“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Sailing/Cruising with a Dog


I have read several threads lately on sailing and cruising forums, that I spend too much time reading, about cruising or sailing with dogs.  This is a subject we have spent a fair amount of time researching.  We have been sailing with our dog, Summer, for the past six years.  The first four years were on our C&C 24, Splash.  The last two have been on Smitty.

We’ve tried different things, attended seminars on cruising with dogs, read articles, forum threads, books and blogs.  There are many challenges, but the fun that the furry crew mate brings is irreplaceable.  Even if that means dingying her to the shore at midnight before going to bed.  Hey, we wouldn’t have seen the bioluminescent algae off of Peddock’s Island without having to take Summer to the bathroom.

Below are some of the things we have learned.  I will post updates as we learn more in preparation of our big cruise and as we go.  We are by no means experts.  Just people sailing with their dog.  This is just our/my opinions.  Please add to our knowledge if you have something to add on the subject.

  • Life Jackets: Dog life jackets are a necessity.  Summer is not an active swimmer; she definitely needs the help.  Even if she didn’t, I would want a life jacket for two key aspects: reflective color and lifting handle.  Summer has gone off the dock twice and off the boat once unintentionally.  On the dock, she didn’t have a jacket on and I got pretty wet getting her out (dam ducks, she just can’t stop chasing them or the swans).  When she went in off the boat it was during a raft up.  We had about eight boats rafted up and probably 12 inflatables.  We actually only had our inflatable, the Smitty Ditty.  We left Summer in the dingy while we went onto some friends’ boats for a couple of cocktails.  Summer was jumping from dingy to dingy trying to get to us when she got caught with her front paws on one boat and her back paws on another.  You guessed it!  The boats floated away from each other and she fell in the water like a slap-stick routine.  She swam over to the swim platform of the boat we were on and we just lifted her out.  Very easy with the life jacket.

Summer on the bow of Splash – 2009

We prefer the Outward Hound life jacket.  The foam floatation is softer than the West Marine brand and that lets the vest fit smoothly around Summer.  It attaches around her by zipper instead of velcro and we haven’t had any issues with her fur getting caught.  Boat U.S. did some testing on different brands.

  • Shade: After the life jacket, shade is the next most important thing if you are going to bring your dog cruising.  Our C&C had no shade.  Just a wide open cockpit.  We tried several different ways to add shade to the cockpit for Summer.  We used all combinations of cockpit cushions, towels, the boom tent, etc. But there are not a lot of good options when your mainsheet attaches in the middle of your cockpit.

Smitty at the Brewer’s Boat Yard in Plymouth, MA

Smitty came with a dodger, bimini and connector.  This system is perfect.  It keeps Summer, and us, cool.  It can stay up while sailing or powering and provides great protection from the sun, rain and splash on rough days.  Absolute necessity for cruising, with or without a dog, IMHO.

We’ve also been considering getting a Cool Coat.

  • Doggie Ditch Bag: I will be doing another post soon about our new ditch bag.  For now, I will just focus on the K-9 related items in for the ditch bag.  Admittedly, we have not kept a proper ditch bag for Summer or ourselves.  But there was much discussion about this in one of the seminars we took.  Here are some of the items: any medicine your dog requires, copies of all dog paper work, K-9 first aid kit, two items I will discuss below and food.
  • Dog Food: Most of your typical brands of dog food are available in the more populated islands, like St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and even some of the BVIs.  But not all of the brands.  So if your dog is a picky eater, be prepared to stockpile lots of food.  With Summer I change her dog food every time the bag is gone.  I’ve done this since she was a pup.  It’s my belief that most dog foods are not well made.  After a friend lost a dog to what she believed may have been poisoning, I looked into dog food in more detail and found that continually varying your dogs food will not leave them susceptible to potentially faults in the formula of any particular food.  We also feed Summer a lot of table scraps.  So this item is not a particular concern to us.  Here is a good link for more about dog food.
  • Hatches: If you travel with your dog, you will find times when you have little choice but leaving your dog on the boat.  Either on the hook or in a marina, the safest place is in the cabin.  The worst thing to do would be to leave your dog in the cockpit or on the boat attached to a leash.  You could return to find your poor pup hung themself.  Some people will leave their dog on the boat with free rein.  My fear of this would be if she fell off could she get back on board?  We have an open transom with a good swim ladder that Summer has used on occasion when we throw her in for a swim.  But I wouldn’t want to trust that.  Also, this may violate the marina rules.  So the best choice, IMHO, is to leave them in the cabin.  We will put in three of the four hatch boards and leave portals and hatches open.  However, you have to understand the abilities of your dog and the setup of our boat.  Summer can climb in and out of the forward cabin hatch from the birth.  So to prevent her from using this escape route, we put the screen in.  That stops Summer but your lab might just push right through the screen.  You should consider all possible escape routes for your dog.
  • Water:  Always have lots of water for your dog.  Weather sailing, at anchor or in a marina, we always make sure to leave water for Summer.  We have a great bowl that is very stable, stainless steel and has a rubber ring that prevents it from sliding too much under sail.
  • Bathroom Rugs:  Speaking of sliding, while non-skid is great for people it doesn’t work for dogs.  And those good closed cell, vinyl cushions are even worst.  So we use bathroom rugs with the non-slip coating on the back.  We have two in the cockpit while sailing.
  • The Poop Deck: The nirvana of this item is training your dog to go on a piece of Astroturf on the fordeck.  You put a small gromet in the Astroturf and tie a rope to it.  Then you can wash the Astroturf by hanging it over the edge while underway. We have not tried to teach this to Summer yet.  So we will have to wait and see how this works out.  So for now, its lots of rides in the Smitty Ditty.  Which is fine because that is Summer’s favorite boating activity.
  • Pumpkin: We learned of this wonder food from a seminar we took on sailing with dogs.  Pumpkin can fix both extremes of digestive unhealth.  It is also good at preventing urinary tract infections, like the ones that can happen if you dog won’t use the Astroturf.  This should go in your doggie ditch bag because it is a vital piece of pup first aid.
  • K-9 First Aid:  Dogs will need different things for first aid than people.  It’s important to spend some time and set up this kit.  The most important item is a first aid guide-book for dogs.  Here is a good link that talks about what else you should have in your K-9 First Aid Kit.  Also, always have cinnamon on hand.  Cinnamon will help clout dog’s blood.  I found this out when I trimmed Marti’s, our previous dog, nails too short.
  • Dog Papers:  Always have them on you when you leave the boat with your dog.  There have been stories of dogs being shot on sight by officials because the owners didn’t have their papers.  I don’t know if these stories are true but my initial research has found a couple of examples.  We will keep ours in a small water-proof bag.

