We know how much we love having our dog with us – so we thought we would share some safety “pet boating tips” with all of the animal-friendly sea lovers out there.
• Introduce your pet slowly to water experiences. The less people or pets around the better so the pet will not have too much going on at once and feel overwhelmed (which causes bolting behavior). You can even introduce your pet to your boat while it is on land and stable - no rocking and lots of reassurance make for great positive experiences!
• Make early trips short trips. Instead of embarking on a 3-day water excursion, take your pet along on short trips (a few hours and work your way up to half a day, a full day, etc). This will allow your pet to acclimate to the boating environment instead of being overwhelmed by it. Treat often and well, they will soon see the boat as a great experience and look forward to all of the positive reinforcement that you provide as their pack leader. We suggest either dry treats to avoid stomach upsets until they get their sea legs or the one thing a dog cannot resist: warm hotdog.
• Get them used to the sounds and smells of boating. Start up the engines several times and run them at different RPMs to get the pet used to the loud noise. They will soon desensitize to the boat noises. Bring them around when you clean the boat at home with a pocket-full of treats handy. This helps them associate the boat with good things.
• Pet boat and dock ramps. These handy devices allow animals to return to dock level from the water without human aid. Not only are they great for play times, but they are also a safety precaution for waterfront homes and vacation rentals. These docks allow the pet to return to dry land if the owner has not noticed them falling into the water or cannot get to them in time. Train your pet to use the pet dock and its location, so that when something bad happens – they will not panic and know just what to do. This is especially helpful if you have a long dock away from land, or a bulkhead where land is not easily accessible from the water. Some great ones we have seen are: The Skamper Ramp Dock and Pool Safety Exit and the Paws Aboard Dock and Boat Ramp - both have great product info and videos available!
• Keep treats in a sealed container. Either a zip-lock bag or a large-mouthed bottle to keep them dry during water travels. This helps to keep the food or treats from becoming soggy and unappetizing.
• Using the bathroom on-board. On-board potty training can start early, as at times there is no place to stop or you are out on the open water for long periods of time. It is good to prepare for this by teaching your dog to eliminate in a certain area of the boat that you have prepared. Some dogs have a lot of issues with going to the bathroom on board because they think they are eliminating "in their home" so to speak. Be sure to keep newspapers or a piece of indoor/outdoor carpeting (green preferably to mimic grass for them) in a tray to keep it contained. (One suggestion we have for this is the Potty Patch for use on your boat.) You may even use “pet potty sprays” that encourage elimination in a particular area. Be sure NOT to dump any waste overboard and pollute the waterways. We have even heard of training your cat to use the head - so no need for litter boxes, the mess goes right into the toilet! Although we hear training them to use flush handles is a little bit more difficult...
On the Dock
• Do a quick sweep of the dock for hooks, nails, broken glass, fishing line, wire, bait and other dangerous objects that your pet could possibly walk on or consume while waiting to board the boat. Even if it is something you cannot remove, you will at least be aware of it. A good tip to know also is that bird droppings can cause serious upset stomach if ingested... including your new rug or new boat. So keep an eye out for that, too!
• Cool the dock with a water hose if it is a particularly hot day, pets can burn the pads of their feet on hot surfaces. Remember, especially with dogs, their drive to be with you is often stronger than their heat sensitivity, so they will follow you regardless. Be aware of your dog's feet by "feeling" the dock with your feet or hands - if it is hot to your touch, it will be hot for them to stand and put their entire weight on. Also be aware of signs of the "doggy hot dance" where they move their feet rapidly on hot surfaces. This can apply to anywhere from docks, to marina gravel to asphalt to boat surfaces. Something as simple as a damp towel can make a nice spot for them to rest.
• Pet ramps revisited. Again, these are a great precaution for waterfront homes or vacation rentals. These are docks that let the dog transit from water to dock without the help of human assistance. This is perfect for homeowners who allow their dogs to free-roam on the property. If your pet decides to chase an animal or become distracted exploring, they can easily find themselves in the water and panicking. Training them to use the pet dock and where it is located - this will save lives. Some great ones we have seen are: The Skamper Ramp Dock and Pool Safety Exit and the Paws Aboard Dock and Boat Ramp - both have great product info and videos available!
• Keep fishing gear contained. Make sure if there is gear on deck that it is safely tucked away in a locking container (not just a closed container). Animals are curious, and if it smells interesting enough, they’ll pry to get into it. They are just like - if not worse - than children when it comes to safety precautions. Imagine how good all of that bait, lure oil and salt smell to that nose? A locking container is a lot cheaper than a vet bill!
• Keep mechanical gear contained. Be sure to tie up gas cans, starter spray, tools (especially rubberized handled tools that are wonderful for a pet to chew on) and small pieces that may be easily consumed.
