Sunday, June 24, 2012

All That Dog Gear

After 10 years of cruising with 3 different dogs you either learn a thing or two or you go crazy - or maybe a bit of both. We are frequently asked how we handle two large dogs on a boat, both by cruisers with a dog, ones contemplating cruising with a dog, and those who are just curious.

While living this life with our canine crew certainly has its challenges, it is made easier by having the right gear onboard. So we asked Dyna and Dylan what are the items they wouldn't want to be without on aCappella. Note, neither Dyna nor Dylan are acting as paid spokesdogs. Although they both would look terrific on TV or in an ad...

Here is their list of the ten+ best dog items to have onboard.

1.  Pee Mat

The most frequent question and the one boaters want to know the most about is - where do they "go"? We have an article on the ActiveCaptain website that explains the technique we've developed to train three different dogs for doing all of their business onboard. We even trained Dyna at 9 years old so there's no excuses about old dogs and new tricks. Key to our technique is a marker for their spot.

We love our plastic, fake grass doormat. It's easy to clean and store, can be moved about as needed, and well, was cheap. We keep two mats onboard - one spare as Dylan is so well trained he refuses to go unless the mat is out and right side up. About a year ago we began getting questions about where to find such mats. It seems these slightly tacky doormats have fallen out of favor.

We purchased our last one at the Ace Hardware in Callao, VA and a recent visit showed they still carry them for $9.99. I've looked at Home Depot, Lowes, Target, even Walmart and have not found them there. A search on the web turned up one through Amazon at Ace Hardware Direct for about $11.

We removed the plastic flower but that's up to you.

2.  Harnesses

Our number one priority onboard is safety. Owning dogs who's genetic makeup compels them to seek the water meant having a way to retrieve them. Trust me if you haven't tried it, hauling a 70 pound wet dog back into the dinghy can be a challenge. So anytime a boat is underway the dogs are in their harnesses.

Having used numerous ones over the years, we know that not all harnesses are created equal. The most important thing to look for is one that is made up of two circles of webbing - one that goes around the neck and the other behind the front legs and around the chest - connected top and bottom by straps. This offers additional support underneath making lifting easier for you and better for the dog.

We have found in recent years that most harnesses have moved to loops that simply surround the front legs without the straps. Not only is lifting awkward as you are basically pulling them in by their head, I believe it puts far too much stress on their shoulder joints.

Our latest find was a new Kong harness with an added loop on the top. Previously we have simply used the back strap to grab and pull them in which works fine. We like it because it gives a larger target to grab and could be easily snagged with a boat hook if needed.

Each of our canine crew members, past and present, have been pulled back into the dinghy using their harnesses. It is easy for either one of us to do, but we end up getting soaking wet. We have never needed to retrieve a dog from the big boat. This is partly good fortune and partly a strict rule that no dog is permitted to enter the water from aCappella. That means no swimming from the swim platform, ever. Our dogs know that swimming happens through the dinghy. There have been instances where the dinghy was tied up along the main boat and a dog jumped into the dinghy and into the water. It's hard to get upset about that. We've learned to keep the doors closed so it can't happen.

Update, December 2014:  We discovered a flaw in using the Kong Harness during an emergency overboard situation. When the harness was immersed in the water for about 30 minutes the webbing stretched so that the dog was at risk of falling out of the harness during lifting. You can see the full details in the following blog entries. We are investigating other options and will report our findings in a future entry.

3. Double Dog Leash

If you've followed our blog for some time then you have read about our good friend Larry. For anything boats, boating, or even vaguely involving the water, Larry knows all. One area he is particularly skilled at is making lines. They're almost works of art.

One day Jeff was describing the problem of being able to quickly tie-up the dogs in a variety of situations. We briefly had a leash with a plastic clip setup where we could clip it around a leg or post but the flimsy plastic didn't hold up to the dogs pulling and eventually broke.

So a few years ago Larry brought me the best birthday present he possibly could have. It was two leashes fashioned out of boat line with brass clips on either end and a brass ring that floats on the leash. Perfect! Now we can quickly and securely attach their leashes to a park bench, a fence post, and yes, even the stanchion on the dinghy. Plus it looks terrific - very nautical.

At this year's Annapolis Boat Show we ran across a guy who was making and selling similar leashes. So you should be able to find one if you're not lucky enough to have Larry as a friend.