    Westmarine Electronics Bags

  • Euthanasia Kit: This is a sad item to discuss but after reading a Sail of Two Idiots, I now believe it is necessary.  If you’re going to travel outside of the US or Canada on your cruise, you will likely be in areas where dogs are not valued the same.  As a result, even the veterinarians may not truly care about your dog.  In the book I referenced they had to watch their cat die an agonizing death with no way to relieve their pet’s suffering.  What’s worse, is the cat was dying because the vet they took it to for a bad urinary tract infection gave it an overdose of drugs.  After hours of watching the cat suffer, they were trying to find anything to put it down humanely, even calling around on the cruiser’s net for a gun.  The lesson of their suffering is to carry a pet euthanasia kit.  They are not available in the US but you can get them else where.  Not a fun subject but if Summer was suffering and there was no hope I would want to be able to end her suffering.  This kit should be in your ditch bag.
  • Tethers.  When we took the seminar at the Newport Boat Show, the woman who taught the seminar was very adamant that you should never tether your dog to the boat.  I asked her what she thought about tethering in conditions when you would be tethered to the boat.  Her opinion was that in those conditions the dog should be below, in the cabin.  Her main reason was that dogs can’t undo the tether if they go overboard.  I guess I disagree with her.  We tether our dog.  Summer is tethered, or put on “lock down” as we call it, every time we leave to come into a dock.  She has jumped off the boat twice in the past.  One time on departure, she jumped onto the dock as we pulled out and then we had to go back for her.  Another time, she jumped off while we were landing and missed the dock and ended up between the dock and the boat.  So now she goes on lock down.  We will also tether her in conditions when we would tether ourselves.  So at night or during rough conditions.  We never connect her tether to her collar, it is connected to a D-ring on her life jacket.  We also recently got her a dog seatbelt for the car and would use that to connect a tether to as well.  Personally, I think it is far safer to have Summer connected to the boat and that outweighs any of the risks.  Leaving her below in rough weather wouldn’t really work because she would just be on the companionway steps trying to get near us.  She wants to be next to us when she is nervous.  So that would not be safe.  If she would just lay down on a birth then that might be an option, but she generally only does that when we are down below too.  It’s just a personal choice.

So that’s all I have for now, but in the future I will add some stuff about clearing into customs in the Caribbean with a dog and where you can and can’t go.

Hoped this helped some of you. At the least it kept my thoughts straight for me:)

Fair winds

Updated 2/13/2013: added discussion on tethers.

17 thoughts on “Sailing/Cruising with a Dog

  1. I found your site through The Monkey’s Fist blog article title ‘Moving Aboard Transistions’. I’ve also got a blog about my boat and liveboad lifestyle at sanjuansufficiency.com. The only way I could figure out how to contact you was to leave a comment.

    I just started a new section on my blog called Reader’s Boats. I’d love it if you sent me a picture of your boat and a short bio (around 100 words) to post on that page. Feel free to include a link and anchor text if you’d like.



    Chris Troutner

  2. Hey Jesse,

    Have you ever considered putting those nets on the lifelines that I’ve seen on other boats? Given our dogs reactions to the rabbits in our backyard, I can imagine how ours might react to birds or other wildlife once they get their sea legs.

