Seadogs: 10 top tips for sailing with dogs
Practical Boat Owner Magazine by Practical Boat Owner
Owning a seadog takes a lot of preparation – from dog lifejackets to passports – but it's well worth it say Michelle Segrest and Maik Ulmschneider
Sailing round the world with dogs requires months of preparation and research, stacks of paperwork, extra supplies and provisions, regular vaccinations, expensive updates for your vessel, and many hours of potty and safety training. But it’s worth it!
For us, having our two seadogs – Cap’n Jack and Scout – on board provides many rewards and challenges, and it is something we will never regret. When our dogs cuddle up next to us on a lonely night watch, or when we discover something extraordinary off the beaten path during a long walk ashore, we know that all the extra preparation was worth it.
Our beagles, Cap’n Jack and Scout adapted to living aboard our 43ft steel ketch, Seefalke, quickly. They walked around and curiously sniffed every corner. Then, tails wagging, they looked up at us, and it was as if they shrugged their shoulders and said, “I guess we live here now.” Then they curled up on the settee in the main saloon and settled in.
After sailing to more than 12 countries on four continents and across eight significant bodies of water, including a three-week Atlantic Ocean crossing, we are convinced now more than ever that dogs just want to be with their humans. Dogs adapt well to new surroundings as long as they have consistent training, plenty of rewards, and lots of attention.
Now that we have experience sailing with dogs in heavy, offshore conditions, we’ve learned many lessons about how to keep them comfortable, healthy, and safe.
We also learned all about the various requirements for entering many worldwide countries with dogs on board. Here are our top ten tips for sailing the world with dogs. Some of these tips will also apply to sailing with other kinds of pets.
1. Safety is your top priority
Some yachts are well equipped for sailing dogs, while others may need significant upgrades. Before welcoming your dogs on board, it is important to be prepared with many safety features in place.
When we see another boat, we instinctively scan it for her pet friendliness. For example, in a port in Lisbon, Portugal, we saw a beautiful, classic, offshore cruiser-racer – a style of boat derived from the Swedish Skärgårdskryssar design, which was very long but extremely narrow. The deck was covered with highly polished, precious teak, and she did not have a railing of any kind. We didn’t even need to ask the sailors if they had pets on board. The point is that some boats are more pet friendly than others based solely on their design.
We always get lots of love, attention, and wagging tails from our sailing dogs, confirming to us that they enjoy the sailing experience.
There are many different kinds of safety equipment available for pets. Just as people need a PFD (personal flotation device), or lifejacket, it is crucial to have a high-quality life vest for your four-legged crew members. We prefer the life vests that secure tightly around the waist and around the neck with easy-to-use Velcro closures as well as safety clips. Those with handles on top make it easier to retrieve your pet in an overboard situation.
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However, your safety preparation should not end there. We’ve learned that having a sea fence around the entire perimeter of the boat adds extra security, safety and peace of mind. While it’s important to have a well practised pet overboard procedure, it’s even more important to do everything you can to avoid the overboard situation altogether.
Our sea fence can handle an impact of up to 340kg (750lb), so it also protects humans and equipment from sliding into the water.
We also recommend heavy-duty harnesses with tethering lines to keep your dog’s movement restricted in severe situations. Most important, if conditions are especially rough, secure them in the main cabin in a barricaded spot to ensure their safety and to allow you to focus on safely sailing your ship.
A few more safety tips
Clear the deck of lines and other obstacles.
Make the companionways pet friendly by making them less steep and by removing obstacles.
If there are any areas that you can’t make pet friendly, block them off and declare them pet no-go zones.
2. Research the requirements for your sailing destinations
We spent countless hours talking with other sailors who have canine crew and did exhaustive research on what it takes to ensure a safe passage for our four-legged friends. We knew it wouldn’t be easy and that cruising with our beagles could limit our ability to travel to certain countries and to enjoy certain tourist attractions along the way. For us, this was an easy sacrifice to make.
The worst possible scenario would be to enter a country and have your dog placed in quarantine. Our advice is to do the heavy research before you set sail.
There are three main requirements for dog entry by boat when entering just about any country, and these are:
Health certificate. This must be approved by a licensed veterinarian and have an official health department signature and seal.