4. Life-Vests

With safety as the most important criteria onboard it is a requirement to have good quality life-vests onboard for the whole crew. We really didn't like the cheap yellow ones you see everywhere with the float material on the back and straps that attach underneath, for a few reasons. First, our first lab Duke was able to chew through all the straps in the time it took me to grab and tie-off the spring line on our lobster boat. But even if your dog isn't the king of chewing I began to question how safe they actually where given all the floatation was on their back pretty much on level with their heads.

So I turned to the Internet and read hundreds of reviews. At the time nothing even came close to the vest from RuffWear. The flotation material wraps down around their sides with a portion that wraps under their neck keeping their head above water. There are no thin straps to quickly chew through and it has a large sturdy holding strap across the top.

If you're wondering, it's not a bad picture, Dylan really does not like wearing it and gives that sad-dog look but hey, I'm the mom. We do not keep them in the vest all the time. I know many people do but given their skills in the water we don't feel it's worth the "torture." But the rule is, if conditions are such that we break out our life-vests, they get theirs too. Captain's orders!

5.  Pet-Step

We discovered the Pet-Step after our first year of cruising with our beloved Tucker. We needed something to help us get a 75 pound dog off the boat on fixed docks. We've successfully used it in a variety of situations, from the transom door, the swim platform, when the docks where high and when they are low. The first time Dylan saw it he had to be bribed to use it. Of course, Dyna just charged ahead.

Last year Dyna nearly ended up between the dock and the boat in Charleston when the front paws made it to the dock but the back ones missed. Fortunately she was wearing her harness and her dad was a good catch. So now we even use the ramp on floating docks. And when we're not using it, it folds in half and easily stores in the lazarette.

6.  Dog Nest

It's important for your canine crew to have a spot that's theirs - where they feel safe and secure. For Dyna that's her nest bed. Unless it is very hot this is typically where you will find her when we are underway. And in a pinch it can even hold two crew members.

7.  Soggy Doggy

This is a recent find from last fall. I can't remember who told me about it but it's terrific.

Soggy Doggy was developed by a women who was tired of wet, muddy paw prints left throughout her house. It's made of microfiber - still not sure what that stuff is - and has about a billion tiny fingers that are designed to grab the water and muck off their paws as they walk across it. We have two, one at the cockpit door and one at the starboard side pilothouse door which they use to go out on the bow. They work quite well, although I still have an old towel to wipe paws on really bad days. It's also good for getting the last bit of dust, sand, or water off of the human crew's feet.

Dyna would also like to add that it can make a great pillow if properly manipulated.

8.  Storage Box

Most people who see us with the dogs want to know how two large dogs can possibly fit on a boat. Honestly, fitting the dogs is not the problem, it's all the dog stuff that takes the space. We had a growing pile of collars, harnesses, leashes, old towels, poo-bags, throw toys, and much more by the cockpit door. It looked bad, was hard to find what we needed, and threaten to become a tripping hazard.

So I found this plastic box that we placed in the cockpit with room for us to store and organize all of our outdoor doggie paraphernalia.  

As an added benefit, we now have a convenient bench to sit on when removing or putting on shoes.

9.  First Aid Kit

A major concern for us, especially with an old dog, is having a medical problem when we might be days from a vet. We are fortunate to have two of the best veterinarians on the planet overseeing our precious crew and over the years we have worked through a set of medications and instruments we carry with us.

They are stored in a sealable plastic shoebox and full instructions for each item are taped to the lid. These include what each is used for, dosages, timing, etc. I have even included something descriptive about the tablets - color, shape, distinguishing imprints. This was done after moisture got inside the box and removed all the writing from several labels. I also now seal each container in a ziplock bag and put the medication name on a piece of paper in the bag.

I know many of you will want to know a list of what we carry but I am intentionally not including this as it is really individual to your pet and should be worked out with your veterinarian. Each summer when we return to our homeport in Maine we schedule their annual checkup and go over all of our medications. We discuss any new conditions. For example, Dylan had a serious allergic reaction a couple years ago so now we carry steroids. You have to be careful with dosages - dogs are not just small people and a child's dosage is rarely the right amount to give. Make sure your vet works with you on this and write it all down at the place where the medications are stored.

Be realistic about what you can and can't do. Jeff has an advanced EMS license and has intubated people. So our vet showed him how to intubate a dog and provided the equipment should Dyna's breathing become critical. We even carry a canister of pure oxygen for emergency use that attaches to all dog emergency gear.  We carry syringes for giving sedatives in major emergency situations. Only carry equipment and drugs that you know how to administer.

