What could be more fun than taking your dog on a boat? The wind in their fur, interesting smells, and dolphins splashing nearby— there are so many experiences most pets love!

But there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before heading out for a day of fun on the water.

Taking Your Dog On A Boat? Ask These 5 Questions First | GoPetFriendly.com

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Did You Call Before Planning To Take Your Dog On A Boat?

Many outfitters, ferries, charter boats, and local cruises are pet-friendly. But not all.

Businesses change their policies without notice, so even if you see a company listed as pet-friendly, it’s worth checking again. And realize that some ferry companies consider themselves “pet-friendly” because they allow your pet to stay alone in your car during a crossing. Ask for clarification of any guidelines people traveling with pets should know.

Honey the boat dog on the Elizabeth City docks with Meander.
A boat is more like home when a pet is on board.

Does Your Pet Need A Life Jacket?

ALL pets should wear a life jacket if they are riding small watercraft like canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards (SUPs). I even know of two corgis who liked to ride on the running board of their people’s jet skis. And yes, you can bet they wear life jackets!

There are many reasons most pets should have a life jacket, but if you’re riding on a larger boat, you may not think a life jacket is necessary for your pet.

Honey the boat dog wears a life jacket underway.
When she’s wearing her life jacket underway, Honey rests easy. And so do we.

When we’re underway in our sailboat, Honey wears her life jacket in the cockpit. Unless, that is, the life jacket is more of a risk than her falling in the water.

On a still, hot day where we’re motoring in calm conditions, I won’t put Honey’s life jacket on her. She never leaves the security of the cockpit, and since she dislikes swimming we don’t have to worry about her jumping overboard. On those days, the possibility of her overheating is a greater concern than drowning. But if we’re sailing, or when conditions are even a little rough or changeable, or if it’s cold (yes, we’ve sailed in sub-freezing temperatures), Honey always wears her life jacket.

Cats or dogs who feel apprehensive in new settings may benefit from a life jacket as well. And dogs who are excitable around water and likely to jump in should wear a life jacket in any setting that is new to you. Even if they are strong swimmers, you’ll appreciate the sturdy handle on the back of a life jacket to help get them back to dry land.

Of course, if you’re vacationing in an unfamiliar place, you may not know about dangers caused by swirling currents, alligators, or other predators … or how your pup will react to the temptation of playful dolphins or sea lions. In those cases it’s always better for your pet to wear a life vest.

Dolphin swimming beside sailboat.
Honey loves when dolphins visit the boat. Luckily, she loves staying dry even more.

A special note for people traveling with cats: Most life jackets are still made for dogs. So you may need to experiment to find one that fits your cat. Paws Aboard makes a dog life jacket that comes in a wide range of sizes and several Amazon reviewers claim it worked for their cat.

Pets with Special Needs and Those that Can’t Swim

I once saw an aging Labrador fall off a dock because he couldn’t tell what his hind legs were doing. Luckily his people got him back quickly, but if the current had been stronger, he would have benefitted from the extra flotation of a life jacket while his people figured how how to get him back on board.

If your pet has special needs, or they are a breed that finds swimming difficult, they may benefit from a life jacket even on a large vessel like a ferry. The dock crew will be wearing life jackets as well so your pet won’t feel silly, and everyone will think your pet looks adorable in her special boat outfit!

How’s The Weather?

Shade is in short supply on the open water. Will your dog be comfortable in the cockpit of a kayak on a sunny day? And have you considered that many large boats, like ferries or local cruise boats, have metal decks? On a hot day, your pet could burn his paws walking a short distance. Protective boots may be necessary to protect your pup’s paws.

Remember, pets are often confined to outside decks on larger boats, so check the weather before making your plans to be sure it will be comfortable for the whole family.

Paddlers in personal watercraft also need to be especially wary of stormy conditions. You can’t win a race with a line squall in a canoe. And thunder, even if the storm remains distant, is frightening for many pets.

And, of course, bring fresh water and a bowl for your pet no matter what the weather.

Golden retriever shaded by umbrella in cockpit.
Sometimes the best you can do is make your own shade on a boat.


What Time Of Day Should You Go?

If you don’t spend time on the water, you also may not be aware of how tides can affect the ramps that connect docks to larger vessels.

You can search online for tide predictions for the area you’re visiting. At low tide, ramps will be much steeper than at high tide. And in places with high tidal ranges (online tide predictions will tell you how large the range is) like Georgia or Nova Scotia, the ramps at low tide may be extremely steep.

If your pet has little experience walking on metal ramps (some have open grates), a steep grade could make it even scarier. And a confident pup who can’t wait to get to the water might find herself taking a tumble.

Make your plans for the best time for everyone. You don’t want to buy tickets for a lovely cruise on the San Francisco Bay just to find your 120 pound Newfie won’t budge at the top of a steep ramp during low tide!

And remember that tides reverse about every six hours. So the conditions you saw arriving at a boat may not be the conditions you see when you leave it.

Low tide ramp at St Simons, Georgia.
This is what low tide looks like at St Simons Island in Georgia. It’s practically like mountain climbing.

Now that you’ve asked yourself smart questions, it’s time to get on the boat!

Where To Find Pet-Friendly Boating Fun?

Boating is one of the most pet-friendly activities out there. And you can have boating fun even if you don’t own a boat yourself. Search for the area you’re visiting on GoPetFriendly.com and look for boat rides, ferries, and outfitters under “attractions.”

Many state parks will rent kayaks and canoes. But not all are pet-friendly. Don’t assume – ask first.

You can also find outfitters who will give you everything you need to spend the day on the water, including lessons. Pet-friendly paddleboard outfitters appear to work especially hard at helping pets get familiar with the board before sending everyone out on the water.

Ferry websites usually post their pet policies, but smaller nature tour boat rides and small cruising companies often do not, so you may have to call.

The best way to find a great pet-friendly boat trip or charter is to go down to the waterfront when you arrive in a new place and check out the ticket booths and brochures along the docks. Ask the ticket seller if the captain will allow you to take your dog on the boat.

Also consider the type of cruise your pet would enjoy most. A deaf dog might be perfectly happy on a noisy airboat. But your cat who hates loud noises might prefer a peaceful cruise under sail.

Honey the boat dog being lifted off the sailboat.
We’re lucky Honey is a cuddly dog who does not mind being picked up. Because sometimes, that’s the safest way to get to shore.

What Do You Risk By Taking Your Pet On A Boat?

I’ve kayaked and canoed with all of my dogs. But a few years ago, I started thinking it would be fun to learn how to sail and to live on a boat. How would I know if Honey would enjoy sailing?

Luckily, I read about Doggone Sailing Charters in Provincetown, Massachusetts on GoPetFriendly.com. Captain Rory took us out with Honey on two different sails. She even had an extra life jacket when we forgot to bring Honey’s the second day!

Honey was happy to cuddle up in the cockpit under sail. And it showed me that I could start making plans to live on a sailboat full time.

Honey the boat dog relaxes at anchor in the Hampton River.
At the end of a long day’s traveling, nothing is more relaxing than watching the sun go down at anchor.

So one more thing you’ll need to ask yourself before taking your pet on a boat … what will you do if you love it so much you want to move aboard?!

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  • Thanks for sharing, Cindy. Alligators can be difficult to spot and they’re fast on land, too. We keep Ty and Buster well away from the water anywhere that alligators roam.

  • Category: Travel Tips / Tagged with: Boats and Ferries