Home Blog What Dog Breed is Best Suited for Cruising?

What Dog Breed is Best Suited for Cruising?

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Anyone who has owned a pet, know they provide more than just companionship. Animals sense things that humans can’t, and that includes the mood and health of the captain and crew. Perhaps that’s why cats and dogs and of course, parrots, have long been a part of seagoing life. After our beloved cat Jake recently died at the ripe old age of 21 years, I had time to reflect upon the vital role he played in our lives, especially during the pandemic. He had the wonderful sense of humor, and seemed to know just when someone in the family needed a snuggle. Few things are as soothing as a resonant purr.

Seagoing pets are not limited to dogs, cats, and birds. Over the years, I’ve encountered everything from rabbits (despite the sailors’ superstition regarding rabbits) to lizards to a rescued cuscus aboard, but, like the cuscus — whose diet restrictions and tendency to climb the mast during midnight watches proved problematic — dogs present unique challenges to the cruising sailor. Most breeds require room to roam and, unlike cats, who have a low center of gravity and can spring up the steepest companionway ladder, many favorite dog breeds have trouble climbing, and keeping their footing (paw-ing?) on a boat underway. On the plus side, dogs are typically more comfortable in the water than cats, snakes, birds — and, I presume, the tree-dwelling cuscus. (I’d add rabbit to the list of hydrophobic animals, but I’m afraid former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had an infamous brush with fast-paddling rabbit, would likely object.)

Despite their anatomical handicaps, some dog breeds are pretty well adapted to boats and the water. The dog lovers among our readers have helped us put together this list of relatively small dogs, good traveling dogs that like the water and are happy to curl up in tight spaces during passages. Here is a list of the most popular breeds that were recommended. 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. Its 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 travelers, 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. Johns water dog, became extinct in the 1980s. Teddy Roosevelt’s Chesapeake 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, Catahoula, 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 pets, tips on care, and what breeds they suggest. Please share your comments below. We’d love to see more pet pictures for our Facebook page. You can also email or send digital photos to me at practicalsailor@belvoir.com

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I would really love to see an article about the trials and tribulations associated with international port entry and dogs.
    I want one on my boat, but hear so many mixed option getting dogs onto land in foreign countries.
    Thanks!

  2. Yes, the perfect boat dog is problematic if not impossible to achieve.

    Anyway, great article on the subject and hopefully a followup soon including the suggestion above about international issues with a canine or any animal aboard.

    Thx.

  3. We had a Westie that was very adaptable, would go cruising with us on our 19’ cubby cabin sailboat for several days, and was easy to get on and off the boat into the dingy. She always wore her life jacket and could be carried like a purse up a steep ramp.

    I would think there are a number of 20 to 30 lb dogs that would do well on a boat. Our current 55 lb lab mix, not so much. Hard to get her in and out, and even on our current larger boat, she’s not really comfortable in the cockpit when we’re sailing.

  4. Anyone who takes an Irish Setter on a boat is in for exciting times to say the least. I had one on land who just burst with energy ALL THE TIME.

    • I sailed regularly with my fantastic Setter “Ross” he would stand at the bow as if he was the official lookout with his toes against the rail as the yacht heeled, to go about you just had to say “going about” he would duck for the sail to go past his head move over and place is other toes against the other rail. Never fell in and left everyone who sailed with us in admiration of his sailing skills. Loved him to bits and even now 20 years later still miss our trips together.

  5. I would suggest including the Boykin Spaniel on your list. A lesser known spaniel developed in the early 1900s in the US Carolinas as a small water retrieving hunting dog. They love to swim. Have webbed feet. Avid retrievers. Friendly. Good family dogs but not so fixated on family that they’re a threat to visitors. Easily trained both for housebreaking and commands. You are seeing more and more of them onboard boats in the Chesapeake Bay Area. Males 30-40 pounds, females 25-35 pounds. Overall a brown to liver color. No significant grooming needs. Everyone of them I’ve met was a great dog. I’m planning to get one myself. (P.S. – There was a recent article about a biologist using Boykins to find and retrieve Eastern Box turtles. They’re an index species that are good to study, but they’re hard for people to find. The Boykins have a soft mouth and are very good about finding these turtles and bringing them to the biologist. Who then releases them unharmed.)

  6. We had 2 Maltese on board our CT-65. They were GREAT watchdogs. When approaching a buoy they would run to the bow. Barking continuously as they worked their way aft along the gunwale to the stern. When the boat was safe, they came for their deserved reward-a treat!

