Introducing a Dog to a Boat

We've had our Great Pyrenees, Buddy since mid-December. He's about 3 years old and as far as we know, has never been near water before until this past week. Since most of the time we've had him, it's been far too cold to be near water let alone on it, we haven't had much of an opportunity to get him used to it. With the cottage coming up in a week (boat access only), I decided we needed to try to get him used to the idea of being out on the water.

Unlike retrievers, spaniels, poodles and newfs, Great Pyrenees were never bred for anything related to the water. They are a breed that has 4000 years of history guarding sheep flocks in the French mountains from bears and wolves. Very few would have had any contact with water beyond a mountain stream or two. They are also extremely stubborn. They will usually try to make sure they get their way unless told otherwise. Patience is a virtue when training this breed. Buddy tends to pull against the leash if you try to get him somewhere he doesn't want to be. It took three of us to load him into the car the first time (he now has no problems with this). You can imagine how frustrating this would be on a dock if we didn't introduce him to the boat slowly before the cottage week. Worst-case would be 105 lbs of fluff pulling against a leash, either refusing to get on the dock or boat or panicking when the boat starts moving. To avoid this, we knew we had to get him used to it slowly.

The keys to a major new experience like this are to take as many baby steps as the dog needs, do not force the dog beyond what they're comfortable with, and carry a ton of small, high-value treats (we use dried beef liver treats that are available at Petsmart. They have no added ingredients, can be easily broken down into smaller training bits and Buddy loves them).

The first thing we did was bring him down to the boat launch without the boat just to see how he was with walking on the dock and around the water. We only needed to do this once, but would have done it as many times as needed to get him onto the dock and comfortable with the water at the base of the ramp. Reward the dog when he does something good that he's never done before and once he's calm enough to pay attention, do some basic training that the dog already knows on the dock, ramp or near the water.

The next thing was to do this again, but this time with a life jacket. It's important to always have a life jacket on the dog when they're in a boat. Some dogs don't mind, but others may find it uncomfortable. If your dog does not like getting dressed up, it may even be a good idea to put the life jacket on him when you're at home and have some play time while he wears it. Buddy didn't seem to care very much, so we just went straight to the dock with him wearing it on our second trip.

The next time, we had to get the actual boat involved. Matt backed the boat down the ramp, still attached to the trailer so it wouldn't jostle so much in the water. This was the part I was most concerned about. We got into the boat first, and making sure that he saw we had lots of treats, gently coaxed him in. He was definitely not sure and did try to pull back a little, but with reassuring high-pitched voices and the offering of treats, he did get himself into the boat. I used very light pressure on the leash to coax him in the direction I wanted him to go, but let him do the walking. It took about 20 minutes to gradually go from dog standing on the dock to dog lying down on the captain's seat.

It is VERY important not to drag the dog into the boat if he's not ready. This will create a bad experience and will make him want to get involved with the boat even less. Be gentle, calm, and always go at the dog's pace. We can't explain to them that being on the boat is fun and that it's all going to be okay and awesome, they have to trust us and learn it for themselves. Maintaining that trust as much as possible is crucial.

Once the dog is in the boat, you may want to get them used to other noises and activities as well before going out on the water. These could include turning the engine on and off and going through the range of throttles, loading and unloading the trailer and anything specific to your boat that would make a sudden movement or loud noise. Once the dog seems comfortable with the routine noises, smells and activity, you can try getting out on the water.

We just took Buddy for his second trip to the ramp with the boat, and we were able to get out on the water with him. Take it one step at a time, and always have one person who can act as the dog handler while the boat is being launched. Watch their body language carefully for signs of fear or panic and give treats after any change in conditions, such as speed, engine noise, wave patterns or other boats going by. On their first time out, they may stand up a fair bit, but since it's safer for them to be sitting or lying, this should be encouraged starting on the first trip out so good habits are developed. It's also a good idea when docking to have the dog stay on the boat until somebody on the dock invites them up.

Buddy, I can happily say, is now a boat dog. He may not be a HUGE fan of it, but I think he had fun sniffing the air as we breezed around the lake in Sunset Chaser. Each trip to the dock with the dog only needs to be 5-20 minutes. The same as you would for any training session. Many dogs can be excited and ready to get on the water on day 1, others may take a much longer time to get used to the idea. We managed it with Buddy, a 3-year-old-former-junkyard-dog rescue who had never seen a lake before, in 4 sessions (we could have done it in 3), the last one being an hour long exploring trip of Sydenham Lake. The captain's dog can finally ride with us.




Doggie lifejackets

Matthew's picture

The lifejacket question is always one that stirs up debate among dog-owning boaters.
If you're on a larger, slower boat, it's possible to make a valid case for not wearing lifejackets at all times - for dogs and humans alike.
That is emphatically not true of a small, fast boat like this one. If something bad is going to happen on such a boat, it is going to happen quickly, without warning, and with enough of a jolt to throw people and pets overboard. (And, if any dog bigger than a purse-rat happens to jump ship, it's very hard to muscle him back on board without the lifting handle on the back.) So, when the boat is underway, our rule is to wear lifejackets. Always. For everyone.

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