• Potty train on-board revisited. Again, sometimes there is no place to stop or you are out on the open water for an extended period of time. It is good to prepare for this by teaching your dog to eliminate in a certain area of the boat that you have prepared. Some dogs have a lot of issues with going to the bathroom on board because they think they are eliminating in their home. Be sure to keep newspapers or a piece of indoor/outdoor carpeting (it will mimic grass for them) in a tray to keep it contained or our recommendation of the Potty Patch for boat elimination emergencies. You may even use “pet potty sprays” that encourage elimination in a particular area to encourage your dog to use the bathroom where you want them to.
• Cool the boat deck periodically, again, the pads of pet’s feet can easily become burnt on hot fiberglass (we usually do not notice because we are wearing protective footwear – please keep the heat in mind). Feel your deck and seat surfaces often - so you can either cool down or be aware of where your pet can sit or stand. If the shady portions of your boat are only on hot surfaces, your pet can easily overheat. Be sure to keep a cool, shaded area for them to relax in if they get too hot. Also, a damp towel on the ground can not only provide a cool surface to stand on, it will help keep them cool as well.
• Keep fresh water aboard your boat. Be sure to keep a gallon jug of water (at least) depending on your pet’s size. Summer water excursions can be quite hot and natural waterways may carry bacteria that will make your pet sick. Marinas and public boat docks may also have heavy chemicals and run-off in the area from gasoline and oil, it is best to bring water from home to keep sickness at bay. If your pet needs an immediate cool down, water outside of your boat should not be a problem - be sure to coat their chest and underbelly for the fastest cool-down, but you can put water no the top of their water to keep heat at bay. A great technique we use is the ice run-off at the bottom of your cooler - it is usually safe and has an extra oomph of being cool.
• Encourage drinking. Some pets may become stressed while on a boat. Owners may have to encourage them to drink before they become dehydrated or worse – heat stroke (which can be deadly when you are not readily available to bring them inland to a vet). Until they get their sea legs, be sure to keep pointing to their water, or even drop a few ice cubes from the cooler in it to make it more appealing. Dabbling your hands in the water while they drink also promotes thirst (as they think you are drinking, too) with lots of praise and scratches. They will catch on shortly.
• Place the water bowl in the shade. This forces the pet to take some time out of the sun. If your pet is excitable, they may not take the time to relax in the shade, this will at least afford them a few minutes out of the sun and allow them to cool down.
• Pet First Aid Kit. It is more sanitary to keep a separate one from the human first aid kit. You can keep ace bandages, tweezers (for removing pesky ticks or splinters), ice packs, animal-safe disinfectant sprays/creams/sunblock, etc.
• Sunscreen protection. It is suggested to have SPF 15 or higher for your pets. If you have a thin-coated or short-haired companion, a light pet shirt may offer more protection. Keep an eye on the tips of noses – they blister easily. We have noticed that our dog (who has a mostly black coat) stays cooler if we use sunscreen on his entire coat. This keeps the sun from penetrating the fur down to his skin - affording him more heat protection.
• Heat Protection. You can also purchase items designed to cool your pet down like chiller vests and bandannas. You can refrigerate them ahead of time, have several to rotate in and out of coolers and some activate with just water.
• Never tie your pet up. If the boat capsizes your pet will not be able to escape and go down with the ship. If possible, take along a pet carrier if you cannot attend to your pet (stopping to buy lunch or for a shore pit-stop) or if you are having difficulty controlling it. Do not tie down the container to the boat for the same reason.
• Dog life jackets. The increasing popularity of these have grown into a wide variety of fits and sizes for all breeds of dogs. Be sure that the jacket fits securely, you do not want your pet to wriggle out or become trapped in an ill-fitting vest. It is highly suggested to go directly to the store with your pet to best-fit them. Lifting handles are equally important for over-board pets – it is safer for both pet and owner to bring them back on-board. Be sure the vest fits comfortable for the pet and does not rub or block the legs from their full range of motion. Choose a bright color that is easily spotted in dark or murky waters. If your boat capsizes or the dog becomes lost, it will be easier for you or rescue crews to find it with a brightly-colored vest.
• Extended swimming periods or swimming in deep waters. The pet life vests are not only a safety precaution for pets, but they can be a simple swimming aid as well. Dogs in particular will enjoy themselves in the water so much they will completely exhaust themselves. Keep the good times rolling by keeping them in their life vests during play time which helps keep their buoyancy during swimming and helps them to retain body heat in cooler waters such as springs.
• Provide shade and comfort. If possible, provide a carpeted area under the shade for your pet to rest in and feel secure without having the slipping and sliding action of claws on fiberglass. If your boat is roomy enough, bring aboard a water-resistant pet bed or a designated pet towel for them to curl up on. This also gives an added sense of security that the pet knows “their own spot” on the boat where it is ok for them to be at all times.