Having these things onboard gives us peace of mind.

10.  Step Stool

This one is boat dependent. We have a high freeboard all around the boat. It's one of the things we loved as it meant added safety for the whole crew, both human and canine. But Labs are friendly, curious dogs and we found them continually jumping their paws up onto the teak caprail to greet visitors or just to see out.

I found that an inexpensive plastic one-step stool provided just the perfect height. By placing their front paws on the stool they can see over the caprail, greet visitors, and receive their much deserved attention. And with two stools, they can setup the perfect picture captured by our good cruising buddy Robin Roberts.

11.  Dog Food Websites

OK, so this last one isn't officially an item but it's something I'm not sure I could live without. If you are new to our blog then you may not realize how very special,... um, coddled,... oh alright, spoiled our canine crew is. Do not even imagine that any ordinary dog food could pass through those precious lips. Disgusting and foul things off the street, yes, but ordinary dog food, no.

The food they eat is not available at a local grocery store or Walmart. So I use a variety of online stores to order their food and have it shipped to marinas. In general I find the prices about the same as the specialty shops and if you signup for their email specials you can usually eliminate or reduce the shipping costs. These are ones at I have used and like:

Life onboard without our canine crew is just not an option for us. Yes, it takes more effort but pales in comparison to the rewards. The items above have made it easier to keep the crew safe, close, and happy.


Dave Gibson said...

Great info! On behalf of Chevy, Ruby, and now Olivia, thanks!

Beebopp said...

Ditto!!! What a great write up. Sweeney and I thank you! I love this site and Active Captain.

TonyM-Mainship-trawler said...

Great list! Wish we had read it before our Loop adventure with Buddy...would have made a great trip even better..keep up your invaluable efforts...many of us gain from your info...

June said...

Thank you very much! We are planning our cruising adventure to begin in a few months. Of course our 10 year old lab (with aching hips and knees) will join us. I have a question - Do you have a solution for getting our 120 pound big boy down the companionway steps of our monohull sailboat?

MV Red Head said...


120 is definitely one bog boy! You are the second person this week who has ask us this question...

Our 14 year old girl weighs only 64 pounds and Jeff has started carrying her below. For one that big you will need some help. A ramp could work but the question is do you have the space to make the slope such that he could get down. Google Pet Step, it's the brand we use to get them off the boat. Ours folds in half making it easy to store. They make a variety of products so one might work.

My other suggestion would be some sort of pulley with a harness. A fellow boater wrote an article we have on our website where they used their davit to get their dog into the dinghy. You can find it here:

It's a different problem but an example of using some ingenuity...

Finally, depending on how steep they are and how strong you feel, you might consider two harnesses with each of you lifting half the weight. We did this with our first Lab who weighed (only) 80 some pounds when he could no longer make it up the stairs in our 170 year old house. I took two towels, made armholes in one for his front, put handholds on them with the second towel just in front of his hind legs. We each grabbed a towel and carried him.

Good luck.


SueSails2 said...

We have our 6 year old pekingese with us on our first sailing trip from CT to FL and he gets scared and shaky when it gets rough. Do you have any suggestions to overcome this situation or will he grow accustomed the more cruising time he gets?

MV Red Head said...


Make sure he has a secure place he can go. He may get better with time but that's hard to say. If it's a real problem talk to your vet. Our previous Lab would get seasick and the vet gave us the proper dose of Bonine to give him which would settle him down. Good Luck!! Karen

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the post. This was exactly the entry I was looking for. My husband and Vizsla are moving onto a liveaboard.


Mfewell said...

Thank you for the wonderful information. I'll be doing an Atlantic crossing with my 40 pound mixed breed. I have beem looking at the Ruffwear belaying harness and wonder how you would compare that to the harness you describe. I already have the Ruffwear life vest for my guy and love the quality. Thanks vor your perspective.

Mfewell said...

Thank you for the wonderful information. I'll be doing an Atlantic crossing with my 40 pound mixed breed. I have beem looking at the Ruffwear belaying harness and wonder how you would compare that to the harness you describe. I already have the Ruffwear life vest for my guy and love the quality. Thanks for your perspective.

MV Red Head said...


I am not familiar with that harness so could not say. The RuffWear vest is far better than anything else we have used, so if this is the same quality it should be great...

Safe Travels!!