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7 Things You Must Know Before Taking Your Dog on a Boat

July 28, 2017

Story at-a-glance

  • If you’re thinking of taking your canine companion out on a boat this summer, there are several things to consider to insure both of you have a safe, enjoyable time
  • The first thing you should do is check local laws pertaining to animals on boats so there are no surprises once you set sail
  • Other safety tips include investing in a doggy life jacket, getting your dog comfortable with being on the water and protecting him from sunburn and overheating

By Dr. Becker

With the dog days of summer upon us, many of you with dogs may be planning some fun on the water as temperatures soar. If your plans involve boating with your canine family member aboard, the following are important safety tips that will insure smooth sailing for both you and your pet.

7 Safety Tips for Boating With Your Dog

1. Check Local Laws

While there are no national legal restrictions or requirements pertaining to animals on boats, it's a good idea to check local laws, since regulations can vary by state.

2. Invest in a Doggy Life Jacket

Not all dogs can swim or swim well (more about that shortly), and even if yours is the canine version of Michael Phelps, you should have a life jacket on him while you're boating, and especially in rough waters. Get a life jacket with a handle so you can easily lift or pull him away from danger if necessary.

Make sure to follow the fitting recommendations of the life jacket you plan to purchase so it's the right size for your dog. I also strongly encourage you to get your dog used to wearing his life jacket before you head to the boat — especially if he's never been boating. Introduce potential stressors one at a time and allow him to acclimate to each one before presenting another.

3. Do Some Test Runs First

Your dog needs time to get familiar with the boat and the sensation of being on water versus land before you set sail, so bring her aboard while you're docked so she can (hopefully) get comfortable with this brand new experience she'll be having. If she balks at climbing into the boat, you may need to make a few trips no further than the dock before attempting to get her onboard. Be sure to bring a favorite toy and some treats, and keep things upbeat and positive.

If she's okay boarding the boat, but seems anxious (barking or whining, licking her lips, drooling, yawning, holding her tail low or between her back legs, etc.) once she's onboard, make multiple visits to the docked boat before setting off, and again, arm yourself with treats, patience and praise. Don't push your dog faster than she's comfortable. Keep the first few boat trips short. Use them to help her acclimate to being on the water, as well as to evaluate whether she's prone to seasickness.

4. Bring Along the Right Doggy Supplies

Make sure to bring along all the things your dog will need for a boat trip, including:

Plenty of fresh water and a water bowl

A supply of treats and/or food if you'll be on the water at mealtime

Puppy pads if you don't plan to come ashore often for potty breaks

A few toys that float

Something comfy for him to nap on

It's also a good idea to bring along a copy of your dog's health records in the event of emergency, and you should absolutely insure he's wearing an up-to-date ID tag.

5. Don't Assume Your Dog Is a Natural Swimmer

Some people mistakenly believe all dogs are born with the natural ability to swim. While it's true most dogs instinctively make a paddling motion if they happen to wind up in water, that's often the extent of their swimming skills. Not every dog paddle is effective at keeping the animal afloat, and many dogs have no idea how to move toward the boat or the shore.

As a general rule, medium-to-large sized breeds with water-resistant coats and webbing between their toes are strong swimmers. These dogs have been bred for water work and include most retrievers. Dogs with "water" in their breed names are a given, such as the Portuguese Water Dog. Newfoundlands, despite their giant size, are also great swimmers. Other breeds comfortable in the water include English and Irish Setters, the Standard Poodle and the Schipperke.

Dogs not designed for swimming include "top heavy" breeds — those with large chests and small hindquarters. Short-muzzled dogs, including the brachycephalic breeds, and dogs with very short legs also don't do well in water. For example, Bulldogs, Dachshunds and Boxers are generally not able to stay afloat easily for long periods of time.

Brachy breeds like the Pug tend to tire easily due to the abnormal structure of their respiratory organs. Many small dogs can be very good swimmers, but because they get chilled easily and tend to be frightened in the water, they don't always do so well. It's also important to remember that even the best canine swimmer can get very tired — especially in deep water. Older dogs and puppies tire more easily than adult dogs, and special care must be taken not to let them overdo it.

When you take your dog boating, no matter how great he is in the water, I recommend you have him in his life jacket except for those times when the boat is anchored for swimming — and you're keeping an eye on him. Dogs can fall into the water unnoticed, and if you're at cruising speed, by the time you realize he's overboard, it could be too late to save him. A life jacket will help him stay on top of the water and will also help you spot him more easily.

If your dog is swimming in unfamiliar water, beware of strong currents, steep drop-offs and any other potential dangers that could pull him under or sweep him away before you can get to him.

6. Protect Your Dog From Sunburn

It's not always safe to assume that just because your dog wears a fur coat she's protected from skin cancer. Dogs who shouldn't overdo it include those with white coats, short coats, no coat (hairless), dogs with pink or light-colored noses and dedicated sun worshippers (especially if they lay on their backs).

You can protect your dog from the sun's harmful rays with a non-toxic, dog-safe sunscreen. I recommend a product designed to not only help protect your pet from potentially harmful rays, but also to nourish and moisturize the skin. Look for a product that contains no dangerous chemical ingredients, parabens, artificial fragrances, nanoparticles or mineral oil.

When you put sunscreen on your dog, be sure to avoid the eyes but definitely get the area around her face and ears covered, as well as her tummy if she likes to sunbathe belly-up. If she'll be outside for an extended period, reapply the sunscreen about every two hours.

7. Protect Your Dog From Overheating

Make sure your dog has access to shady areas of the boat and a constant supply of fresh drinking water. If she's brachycephalic, overweight, a senior or has a chronic illness, she'll overheat at lower temperatures and much more quickly. Also keep in mind the life jacket she's wearing can contribute to overheating.

Know the signs of overheating, which include rapid breathing and heart rate, lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea. If your dog shows any of these signs, move her to a shaded area of the boat or into an air-conditioned compartment. You can also place a sheet or towel over her, wet it down with cool water and put a fan on her if you have one available.

If you're not able to help relieve her symptoms or you think she's in trouble, you need to head to shore immediately and get her to the closest emergency animal hospital. Overheating can progress to heatstroke, which can very quickly prove fatal.

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