Rabies vaccination AFTER the microchip has been implanted
Some countries also require:
Rabies antibody titer test
Flea and tick treatment
In Europe, and in some other countries, it is necessary to obtain and carry a valid Pet Passport.
A few more country requirement tips:
Use online resources such as Noonsite, and Bring Fido for general requirements.
Visit the website of each country for specific and updated requirements.
Research countries geographically close to your destination, just in case weather or other factors cause you to change plans.
3. Potty train your pet for onboard living
Without doubt, the question that we are asked the most often is, “Where do the dogs do their business on board?”
Cap’n Jack and Scout were not interested in using their potty mat at first
After trying several options, we use a fake-grass mat on the bow of Seefalke. This has been established as their ‘place to go’. When we are at sea and conditions are not safe for the beagles to go to the bow to potty, we have a spare fake-grass mat that we put in the cockpit.
It sounds simple, but it can take a while to get the potty training mastered. Before we set sail, we practiced our potty routine every day. When it was time for them to potty, we would leash the dogs and walk them to the bow as if we were taking them for a walk. As they began to get the hang of it, the potty mat began to acquire the potty smell that would attract them. It’s not a bad idea to transport some of their ‘smell’ to the mat deliberately while training.
We also learned quickly that patience, routine, repetition, and reward are important. When there is success with the potty mat, we practically throw a party. We cover them with attention, excitement, love, and treats!
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More potty-training tips:
If needed, place a pee or poo sample on the mat so they will recognise the scent.
Keep a spare mat on board to use in a different spot when conditions are unsafe to go to the regular designated spot.
Establish a potty routine (this may be different on land, at sea, and at anchor).
4. Establish routines based on the situation
We have different routines when we are in port, on the hard, at anchorage, and at sea. Establishing a routine for your pet when you live on a boat is absolutely necessary. This doesn’t only apply to the potty routine. It also applies to how they eat and how they get exercise.
It’s all right, even appropriate, for the routine to change slightly depending on the situation.
While at sea, for example, the dogs get less exercise and therefore, they do not need as many calories, so we feed them less than we do when we are in port or at anchorage. Studies show that dogs don’t have a concept of time, but they do have a concept of order, so try to establish an order of routine even if the feeding or the walking doesn’t happen at the same time every day.
A few more tips about establishing routines:
Establish routines for your pet based on whether you are at sea, at anchor, on the hard, or in port.
Routines should consider how and where they sleep, how and when they exercise, and how much food to feed them.
Whatever routines you establish for your pet, always be consistent.
5. Is your destination dog friendly?
While sailing around Europe, we had no issues whatsoever. We mostly experienced dog-friendly cultures. Cap’n Jack and Scout joined us everywhere we went – including restaurants, shops, and most tourist attractions. In fact, in France, Spain, and Portugal, it was actually uncommon to see anyone walking the streets without a dog.
However, there have been a few places we have visited that were not so dog friendly. Morocco was our first stop where we encountered a different atmosphere for dogs. In Cape Verde, Africa and Cabedelo, Brazil, there are many stray dogs roaming the streets, so it was always necessary to keep Cap’n Jack and Scout on leashes and not allow them to run and play freely. The best tip here is to research the culture of the country you are visiting to get a good idea of what to expect.
A couple more tips about non-dog-friendly countries:
Be respectful of the culture.
Be sure your dogs are spayed or neutered just in case they run into stray animals that probably are not.
6. Keep your dog warm
Sometimes the temperatures while sailing can hit extremes. If you are cold, chances are your dog is at least chilly, although he is covered in fur, which provides natural insulation. Smaller breeds and puppies have a more difficult time battling the cold temperatures. We have seen Cap’n Jack and Scout shiver while sailing in colder temperatures, but we haven’t noticed anything dangerous, so far.
Don’t try to bundle them too much. Simply keep warm blankets or sleeping bags in their bedding area, and you will see them nestle themselves when the cold air affects them.
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More tips for keeping your dog warm:
Feed your dog extra calories to fuel his internal thermostat.
Don’t let your dogs go swimming in the cold.
