Our dog Kyra absolutely loves being in the boat. She’s never happier than when she’s standing in the bow with her tongue hanging out and her ears flopping in the wind. On the rare occasion that she gets left behind, we can hear her howling on the dock over the sound of the motor long after she’s out of sight.
We are very lucky that Kyra took to the boat right away – our family cottage in Northern Ontario, Canada can only be reached by boat, and we were relieved to be able to take her with us on the 45 minute ride.
Not all dogs take to the boat so well. Boats are loud, fast and unsteady; the new sights and smells can be overwhelming; even just setting out can be a challenge in the hectic environment of the marina.
With a little planning, practice and patience, most dogs can learn to be comfortable on a boat. Read on for all the safety tips, training tricks and cool gear you’ll need to have fun and stay safe on the water with your four-legged first mate.
Our shepherd mix, Kyra, loving life on the boat.
Dogs & Boating
You and your dog can spend many hours together on the water.
Boating can be a great activity for you and your dog to bond over. Dogs love going places with their owners, exploring new smells and meeting new people.
As any good boater knows, safety is extremely important on the water. In addition to all the usual boat safety precautions, there are some special considerations for our four-legged passengers.
Every year dogs are hurt in docking accidents or fall overboard – often they are rescued, but sadly that’s not always the case. It’s important to be aware of the risks and take steps to keep your dog safe on the boat.
Safety Concerns for Dogs in Boats
Safety is important on the water, especially for your dog.
Along with the usual dangers of boating, dogs face additional dangers on and around the water:
- Drowning: Even strong swimmers can be overtaken by waves, especially if they are dazed after a fall from the boat. Life jackets are as important for your canine passengers as they are for your human ones.
- Exposure: Weather is unpredictable, especially on the water. Like us, dogs are at risk for sunburn and heat stroke in hot weather, and to hypothermia in the cold. They have a much harder time regulating their temperature than we do, so it’s important that we provide a safe environment for them.
- Accidents: Most accidents involving dogs happen at docking; dogs can easily be overwhelmed by the new sights and smells, and in their excitement they are more likely to hurt themselves on the dock or boat. Good training is essential before trying boating with your dog.
Your Dog’s Breed & Temperament
Some dogs are right at home on the water.
Not all dogs will take to the boat right away, and unfortunately some just never will. It’s important to understand your dog’s temperament and read their body language as your introduce them to the boat. Be patient, and take steps to make the experience as non-threatening as possible.
Start small and take baby steps to gradually introduce your dog to the water and the boat. Watch for signs of anxiety in your dog, like excessive panting, drooling or barking, and let them get used to the water at their own pace.
Kyra has no fear of the water – we have to make sure she doesn’t overdo it!
If, like Kyra, your dog shows no fear of the water or the boat, you’ll need to help them develop restraint to keep them safe even when they are excited. Even if your dog can sit, come and stay on land, it’s important to practice the same commands in the new environment of the water and boat.
Some dogs love the water and are natural swimmers. Retrievers and Setters, with their long legs and webbed feet, are strong swimmers; Other breeds, like Pugs and Bulldogs, struggle in the water due to their flat snouts and short legs.
No matter how good of a swimmer your dog is, a life jacket is still important – even strong swimmers can still be overtaken by waves or exhaustion.
Always remember that every dog is different – your dog may be a strong swimming breed, but their temperament may make them nervous near the water.
Some dogs may also be prone to motion sickness, especially in a bobbing boat. By starting with short journeys in calm waters and building up to longer trips, you can help your dog adjust and gain their “sea legs”. Other tricks – like bringing along a shirt that smells like home – can curb anxiety and seasickness.
Whatever your dog’s breed or temperament, you can take the steps below to get them comfortable in the water and in the boat. By being patient, starting small and taking baby steps, you and your dog will learn to enjoy boating safely together.
Boating Safely With Your Dog
A safe boating trip with your dog requires some planning ahead – and good boat manners!
- Preparing Your Dog For Boating
Before you try to go boating with your dog, there are some things you can do to make sure it will be a fun and safe experience for you both:
- Train for Success: In order to have a safe and fun boating experience with your dog, it’s essential to nail some basic commands and be sure that your dog will respond, no matter what’s going on. Even if your dog is well-trained, the excitement of the boat may make it difficult for them to listen. Practice sit & stay commands with distractions; make sure your dog has a strong recall and will come when called; practice “Watch-Me” and “Quiet” so your dog will develop good boat manners.
Dogs of all breeds can learn to love the water.
- Build Swimming Skills: Any dog who will spend time on a boat should be comfortable in the water. Even if your dog is not a big swimmer, it’s important that they at least have some basic swimming skills and won’t panic in the water. Start small and take baby steps so your dog won’t be overwhelmed. Start gradually by walking out together and use treats and toys to lure your dog into the water. A life jacket can make your dog feel more secure. Watch for signs of distress in your dog, and don’t push them beyond their comfort zone.
- Test Runs: Once your dog is comfortable in the water, it’s time to introduce them to the boat and the marina. Take your dog to the dock during a quiet time and practice getting on and off the boat on command. Spend some time relaxing on the boat together while tied to the dock. Work up to visiting during busier times, staying longer and even turning on the motor without moving. Once your dog is comfortable and well behaved on the boat while it’s running, start taking short trips while practicing commands.
- Trip Planning
Once your dog is comfortable with the boat and in the water, it’s time to set sail.
