Pamela Douglas Webster knew that she had work to do before moving aboard a Pacific Seacraft 34 five years ago with her golden retriever, Honey. The dog is timid and sometimes reacts badly to new things, so Webster sought advice from trainers on how to prepare for life on the water.
“We bought a wobble board and put it in our backyard and taught her to stand on it, so that when she got on the boat and things started to move, she wouldn’t be nervous,” says Webster, who writes the blog “Something Wagging This Way Comes,” about living aboard with a dog. “We would put a tarp up on a clothesline on a windy day and practice doing trick training—which she loves—and do it closer and closer to that tarp while it was slapping and making noise. She was getting used to that noise of things flapping in the wind, which really helped when we got her onto the boat.”
Countless boaters bring their dogs aboard to do everything from simply standing at the bow—nose eagerly pointed into the breeze and floppy ears flapping—to participating in water sports such as paddleboarding and kayaking. Many dogs, mutts and purebreds alike, love boats and the water. Given the chance and the right training, they can safely and happily participate in everything from dinghy rides to water sports, enhancing their time on board with the family as well as the experience of the humans at the helm.
“A lot of people will just throw their dog on the boat the first time and assume it will be OK, and then when the dog freaks out, they figure they can’t take the dog on the boat anymore,” Webster says. “That’s not necessarily true. Take them down to the boat a few times before you even take the boat out on the water. Get them used to being on the boat when a wake goes by. Let them hear the engine fire up and then shut it down.”
Numerous dog trainers across the country specialize in teaching those kinds of basics and more for boating-friendly activities. Individual classes can range from water retrieval (think fetch with a stick, but in the water with a target that floats), to canine boat work (such as training a dog to fetch a line and bring it to a person), to the razzamatazz of dock diving—which can see some dogs leaping far enough off a dock and through the air to Evel Knievel their way length-wise right over a boat that stretches to 25 feet LOA.
Many trainers at local facilities also can help boaters figure out ways to train dogs, the way Webster’s trainer helped her prepare Honey for life aboard. Some community organizations also can be terrific places to learn how to help dogs have more fun around the water.
Chris Carragher runs one of those community organizations: the Seacoast Paddleboard Club, which this August will be hosting its annual Paddle for the Pups to benefit the New Hampshire SPCA. About 20 to 30 dogs are expected to ride for a few miles aboard standup paddleboards with their owners, a skill that Carragher says is best taught in steps.
“Start small,” Carragher says. “Start on land. Put the paddleboard in your backyard, get them to stand on the board, and give them lots of treats. Maybe sit on the board with them.”
Once the dog gets used to both of you being on the board at the same time, bring out the paddle so the dog can feel comfortable around it, too. When the dog is at ease with the equipment, move the setup to a calm piece of water.
“The first time you’re on the board on the water, try kneeling,” Carragher says. “And think about doing it in a pool or a lake. Maybe a river. Avoid currents. You don’t want open-ocean waves. You’ll really quickly notice whether the dog gravitates to it or doesn’t. You learn that within the first couple of tries.”
Knowing what type of dog you have, Webster and Carragher say, is half the battle in figuring out what kind of training to do. Timid dogs need training that will help build confidence in performing boat-friendly tasks, while spunkier dogs need training to rein in their worst instincts. “If the dog is really bold and fearless and wants to jump into the water, then you need to work on impulse control,” Webster says. “You don’t want them jumping off the boat to chase dolphins or other creatures.”
In all cases, it’s paramount that the dog is wearing a well-fitted life jacket. Carragher says he has encountered far too many people who show up to go paddleboarding with their dog while thinking they’re great at paddling, their dog is a great swimmer and accidents could never happen. “I don’t care how good you think your skill set is,” he says. “If your dog falls off and has to swim ashore and gets tired, you want that PFD to be on. You’re doing your dog a favor.”
Another good safety idea is to clip a personal locator beacon to the dog’s life jacket. Some waterproof PLBs, such as the ACR 2980 Olas Tag, are specifically marketed as being small enough to clip to a dog’s harness or life jacket. The device sends an alert with GPS coordinates to your smartphone if the tag attached to the dog goes overboard.
With a life jacket, a PLB and an inflatable toy that might already be in the boat’s lazarette, a dog can enjoy all kinds of fun in a calm harbor. “You know those little inflatable rafts?” Carragher says. “I saw a guy in a kayak towing one of those, and he had a big shepherd that was sitting in the boat behind him. It was the funniest thing, and the dog just sat there. He was smiling like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”
The dog was happy, the owner was happy, and they were bonding in a way that makes for terrific memories. “What better way is there to spend time with your dog than on the water?” Carragher asks. “It’s the ultimate.”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.