    Thanks for the tips. Looking forward to reading your “Caribbean with a Dog” report.

    Safe Travels,

    • Mike,

      We considered adding the nets to the life lines on our old boat, Splash. C&C’s have an aluminum toe rail with slots every couple of inches. So on that boat the bottom of the nets could be secured to toe rail. On Smitty, we don’t have that same feature. So the bottom of the nets would just be secured to a line that we would run from stanchion to stanchion. In this case, all of the weight of a person or dog in the net would be on the stanchions and there would be no real support keeping them from falling below the netting. However, if you dog might jump off it may stop them from that. If Smitty had the aluminum toe rail that our C&C had, I would add them.

      So bottom line is I guess it depends on the boat.

      This also reminded me about tethers. I added an update above about them.

      Thanks for reading.


  3. A great post that will be a big help to anyone considering bringing a dog on board. Is it okay that I link from the Monkey’s Fist? I’m using this post as an “example” since this is a topic in development.

  4. Thanks so much for the post and the link from SailboatOwners.com.

  5. We will be taking our canine family member with us on our boat later this year and will be liveaboard Caribbean cruisers. An informative post thank you. It will be good to read about cruisers actual experiences with dogs between the various islands in the Caribbean and whether they have run into any major regulation problems and how they have resolved them.

  6. Awesome post and super helpful as soon-to-be cruisers with a dog. 🙂 -Kim, s/v LAHO

  7. What a brilliantly informative post, such great doggy sailing advice, thanks very much. I have often thought about taking our beloved canine friend on adventures with us, now I will feel a lot more confident about the prospect. Thank you.

  8. Hi
    Can You give me a few tips and info? I wanna know about what should I have to do when taking a dog sailing around the world (forms, vet certifications etc)


    • Hi Jett,

      “Around the world” is a lot of ground to cover. I am still researching just the Bahamas through the Caribbean. What I can tell you is there are countries where you just simply can’t take your dog.

      The best place to start is http://www.noonsite.com/. You will have to look at the laws for each individual country you want to visit. On the left hand side of the page, under “formalities” is a section for pets.

      Good luck and fair winds,


  9. Great reading all of your adventures. We’re new to sailing and our Curly Retriever, Tiki, loves being on the boat. We’ve yet to do the toilet training bit and I will definitely read your pumpkin link. I’m totally in agreement with you about the lifejacket and tether.
    Thanks for such an informative post.

  10. Fantastic post. We recently started sailing and our two English Setters go everywhere with us. We bought them heavyduty life jackets and I couldn’t agree more, they are a must. I also completely agree with your approach to tethering. If the dogs are tethered via their life jacket, there is no choking hazard. And one of our dogs gets very nervous and barks continuously when we leave her below during rough weather, so it is a much better option to have her tethered right next to us.

    I am anxiously awaiting your report on sailing in the Caribbean. We are based out of Newfoundland, but our plan is to sail south to the BVIs in Summer 2016.

  11. Great post! We are also 30 something and can not imagine working until we are 60, then live our sailing dreams! We are about 5 years behind you (purchasing our cruising boat by 2018, now have C&C 27). We now cruise off of Nova Scotia and take our lab, Molly with us. The row ashore is indeed worth it when you see the bio-luminescence! It’s the prettiest thing I have ever seen! I recently purchased shoes for Molly as even in great weather, we are always heeling during our coastal trips and it can be pretty choppy. Sliding around has become a danger and desperate to keep her sailing with us, I purchased RuffWear Trek Boots. She is not an easy going pup so wasn’t sure if she would comply….but after practising at home, then the distractions/treats at the marina, she is able to navigate the deck without slipping and sending me into a panic! She is able to gripreally well in the cockpit, though still have our bath mats there too. I got them on amazon for a good price too, I would recommend them for sailing. Our last issue is what to do with her when “shit hits the fan”. Both of us need to focus on what we are doing to ensure we are safe and the boat is safe and if I am tending to her, I can’t do my job. Was thinking of crate training her again (she did it as a pup) and putting her in the cabin for those moments. How has the seat belt worked for you? I know this issue will be easier to deal with on a large boat, with better gear/set up…..but until then we’ll need a plan.

    Check out our blog (www.svuproar.wordpress.com) to see a pic of the dog boots

  12. All I can say is WOW! We are looking at the possibility of acquiring a 36M Gullet, thinking that’s enough room for Jack too. But there’s a whole lot more to all this. After reviewing all this I have to conclude that we’d have to leave Jack on the ranch. Being half border collie and the other half island dog that likes to swim I’m not sure this would be a fit for him. Add to that all the regulations and paper work, hmmm. He’s used to running around hundreds of acres and playing with the cattle……..thanks for the info though


  13. We’re planning on spending months every year on a sailboat. Cedar, our Aussie Shep, will not be left behind. He packs a little bulk, and I’m concerned about getting him in/out of the cabin. Companionway steps can be steep. What do you do?

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