Cruising with a Dog Living Aboard a Boat

F is for Fido: Cruising With Dogs

Thursday, April 07, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

During the month of April, we're participating in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge where every day (excluding Sundays) we'll be posting to the blog . . . alphabetically. The overall theme we've chosen to tie all the entries together is living aboard a boat and cruising – things we've learned along the way: our thoughts, reflections, and tips for those just starting out or who are interested in this lifestyle.

Having a dog aboard adds a whole new dimension to cruising. They’re wonderful company, entertaining (who doesn’t make up elaborate conversations from their dog’s point of view?) and can be a good source of home security. We don’t have a dog aboard, but we did. For 13 years. Our Sally was a difficult pup (in the most delightful way) and taught us a lot during the time we were together. Here’s some of what we learned:

Information Is Key
If you’re sailing to another country, it’s important to know what the regulations are regarding the importation of domestic animals and to follow them to a T – your pet’s life may depend on it. When we brought Sally (the aforementioned dog) to New Zealand fifteen years ago, we had to prepare six months in advance by having her microchipped and putting her through rigorous testing for rabies . . . and she still had to spend 30 days in quarantine (which has since been reduced to 10 days). The sad thing is that even after all of our hard work preparing her to move south and our efforts to make sure everything was in order, FDA sent her to New Zealand with the wrong paperwork (she clearly wasn’t a cat, let alone two of them) and if it wasn’t for the good working relationship between the kennel owner who was charged with receiving her and MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry), she would have been “destroyed”. Fortunately, the process isn’t as arduous with most other countries and the information is reasonably available online.

It’s All a Compromise 
It’s not always possible to follow the wind when you have a dog aboard. When we first embarked on this lifestyle fifteen years ago, we had dreams of sailing the world . . . not necessarily a circumnavigation, but close. Sally changed that. She was fine cruising around Lake Mead (where we had our first boat) for days on end, but the open ocean turned out to be an entirely different story. While she could handle short passages, sailing for several days would have been too stressful for her (she never really did learn to go to the bathroom on deck and hated rough seas). We talked about flying her to different destinations but, at the end of the day, importation regulations got in the way. We tried leaving her behind in the care of a very good kennel facility for six months while we sailed to Tonga, but that didn’t work for me – I missed her too much. So we changed the way we did things and eventually left New Zealand for dog-friendlier waters and happily postponed any plans for another offshore passage. For us, the important thing was that we were together. The where was secondary.   

Be Flexible (You Won’t Regret) 
Carrying on with the previous point, Sally needed to be taken into consideration whenever were planning a passage, choosing an anchorage or a marina: When we came up the West Coast of the US in 2008, we had to harbour-hop to accommodate her, which turned out to be a really special way to see part of the country.  When she was still alive and we planned our routes for the season, I choose state or provincial parks as our anchorages as often as I could so that I didn’t have to worry about trespassing when taking her to shore. As it turned out, they’re our favourite spots. And the absolute best marina we ever wintered in was in San Diego and all because the other marinas didn’t allow pets. We may not have always ended up where we intended, but the last 15 years have been one hell of a ride thanks, in part, to Sally.  

Be Realistic 
Cruising with a dog isn’t much different than cruising in general – it’s not all romantic walks on exotic beaches while watching the sunset (although there are plenty of those): It’s dealing with the endless bureaucracy associated with government officials. It’s sprained paws from jumping off rocks. It’s impromptu baths after your dog rolls around in whatever smelly thing they can find on the beach. It’s being woken up at 3 in the morning to make an emergency run to shore because your dog has diarrhea (and refuses to go to the bathroom on deck). It’s having your dog throw up on your head (through an open hatch) after swallowing too much salt water. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly all rolled up into one . . . and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat (we both would).  

Pets Can Be a Liability 
Dogs are amazing creatures: They’re sweet. They make the best friends. They enrich our lives. But don’t kid yourself; having a pet aboard a boat (at one time or another) is a liability. When you’re out at sea and things turn ugly, the last thing you want is a nervous dog underfoot. But it happens. When Sally was younger, we carried a collapsible kennel aboard that we’d set up in the aft head for times just like that. She hated it and used to howl like a banshee; but she was safe and we could take care of the boat without worrying about her. As she grew older, she became more relaxed and would only look up at us with her big brown eyes to ask, “what’s going on?” whenever things got a little rough before tucking herself in behind the salon table.   

Having a Dog Aboard Is a Lot of Work 
Shore trips, brushing, feeding, cleaning, socializing, walking . . . it all adds up. And it’s not always fun. If you’d asked me if I enjoyed cruising with a dog after going to shore in the pouring rain or after Sally rolled around in rotting fish guts, my answer would have been a resounding ‘no’. But you’d get the same response out of David after he’s just finished fixing the head for the third time in as many days. 

