Go big or go home. That is a saying perhaps we took a bit too literally in selection of our four-legged friend. We love our Great Dane and we love our boat so when the opportunity arose to cruise full time as a family, we decided to take the entire family, including the Dane. Now a 51-foot sailing vessel sounds large enough to accommodate all five of us, but when you look at our setup, real estate is at a premium. So, we accepted when we set out on this adventure that we were willing to sacrifice some space and Ahem! cleanliness, for our beloved Quincy to come along and continue to be a part of our family. Despite her size however, Quincy like many Great Danes, really doesn’t need a ton of space as long as she gets to stretch her long, gangly legs once in a while. We’ve been blessed with how well she’s adapted to boat life and believe that as with anything, you have to make decisions that are best for your family and lifestyle for yourselves. Here is a rundown of considerations and lessons learned from our experience that we share for anyone considering taking their large size pooch on the open seas.
The same adage that we apply to our two-legged crewmembers also applies to our four-legged one: Keep all crewmembers on the boat. This is a simple, yet paramount principle, as unexpected recovery of a crewmember in a moving or stable vessel puts all crew at risk. We started by putting her in a lifevest for underway periods, however it was very bulky on her making navigating our narrow decks a bit more precarious and uncomfortable during long crossings. I wont tell you that I recommend against putting your pooch in a lifejacket; perhaps if we were more patient in the beginning it would become a constant condition of any underway period, but presently we rely on other safety features and have it as a standby for heavy sea states. Netting and lifelines extend along the perimeter of our boat with slots only to allow for the entry points on port and starboard sides. The one time this failed to keep her onboard was during a period of overexcitement (a grasp of the dinghy key indicating an upcoming ride to shore will do that) at the starboard entry point, which we had failed to clip together at the bottom. KERPLUUUNKKKKK! And we had our first dog overboard, thankfully at anchor. Within seconds we confirmed what we believed to be true….she CAN indeed swim! I jumped in with a floatation device that I propped under her belly for support until we could manage a way to get her onboard the swimstep. We now have a clip at the entry points that prevents both dog overboard at sea as well as escape attempts while on the dock. While we hope to not have to run through a dog overboard evolution again, we feel prepared for it with easily accessible flexible flotation devices to support her, a dog lifejacket with handles in place to hoist her onboard, and by reviewing body mechanics to keep rescuers safe while simultaneously getting her back onboard. We additionally keep her in a collar so that we have something to restrain her when we encounter huge pods of dolphins who surf in our bow wake or for the occasional dinghy or paddleboard visitor alongside the boat. Finally, our dog is a crew member too and at 130 lbs, we took her into account (as well as other crew members/guests) when we purchased our 8- man liferaft. We have meds for her and socks in our ditch bag should we need to abandon ship and have the ability to bring her with us. This is one of several tough decisions pet owners need to anticipate making, but we’d make the effort should we ever be in this situation – she deserves it.
Quincy can be an excitable dog and as such, there are safety considerations for the rest of the crew on board when she reaches this state. We know her triggers, but sometimes cannot anticipate the trigger early enough to intercede. Everyone onboard needs to be aware of her size, strength, and will when she believes she needs to protect us from whatever she interprets as a potential threat. We’ve learned not to place ourselves outboard of her when grabbing the leash for a shore excursion (one sure trigger) and prepare to have her go nuts while unfurling the sails or if she sees a sail luffing in the wind (another trigger) – all our feet bear the scars of standing in her way on prior episodes. Diversion, calming techniques, planning ahead, and good body mechanics all help keep our entire crew safe. If we have guests come aboard, we also brief them on what to expect in addition to her welcoming vocal antics that bellow across the anchorage. She is the mainstay of our security system onboard and if you present a noise or movement that alerts her, be prepared to be barked at. This goes for the tiny buzzing bees that enter the cockpit, pangas passing through the anchorage, official boats from the National Park Service, friends that dinghy up to chat or visit,or paddleboarders innocently paddling by – friend or foe, she doesn’t discriminate. Excessive barking we suppress in the interest of being good neighbors, but barking means something, and we don’t discourage her alerting us and doing her job.
Settling into the boat
I can’t deny that we had our dog in mind when we purchased the boat. Was the fact that there was a second entrance from the stern with easy sloping steps that could allow our dog easy access below decks a selling point….hmmmmm???? Sure it was. Even so, we had no idea how Quincy would do until she was onboard. I had nightmares the nights leading up to her coming to liveaboard back in San Diego where we stayed on the dock for a year prior to leaving. I could see her falling overboard or jumping below and breaking a leg. The reality though is that dogs aren’t stupid (although with Great Danes there are times that I wonder….). Just like any new home, they adapt if you introduce it to them in a calm and safe manner. We allowed her time to explore her new environment and encouraged her to take over the enclosed cockpit as her new home which she has sufficiently succeeded in doing. She is our security system among other things, so she spends most of her time in the cockpit or out on deck.
