How We Do It: Dog Aboard
The first in of a series of articles that I hope are informative about life afloat.
Living on a sailboat and cruising has been a dream of ours for years, in the broad sense. In dreaming about it we thought about what kind of boat we’d like and what kind of islands we could visit. What didn’t factor into our dreams were a lot of the little day to day mundane tasks and on up to bigger chores like engine maintenance. The stories in our “How We Do It” series will illuminate some of the things we’ve figured out along the way in hopes that future or current cruisers can use the information to their benefit.
Riley is an active dog. At nine years old he has the stamina, speed, playfulness, and energy that a lot of dogs only have as puppies. This isn’t to boast about how cool our dog is (he is pretty cool though), but these are all hallmarks of his breed: the Hungarian Viszla. Originally bread by Hungarian nobility as bird hunting dogs (Viszla means “to point” in Hungarian) they have developed a niche following in the US due to their happy demeanor and propensity to try and lay on top of you when they are not running 20 mph. Some call them the “Velcro Dogs”. Riley is part of our family, as most dogs are these days. As an older dog we weren’t sure how he would adapt to living on a boat, but we were sure we weren’t going to give him up. Relatives offered to take him in if he didn’t enjoy life aboard due to space restraints, seasickness, etc. After six months aboard we are happy to report that he has been one of the biggest surprise successes of our cruising life.
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges, or moments of frustration. There have (many). Foremost amongst the challenges was the issue of where Riley does his business. We purchased a little green AstroTurf set up specifically designed to let dogs go to the bathroom aboard boats. It doesn’t work for us, nor many other cruisers with old dogs, as we learned. We tried putting some of his urine on it, he sniffed it with indifference. A friend of ours dutifully collected urine from her two dogs (thanks Heather!) and we poured that on the mat. He sniffed it, then laid down on it. We spent hours the first few days aboard walking him up to the bow encouragingly and repetitively saying “do your pee-pees on the mat Riley, pee-pees on the mat”. He would look at us, then gaze off longingly towards the nearest island.
We had read about just letting the dog hold it and eventually they would go. From what we researched it doesn’t hurt the dog and once they do go on the boat you should praise them and they will realize it’s okay. So we waited, and waited a bit more. Around the 30 hour mark Riley finally gave in and of all places squatted and relieved himself in the shower stall (a good place since we can pump it overboard). Praise and treats followed and we thought at least we can get him to go there and just clean it up each time. We waited again, and the next morning we awoke to find that he had an accident in his sleep and the towel he was sleeping on was soaked. Not wanting to force an incontinence issue on our pet and due to his obvious discomfort at holding it for so long we gave in and have dinghy’d him to shore multiple times a day since then. In speaking with other dog owners of older pets, they have had similar experiences in using the “grass” mat = $50 of green plastic you take with you to exotic islands that is totally useless.
Going to shore for a bathroom break is sometimes inconvenient, say if its pouring rain, and sometimes we will push the envelope and he will hold it longer since he hates being out in the rain anyway. It has also limited our passage making ability. It wasn’t a problem to cross the Gulf Stream in 12-14 hours since he routinely holds it that long overnight, but anything over 24 hours between anchorages is pushing it. It wasn’t a problem in the Bahamas with a plethora of islands and beaches, but it has been a little more problematic to find places to take him ashore in the US since much of the shoreline is private. Luckily, he doesn’t mind going to the bathroom if his body is submerged in water, as long as his paws touch earth.
On passages in open water, or if conditions become rough, Riley wears a harness and is tethered to our arch. We usually set up his dog bed on the leeward side of the boat and it makes a nice little nook for him to curl up into. He will stay there for hours just looking over the side and watching the waves. Coming up the ICW in calm inland waters we gave him more free reign of the boat while underway. His favorite spot was under the boom in the shade, and being higher on the cabin top gives him an unobstructed view all around.
We often joke that Riley prefers “the little fast boat”, our dinghy, to Wanderer. Much like dogs love to ride in cars with their heads out the window, he enjoys a good fast dinghy ride which usually ends up with us going to play on shore as a bonus for him. We keep a few dog toys and poop bags in the dinghy bag so we are always prepared. Sometimes we tether him to the dinghy as we ride around, or one of us will have to be on “dog overboard patrol” and keep him from hopping up on the inflatable tube as he is wont to do. He’s only gone overboard the two times he jumped a little too early for the dock on our approach, at least he is a good swimmer.
Riley eats a special food made of lamb & rice as he has some chicken or beef allergy so when we set out to the Bahamas we were sure to bring several bags worth. We break each 40lb bag of dog food down into gallon sized Ziploc and then store all of those in a large dry sack in our cockpit lockers. Every few days he goes through a Ziploc bag worth and we get another from the locker. We haven’t lost any of his food to moisture contamination or spoilage in this way. We try and reuse the Ziplocs as much as possible.
The companionway on Wanderer is steep, basically a ladder. There’s no way even an athletic dog like Riley could make it down, so Trisha with the help of her dad built a platform that connects from the second step down to a half wall that separates our dinette from the galley. Now Riley can easily hop down one step onto the platform, hop onto the dinette settee and onto the cabin sole or across to the other settee. The platform doubles as a place to have him stop and wipe his feet off, or can be used as extra counter space in the galley.
Most dogs shed, and ours is no exception. It’s something you just have to deal with whether in a home or on a boat. For cleaning up below decks we use swiffer wipes and a specifically designed pet hair vacuum by Bissell. Riley’s distinctive reddish fur stands out where it gathers in the cockpit, specifically around the scupper drains and channels leading to the drains. If we go a few days without rain to take care of it, we need to give the cockpit a quick wash down or wipe it up.
Riley can be a vocal dog. He has adopted Wanderer as his home and is ready to defend her against all comers. In many ways that is a good thing, but when we are staying at a marina and leaving him home alone we don’t want to have him disturbing the neighbors for every person who walks by. To that end we’ve employed a bark collar that is activated at a certain decibel level and squirts a fine mist of citronella. In theory that is enough to deter him from barking. In practice, it works most of the time, but if he really wants to let someone have it he keeps barking away. Which is fine. We’d rather have him be able to deter an intruder than appease our neighbors.
There are those times where he seems to be constantly under foot, or the barking gets under your skin, or there is drool all over the settee, but, all in all he has made a fine transition to life on board. He doesn’t exude any signs of seasickness, he loves to swim and play on a beach, and being a little older he doesn’t mind lying around for a few hours when we are moving between anchorages. Riley has enhanced our trip even more by being an excellent conversation piece amongst strangers be they locals or fellow cruisers. In most Bahamian settlements we couldn’t walk more than a block before someone wanted to know what kind of dog Riley was as he is vastly different looking than most of the island “potcakes”. We even met two other boats in the Bahamas cruising with Viszlas on board! Ironically enough, the first boat that pulled into the marina next to us on South Bimini right after our Gulf Stream crossing had a Viszla, “Hercules”, on board. The two became fast friends and had a great time swimming and playing on the beach together.
Boat dogs are common out there. Everything from Chihuahuas to Newfoundlands are living aboard. If you have a dog in your life and are considering going cruising or living aboard, go for it! The dog will just be happy being around you all day and you the same, most of the time.