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 email@example.com