Veterinary Medicine considerations
Find an awesome vet prior to leaving. We lucked out at the last minute by being referred to Dr. Charlotte Frank of Paws4Shots by her dog day care, Camp Run-A-Mutt. She listened to what we were about to do and helped us plan for anticipated veterinary medical needs. For taking Quincy abroad starting in Mexico, but not knowing where to from there, we made sure to get her a USDA International Travel Certificate of Health. This is no longer required for travel to Mexico. Regardless, do your research before you leave to be sure you’ve met country requirements for bringing your pet along: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel/take-pet-to-foreign-country. There are also travel medicine considerations unique to the areas you plan to visit that a vet can help review with you. Find an awesome vet who you can talk with openly about planning for worst case scenarios, while hoping for the best. I also purchased Where There is No Pet Doctor by David LaVigne as our onboard veterinary medicine guide. Having a guide helps us to answer the simple question: “Do I need to change plans to get her to a vet or can I manage this onboard with what I have?” I additionally recommend researching local vets in the areas you plan to visit for immunizations and preventative health as well as unanticipated emergencies. Although Quincy had the 3-year rabies immunization just prior to departing, many countries do not recognize this and require an annual immunization.
Common medical concerns to consider up front were heat injury and sea sickness. Many areas we planned to travel are in the tropics or other warm (OK, hot) climates and we had to consider how to keep her cool. With her size, she may have more reserve, but we still don’t take heat exhaustion lightly. We have ice cubes, a spray bottle, fans, ample fresh water, and plenty of shade for cooling her down. Regarding motion sickness, if we have passages that involve excessive heeling or bashing, I have no problem giving her something for sea sickness and she eventually settles into her spot to get some rest. If we’re rolling along in a difficult sea state, I don’t need a large vomiting, anxious, dehydrated dog to complicate things.
So what about “doing her business”?
We have a potty mat placed on the bow which she hits 100% of the time with extreme accuracy….yeah right! We lived on the dock with Quincy onboard for about a year prior to leaving to cruise and until we left, she had never gone to the bathroom on the boat as she was always walked to a designated area to go potty. Knowing this would be a challenging, yet critical behavior to unlearn then relearn, we had her doggie daycare give us a used but washed plot of fake grass that had been at their establishment in order to create some familiarity in a completely unfamiliar location for her. We placed it on the bow as it was away from her feeding and living space, plus it was easily visible to us from the cockpit while underway. Within 24 hours of heading out on a 2 1/2-day passage, she began using it and we gave her extreme praise. We have extra mats onboard because despite constant cleaning, they wear out and point blank, get gross. When docked or near shore that she can set paws on, we make all efforts to take her to shore and avoid using her potty mat, plus we keep biodegradable bags with us for clean-up. She has adapted well to both situations thankfully, and we stow her potty mat while docked to signal to her that it is not time to use it with very few incidents – she’s vocal and lets us know when it’s time to go out!
Kenneling…and transportation to get there
Over the year,our boat has needed to be hauled out into the yard, we’ve desired nights out on the town as a family, and we’ve needed to travel home, so locating a reliable dogsitting service in larger ports was essential. While we found we could safely leave her on the boat at anchor for a night out, the same did not apply for marina time as we would undoubtedly have a large Marmaduke lurching down the dock towards us as we tried to sneak out without her. Kenneling or dogsitting was found through word of mouth, cruiser resource guides or from advertisements at the marinas. We did not obtain information through veterinarians, but believe this could be another resource for kenneling. Locating a kennel/private home that had availability for a large dog was step one, the next step was transportation – Quincy is not exactly a lap dog even though she thinks she is. At home we selected vehicles with our entire anticipated family in mind, here we rely on Uber, and there is no UberXL or negotiating a request to “transport a large dog the size of a small pony who will visibly shake your vehicle with her barking at people or dogs nearby”. We were fortunate to find various means of transportation for Quincy: Dog sitters who were willing to transport her for an additional fee, a for-hire driver who owned large dogs that we found through fellow cruisers or we rented our own vehicle. The time away on shore we believe was a win-win for Quincy as well as us as she could socialize off leash with other canines and some new feline friends, stretch her legs and enjoy some A/C while we traveled or took care of essential projects.
The expectation that we could keep her on her high-quality food throughout our travels was unrealistic, although you’d be impressed with how many bags we left with. It was easier to adapt her to food that was readily available down here and find a powdered nutritional supplement that was easy to order and store on board for the long run. Great Danes tend to have sensitive stomachs so we wanted to avoid any rapid changes in food and therefore, transitioned her slowly. We supplement much more with rice and chicken than we ever did at home and given her size and age, supplement with Dasequin regularly for joint support.