Share the Responsibilities 
Sally and I were together before David entered our lives and because of that, I ended up being her primary caretaker and she looked to me to fulfill all her wants and needs: Time to eat, me. I don’t feel well, me. Let’s go to shore, me. Not only did David miss out on seeing some amazing things on our walks and trips to shore, but he also missed out on a part of Sally’s life that he can never get back. And now that she’s gone, I'm a little disappointed for him. Equally as important, when it was pouring down rain and cold outside, I can’t help but wonder why I was the only one who had to don their foul-weather gear and head outside. To do it all over again, we’d share the responsibilities . . . just like we do with everything else. 

Be Prepared  
Like with anything else associated with cruising, it’s important to be prepared. Before we could leave port, Sally had a long list of provisions to buy which (when she got older) included prescription medicines. Most years we could go several weeks without access to a veterinarian, so a medical kit aboard for Sally was a must. And our ditch bag wouldn’t have been complete without dog food, her PFD and a spare leash.   

We All Need Our Space . . . Even the Dog 
Over the years, David and I have found ways to be alone, even if we’re in the same room. But Sally preferred to have walls between us and took over certain areas of the boat – as a pup, it was the v-berth and as an older dog, both heads (complete with comfy dog beds). If your dog isn’t pushy like our Sally, find a small, den-like space aboard the boat and make it theirs. It’ll help bring them comfort when they’re nervous, sick or just ready for a nap. 

It’s All About Quality Time 
We don’t have much time on earth with our furry friends and cruising is one lifestyle that allows us to make the most of it. Not only did we get to spend 24/7 with Sally, which is exactly what pack animals live for, but our lives have been enriched by the company of this ridiculous little creature who amazed and amused for 18 wonderful years.

Have a Good Vet at “Home”
The most important thing we learned in Sally’s final year is how important it was to have a good vet at “home” whose opinion we trusted. Even though Sally saw several of them over the years, the one in Wichita (who helped with her testing to import her into New Zealand) was her primary doctor and I could call him for advice or a second an opinion whenever or wherever I needed to.

Dogs have a way of finding the people who
need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.
Thom Jones

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  1. Such a sweet post, I read it twice! Our boat dog is a bit of a handful, but such a sweetheart. Most of our neighbors just know us as "Hastings' parents". One of my goals in life is to be more like a dog: friendly, accepting and always excited for the next adventure!

    1. Thanks, Lucy! I think the world would be a much better place if we all took lessons from dogs . . . cats, not so much. ;)

  2. This is a very informative and extensive post about living on your sailboat with a dog! The good, the bad and the ugly, indeed, but just like you, my husband and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. The positives of having your furry friend around outweigh the negatives. That being said, if you don't already have pets before you start cruising, I would cruisers to think twice (or more) before adding one to an already challenging lifestyle...

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

    1. Our advice would be the same. We really miss having a dog in our lives and are looking forward to doing it all again (though I have admit, Sally's final year was a very difficult time and broke our hearts in a way that hasn't quite fully healed), but it has to wait until we're finished cruising.

  3. I love Sally! I'm so sorry you lost her, but it's wonderful to have such amazing memories. I'm very intrigued by your blog and your lives and everything that made you decide to start cruising. Cheers!

    Elizabeth Twist: Writer, Plague Enthusiast

    1. We love her, too! And as much as we miss her, she still makes us laugh through all the great memories and pictures we have. At the end of the day, that's pretty good deal. Thanks, Elizabeth!

  4. We won't have our Skippy with us on the boat. He just hates it. But we will miss him very much. We have had dogs for the last 30 years. I hardly know how to be without one.

    1. We also had two cats but decided to re-home them because one was very skiddish and afraid of just about everything and the other was older and very set in her ways. It was difficult, but the fact that they were with family and happy went a long way to make it easier.

  5. What a beautiful post. We've never done any sailing and our boating experiences are limited. Neither of our labs have done well on boats. They're too busy trying to jump into the water. It is so wonderful you were able to have your dog with you on your adventures.

    Weekends In Maine

    1. It really was wonderful having Sally with us for all those years, and we were very lucky that she didn't like the water. There was only one time that she jumped off the boat. We were down below and don't know exactly what happened but think she wanted to go to shore, saw the dinghy in the water, jumped into it. When it didn't go anywhere, we think she tried to jump back onto the boat and fell in (there were scratch marks on the hull). She didn't make sound and if somebody hadn't come by to alert us, we may not have found her in time. It's a funny story now, but it was a little scary at the time.

  6. As others have already said, such a beautiful post! We once went on a canal boat holiday and discovered our dog didn't like being on board... quite a few near misses and a very big lesson learnt - but she never liked swimming and wasn't very fussed on water so maybe that should have given us some clues!

    I loved reading your post, you convey what so many of us feel for our dogs.

    Mars xx
    @TrollbeadBlog from
    Curling Stones for Lego People

    1. Thank you! We sure do miss having a dog in our lives -- they truly are amazing creatures.