Dog lifejackets, toilet training, dog carriers, leashes and travel kennels are all an important part of keeping dogs happy on boats says David White

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Having the right dog sailing gear is an important part of keeping your four-legged friend happy. Any dog can be taken sailing, at least once, but some are better suited to a life afloat than others. What breed should you get? What size? And how should you adapt your boat to keep them safe and happy. These were all considerations we took on board when choosing Chloe our shipmate on Evadne, an Elizabethan 29.

We’ve tried a number of things to make life more comfortable for a dog on board, with varying degrees of success, but some are essential…

Dog carrier backpack 

Last autumn we needed a way of getting Chloe on board – a dog-carrying rucksack proved a brilliant find. As a small puppy she couldn’t walk far, and it was absolutely invaluable for six months.

photo of dog carrier

Most of the time Evadne was ashore it was the preferred method of getting her on board. As her legs grew longer, she could get her elbows out of the top of the rucksack so Jane fashioned a cloth extension. This worked for a short while but soon she became too wriggly to stay in it, despite fuss and bribery, and the rucksack was retired. It was great while it lasted, and for a smaller dog, it could suit them for life.

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Dog travel kennel

The second item that continues to be essential is her carrying cage. It has roll-up sides and top and is her kennel at sea. We wouldn’t be without it. Although it folds flat, we generally leave it assembled.

At the start of the season she sat in it for the dinghy trip out to the mooring, perched on the thwart, and I passed her in it up to Jane in the boat.

Now into her second year, Chloe is a little calmer, and sometimes I can lift her on board by handing her up to Jane with the handle on her lifejacket. Personally I prefer this: If you drop the dog then she’ll float, but if you drop the cage then she is trapped inside it. Chloe always has her lifejacket on at this point.

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Dog coat

While she was a puppy our biggest concern was Chloe getting cold while we were sailing. Apart from her lifejacket and her dog coat we can also put a hot water bottle into her kennel.

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Dog cooling mat

During the summer, however, overheating has been a bigger issue, even at times when we were comfortable. Her first defence is shade, which means an opaque cover for her kennel. This is simply a spare bit of carpet square (not the one we use for potty training!). The second step is to physically cool her down.

We have a dog cooling mat, which works very well. This feels cool to the touch when you put pressure on, as long as you keep them out of the sun and away from other heat sources.

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Dog cooling coat

Chloe has a ‘cool jacket’ too, which appears to be made from the same material used in artificial chamois cloths. You wet it, gently wring it out, then put it on like a doggy coat.

Buy a BAX Canine Dog Cooling Vest on Amazon

Dog leashes

A short leash is permanently fitted to each jackstay. Although at first Chloe preferred to stay in the cockpit, the jackstays got more use as the season progressed. She now wanders along to the foredeck to see what we are doing, especially when anchoring or folding the foresails. We have a third leash that is clipped to the guardrail or jackstay anchor point to provide a leash for around the cockpit. We have fitted tape jackstays between the cockpit and the mast step. I’d been meaning to do it for years for the human crew, but Chloe is obviously more important!

Buy a dog leash on Amazon

Guardrail netting

We also fitted guardrail netting. Initially this was for when Evadne was ashore, with the deck being several feet from the ground, but we left it up for sailing this year. It does get in the way a bit, and the jury is still out on its usefulness versus its hindrance. The secret is to get it as taut as possible, but on a pontoon it is good to be able to lift the bottom of it to let Chloe hop on and off on her own. The netting does prevent her from hopping off the boat without permission, especially when her confidence exceeds her ability!

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Dog lifejacket

Chloe has worn her dog lifejacket, but not tested it for real, or even in practice. Take your dog to a chandlery to try them out for size. There are some important points worth mentioning:

  • Velcro fastening, especially for a coat like Chloe’s, is best with a flap of some sort to stop it sticking to the dog.
  • The lifejacket should also be simple to put on. Putting on a coat is a great game, but fiddly buckles or clips are a pain. It secures across the front with a Velcro flap and a buckle, then two belly buckles.
  • For fitting, the only measure is along the back, from the collar to the base of the tail, but dogs’ chests have different depths. With Chloe’s lighter build, belly straps that would fit a chunkier dog perfectly are just too big for her.
  • Obviously, the attachment point should be strong and there should be a handle to use as a lifting point. You shouldn’t need a harness underneath the lifejacket.

