What Dog Breed is Best Suited for Cruising?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 03:52PM - Comments: (17)

Murphy, an English springer spaniel, proved to be an ideal water dog for our canine life jacket test.

Our two boys are now 8 and 10, so their rhetorical skills have advanced to a point at which a simple “no” from Dad is no longer beyond inquiry, and their persuasive, well-reasoned arguments for their cause are becoming harder to oppose. As a result, the prospect of a family dog—something I’ve successfully resisted up to this point—looms large in our future. The question now before us is: What kind?

The last dog my wife, Theresa, and I had was before we had kids, when we were living aboard in Guam. Coco was what the Guamanians referred to as a “boonie dog,” a short-haired mixed breed of no discernible pedigree, except perhaps bull terrier. He showed up at our dock shortly before Supertyphoon Paka raked the island. His condition was pitiful—sad eyes, sharp ribs, and mangy fur. Theresa and I nursed him back to health, and he took up residence beneath the dock box that I had built ashore.

Our home was Gerberville, a backwater marina with a cast of crazies and outcasts that makes Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” seem like a well behaved Sunday school class. It also was the base for several tour boats. At 7 a.m., a hotel bus would drop off two-dozen Japanese tourists, whom Coco would entertain by ripping up coconuts, smashing the nuts, and eating the meat—a survival skill he’d apparently acquired during his formative years in the boonies. Some tourists even offered me money, believing Coco's performance was staged for their entertainment. During the two years we lived in Guam, he proved to be an ideal companion, and he at least had the appearance of a fearless guard dog.

When the cruising kitty was finally replenished, and we were ready to set out for Indonesia, we took Coco aboard for sea trials. He failed miserably. Coco was big (about 40 pounds); our cockpit was small. He skidded across the deck with each tack. He suffered without a wimper, but I could see the fear in his eyes. Knowing it was the right choice, we found him a new home ashore with a close friend.

On the day we set sail from Guam, our friend brought Coco to say goodbye. The poor dog knew exactly what was happening. As we steamed up Piti Channel, he leaped off the dock and swam after us, following until he could paddle no farther. A dinghy went out to rescue him. It was heartwrenching, and one of the reasons I’m so reluctant to commit to another dog.

But the boys persist. They’re still too young to understand the full weight of goodbye.

Over the years, I’ve encountered everything from chihuahuas to huskies (yes, huskies) living aboard sailboats, so I’m not convinced that breed matters much, but some dogs are clearly better adapted to boats and the water. At the moment, we’re looking at small dogs, good travelling dogs that like the water and are happy to curl up in tight spaces during passages.

What follows is a short list of dogs that have been suggested to me as good boat dogs. Many of these are very active dogs, so they would be best suited for bigger boats and owners that took them ashore for long romps during the day.

Schipperke. We encountered one of these “Belgian barge dogs” while cruising, and it seemed very happy aboard—albeit a little noisy. This was a 60-plus-foot Danish seiner that offered plenty of room for the agile, high-energy dog to roam. It’s owner, a former merchant seaman, proudly told us that his dog was a champion rat-catcher.

Bichon frise. These fluffy little companion dogs are descendants from the water spaniel and the standard poodle. They are good travellers, and they don't shed. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, they were often carried on tall ships and used as barter items. We once cared for a bichon-poodle mix while its owner was away. The dog seemed quite content aboard the Tayana 37 that was his home, but it wasn't much of a guard dog.

American water spaniel. These water-loving dogs are much bigger and more active than the bichon, although they are reportedly quite adaptable to apartment life, which I would equate with living aboard.

English springer spaniel. Murphy, our test dog for our doggie life jacket test was a model citizen throughout our two-day test, leading me to believe he’d be quite comfortable on a long-term cruise.

Portuguese waterdog. Before the Obama’s “Bo,” there was Ted Kennedy’s “Splash.” These dogs, originally bred to help Mediterranean net fishermen, seem well-suited for the water, although you might have some explaining to do to your red-state friends.

Retrievers. Labrador retriever, golden retriever, Chesapeake Bay retriever . . . any retriever seems like a great choice for a boat, so long as they get enough exercise. I was sad to learn that writer Farley Mowat’s beloved retriever, a St. John’s water dog, became extinct in the 1980s.  Teddy Roosevelt’s Chesepeake Bay retriever—aptly named “Sailor Boy”—relished time in the water. Retrievers seem to require a lot of play/work, so I’m not sure whether they would be happy during longer passages, but at least you’d never lose a hat overboard again.

This is a very short list. Other dogs we’ve looked at include Staffordshire terriers, catahuoulas, poodles, beagles, Irish setters, cocker spaniels, and even Newfoundlands, but I worry that some of the bigger, more active breeds may need more exercise than the boat life could provide. Owning a dog is responsibility enough when living ashore; only a sailor who truly understands the commitment required should consider bringing one aboard.

