How to train a boat dog for sailing

5921 shares Many people can’t imagine heading out on a bluewater sailing adventure without their best friend: a boat dog. But training a dog to…

How to train a boat dog for sailing

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 heartwarming stories and lovely boat dogs!

Potty training your boat dog

A boat dog sits on deck of a sailboat. This dog has been trained to go to the bathroom on the boat and wears a lifejacket when underway
Photo: Kymberly Helwig and beautiful Solly

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,” said Kym.

[You might also like: 13 things I can’t do without on the sailboat]

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.

“For Kala, it was just a test of patience,” said Molly. “We were assured by vets that a dog wouldn’t hurt themselves 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.”

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Passing quarantine with a boat dog on your sailboat

Molly plays with her boat dog Kala in beautiful turquoise waters. She has great dogs on boats tips.
C: Molly Gillespie and Kala, a 7 1/2-year-old border collie/lab mix

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.

[You might also like: Couple goes on 11 years cruising with kids]

“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 boat dog healthy and safe on deck

A beautiful boat dog sits on deck on a sailboat wearing a lifejacket.
Photo: Molly Gillespie

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!”

[You might also like: How to ditch your 9-5 and make money while sailing the world ]

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 of SAND!”

Molly said Kala is always clipped into the cockpit when out on the ocean, and only goes forward on a leash. She loves the no-pull front range harness by RuffWear.

Advice to others considering training a boat dog

Close-up of a boat dog's face while hanging out in a sailboat cockpit
C: Kristiann Gips

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.”

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The joys and challenges of living with a dog onboard a sailboat

How to train a boat dog for sailing
C: Kristiann Gips

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.”

[clickToTweet tweet=”‘Cruising with a dog is everything – it’s hard, fun, full of love, complicated but rewarding.'” quote=”‘Cruising with a dog is everything – it’s hard, fun, full of love, complicated but rewarding.'”]

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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  1. Love cruising with our dog. Having to take her off the boat at least twice a day (she’s one of those dogs who refuses on “go” on board) allows us to explore all kinds of cool places.

    If you ever talk to cruisers with dogs again, you might want to ask about how their dog gets into and out of their dinghy. Our golden retriever wears a mountaineering harness and we lower her using a block and tackle. It’s quite a sight.

    1. hahah wow! Darn, that would have been a great question!

    2. I am moving aboard this spring and trying to figure out how I’m going to get my black labe onto and into a 32 ft sailboat. Block and tackle on the boom. I’m single handed and it seems like a chalange

  2. Mike Chirlston says:

    Great article and very helpful. I’m glad to see a life jacket is recommended for the dogs as I know from experience that these really do help keep your dog safe.

    1. Totally! Glad you found the article helpful šŸ™‚

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  4. Peter McMinn says:

    Great post and information. We’re going to start cruising with our mid-sized Aussie shepherd. He loves the water and being on all sorts of craft, but the monohull cruising boat we’ll likely get has a steep companionway ladder. How do you manage to get a biggish dog up and down the ladder 2-4 times a day? I was conjuring up some sort to hoist from the boom, but the dodger….

    1. Hey Peter! I’d reach out to one of the women I interviewed for this article, as I don’t personally sail with a dog. Or there are tons of Facebook groups out there for sailors and you could pose the question there. Good luck!! I do notice some people who sail with dogs have a catamaran, but I’m sure it’s possible on a monohull!

  5. We have a pooch aboard and tried the fake turf and holding out from going ashore but developed a bladder infection from holding on for a few days and since have been scared about not taking her ashore.. I think she might just be the dog that needs the daily visit to shore. Is there any other ideas that we could possibly try? Otherwise great article to read šŸ™‚

    1. Since I don’t have a dog myself I am not sure! Are you a member of the Women Who Sail Facebook group? You could pose the question there, and good luck!

  6. Amanda Frey says:

    I advice you to get a rescue boat for your dog. I want to make cruising with my dog.

  7. Larry Wilson says:

    Hi Kristin,

    I really like your post and i love your pictures, I seriously take pleasure in merely reading through your sites.
    Thank you for your effort.

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