has travelled the world with Cap’n Jack and Scout. For everything you need to know about sailing with dogs, please read her book, “How to Sail with Dogs: 100 Tips for a Pet-Friendly Voyage”.
She is also the author of “How to Battle Seasickness: 100 Tips to Help You Get Your Sea Legs”. Both are available on Amazon, digitally or in paperback.