Cruising With Big Dogs On A Sailboat

Cruising With Big Dogs On A Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Beth York

June 15, 2022

Pets have been an important part of sailors' nautical experience for centuries. They provide comfort and companionship, endless loyalty and love.

Ensure that your furry best friend will enjoy life aboard as much as you do by following this complete guide for cruising with big dogs.

Whether you have a big dog or a small dog, the gear you need is basically the same. Life jackets are a must, as well as a few comfort items. If you can make sure your dog is safe and happy then you will be happy, too. In this article we will talk about which gear to bring along to ensure happy cruising for all aboard.

There are a plethora of boating products on the market for pet owners to peruse. A few are essential while others are completely optional. While most dogs love boating as much as people do, providing your pup with the necessary essentials will ensure their boating happiness.  As long as you consider their level of comfort to be as important as your own, your big dog will find happiness on board your sailboat.

I personally cruise with my two dogs on board everywhere I go. My large dog is 60lbs and my small dog is about 12 lbs but they both need the same gear to safely and happily live aboard our sailboat.  In this article I'll explain how I potty trained my dogs to go to the bathroom on deck, how they have done during difficult crossings and rough weather, as well as what gear is necessary for their comfort and safety.


Table of contents

Prepping Your Boat For Rover

Before bringing your dog on board your boat, there are several additions that will increase their happiness while cruising.

Increasing Traction

Walk around your boat and look for areas that may be slip hazards for your dog. Areas that do not have non-skid may be difficult for your dog to walk on. Putting down thin carpet or a non-slip covering will give your dog better grip and therefore greater security while on your boat. Nothing can incite panic in a dog as quickly as a loss of solid footing.

On my boat, I keep a thin piece of carpet with a non-slip rubber backing at the base of my companionway stairs. This way my dog is able to get a good grip before ascending the companionway stairs. It also protects my main salon floor from getting scratched by her nails.

Swim Platforms and Swim Ladders

The swim platform and swim ladder on boats are notoriously difficult for dogs to get a grip on.  Adding a thin rubber mat to your swim platform can greatly increase your dog's ability to exit the water.

Growing up sailing the Great Lakes, my family had a 100 lb black lab named Darth that cruised with us. He loved to swim, as labs always do, but he struggled to climb out on our swim ladder. My mom sewed a canvas cover for the swim ladder which allowed our dog to get a grip on it. I recommend adding a fabric cover to your swim ladder or perhaps adhesive non-skid to the rungs of your ladder to help your dog climb unassisted out of the water.

If your pup is unable to climb a swim ladder then you may want to consider a product like the Paws Aboard to assist.


It attaches to your swim ladder and folds up for easy storage.

Don't Forget Their Nails

Most dogs don't enjoy getting their nails clipped. Trying to clip my dog's nails often turns into some strange type of nail clipping wrestling match. However, keeping your dog's nails short greatly improves their traction as their pads are able to more effectively grip with the nails out of the way.

Not only do short nails improve the grip of your dog's pads, it also decreases the noise they make as they walk around on deck. You'll know it's time to trim your dog's nails by the clickety clack that's heard as they pace around on deck above you.

Managing The Hair

If you're so fortunate as to have a non-shedding dog then you can skip this section.  My dogs, however, shed. They shed a lot. All the time. So it's important for me to control their excess hair before it becomes a problem.


Brushing your dogs regularly is an important part of maintaining a relatively hair-free boat. Anyone who has had a dog on board their boat knows that there is no such thing as a "hair-free boat". It gets everywhere. Seriously, everywhere. You'll want to be sure to empty your scupper drains screens, clean under your cockpit cushions, and even in your bilge. You don't want your bilge pump clogging up from your dog's shedding.

I definitely recommend brushing your dog on land, if at all possible. But if you must brush them on your boat make sure to do so on the downwind side of your vessel for obvious reasons.


I strongly recommend that you get a powerful vacuum to use on your sailboat. I have tried managing my dog's hair using only a hand broom and trust me, it's nearly impossible. Because like I said earlier, it gets everywhere.