Check out YBW’s guide to choosing the right dog lifejacket

Buy a dog lifejacket on Amazon

Dog activity harness

Lifejackets are great but, as I mentioned earlier, Chloe tends to overheat, so it cannot be worn continuously. In its place we have an activity harness which has two straps under the belly and a big handle on top.

We bought this off the internet, and it fits just fine. With a conventional harness Chloe can get her elbows out of the straps if she is lying down, and suddenly she is out of it, whereas this ‘activity’ one doesn’t come off unexpectedly.

Buy a Ruffwear Multi-Use Dog Harness on Amazon

Potty training carpet

There are whole libraries full of books to tell you how to train your puppy, but one thing I must mention is that toilet training for the boat is notoriously difficult.

On advice from the PBO forum I punched a hole in one corner of a washable carpet square and fitted an eyelet with a rope through it. At home, it lay in her enclosure on the patio for her to wee upon. When we first took her to the boat, and we thought it was about time she did something, she was placed on the carpet, in the cockpit. After a lot of encouragement she did wee on it – only a little one, but a great triumph. It’s still work in progress and Chloe won’t go to the toilet when the boat is moving, and prefers to go on land if we are in a marina.

In conclusion, a little bit of planning will make sailing for you and your dog a lot easier. You don’t need to splash out a fortune on gadgets and gizmos, unless that is part of the pleasure. A little planning, and a modicum of patience and persistence will go a long way.

Which breed?

There are drawbacks and advantages to each breed. We spent some time whittling the choices down, and came to the conclusion that a miniature poodle would suit us just fine. Other small, intelligent, and entertaining breeds are also available.

For sailing, the first factor was size. It will depend on how big a boat you have, of course, but it is safe to say that a big dog in a small boat could be problematic. A small dog in a big boat will give you fewer but different problems. My other worry was how to get her back out of the water. Evadne has a modest freeboard by modern standards, and I wanted to be able to lift her on board, by hand, in a DOB (dog overboard) situation. Preferably with one hand, just like Nicole Kidman did at the end of Dead Calm!

After some online research, and a sharp intake of breath at the prices of some breeds, we found our poodle, Chloe.

Chloe does moult, as do most dogs, so she needs to be brushed frequently. The coat is also not waterproof, which came as a surprise to us. This means providing shelter and waterproof attire if you’re to avoid the drowned rat look, not to mention hypothermia.

I should also mention barking, which thankfully Chloe is not prone to do. Small dogs, especially poodles, have an undeserved reputation for yapping. We were told that puppies seem to learn nuisance barking as a habit from their mother. So when you go to see the puppy, listen to the mother and if she barks a lot, your puppy may too.

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When to buy a puppy

We bought Chloe in the autumn, which meant we could introduce her to the boat over the winter and spring when she could slowly get used to the new sights, sounds and smells. Getting her later in the year could work too, maybe up to Christmas, but small puppies don’t regulate their temperature very well for their first few months.

Taking your puppy with you on a cold March day when you’re antifouling is possible, but on one trip to the boat in January she started shivering and we had to pop her inside a fleece jacket to warm her up. After that, we took a hot water bottle for her kennel.

Puppies don’t reach their full strength for anything up to a year, and as a juvenile their bones are easily damaged, so jumping up and down has to be limited. At first this confined Chloe to the cabin or cockpit, or even the car. We encouraged her to explore the boat, and took her for ‘walks’ on a lead, to the foredeck and back, but mostly she was quite happy sitting in the cockpit, as long as one of us was in sight.

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This feature appeared in the January 21 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

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