What Dog Breed is Best Suited for Cruising?
Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 03:52PM - Comments: (17)
June 24, 2013
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.