Cuddle up. Our dogs love to cuddle with us and cuddle with each other. Human body warmth is a great way to keep your dog warm.
7. Keep your dog cool
If you are hot, chances are your dog is broiling. Dogs don’t sweat much; therefore, extreme heat is even more dangerous for your fur-covered crewmember than it is for you. Dogs cannot cool themselves by sweating as prolifically as humans can. Dogs may sweat a little through the pads of their feet, but mostly they will pant heavily when they are battling the heat.
When a dog is exposed to high temperatures, this can result in heat stroke or heat exhaustion. To avoid this, look for the signs (bright red tongue and pale gums, thick saliva, rapid panting, bloody nose, diarrhea or vomiting, and dizziness). If these signs are present, soak the pet in cold water or place ice packs in his groin area or armpits. If it’s less critical and you think your dog just needs to cool off, try loosely tying a cool bandana around his neck or dousing him with cool seawater. Generally, our dogs find the shade when they are hot. No matter the temperature, always keep cool drinking water available for your pets.
More tips for keeping your dog cool:
If you have a long-haired dog, keep him well-groomed to minimise his natural fur coat.
Avoid long walks in the extreme heat.
8. Prepare and provision the right food for your pet
For us, feeding our dogs on board is simple. Beagles will eat anything. And when we say anything, we mean ANYTHING! They eat rubbish and bird poo and clam shells, even though we try our best to stop them. Of course, not everything is safe for dogs to eat.
Fortunately, our beagles are fine with just about any brand of dry dog food, so we have been able to buy dog food at almost every stop in every country to which we have sailed.
If your dog has digestive issues or allergies that requires some sort of special dog food, obviously it is important to provision accordingly. Don’t count on being able to find a particular brand of dog food at every stop on your route.
Most of the time we feed our dogs dry dog food, but sometimes, particularly at sea when conditions are rough and it’s difficult to get to their food supply, Cap’n Jack and Scout will eat what we eat. However, be aware of ‘people foods’ that are dangerous for dogs (for example onions, grapes, dark chocolate, and anything with alcohol).
More tips for feeding sailing dogs:
Research human foods that are OK for your dogs, and those that are dangerous.
Keep your vet’s phone number handy.
Keep the phone number for poison control handy.
9. Be prepared for first aid at sea
What if you are at sea or at anchorage and your dog experiences a bad cut, has an allergic reaction, or falls and breaks a leg? What will you do? You can’t take him to the nearest vet. Even if you are in port and you do manage to find one, you may not be able to speak the language to communicate the problem.
Ask your veterinarian to help you prepare a first-aid kit for your dog. We also asked our vet for some simple training on emergency care
You wouldn’t set sail without a first-aid kit for the human crew, so don’t depart without a comprehensive medical kit for your four-legged crew. We consulted with our vet and asked her to help us prepare a full dog first-aid kit, complete with antibiotics, seasick medicine, eye and skin ointments, and supplies for cuts, abrasions and breaks.
A few more first-aid at sea tips:
Be aware of any pet allergies.
Keep medications in a place that are easy to access when under way.
Research local vets near each port you may visit, just in case of an emergency.
10. Enjoy the experience
Dogs require attention. They are expensive. They require additional work and preparation. And some of them leave so much dog hair you could stuff a mattress.
But for us, the rewards of having Cap’n Jack and Scout with us aboard Seefalke makes it worth it. The rewards of companionship, no complaints, and having a built-in alarm system greatly outweigh the challenges and extra work. We can tell by the constant wagging tails that Cap’n Jack and Scout love being on the boat with us.
For us, the long list of downsides does not matter. Cap’n Jack and Scout are part of our family, and we cannot imagine not having them living on the boat and sailing the world with us. If you’re thinking of taking your pet on a sailing voyage, we can highly recommend it as long as you take the necessary steps to keep them comfortable, healthy, and safe.
About the author: Michelle Segrest and Maik Ulmschneider have been sailing the world with Cap’n Jack and Scout since August 2018. They are co-authors of the book, How to Sail with Dogs – 100 Tips for a Pet-Friendly Voyage. It’s available for US$6.99 from sailorsandseadogs.com and on Amazon Kindle.