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Sea Dogs: The Best Boat Breeds

By: Alex Lieber

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In sailor slang, a salty dog is a person with years of experience and proven seamanship skills. Now, a salty dog can refer to a canine with a sixth sense of the sea.

The times, they are a-changing. Dogs are more welcome on boats than ever before. Some boat shows even feature dog competitions to see which pooch shows the best form. The annual Seattle Boat Show, for instance, puts dogs through the paces to see who wins the title "Super Boat Dog."

These competitions test crucial water skills: fetching a personal flotation device from a jumbled stack of boating equipment; swimming out to dinghies and dragging them back to a boat; and hauling a bucket of nautical supplies to the owner. (Some dogs were also trained to bring a beer to the owner and their spouse across a heaving boat, without spilling a drop.)

But which breeds are the best for boats? Naturally, breeds specifically bred for the water work best. These breeds are generally medium-sized, have water-resistant coats and webbing between their toes. Breeds such as these include Labrador and golden retrievers. These dogs are excellent swimmers, having been bred to retrieve prey from the water. However, they are susceptible to hip dysplasia, which could make swimming difficult, if not impossible.

Newfoundlands are also great water dogs. They often accompany fishermen and are very popular with search and rescue teams. They have shown extraordinary courage during trying times.

And, of course, there is the famous Portuguese water dog. For centuries, this dog was a constant companion of Portuguese fishermen. Very athletic and active, the dog is definitely designed for the outdoor-type. In fact, the Portuguese Navy routinely employs the breed on its ships.

See Spot Swim

Don't discount the traditional "landlubber" breeds; many individual dogs are intrepid enough to learn the ways of the sea. There are some things to consider, however, before you bring any dog out on the boat:

  • Make sure you have the proper safety devices, including a doggie flotation device. Even if your dog is an excellent swimmer, he can get tired quickly, or might suffer an injury falling overboard. There are many excellent safety vests designed just for dogs. The vest should be comfortable for him, and made in a bright, easy-to-see color.

    It is very important that your dog is comfortable in the vest, so be sure to try it on before taking him out on the boat. If he struggles or tries to chew his way out of a vest, select another type. Your dog should float in a horizontal position, and there should be handles in the middle of the back to make picking your dog out of the water easier.

  • All dogs need time to get their sea legs. Even water-bred dogs need time to adjust to a rolling and pitching deck. They can also get seasick, like any person.

  • The sun and the heat can be more intense on the open water. Dogs get overheated more quickly than people, and on the water this is especially true. If it is a particularly hot day, consider leaving him home, or make provisions to cool him off periodically. Dogs can also get sunburned. To learn how to prevent heatstroke or sunburns, see Keeping Your Dog Cool in the Summer.

  • Dogs with short legs, like dachshunds, or those with low body fat, such as Dobermans and boxers, will have trouble swimming. Also keep in mind the age of your dog; older dogs will tire more easily.

    Always keep food and fresh water for your dog on the boat, and don't forget that a dog needs the opportunity to relieve himself. One last point: it is a good idea to practice dog drills to familiarize your canine and your human shipmates on what to do in an emergency.

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