After being underway for a while, Quincy enjoys exploring her new surroundings ashore just as much as we do. She is an avid consumer of salt water if we don’t prevent it, however. We knew this before leaving based on several dog beach experiences, and know that if left unmanaged, the insult to her organs can be deadly. We make sure therefore, that she stays hydrated throughout the day and entice her to drink by throwing an occasional ice cube in her water – whatever works. We bring a water bottle each time we go to shore and have developed a system where one of us manages the dog with a water bottle onhand while the other secures the dinghy. The few times we were not as diligent about hydration, we saw immediate effects – she puked all over the cockpit which was likely a product of salt water intake, heat and sitting in a rolly anchorage. Needless to say, shore excursions with Quincy in the Mexico heat are short lived with few exceptions. She’ll even let us know she’s ready to go back by jumping in the dinghy. She will sprint like a freight train for about 100 yards on the beaches sometimes and other times just saunter through the water, cooling off her belly as she goes. We keep a watchful eye for stingrays, stone fish, or crabs that might be hidden in the sand as she’s a bit more oblivious to these hidden dangers. We also have learned to be careful in our own exploration of slippery rocks at low tide as she will inevitably try to follow us and we’d like to keep her joints intact.
Quincy has taken over the cockpit as her home which we encouraged as backwards as that may seem for an active sailing vessel. While underway, the helmsman or helmsmistress is undoubtedly in charge, but we do have to make some accommodations for the large 4-legged creature who will eventually want to sit EXACTLY where we are. We can kick her out of our seat, but when she is more relaxed, we are able to focus on our critical role at the helm – some flexibility is warranted here. On the plus side, we have ZERO chance of falling asleep on night watch between her odorific gas and frequent playing of musical chairs! Overnight crossings have to include plans to make sure we walk her forward to her potty mat preferably in calm seas during daylight hours. We maintain a strict rule that if we have to leave the cockpit at night, we’ll wake the other so as you can imagine, we really discourage after dark potty visits that put us all at risk.
National Parks and restricted areas = extended time on the boat
Many of the islands we wanted to visit were within national park boundaries where pets were not permitted ashore. While Quincy CAN last for days without hitting shore, we tried to balance the time in the islands (best beaches and best snorkeling), with ports where we could safely and legally get her to shore to stretch her legs and explore. COVID restrictions in 2020 that included beach closures further limited these excursions. When quarantine and “stay at home” orders reached their peak, we took ridiculous “walks” around the deck and played with her as best we could – she did fine.
Large animal encounters – open ocean and ashore
We are always on the lookout for animal encounters both ashore and from the ocean. Leashed dogs are a rarity down here, in fact dogs, cats, cows, iguanas, and burros roam rather freely down here. Aside from remote coves, we keep Quincy on a leash given her size and excitable temperment. Off leash in a free range day care environment, she does just fine with both canines and felines alike, but the unexpected animals we encounter while walking on a leash are just too much excitement. While onboard, she loves dolphin pods just as much as we do – wagging her tail and looking for them at the bow long after they were gone. She also was able to observe jumping rays and humpback whales, although they were a bit more distant. I will never forget the first time she actually heard a humpback whale’s prolonged exhale in the early morning stillness of Banderas Bay. She froze I believe at the realization that there was something much larger than dolphins in her neck of the woods! On the small side, we’ve had flying fish and jumping squid come aboard in the middle of night passages so if we don’t want her enjoying an extra treat, we need to be the first to survey the decks as the sun comes up in the morning – SURPRISE! Overall, it’s fun to observe her curiosity about this new underwater world. We try to approach the newness in a calm manner, although it is still difficult for me to contain my excitement at the sight of a humpback whale breeching in our vicinity!
The stuff no one wants to talk about
Responsibility for taking a dog to remote areas includes having discussions about quality of life for the dog and safety for the entire family. Specifically, what to do if her health deteriorates to an extreme point or we encounter a situation in which saving her risks the safety of the humans on board. I would argue that to some degree, the same discussions or at least considerations also occur onshore. Being a pet owner means thinking through these things prior to leaving and having a plan. With a large breed dog, beyond the emotional strain, the logistics can be complex. We have discussed with the children quality of life and that we place their safety above that of our dog. As such, we know that if the situation presents itself, we are grounded in these principles and will do what we need to given the circumstances.
In the end, we’re happy to have our family together and believe our Quincy too is happy with her sailboat home with everchanging backyards to explore – so many new scents!!! Back on shore we spent 14 hour days or longer away from her and came home utterly exhausted with little energy to match her super-charged levels of excitement. Now, we are all together and spend meaningful time with (mostly) cool breezes, deserted beaches, and amazing new pelagic animal encounters – what’s not to love?
We live on our sailboat full time with our Great Dane and two kids. The HelmsMistress writes every Weds that we have internet access. Wanna support our trip and this blog? FOLLOW US and tell your friends to FOLLOW US!