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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips


1990 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


Shaolin was just an eight-week-old ball of blond fur when we took him sailing for the first time. Today he's a hefty, 85-lb. Labrador Retriever who has logged thousands of nautical miles under sail, many of them offshore. During these several years of living and cruising with "Pup" aboard our 37-ft. cutter, we've learned - and invented - many ways to make his voyaging easier and safer. Whether you're a day sailor, a weekender, or a blue-water passage-maker, there's no need to leave man's best friend behind and miss the added fun and companionship of canine crew.

Preparing your dog is the first step toward smooth sailing together. Most dogs will readily accept the idea of boating if they're introduced to it at a young age. With adult dogs, it may be best to ease them into it and to make it an especially positive experience for them in the beginning.  

The first few times you bring your dog aboard the boat, take time to encourage him. Tell him he's a good boy and give him a little treat - a dog biscuit or something. He'll start associating being aboard with pleasure and fun. When you first take him out in the boat, do it on a mild day. Let him get the idea that this is all right, that he's safe. (By the way, these techniques work with people, too.)

Start teaching your dog the boat's rules from the beginning. Make sure he knows that sheets and halyards aren't toys for him to chew. At the same time, provide him with some toys that he is allowed to pick up or gnaw. Keep these on the boat and available to him. (Shaolin likes tennis balls and coconuts!) Another practice we find very useful is assigning an out-of-the-way place for the dog to go when we're maneuvering or docking. On the command, "Go to your place," we taught Shaolin to move quickly to the after deck where he can sit or lay down comfortably on the lazarette hatch. He's trained to stay there until we release him with, "O.K.!"

There are a few other commands Shaolin has learned that make life aboard nicer for everyone. For example, he won't jump until told to do so - not into or out of the dinghy, nor from the boat to the dock. In fact, he won't leave the boat at all without permission. Another command, "Back!" gets him to move away from the boarding gate when someone is arriving; Shaolin, being a friendly soul, is sometimes overly enthusiastic about greeting visitors. Time invested training your dog repays you forever after, especially in the small confines of a boat. Pet shops and libraries offer many books on the subject.

Speaking of training, one of the most common questions people ask us regarding sailing with our dog is, "Where does he `go' onboard?" The fact is, even though we're now full time cruising liveaboards, he doesn't have to go on the boat very often. We usually manage to walk Shaolin ashore wherever we are. We've discovered that this sometimes encourages us to visit places we otherwise might have skipped seeing. More often than not, we wind up discovering something worthwhile that we'd have missed if we hadn't taken Pup in.

Of course, shore leave isn't always possible. On Shaolin's first long offshore passage he refused to relieve himself on the boat. We cajoled, threatened, pleaded and (dare I admit it?) even demonstrated. But he held firm for 48 hours! I don't know who suffered more, he or we! Eventually, however, nature took its course. 

A pack animal's instinct is to "go" as far as possible from the den. In this case the den, the place we all spend the most time together, is the cockpit area. So, offshore he now uses the foredeck or, in rough conditions, the side decks. Either way, a bucket-full of water quickly washes all traces overboard. Some dogs will use a piece of Astro-Turf (synthetic-grass carpeting) placed on the deck or on the lazarette. Connected with a lanyard, it's easy to clean by tossing overboard for a rinse. Small dogs can often be trained to use a kitty litter box.

Like young children, dogs are at risk of falling overboard accidentally. The surest remedy for both is the same: you can string netting all the way around the boat's perimeter, in between the lifelines and the rail. This may also keep a spirited dog from jumping ship to follow when you go ashore without him.

A safety harness is another way to keep a dog on deck. Sturdy web harnesses for dogs are for sale at pet shops and online. Offshore, Shaolin's harness is tied with a strong line to a central attachment point over the cockpit. This gives him freedom of movement as far as the side decks where he may relieve himself, but the tether isn't long enough for him to reach beyond the rail. A dog that isn't a strong swimmer might be safer wearing some sort of floatation device. We've seen doggie life jackets for sale at boat shows and advertised in some magazines. Remember; never let your dog wear a collar, and especially a choke collar, while on the boat. Never, never tie him by his collar, or by looping a line around his neck! There's a possibility that he could choke himself by snagging it or by jumping overboard beyond the reach of the leash.

In warm weather, dogs need a shady spot to lay down, and drinking water available to them. (Kind of like people, aren't they?) In inclement weather and at night, our dog is welcomed below decks, but we roll out a length of carpet to protect the teak & holly cabin sole from his sharp claws.

For international cruising, make sure your dog has had all of his shots, and that you have a record of this to show to foreign officials. Some countries, mostly island nations, maintain a rabies-free status. They severely restrict entry of foreign dogs, often requiring quarantine for as much as 6 months before allowing him to enter. New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain and many British Commonwealth countries, including several formerly British islands in the Caribbean, are particularly sticky about this. Check with the host country's consulate before you go.

Shaolin has visited more than a dozen different countries to date. We've had no problems with officials. On the contrary, we find that nothing removes barriers quite so easily as a happy, friendly dog. We've met more people, been invited into more boats and homes, and had more fun mini-adventures simply because we accompanied Shaolin. And for him, no matter where we travel there's no language barrier!

There's an additional benefit of cruising with "Pup": While I can't claim Shaolin is a vicious killer of a watchdog, his mere 85-lb. presence is undoubtedly a deterrent to would-be thieves. Why mess with a boat that has a dog on it, right?

If you have a dog, he or she is probably just as much a part of your family as is Shaolin a part of ours. Since cruising at its best is a shared adventure, why not include the whole family? Strap on the dog's harness, tell him he's a good boy, and get under way. Add a new dimension - and a whole lot more fun - to your sailing. Next time, go cruising with Pup! 

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