What Dog Breed is Best Suited for Cruising?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 03:52PM - Comments: (30)

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

Over the years, we’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.

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. Please share your comments below. We'd love to see more canine pictures for our Facebook page. You can also email or send digital photos to us ty practicalsailor@belvoir.com

Comments (27)

The best "dogs" to travel with are Maine Coon cats. They are large and intimidating enough to deter "visitors" from trying to enter the boat at night. It happened to us one night in Nasssau, when thieves went thru 4 boats at a marina and stole phones and watches, etc, right out of the cabins where people were sleeping. Our largest cat, Dante (about 21 pounds - no fat), was very active, walking all over the place, and the next morning we found out why. Our boat was the only one that was not burgled, right in the middle of the line of victimized boats.. The thief evidently looked down into boat and saw what looked like a very agitated, large bobcat, and decided to go elsewhere.

Cats don't have to be "watered", and furry Maine Coons help you keep warm on those frosty nights. They can also swim quite well, and know how to use vertical steel ladders to climb out of the water, all by themselves. They are as affectionate as any dog, without the downsides.

Posted by: rxc | August 13, 2017 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Those two dogs saved their owners lives. Our friends live on a very large trimaran and have two Schipperkes. They were the yappiest most annoying dogs to all their anchored neighbors and especially for the neighborhood when they tied to a marina. Those dogs could just not shut up. We had departed Ocean View Marina near Devao, Philippines a few months previous but heard second hand accounts of the terrible abductions of 4 cruisers, by the Abu Sayyaf terror group, who held the hostages for ransom. Two of the hostages, Canadians, were beheaded and the other two were eventually released. When the abductions occurred, the bad guys were demanding the lady owner of the trimaran get onto the dock so they could talk to her. Her husband had dashed down below to call the police. Being good Muslims, the bad guys would not go onto the trimaran because of the dogs, who they could easily kick out of the way. There are exceptions but in general, it is greatly forbidden for a good Muslim to touch a dog. For good Muslims, dogs are as abhorrent as pigs. So cruising in Muslim areas, like Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, parts of Thailand and the Philippines, you don't need a Rottweiler, just a yappy little dog or even a Cockapoo will do. Patrick

Posted by: PatrickChildress | July 31, 2017 3:55 AM    Report this comment

The dog you need to look at is a Boykin Spaniel. Our girl Dottie loves the water and is right there with us when it's time for bed. We love our pet and she sleeps right in our birth with us. A very smart breed and a loving companion. She especially loves to give kisses! You can't go wrong with this breed. No matter what you choose give your dog love and affection and spend time training her. They all can be trained if one is willing to put the time in doing so. Good sailing.

Posted by: Sailor Eddie | July 21, 2017 8:37 PM    Report this comment

My 11.5 year old English bull dog Louie! He is totally not equipped naturally to be an ocean going dog, but man, can he adapt. Mind you, he's broken all the stereotypes on these dogs since day 1, he is an athlete, he loves adventure, he listens perfectly and even only being introduced to sailing at 10, he totally figured out how to behave on the boat and where to sit on deck when healing etc. He did have an issue relieving himself on deck, but after a bit caved. He always wears his life jacket on board and never protests, he has responded perfect and never gets sea sick. Plus my arms get a great work out using the life preserver handle to lift him in and out of the boat, in and out of the dinghy, and down into the cabin.

Can I recommend a photo option for everyone to share their doggy sailing pics. Cheers all.

Posted by: xrstopher | July 13, 2017 4:06 PM    Report this comment

Sailboats are designed for people; I've never read a boat review that mentioned all the design features included for dogs onboard. Basically, dogs are land creatures and don't belong on boats. They are taken aboard due to their relationship to their owners; its not the dog's first choice of venue. Owners take them aboard for their own emotional needs or because they want to save dog siting expenses while their gone. I view it much like sailing with air conditioning, TV, refrigeration, WiFi, cell phones, Facebook etc., watermakers, and the all defining genset that provides the power to run all the AC appliances just as if you were home. These all detract from the true cruising experience of living more simply and opening a different venue from our everyday life, i.e. the proverbial "getting away from it all".

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | July 13, 2017 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Hi There , Been sailing for years , first dog was a Maltese poodle , 12 years til she died , we now have a Yorkshire Terrier , we even taught her to crap in a Cat litter box , brilliant little dog .

