Cruising with a Dog Tips for Living Aboard

Lessons Learned From a Dog: Things Sally Has Taught Me

Tuesday, June 03, 2014S.V. CAMBRIA

Sally shies away from the camera during a trip to shore at Hardy Island Marine Park.

Cruising with a dog can be challenging at times and has influenced countless decisions we’ve made over the past 13 years, none more so than this one.  In fact, our sole goal for the season is to spend quality time with our pup and say good-bye the only way we know how – at anchor. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. 

It hasn’t been easy.

We left Kingston and the comfort of the marina about three weeks ago and things started off extremely well – better than we could have hoped for, really.  Sally made the transition back into life at anchor without a hitch and genuinely seemed excited about the new places she had to explore.  But I noticed a change when we were in Nanaimo, only four days into our final adventure.  It’s difficult to articulate what the problem was, but she appeared more lethargic and less alert when I took her to shore.  The following day we sailed across the Strait of Georgia to Pender Harbour, and she got worse. 

Two days after that, I was in tears.  Sally had wet her bed the night before, was unsteady on her feet and seemed confused.  Seeing her like that is truly heartbreaking and we have no choice but to ask ourselves if it’s time.  I was confident that it was.  David, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced but understands that it’s ultimately my decision.  Fortunately, Sally started to feel better the next day, so we stayed in Pender Harbour, where there’s a very good veterinarian, until we felt she was ready to move on.

Three days later we were anchored in Hardy Island Marine Park and she had another accident.  This time she was sleeping behind the salon table and couldn’t get up.  The stress caused her to lose control of her bladder, and she wet herself and the floor.  Her reaction was the same as it was in Pender Habour – unsteady on her feet and confused.  David and I talked and decided that we’d let her rest up and then take her to her favourite anchorage, Rebecca Spit Marine Park, for one last “hurrah”. 

We sailed up to Rebecca Spit on Tuesday and managed to avoid an “accident”, saving Sally from another setback.  Apart from being more tired than usual the day after we arrived, things went well.  Really well.  And the message was clear: We need to take things more slowly for Sally.  Even though she sleeps through our passages, they still tire her out and that only leads to problems.  Lesson learned.

Nothing can prepare you for the demands of living with a geriatric dog, especially on a boat.  And our new-found knowledge doesn’t change anything, but it does help us meet those challenges more effectively and, in the end, makes our lives and Sally’s a little easier. 

Here’s some more of what we’ve learned so far:

Beach landings are better than dock landings.  Sally’s always been a bit of a wild child and, in the past, I found it was easier to control the situation when we used docks to go to shore because she was forever dancing around the dinghy and knocking it off course while I tried to raise the motor before I chipped the prop on rocks.  That’s not to say docking was easy either, just easier.  But now she stands in the dinghy and patiently waits for me to lift her out either way.  The difference is that she can’t make it from the dock to shore before going to the bathroom.  When we go to the beach, she’s free to let loose at any time which is a lot less stressful for her. 

Sally can no longer walk on shore without a leash.  I’m a firm believer in off-leash time, but it’s just not possible this year.  Despite all her of problems, Sally still believes she can jump off 10-foot rocks and climb into crevasses with ease, so somebody has to save her from herself.  We tried a few beach visits without it, but she went straight for the most precarious spot she could find as soon as she was free. 

Just because Sally’s walking around the boat, it doesn’t mean she’s “awake”.  Our dog “sleepwalks”.  Okay.  She’s not actually asleep but, rather, in a state of drowsiness that’s difficult to shake.  We’ve known this for a while, but it seems to have worsened since we left the marina.  Whether she agrees or not, she needs about an hour after getting up in the morning before she can go to shore otherwise she’s a little unsteady on her paws and disinterested in even the slightest blade of grass.  And believe me when I say it can take a lot of patience to get through that first hour! 

Paying the price for taking Sally to shore too soon in the form of a cranky dog!

Sally feels her best in the late afternoon.  In the past, there hasn’t been a difference between “Morning Sally” and “Afternoon Sally”, but there is now.  Every day after 4:00 o’clock she starts pacing the boat searching for her supper (even though she won’t eat until after her final trip to shore).  Her head’s held higher, she moves around the boat much more fluidly and she seems genuinely interested in what we’re doing.  It’s the best part of our day.

Dinner is best served at 8:00 pm after our final walk of the day.  Last year, Sally would come out of her “room” around 2 o’clock and start pacing the boat in search of her dinner.  This year, no matter how hungry she seems, she physically struggles to eat until we’re finished with our final trip to shore.  And when I say “struggles” I literally mean it.  She bites at the bowl and tries to cover it with her nose, as if she’s never seen one before.  And then, just like magic, she knows how to eat, but only after she’s been to shore and had her evening treats.  But, hey.  Whatever works.  The important thing is that she still wants to eat.

Sally sleeps better with a full belly.  Just like people, Sally sleeps better when she isn’t hungry; so, for those nights when she turns her head at her dinner bowl, a peanut butter sandwich before bed helps.  We’ve also learned that hamburger works better than chicken – it seems to stay with her longer which translates into a better night’s sleep for her . . . and for me.  

Dogs like nightlights.  We leave LED lights on throughout the boat now so that Sally can see if she needs to get up for a drink or a change of scenery.  They help keep her from getting “lost” or stuck in a corner, and that keeps her from stressing out. 

We lost our portable vacuum.  Until recently, Sally used to clean the floors, sucking up anything that resembled food.  Not anymore.  Now she makes most of the mess herself and I have to look to the Dustbuster to pick up the slack. 

We’re now one of those boats that smells like a dog.  Old dogs smell.  Full stop.  Our once fastidiously clean dog, who groomed herself like a cat, is now a smelly pig and there’s nothing we can do about it. 

For a dog who doesn’t care about pleasing her people, accidents really stress her out and take a day or two to recover from.  Wetting her bed is a serious issue for Sally, even though we could care less and do everything we can to downplay the situation.  We’re learning that, along with our support, she needs time and space to recover from any incident before she’s back to being herself.  And more importantly, in the meantime we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about her overall state of health.

In people or in pets, dementia is a cruel, cruel thing.  Again, this isn’t new to us.  We’ve been dealing with it for the past six months but it’s a fact we live with daily, so it bears repeating.  For the most part, we have the dementia under control but it shows itself in little ways that steal pieces of Sally’s personality and that’s a difficult pill to swallow – not only for us, but for her as well.

I have more patience than I realized.  I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly patient person which, as you can imagine, has conflicted with the cruising lifestyle. But when it comes to Sally, I am.  I have to be.  Caring for a geriatric dog with an extremely stubborn disposition requires patience by the truckload.  For starters, everything takes time – eating, drinking, walking, getting up, laying down, coming, going.  Throw dementia into the mix and it can be like trying to deal with a two-year old in a constant state of tantrum – sometimes Sally doesn’t know what she wants and nothing you say or do will help her figure it out.  You simply have to be patient and let the “fit” run its course. 

There’s only so much we can do.  After months and months of fighting for Sally, this has been the hardest fact to come to terms with – we can only do so much.  Sally’s going to leave us and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop that from happening.  The only thing we have any control over is the environment we provide until that day comes.

Despite all the challenges and changes, one thing has remained the same over the years:  Life at anchor may be more difficult, with a whole new set of demands and concerns, but it’s still better . . . for all of us. 

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  1. I'm getting teary eyed reading this. You two are great parents doing everything you can to make things easier for her.

    1. It's definitely a difficult time for us, but it's going much better now that we've figured a few things out . . . MUCH better! :)