I’m interested in hearing about other people’s experience with boat dogs, tips on care, and what breeds they suggest. (The more choices we have, the longer I can stall.) Please share your comments below, and feel free to post pictures of them on our Facebook page

Comments (14)

This is a very helpful blog and I love the articles you write about and it's a nice thing that you are doing. I guess you have all knowledge about dogs .I appreciate your work. i also like to share some words about the topic, and for cruising or outdoor purpose you should go for Hound dogs breed, boxer, German Shepherd, dalmatian.

Posted by: omar zafar | November 26, 2013 5:42 AM    Report this comment

We had a 32 pound Border Collie mix, she was very agile and able to handle getting on and off the boat which is a Carter 39 flush deck race boat turned fast and comfy cruiser without assistance. She has gone to Fiddler's Green. we are now planning to get another boat wise dog and have enjoyed the comments on this blog to see what may work well for our next beloved pooch.

Steve and adele

Posted by: Steve F | July 28, 2013 8:06 PM    Report this comment

I sail with five dogs! Two dachshunds, a begal, a yorkie, and a corgie/healer mix. All are willing sailors, good swimmers, and under 15 pounds. Our trips to shore each morning look like a traveling circus act but I've never lost a "man" overboard and when the day is done and the sun goes down, everyone has their particular place to spend the night comfortably. I don't believe any one breed is best suited for sailing. It all depends on the animal's nature/personality. Just like a guest, pay attention to the body language and be sensitive to their needs and things will (or won't) work out. Don't force the issue! My crew is varied, happy, and a constant source of comfort.

Posted by: Mike K | June 28, 2013 8:34 AM    Report this comment

Good day fellow Boat Bums. We have had Dalmations as house dogs and boat dogs even live aboard dogs. This breed has adapted to nautical life very well. They bond very strongly to their human mates and are a great source of companion ship and buffoonery.
Life jackets are an essential. Dogs are more work and upkeep but well worth the extra space for food storage and upkeep.
Humbly offered, David Brown SV Sweet Surrender

Posted by: David B | June 28, 2013 7:05 AM    Report this comment

We too had kids who longed for a dog, but were told it was impossible because every summer we sailed off to do marine biological fieldwork somewhere. Someone told us, "Get one of those keeshonds--they are the Dutch canal barge dogs!" We did get one, and she turned out to be wonderful (though in fact they were bred as companion/watchdogs and ended up on the barges because they became politically unpopular.) She was content in small spaces and completely at ease underway except when she needed to go topside to use the piddle pad on the poop deck in dirty weather. She was surefooted, quickly learned commands like "go below" or "in the dink." She was a poor swimmer (with her deep chest, she trimmed down by the stern) and hence had no inclination to make unannounced leaps over the side. Downsides: a bit barky, so we learned never to say "Oh, look!" which would immediately bring her on deck; instead we spelled out "p-o-r-p-o-i-s-e-s!" Twice a year this breed, which looks much larger than its actual size of 30 lb or so, sheds enough soft fur to knit an afghan--but does it all in a week or so. She was great with the children and sailed 3000+ blue-water miles. Keeshonds are fairly long-lived; she shared our home(s) for 15 years. Not an obvious choice, but we never regretted bringing her aboard!

Posted by: TOM W | June 27, 2013 5:05 PM    Report this comment

Our first onboard dog was a Lhasa Apso who was more conditioned to cross country skiing and hiking than boating but loved being with us whereever we were. When he passed we adopted a senior rescue dog who was a Lhasa Border Collie mix; the purebred Lhasa weighed about 17 lbs and the senior weiged in more like 27; our lesson waas lighter was better. Both dogs were intellegent and made great companions, but I think our next will be closer to 20-25#.


Posted by: Peyton P | June 27, 2013 3:55 PM    Report this comment

The Monkey's Fist recently published a post called "Dogs on Board" - with over a twenty links to blog posts about boat dogs - you might find some good ideas, there - and your boys would probably enjoy reading some of the stories. I would also like to include a link to this post - is that okay with you? Thanks, Jane

Posted by: Jane B | June 27, 2013 9:58 AM    Report this comment

Golfito Black Dog. On my birthday Jan 2010, I was presented with a bundle of wigglesfrom off the Costa Rican ports beach. I named Ana for her presenter. She is the first of a truly distinct breed. Born without a tail, black and noisy, she may have some shipperke, but has ears like a lab, weighs but 30#; highly intelligent and perversly active, requiring fetch games constantly.
She sounds like a guard dog as someone approaches, but promptly turns on her back expecting tummy rubs from everyone. She does do a pretty good job of keeping porpoises off the deck, and frigates off the rigging; boobies ignore her.

She is the first one into the dingy, and would prefer to go ashore several times a day, but is content with one if shore is in site, and sleeps well if it is not.