Posted by: Soosan | July 13, 2017 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Portugal is on the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean, Portuguese water dogs are descendant from the Spanish Water Dog. Both breeds are very adept to living on board.
Had my Spanish Water Dog on board for 13 years until her last days, loved the water and living aboard, best watch, if a stranger came within 20 yards I heard about it.

Posted by: Mirelos | July 13, 2017 9:32 AM    Report this comment

I have never had a dog on my boat (2 cats were great to sail with) but my observation has been that the Jack Russell terrier is the best burglar alarm ever. No one's getting close to that boat!

Posted by: MollyonSabai | July 13, 2017 9:26 AM    Report this comment

I have a Portuguese Water Dog and a Havanese. Both are amazing and wonderful boat companions who live with me on my 28' boat during the summer. My Porty (weighs 60 lbs) loves being on the water and IN the water, is very athletic and enthusiastic and loves being on the boat. I thought he was the IDEAL boat dog until I got the Havanese. The Havanese looks like a mini black Portuguese (weighs 15 lbs) , easy to lift out of the boat and jumps readily into the inflatable, uses the "astroturf patch" while the Porty refuses and both dogs don't shed. The Havanese swims but prefers wading so I don't have to worry about him leaping from the dinghy to swim alongside. The Havanese is very "chill" on the boat.

Posted by: Zubenel | July 13, 2017 9:26 AM    Report this comment

There are many positive aspects of canine companions, I don't think it's a wise decision to have a dog aboard, unless it's already a family member and you don't have viable options to leave it with a family member while you cruise. They need to be walked, most have agility issues aboard (let's face it, boats are designed for humans, not dogs) and are more prone to injury or even falling overboard than their human crew mates. And don't even think about it for long-term or offshore cruising if the dog isn't trained to poop and pee on deck... it's no fun watching your dog suffer to "hold it".

Posted by: LDH | July 13, 2017 9:05 AM    Report this comment

We've had two schipperkes aboard more than a half dozen boats for the past 25 years, and they've been everything we could ask for in boat dogs. Smart, attentive, loving, mischief-loving, and, did I say smart? Skips are often represented as a big dogs packaged in small dog bodies, and neither of our skips seemed to understand that she couldn't tell a great dane or a pit bull who was boss. Katy, who lived to 13, and Dory who's 12 1/2 and still going strong have been ideal boat dogs for my wife and I. Also known as Belgian barge dogs, these canines are said to have been bred to work aboard the barges with three principal jobs. Job one is security, and it's in a skip's genes to altert when anyone is approaching the boat (or other property including a car being guarded by a skip) and then bark loudly and persistently as a warning to alert the skipper. One someone comes aboard and is properly introduced, he or she is considered crew by the skip. Job two is keeping the vessel free of vermin. As far as we know we've never had a rat or mouse onboard, but we cannot say that's cause and effect. Job three is keeping the barge-towing horses moving by nipping at their heels. While we've never had our boat in a Belgian canal, we've both had our heels gently nipped countless times by excited schipperkes--that too is in the genes. Our skips have never been seasick, and we've never heard of a seasick schipperke. They're easily taught to go on the boat, though when we're in port they prefer to do their business ashore. A couple of daily walks is all it takes. If you'd like to read more about schipperkes aboard boats, go to Amazon and download or buy A Sesdog's Tale: the True Story of a Small Dog on a Big Ocean by Peter Mullenburg. It's a heart-warming and well-witten story of a feisty schipperke named Santos, a dog who's always into mischief and has the energy and gumption of a dog five times his size, a personable schipperke who becomes a vital part of his family, offering protection, navigational help (yes, really!), and unswerving loyalty. If you love dogs, it's a great read. But be warned: read it and you may soon be shopping for a schipperke!

Posted by: Milt Baker | July 13, 2017 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Our 50 lb lab border collie mix lady has logged tens of thousand of miles at sea as a faithful, affectionate and devoted companion par excellence.

Posted by: Piberman | July 13, 2017 9:03 AM    Report this comment

We have the perfect Mini Aussie! Agile, playful, 22 pounds, trains easily to adapt, loves people, not a barker, tolerates being alone and hates lightening! We are full time on a 40 foot M.Y. this is a great breed!! A great companion!!

Posted by: Robbin | July 13, 2017 8:27 AM    Report this comment

Hello,
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: bbrown429@frontier.com | 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#.

Peyton

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: Umpqua Chief | 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: Al 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.

Rick

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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