If you have a boat and a dog, it’s likely you have already thought through all of the following safety tips and suggestions, and already have a rescue/emergency plan in place. If however, like me, you are friends with a boat owner, and go boating with your dog a few-times-a year-if-we’re-lucky, the following safety tips and best practices will help keep you and your pet safe while out on the water.
Some Tips are Obvious
Life Jackets Save Lives
Wear a life jacket at all times while you’re on a boat, it doesn’t matter how well you or your dog can swim, emergencies happen and a life jacket absolutely can make a life-altering difference if things turn bad. There are many different types of life jacket, including some that automatically inflate when they come in contact with the water.
Fit is incredibly important, make sure your dog’s life jacket fits before you leave the house, we don’t always notice that our dogs have grown taller, or gained weight over the course of the year, so definitely make sure all the buckles, straps and Velcro fit securely and comfortably before leaving the house.
In addition to fit, a very important factor in selecting a life vest for a dog is to make sure it has reflective tape and a handle on the back. This will help you in the event you need to lift your dog out of the water and into the boat.
Life vests are important for humans too. In an emergency, you won’t have time to find your life jacket, and in rough water, no matter how good of a swimmer you are, a life vest can save you and your dog from drowning.
Reach or Throw, Don’t Go
Speaking of rescuing dogs, here is a story from a friend of mine that illustrates several safety tips for both what to do and what not to do:
Beezus, an 80lb love-bug (pictured below – first one in the yellow jacket), and experienced boat-dog, was wearing her life jacket when she fell overboard. My friend immediately turned off the engine to prevent injury from the prop, and not having time to grab a life jacket for himself, and being the awesome dog-dad he is, he jumped in after her. He’s a decent swimmer so didn’t worry about not having a life jacket on. Two things happened next: the boat started drifting away, and Beezus tried to save/drown her dad.
Beezus, who was wearing a life jacket, noticed her dad in the water clearly in some sort of distress, so she swam over to save him. She put both her paws on his shoulders, and pushed him under. Nobody drowned that day, but this behavior is very common in dogs – they will try to climb on you in the water in a misguided attempt to accomplish a doggie goal – it’s coming from a well-intentioned place, but it’s not ideal behavior. Long story short, he wrestled his way out from under her, then used her as a flotation device (remember she was wearing a life jacket, he wasn’t) and both of them together, caught up to the boat.
Have a Rescue Plan and Educate Everyone On Board
Have an emergency plan for what to do if anyone (including your dog) falls overboard & make sure everyone knows what to do.
- Bring a friend. Boating alone with a dog can be hazardous and limits your rescue options and response time.
- Immediately stop the engine.
- Make sure people on the boat keep an eye on the dog, point at her, and keep repeating “MAN OVERBOARD”. This will alert other nearby boats of the danger. This is also standard practice if a person falls overboard.
- Have an extension pole on board that you can use to reach and grab him with from a distance. If you have to maneuver the boat to get closer, ideally row your boat, and/or if you can’t, be very careful with the prop and turn the engine off as soon as you can. If you do jump in after your dog, be sure you’re wearing a life jacket.
Leashes and Boats
Leashes are a tricky subject. You should ALWAYS have a strong, secure 4′ or 6′ leash with you. My dog Jester loves the water and loves swimming. If she gets a chance, she will jump into the water. She is always wearing her life jacket, and she has a harness on underneath, which I attach a leash to. I hold the leash in my hand I don’t attach it to the boat – I don’t want her going down with the boat in a catastrophic accident. There is an issue with leashes in general though – and that issue is the prop. A dog can easily get hurt or killed if the leash gets tangled in the prop while it’s running. I can’t keep Jester off-leash AND in the boat, so the leash is necessary. Never leave home without one, just be aware of the dangers.
Safe, Carefree Fun in the Sun
Now that you have a plan, a life jacket and a rescue pole, let’s have some fun! Here are some tips for a carefree relaxed day on the water:
- Dogs Can Get Sea Sick Too: Watch him or her for signs of any changes in behavior. Talk to your veterinarian about a Dramamine dose if you think this might be an issue for your dog.
- Watch your Dog: While on the water make sure one person is fully in charge of keeping an eye on your dog at all times.
- Make sure your dog is comfortable on the boat before you get too far away from land. If this is your dog’s first time on the boat, sail around the harbor for several minutes before leaving. If your dog is agitated, it might be worth it to go back to the dock and either get out and try again, or take him or her home and try again another day. Keep your dog’s first trip on a boat short.
- Sunscreen, Water, Towel, Leash, and Treats: bring treats & water for your dog, you’ll probably be eating and drinking, he or she will want to as well. Don’t forget sunscreen! Dogs’ ears, noses and bellies are susceptible to sunburn. Check with your veterinarian about where to apply sunscreen, and what brand to use. There is sunscreen that is specifically formulated for dogs. Please don’t use human sunscreen on dogs. Remember to offer your dog plenty of options for being in the shade. I can’t think of a single time when I have regretted having a towel or a leash. Bring ’em, you’ll need ’em.
- Bathroom Breaks: Don’t forget to stop near land and let your dog out to pee occasionally. Make sure you also bring poop bags. If that isn’t going to be possible, bring along puppy pads and/or astro turf and a litter pan or something along those lines so your dog has the option to pee and poop. This behavior might need to be trained, it might not be intuitive to a dog to use a puppy pad or litter pan and astroturf.
- Slippage: Bring along a yoga mat and/or towels for your dog. The yoga mat will cling nicely to the deck of a boat and also give your dog something to grasp onto if the waters get rough. Always keep your dog in the main cabin or deck of the boat in rough waters or while moving.
- Be sure to pack a first aid kit for you, and another one for your dog.
- Getting Back into the Boat: If you do go swimming with your dog while anchored in open water, make absolutely sure you have a way to bring them back into the boat. Some boats have a platform with a ladder, if so, these are great, just pull your dog up onto the platform (or train them to climb a ladder) and he or she can jump into the main compartment from there. If not, consider getting a boat ramp. Lifting a dog who is 50+ pounds and soaking wet, isn’t going to be a viable option for most people.
Have fun!! I know we always do!