Now that your dog is comfortable in the boat, it’s time to start planning your first big trip! Planning ahead is important when boating with your dog – here are some tips that can help make sure the experience goes smoothly for everyone:
- Call Ahead: Make some calls before you head out. Check with the marina, campground or lake association to make sure pets are allowed and clarify their rules and any local laws about leashes, life jackets and dogs in general.
- Research: Do some research to find the closest veterinary hospitals along your route, and call ahead to confirm their policies for emergency visits and out-of-town patients, if that applies to you. If you have pet insurance, a quick call to your provider will confirm whether your policy covers boating accidents.
- Emergency Plan: Another important part of your trip planning is creating an Emergency Plan. You and everyone on board should know exactly what to do in any type of boating emergency. One person should be responsible for taking care of the dog if any kind of emergency occurs, and a separate plan should be in place in case the dog goes overboard. Practice your emergency plan so that everyone knows their role and the rescue operation can be as smooth as possible.
Never jump in to save your dog – not only is it dangerous for you to jump from a moving boat, but your dog could panic and scratch you, and even drag you under water. Instead, slow down, circle back and carefully drift close to your dog with the motor off until you can lift them out by handle of their life jacket. Depending on the size of your boat, a rescue pole can be a helpful tool to keep on deck. Practice makes perfect – getting your dog used to being lifted into the boat in a controlled setting can make emergency situations easier on everyone.
- On Board
Safety is important on the water. Good training and a safe environment are key.
It’s finally here – your first boating adventure with your dog! You’ve trained and practiced and planned – now it’s time to enjoy the sea with your furry first mate! Here are some tips for making it a safe and happy trip for your dog:
- Burn Off Energy: Give your dog a chance to burn off some energy before boarding the boat – a brisk walk or a quick game of fetch will help them stay calm throughout the launch and during the ride. If your dog is high-energy, take frequent breaks and let them run on land or swim to burn off energy and keep calm on the water.
- Be Sun-Safe: Dogs can suffer from sunburn and heatstroke just like us – but unlike us, they can’t sweat it out. Keep your dog safe and happy by providing shade and plenty of water. Dog-safe sunscreen can protect sensitive skin. Dogs absorb heat through their feet, so a blanket or mat can give them a cool place to lay and prevent slipping in the boat. Watch for signs of heat stroke in your dog – if they are panting and drooling excessively, have a rapid pulse or appear clumsy, make sure they get water and shade immediately. If your dog likes swimming, that’s a great way to help them cool down.
A swim is the perfect way to cool down on a hot day.
- Potty Time: Don’t forget to plan for your dog’s potty needs. If you have the space you can create a potty station on deck with pee-pads or carpet. If you don’t have the space, or if your dog refuses to go on the boat, you’ll need to plan frequent stops on shore so your dog can relieve themselves.
- Boat Manners: It’s important that you consistently reinforce the good boat manners you practiced with your dog early on. You need to be able to keep your dog calm in the boat, and ensure they will behave and come when called on shore. When the boat is moving you should encourage your dog to sit or lay down, and your dog should always wait for permission to get on or off the boat. Always bring a leash with you so that you can control your dog if they get overexcited.
- Food Safety: Keep your own food, drinks and other items out of reach of your dog. Many human foods and even sunscreen can be poisonous to dogs. In the close quarters of a boat even a well-behaved dog can become bored and restless, and the temptation of easily accessible treats can prove too overwhelming to resist.
You don’t need a lot of gear to have a successful boating trip with your dog, but there are a few essential items you should always have, plus a few that can make your trip a little more fun for you and your dog!
- First Aid Kit: Keep a basic dog first aid kit on board, including special dog items like nail clippers, a muzzle and dog-safe pain meds.
- Water: Keeping your dog hydrated is essential on the boat; pack lots of fresh water from home and a plastic travel bowl (metal can get too hot in the sun).
- Shade: Dogs can get sunburn and heatstroke just like people. Make sure your dog has a shady spot to lay on the boat, and invest in some dog-safe sunscreen.
- Potty: If you’re planning long trips with few shore stops, you’ll need to train your dog to go potty on deck. Provide a designated space with astroturf, newspaper or carpet. Many ready-made options are also available.
- Life Jacket: All passengers on your boat need life jackets – including the four legged ones. A life jacket not only saves them if they fall overboard, it can protect them from hypothermia.
Kyra showing off her life jacket.
- Harness: Having a good leash and harness will help keep your dog under control, both at the dock and on the boat.
- Steps: For quick dips out on the water, the Paws Aboard Pet Steps make it easy for any dog to safely get in and out of your boat on the fly.
With a little practice, most dogs can learn to love boating.
Boating together can be a great and rewarding experience for both you and your dog. However, it’s important to plan ahead to ensure a safe trip for your furry friend.
All dogs are different, so start slow and take baby steps; watch your dog for signs of anxiety and never push your dog past their comfort zone. Take your time introducing your dog to the water and the boat, and build up gradually to longer trips as they get comfortable.
Always put safety first. Practice your emergency plan and a have dog first-aid kit on board. Ensure you pack lots of fresh water, provide a sun-safe space for your dog on deck, and take lots of breaks to cool down and burn off energy. Get your dog a life jacket, even if they are a strong swimmer.
Practice basic commands like sit, stay and come both at home and in the boating environment. It’s important that your dog will listen to you and be calm on the water and at the dock to avoid injuries.
Kyra’s newest hobby, canoeing.
With a little planning, some patience and some good training, you and your dog will be able to enjoy many hours of boating together. As your dog becomes more comfortable and calmer on the water, you can even expand your boating hobby to include things like fishing and canoeing together.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.