  7. I am a dog lover and a canine woyld likely bemy choice as long as i could make having one onboard for extended periods of time. They require food storage space which can get to be a challenge.
    I am wondering why an Aquarium might be fun to have or a trearium might be a fun companion on the boat. Any thoughts?

  8. I second Brian Laux’ comments regarding the Boykin Spaniel. Having had Boykins since the 70’s, I have to admit I am a bit partial. They have a typical spaniel temperament, intelligent, eager to please and are a friendly breed. All of mine have been used primarily as waterfowl retrievers, but they also do a good job as upland flushers. They do need regular exercise though, especially when younger. I have 3 napping by my feet as I type this.

  9. Ana is a Shipperke/Lab mix of 40 #. Very comfortable on 41′ boat, lots of company, and perceptive about staying out of the way when those moments of panic occur. A Previous dog “Mandy” border collie mix, would always get in the way trying to help and shed horribly. Great dog ashore though and an unbelievable swimmer.

    In 25 years of cruising, we have mostly had a dog aboard. Never had a problem getting them into MX or any C.A. Country by boat. Conversly, some countries make it difficult to take them back and forth by air. Panama was the worst by air, but no prblem by boat. For our annual trek back to states, it was easier and chraper to fly in and out of Costa Rica with dog.
    Airlines make a difference also. While things change frequently, Alaska was the best to take a dog, United was the worst; all others in between.

    One other wonderful Dog was Perra Bonita, a heeler, german shepard mix. Most aware and confident dog I ever had. In port, Leave her on boat not tethered. She would get off to do business at nearest untamed brush and return. NO One was allowed to touch boat when I was not there, even close friends who petted her the day before. Pack of strays in PV, and Bahia Mentenchen, backed away from her and scattered when we were ashore. She would spot the leader, and prance right up to him and exchange credentials, and the pack would then defer to her. Kids could ride her, and non-dog people immediately trusted her. It was weird. Hispanic men who did not relate to dogs normally, would ask on the beach if they could throw the frisbee. She would try surfing, with strangers, but couldn’t stay on the board.
    Could have sold her many times over, but one year I left her with a friend for 6 months. Never got her back; would have been a gunfight. She became a bit of a legend in The Dalles. He liked bars, and would leave her in the back of his truck. People could pet her as they walked by, but could not reach into the truck without seeing very convincing teeth. If she was uncomfortable in the sun, she would get out of the truck, find the nearest shaded grass, or if none, get under the truck.

    I never saw her provoke a fight, and her confidence made other dogs not want to challenge her. She backed down an adult male pit bull with her stance and snarl when he started to get aggressive with a dog friend of hers. She intervened between them, when it looked like the pit might attack the other dog.

    Life with a dog is much more pleasant than without. The small inconveniences are far outweighed by the return of emotional support and companionship of someone who rarely judges you. They are God’s gift to sanity.

  10. Watching the boats sailing into a locale harbor at the end of a summers day I trained my field glasses on a sloop so I could watch the dog complete with life jacket walking along the side deck, as I adjusted the focus, I realized that it was not a dog at all, but a small pig.

  11. We had the smallest of the retriever breeds, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, with the longest breed name, as our boat beast. She was a great traveler at sea or on land. ‘Kelly’ would find a corner out of the way and just be. She was content to wait for shore leave where she could tear it up. Kelp beds were a constant amazement for her. Floating tennis balls? I believe she always wanted to make friends with seals as sea going versions of her land adapted species as she would give them special attention. Anyway she was easy peasy to sail with but of course each animal is an individual and your experience will be different Tollers tend to live longer than most of the other retriever breeds. Kelly went fourteen years before that sad day we know that will come the first day we bring pup home.

  12. I mentioned this in a prior PS article on pets. The Miniature Schnauzer is an excellent boat dog. They are tough, smart, a good size (not too small, but not too big for a boat). Hair, not fur, keeps the bilges and joints in the sole cleaner.

    One facet I didn’t see in your criteria was the dog in relationship to the boat and its owners. In other words, do you really want to lift an 85lb dog up a steep companionway? Do you want to trip over a retriever who is laying down in the salon on the way to the head at night? Sometimes the boat helps. For example, some boats have steep companionways that require you to lift the dog, while others have more stair-like companionways that the dogs can navigate themselves.

  13. My 6 month old Bichon is very at home on my sailboat. He’s been rocking about since~10 weeks old. Have him trained to “go” on Astroturf. When underway he chooses to sleep below at base of the mast. He also quickly learnt that after sailing there’s dock-tails!

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