Just For Cats
• Put the litter box on board as low as possible, this will create less shake when the boat rocks and offer more security to your feline friend to do their business.
• Although through an extensive online search we could not find a lot of marketed “cat life preservers” – seafarers on several websites suggest (if your options are slim), to try fitting them with a small canine preserver. Keep in mind that cats are not particularly fond of wearing clothing and if left with them will wriggle out or shred them to be free. It is also a hazard to leave them in one if you are not tending to them as they can easily get caught trying to free themselves and strangle. It is a good safeguard if your cat spends a lot of time topside, but they will generally not wear them for long periods of time unless you acclimate them at a young age.
• Potty Training. You can also train your cat to actually use the head - no litter box, no mess, no smell and a super clean boat! Of course this is usually for live-aboard cats where owners have the time to properly train them to do this.
• Bring along doggy bags. You never know what time of day your pet has a need, be sure you have the ability to clean up after them no matter where they make a pit-stop.
• Be sure your pets are up-to-date on their shots and bring plenty of insect repellents. Dogs especially can come across wild animals on the shore line that could possibly carry rabies. Ticks carrying lyme disease are also another concern. Not to mention the possibility of getting in a tussle with another dog on shore who may not be up-to-date on their vaccines.
• Beach debris. Again, do a quick sweep of the shore dock for hooks, nails, broken glass, fishing line, wire, bait and other dangerous objects that your pet could possibly walk on or consume while off the safety of the boat. Even if it is something you cannot remove, you will at least be aware of it and take caution to keep your pet from that area.
• Up-to-date shots and vaccines. We cannot stress this enough, if you are going to be taking your pet into public areas, please be sure they are properly vaccinated. This is not only for your pet’s protection – but if they fall overboard and are found by another boater and/or homeowner who attempts to rescue them, they could be bitten out of fear. Be a responsible pet owner and keep everyone on the water safe.
• Stay diligent and watch your pet at all times. Pets are not to be left unattended while on an open boat or dock. Pet carriers are a safe option if you must leave them behind for short periods of time. Again, do not tie the pet container down in case the boat capsizes and do not leave pets in areas where they will be susceptible to heat exposure. You may also ask the store or restaurant you are stopping at if it is okay to tie your dog up in a shady out-of-the-way spot on their property while you are there.
• Enforcing discipline is highly important on dock, on board and on shore. Your pet should remain in your control at all times and only be allowed in the water with your permission. Just because they are on the water, does not mean they are in charge. Pack leader is all the time. Other boaters will appreciate your well-behaved pet and you will find yourself being invited to more boat outings because of it.
• Keep excessive barking to a minimum. Not only will this make your pooch less annoying to others (other boaters will be more receptive to your dog if it is well-behaved), this will keep other dogs in the area calm. If your dog is seen as a threat, it could not only be dangerous to your dog but others acting aggressively as well. Be sure to stay courteous to other boaters – with and without pets. The rules at home should apply on the water as well.
• Stop aggression immediately. If your dog lashes out or acts aggressive to other vehicles, boaters or pets, place them on their side immediately until they calm down (and if possible, with the dog they attacked to stand over them to show your dog they are not dominant). This does two things, asserts your dominance and teaches your dog he is not above any other dog on the water. Do not allow dogs to escalate into a frenzied state that they are no longer controllable in – correct these signs immediately (licking lips, a focused stare and being in a tense state are all warning signs before an explosion). Your pet will soon learn what is appropriate behavior and what you expect of it while out on the water.
• Check with others before bringing your pet. Sure, we all love our pets – but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. Pet owners also seem to be more tolerant to a pet’s misbehavior while on-board but this might be irritating to others. Be sure to get a consensus from everyone (not just a majority) that having the pet on the boat will not be a problem, especially if children are involved. If there will be young children, it might be a good idea to keep Fido home so there is no stress on the trip - for both the children, the mothers and the dog.
• Pet debris disposal. Be sure to properly dispose of your pet’s waste. Responsible boaters must not only adhere to the rules of marinas and boat ramps, but also to environmental laws. Just because your pet goes to the bathroom on an abandoned island doesn’t mean it is ok to leave their waste there. Animal waste contains the same bacterial problems for waterways that human waste does, and run-off has become a serious issue in our waterways. The cleaner you keep your boating spots, the more enjoyable they will be to come to time and time again.
• Treat Recap. Our personal suggestion for treats for our dog is dry cookies for being on-board (causes less stomach upset for those pets who do not have their sea legs yet). During the early training periods we used warm hot dog – which is like Heaven to a pet! Once your pet figures out that good things happen when they are on the boat (like delicious treats and praise), they will be more and more eager to join you on your expeditions.
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- Christine Barber -
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