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Many people can’t imagine heading out on a bluewater sailing adventure without their best friend: a boat dog. But training a dog to use the bathroom on a sailboat, and dealing with customs and immigration in various countries can be a drag.
I’ve wondered how people do it, so reached out to three awesome women sailors who’ve been loving living aboard with their canine friends. I loved learning about how people get on with their boat dog while sailing full-time.
What heart warming stories and lovely boat dogs!
Potty training your boat dog
So how on earth do you train a dog to go to the bathroom on a sailboat that’s always moving and rolling with the waves?
Kym Helwig and her husband are living aboard their sailboat in Vero Beach, Florida, and said it wasn’t all that hard to train her Sheltie, Solly. “Training him went smoothly. He’s naturally smart, and the second time I asked him to use the astroturf in the cockpit he did! Now, we have his astroturf on the cabin top and I scoop his poop regularly and throw it in the garbage.”
It was a slightly different story for Kristiann Gipps’ dog, Friday, a 6-year-old German-Shorthaired pointer she and her husband introduced to life aboard their 44′ catamaran a year-and-a-half ago. The dog’s first potty training happened on a passage aboard Allende.
After 27 fraught hours our dog first chose to relieve himself in the place aboard that’s farthest away from our ‘home’ space, in this case on the corner of our catamaran’s trampoline,” said Kristiann. “The mess falls through and with a high-pressure washdown available it’s easy to keep clean.”
Baxter and Molly Gillespie of Sailing Terrapin have been cruising with their boat dog, Kala, two has now traveled close to 9,000 nautical miles by boat and sailed to 19 countries. She said potty training onboard really depends on your dog.
“Did we need turf, a carpet, pheromones? For Kala, she hated all of those things. It was just a test of patience,” said Molly. “We were assured by vets that a dog wouldn’t hurt themselves (bladder infections, etc…) by holding it so when we were anchored in a creek overnight, we encouraged her to go with treats. By the next day a storm moved in and we couldn’t leave and couldn’t take the dinghy down, so she was stuck for what would be another 48 hours. She ended up going potty on deck around 2 days into the storm. We had a big party and lots of treats and to this day, she always asks for a treat after she potties.”
Passing quarantine with a dog on your sailboat
Passing quarantine with a boat dog can be tough, since each country has its own rules and regulations. Pet Travel recommends creating a “pet passport” for your dog, where you keep all your animal’s paperwork. Rabies when traveling internationally is a huge deal, and you’ll have to figure out which rabies classification the country has before going.
Kristiann said before they started cruising they’d already lived in several countries with their dog, so they were prepared with the proper vaccinations and paperwork.
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“The most valuable test you can get is a rabies titer test that checks for rabies antibodies. I keep Friday’s vaccinations up to date and research the protocol in each new country before we enter. We occasionally have to submit paperwork for an import permit before we make landfall in a new country, but we’ve not encountered any quarantines while sailing in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. Veterinary fees, health certificates and agriculture permits are an addition to the ‘formalities’ part of our cruising budget,” said Kristiann, who you can follow on Instagram at Sail Allende.
Molly said it’s tough dealing with customs in different countries.
“There is one country, for example, whose law is ‘any animal brought into Tonga will be destroyed’ so you must know the rules and understand the requirements and limitations,” Molly said. ” We cannot circumnavigate while we have Kala because of the restrictions in the South Pacific (technically we could by putting her in quarantine or flying her to Australia but we are not interested in doing that). Various country’s websites are great resources for info regarding regulations.”
This website has a list of regulations for many countries around the world: Bring Fido.
How to keep your dog healthy and safe on deck
There are lots of ways to keep your dog safe while underway. Some people choose to use a dog life jacket, plus a harness and a tether when out on the open ocean. Others do just the harness and tether.
Kym said when her dog was small, she was afraid he’d lose his footing and fall overboard.
“We have a life jacket for him that he wore during stormy, windy or rocky conditions, just to make sure he’d be okay if he did accidentally go in the drink,” she said. “But now on our mooring ball he spends most of his time topside and is super agile. On our inflatable dinghy, he is super brave and likes to run around the tube on the outside, side to side, then he stands with the breeze blowing his fur back. Kinda the equivalent of a dog putting his head out a car window. He loves dinghy rides!”
What about getting a dog enough exercise when doing a passage, where there’s nowhere to run or swim?
“That’s a limitation, for sure. If conditions are very calm, Friday has the run of the boat and decks,” said Kristiann. “If it’s rough, he’s clipped in or inside the salon. What we’ve found is that everyone is exhausted by being constantly underway, including our dog. And a swim when we finally arrive is always the biggest treat. A run on the beach works too, but we always ask him to go for a swim after because SAND!”
Molly said Kala is always clipped into the cockpit when out on the ocean, and only goes forward on leash. She loves the no-pull front range harness by RuffWear.
Advice to others considering training a boat dog
Kristiann’s advice is to try to think about your dog objectively before taking him or her onboard your sailboat.
“For example, if you’ll be cruising in the Caribbean, how well does your animal handle the heat? Does your pet require any specific veterinary care or medications that may be difficult to obtain? Do you have the right tools aboard to remove pet hair and keep your space clean? How much exercise does your pet need and do you have a plan for accomplishing this? We have a very high-energy dog, but he loves to swim. If he didn’t like the water the lifestyle would be more challenging.”
Kym said to be sure to have the right size dog for you and your boat.
“Solly is a small dog, easy for us to lift on and off the boat and up and down the companionway ladder. We have intentionally not taught him to climb the ladder. This allows us to control when he is topside. We have been thankful many times that he is a small dog. Friends have told us that their older dog could not learn to go to the bathroom on the boat, and many are not cruising for just that reason. Starting with a pup made it easy for us to manage his routines and expectations because it is all he has known since he was 10 weeks old.”
And Molly’s advice is to understand your physical limitations and where you want to cruise.
“You cannot go everywhere with your dog and you have to be able to move the dog around if it’s debilitated so you have to have that in mind before you start cruising.”
The joys and challenges of living with a dog onboard a sailboat
All the women I interviewed for this article absolutely love having their dog onboard and really can’t imagine it any other way.
“Cruising with a dog is everything – it’s hard, fun, full of love, complicated but rewarding,” said Molly. “The hardest part: when the weather is bad and boat is slamming, you can’t rationally explain things will be ok and they are scared. Also, there is an extra concern if the extreme worst happens and we get in the life raft. Will she be able to get out of the boat, how will she do in the life raft, etc…the USCG assured us they would rescue any animal onboard.”'Cruising with a dog is everything - it's hard, fun, full of love, complicated but rewarding.'Click To Tweet
Kristiann said her biggest challenge is keeping up with Friday’s diet, as they feed him a raw food diet, which means lots of time restocking. But of course, the good outweighs the bad.
“I love cruising with our dog. He brings just as much joy to our lives as when we lived on land, perhaps even more so because he loves the water so much. His presence is also a great conversation starter with people we meet along the way,” she said. “He also leads me to spend more time in the water.”
Kymberly said her main challenge is getting the dog to the vet, but otherwise, living with Solly aboard has been a great joy.
“Solly is just wonderful to have aboard. He loves to play, and we love to play with him,” she said. “He brings some recreation and humor to our lives. I’ve taught him not to bark, a tall order for a Sheltie, but he is usually quiet. He has alerted me a few times to something he thought was unsafe and I praised him. But normally, he watches boats go by and just has a smile on his face. The neighbors love him; he is a favorite in the marina.”
All in all, it seems like a great adventure having a boat dog, where you can share a life of freedom and adventure with your very best friend.
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