Her noise and energy make her less than a perfect boat dog considered from afar, but our relationship, and her excellent communication skills make her the most important thing on the boat. You will get love and entertainment from any dog you treat well.

s/v Someday
ex Chetco Cove, OR
Boca Chica' Panama

Posted by: William N | June 26, 2013 6:43 PM    Report this comment

We've loved labs all our lives and still think our last yellow girl was the best dog who ever lived. But they're dang big dogs who shed their full size in hair every 3rd day. Now we sail with a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Google "Tollers" to discover more. They are the smallest retrieving breed and highly known as smart, friendly, quick learning and magnets to people of all ages. Picture a half size Golden Retriever with a little darker red coat. Girls average about 32-36lb, boys 40-45lbs. They have the water attributes of all retrievers but are less "needy" for activity. They'll run,swim, fetch and play as long as you'll entertain them, but even from a young age, they're content to curl up somewhere and wait the the next meal/playtime. As far as a guard dog goes, like most retrievers, they are too friendly and food focused to be more than a barking alert at strange sounds. Ours is named Tiller but she's lousy at steering straight unless headed for a tennis ball.

Posted by: mark b | June 26, 2013 5:12 PM    Report this comment

I love Labs and have owned three but they weigh 80 lbs plus. What kind of transom do you have? If a modern "walk in" transom there would be no problem getting them in and out of a dingy BUT if you have a "traditional" transom, I wouldn't get a dog you couldn't lift with one hand while you held on to the toe rail with the other. I have hoisted up Labs with a harness and using a halyard and I can tell you they don't like it. Wide eyed terror. PWE

Posted by: Peter E | June 26, 2013 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Check out Boykin Spaniel, a South Carolina breed, bread for duck and bird hunting. 30-40 lbs and loves the water. Short curly or straightish red fur,great disposition and an alert guard .A game warden friend never launched his boat without his loyal first mate. PHIL

Posted by: Phil H | June 26, 2013 12:57 PM    Report this comment

Our previous dog was a Maltese, about 10 pounds, who sailed with us for about 12 years. She was too small for our Sabre 34--she had to be helped from just about any one surface to another, such as from cabin sole to settee or cockpit sole to seat. But she could hop over the cockpit coaming to get onto the deck, and she was not shy about using the bow to do her business.

When our Maltese passed on to doggie heaven, we missed her enough to look for another cruising companion. We thought something a little larger than a Maltese would be better--a dog able to make his or her way around the boat, but still small enough to lift in and out of a dinghy and to be comfortable in the limited space aboard. We thought 40 pounds of dogage was about right, but that it would be easier to handle in two modules. We ended up with a pair of West Highland terriers at about 20 pounds each. They enjoy swimming, enjoy sailing, and really enjoy dinghy rides to shore. But, unfortunately, they hate to do their business on the boat. When we do 24-hour overnight coastal hops, they generally hold it until we get them back to shore.

Posted by: Albert R | June 26, 2013 12:02 PM    Report this comment

We have had two dogs with us for years while cruising. A Miniature Schnauzer and a Chow Chow. They both wear life jackets when we sail and they both have acclimated to the boat quite well. Outside of the dogs looking at you with yellow eyes at 6AM on a rainy morning when you would rather stay below, its been lots of fun sailing with companions like this.

A few thoughts...

1. While we like big, cuddly, dogs, they don't necessary make it easy on you sailing. You need lots of food, big bowls of water and lots of space for them to lie around. They also need to be hoisted (read: your back) up the companion way to the cockpit. Consider this as you get older.

2. We cannot say enough positive things about the Mini Schnauzer. They are smart dogs, with great personalities, and like to cuddle and be with you reading a book or when you are in the cockpit doing things. They are not too big to carry up the companionway, nor are they too big to drag out of the water if they go in. Ours is smart enough to know what we mean by "tacking" and moves from one side to the other like a well drilled crew member.

To be fair, our chow knew this too, but the size aspect offsets. That's a lot of cockpit taken up when you want some room with lines or other people.

Again, I think a medium sized dog is best (the schauzer is not small, maybe 18-20 lbs depending upon M/F). Life jackets are a must even if you have a swimmer for a dog. We were anchoring in Newport once when our dog slipped off the varnished caprail and into the water. We didnt know it until we were hundreds of yards away in the fog. As good a swimmer as they are, keeping afloat in choppy water or when their fur gets waterlogged is tough. Eventually they tire.

My $0.02.


Posted by: RICK F | June 26, 2013 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Our English Springer was a pleasure many years ago living aboard a 40' ketch. She even did her business over the stern. She even rode on our motorcycle. We're now on our 3rd (land-based) chocolate lab. Labs have webbed feet and love to swim / fetch as much or more than our springer, but a little bigger dog and perhaps a few more RPM's. Have not lived aboard with labs, but expect the springer would be easier to manage and probably more comfortable aboard. Exercise is not a problem for a water-lover, except perhaps on a passage. Indeed, wash day was; throw the stick, wait for the return, shampoo, throw the stick... So much of what you get out of a dog is what and how much you put in too. Even within the same breed, no two dog's personalities and quirks are the same. If one requires loyal companionship, perhaps a dog. If one prefers simplicity and minimal surprises aboard, perhaps not a wise choice to have a dog, domestic partner or other complicated shipboard systems, though the dog is by far the least complicated...

Posted by: Unknown | June 25, 2013 1:26 PM    Report this comment

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