For those of us who grew up watching the heroics of Lassie and the glorious pathos of the Littlest Hobo on our TVs, the humble dog is a beast worthy of great acclaim. The companionship, the comedy, the loyalty, the protection, the selfless service - it all comes together to create an animal that is not just great to have in the home, but ideal to have as a crew member on board your boat. However, finding the right dog can be a very tricky business.
The ideal animal needs to be quick to learn, eager to please, good with the family and of quite a settled and attentive nature. It also needs to be fond of the water, good at swimming and blessed with a coat that will put up with a regular dousing without getting smelly or waterlogged. Dogs that are especially large, energetic or unpredictable should be avoided in favour of small to medium sized dogs with a gentle (but not timid) temperament, plenty of intelligence and some proven water work on their CV. It might sound like a pretty tough brief but there are actually plenty of tailor-made options just waiting to be explored.
Labrador Retriever - popular sea dogs
The Labrador Retriever is a very popular and reliable choice of First Mate. It loves spending time with the family and is excellent with kids. It has a reputation for loyalty and steadfastness and it’s also a great fan of the water, which is natural, given that its original purpose was to retrieve fishing nets from the sea on the Newfoundland coast. The lab is a tremendously intelligent dog too, with an almost unparalleled capacity to respond to training. With a manageable size (25 to 34 kg), allied to an unparalleled CV in the provision of loyal and obedient service, it’s a top choice.
Portuguese Water Dog - a playful companion
The Portuguese Water Dog was originally bred as a fisherman’s labourer, to help with mundane chores and even herd fish into nets. As a playful companion with a shaggy waterproof coat and an insatiable desire for water, it is good with children, friendly towards other dogs and easy to train. It does tend to come with a slightly iffy haircut where the back end is clipped for swimming and the front end left bushy for thermal protection, but its compact size (16-25 kg), reliable health and boat-friendly traits make it a strong contender.
Cocker Spaniel - keen on the water
If you’re after an amenable dog that doesn’t give you much grief and enjoys a bit of family affection, you could do a lot worse than a Cocker Spaniel. Being a retriever of small game, he will launch happily into the water for a ‘play’ with the birds. He may have a tendency toward the odd inherited health issue so you need to check the parentage quite carefully but the cocker is usefully compact (11 to 15 kg), good in the cold, keen on the water and very easy to train.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever - a noble hound
Originally bred to retrieve waterfowl, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever is a fine option for the Skipper in search of a ‘real dog’. It’s a noble hound with great physical prowess. It can certainly be stubborn but it will gobble up any boating adventure you can throw at it and reward you with loyalty and obedience. It is basically a Labrador Retriever but physically tougher, psychologically more interesting and socially more exclusive. What more do you want?
Standard Poodle - a fine breed
Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but take time to look past the foppish topiary and you will discover a dog that makes a top choice for the water-lover. Famed for their intelligence, friendliness and love of swimming, the Miniature version is ideal for a small boat but if you have the space, the much less yappy Standard Poodle is a better bet. It’s a fine breed – calm, dependable, responsive to orders and built for the water. Only the size, the silly hair and the need for grooming might put you off.
Sea Dogs - ingenious alternatives
The merging of the breeds outlined above has produced some very fashionable hybrids and if we are able to trust the genetics, they ought to make equally good boat dogs. The Labradoodle and Cockerpoo are particular favourites and while they can often make sturdy, loyal, water-loving companions, they do need some early training to give their best.
For those of you with particularly big boats (we’re talking 50 feet and above), you would struggle to do any better than a Newfoundland. With a huge thick coat, massive strength and webbed feet designed specifically for swimming, they are used throughout the world as marine rescue dogs. Of course, they can often weigh as much as a fully-grown man, but in addition to their unparalleled love of the water and their ability to save a man overboard, they are fantastic with young children and endlessly patient, composed and stoic.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, those of you with small open boats might do well to look instead towards the world of terriers. If you can convince it to behave, to rein in the barking and to avoid snapping at ankles, just about any kind of terrier is well-equipped for boat life. A Jack Russell or a Border Terrier are particular favourites among boaters and if you pop it in a lifejacket, you get the unbeatable comedy of being able to carry it around like a hairy handbag.
Sea Dogs - Summary
If the dogs outlined above leave you cold, then take a look at Purina. It has a fantastic ‘Pet Selector’ tool that allows you to plug in your required traits and narrow down a shortlist that will really match your lifestyle. It’s a very easy gadget to use and better still, once you have your ideal boat dog, you can equip it with an arsenal of marine accessories, from lifejackets to re-boarding ladders, lights and even collar-mounted transponders. Brilliant…
And once you've found the right four-legged friend, take a moment to read our piece on taking a dog aboard your boat.