The vacuum that I currently use is a handheld rechargeable vacuum from MooSoo.


My MooSoo does a fantastic job of cleaning up the dog hair on my boat. Plus, it's very simple to use. It has a small canister with a double filtration system that is easy to empty and clean. It comes with both 12 volt and 120 volt charging cables. I highly recommend it to anyone with a small to medium size boat. Moosoo does make a larger version of my vacuum, as well.

Where's The Bathroom?

Within a few hours of boarding your boat for the first time, your dog is bound to wonder "where's the bathroom?". In order to avoid unfortunate accidents, prepare ahead of time to help your furry friend know where to "go".

The first time my big dog, Tosha, went cruising with me, it took her three days before she finally went number two.  She was pretty uncomfortable during that time but I knew that if I took her to shore, it would only lengthen her training process.

So firstly, I want to tell you to be patient with your dog.  It may take them more time than either of you are comfortable with before they unload in the location of your choice.

To help your dog find their bathroom, take a fake grass mat or perhaps an old rug, and get them to pee on it.  You might feel silly following them around the yard trying to stick something between their legs while they're peeing but it will be worth your while.

Getting the scent of their urine in a particular spot on your boat will give them the green light to go ahead and potty.

When I first started cruising with my dogs I had a grass mat attached in a boot tray and secured to my fore deck. And, yes, I followed them around the yard until the mat was sufficiently scented. I definitely got a few glances from the neighbors during that endeavor. Anyway, we found the boot tray to be cumbersome and lacked traction on deck. We chucked it early on. The grass mat worked well until it met its end in the briny deep.

So now they go directly on the deck and I clean it up as quickly as possible. I keep a bottle of spray cleaner and a scrub brush handy and after a few buckets of water and a little scrubbing the deck is clean. This method might not work for everyone but it works great on my vessel.

Training your dog to relieve themselves on deck allows you to cruise in areas where there isn't shore access or where dogs aren't allowed on shore.

The Necessities For Dog Safety

One major difference between having a large dog on board versus a small dog is successfully retrieving them from the water when they fall in.  And if you spend enough time on the water, they will fall in.  Having a strong handle on the back of your dog's life jacket is extremely important when pulling them out of the water.  

There is a huge range in price and quality of dog life jackets. There are jackets that have built-in handles on the back, jackets that inflate when the dog is submerged in water, jackets covered in reflective material, some that support the dogs head while swimming and a wide range of types and sizes of buckles and belts.

Doing your research ahead of time can save you money and stress when it comes to the safety of your dog on board your sailboat.

Life Jackets For Big Dogs

There are several important features to consider when purchasing a life jacket for your dog.

  • Very strong, durable handles on the back of the jacket
  • Bright colors that will increase your pet's visibility in the water
  • Reflective fabric that will improve your dog's visibility at night
  • Wide straps and strong buckles to ensure your dog's comfort while wearing their life jacket
  • D-ring attachments for using your dog's life jacket as a harness in rough conditions

Check out these brands:

  1. Paws Aboard makes great life jackets for large dogs. Their extra large size which sells on Amazon for $39.95.

Paws Aboard jackets also come in a variety of bright colors and have wide reflective strips running down the sides. It's extremely important to have reflective material on your dog's life jacket as rescuing a dog at night can become impossible without it.

  1. Kurgo Surf N' Turf dog life jacket is another great option.  It doubles as a harness thanks to the two D rings and has reflective strips for night visibility.

The Kurgo jacket also has a larger  chest opening which improves your dogs mobility while jacketed.

What I love about this jacket are the double rescue straps on the back. Hefting a big wet dog out of the water can be far more difficult than you might think and having two handles to grab onto will greatly increase the success of rescuing your dog.

When using your dog's life jacket as a harness in rough conditions, be sure to have a strong lanyard to attach your dog to your boat. This will prevent your dog from falling overboard.

There are a number of life jacket options available to you in this age of online shopping. Just be sure that your choice includes all the important features listed above.

When my family crossed from Florida to the Bahamas last year we encountered some rough conditions but luckily we were prepared. We had our dogs in their life jackets with lanyards connected to the boat.

Despite the crossing being a long and nasty one, we all had great peace of mind knowing that our dogs, as well as ourselves, were safe and secured to our vessel.


Keeping your pup hydrated is extremely important on board your sailboat. One big difference from being at home is that your boat will be moving and if you keep your dog's water in an open dish, it will spill out onto the floor.  So what are your options?

  • My favorite water container on board our boat is our Waterboy by Lixit. It holds three quarts of water and has a great no spill design.  The handle makes it easy to fill and carry around.

The plastic does weaken in the sun so it's best to keep this dog water bowl in the shade. Also, be sure to wash the inside of this container every so often to avoid buildup of the green mold that tends to grow inside.

  • My second favorite water bowl is our Lumoleaf. Lumoleaf makes a wonderful no spill water bowl for dogs. It holds 35 oz of water and is easily refillable. The non-slip feet are a great advantage on a boat.

Green mold grows on the inside of the bowl if it does not get cleaned regularly so be sure to take this water bowl apart every few fills to clean it's interior.

Sun Protection

Believe it or not, your dog can get a sunburn just like you can. But don't worry, there are a number of ways to protect your dog from the sun. There are non-toxic sunscreens, sun shirts, and sunglasses.

Shade is always the best option regarding sun protection so whenever possible provide your pup with a shady place to hang out.


All dog's noses are susceptible to burning. In fact, any exposed skin can get burned.  So, if your dog has thinning hair, scars, or any area where their skin is not protected by hair, be sure to apply sunscreen.

This is a great product to protect your pooches nose while on the water.

Epi-pet was developed by veterinarians and is safe and effective for protecting your dog in the sun. It runs about $18 online and can be used on your dog's nose, tips of its ears, inside of the ears, and anywhere that may need some sun protection. It's roughly equivalent to 30spf.

There are all natural options for sunscreen, as well. Coconut oil has an SPF of about 5 and could be used in areas that the dog won't be able to lick. Coconut oil would need to be reapplied often due to its low SPF.  

Pressed carrot seed oil has an SPF of 40 and is a great option as an all-natural sunscreen as long as your dog doesn't lick it off.  Carrot seed oil is quite pricey. However, it redeems itself with many other health benefits both for your dog and yourself. I recommend checking it out.

Doggie Cover-Ups

If canine sunscreen isn't a good option for you and your pup, perhaps a sun shirt and sunglasses would be a better solution to keeping your dog out of the sun.  Be sure to give them a chance to get used to wearing their sun gear before sun exposure.

Sun Shirts

There are a number of fashionable options to keep your dog protected while in the sun. Be sure to select an option that has thin, stretchy, breathable, light colored fabric. This will keep your dog cool and comfortable while also staying protected from the sun.

Playapup makes a number of really nice sun shirts for dogs. They are SPF50 so they will keep your pup safe and cool in the sunshine.



I don't know why but I think dogs wearing sunglasses are adorable. They always look so cool. Not only do sunglasses increase your dog's cool factor, they also protect the sensitive skin around your dog's eyes.

Many dogs have difficulty seeing in bright light and they may also be bothered by having strong wind in their eyes. Be sure to choose sunglasses that provide UV protection for your dog's precious vision.

Check out these awesome sun goggles.  They provide wind, spray, sun and UV protection for your dog's eyes.


There are many different shapes and styles of sunglasses for your dog to choose from. You'll just have to see what's out there and make the right choice for your furry friend.

My dogs, unfortunately, are stinkers and have not been willing to put up with wearing sunglasses no matter how cool their mom thinks they look.

Cruising With Big Dogs On A Sailboat
Beth York

Beth York

Beth lives on board her 1983 30ft S2 sailboat with her husband, 6 year-old son, and her two fur babies. She has been sailing and boating for most of her life. Beth has been blessed to experience cruising in the Great Lakes, the Bahamas, and in Alaska. She loves to travel and adores living on her tiny boat with her family.

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