As any cruiser who has dogs aboard knows, if your canine crew member can't use the doggie head, your travel plans can be very restricted. Not only can't you consider doing an overnight passage, but traveling the ICW can be a challenge when it comes to finding easy shore access for bodily relief.
When we read Jeff and Karen's article on how they taught their dogs to do their business aboard, it prompted us to share our experience with our dog Kirby. Our hope is that other cruisers lucky enough to have canine crew will find it helpful.
Kirby is a 9 year old golden retriever / black lab mix that we rescued when he was a puppy. He's been a wonderful, intelligent, happy-go-lucky member of our family. We took the plunge in Sept 2006 and sold our house and all (well, almost all) of our belongings, cars, etc. and moved aboard our very first boat, Bedazzle, a Lagoon 410 sailing catamaran that we bought out of charter. Kirby was 6.
Like most new things Kirby faces, he plowed right ahead and jumped on the new boat, excited that we were going to have a new experience (even though he didn't have a clue). All was well, until we fired up the diesels for the first time. We think Kirby thought the boat was about to blow up, because he jumped off and began barking like a madman for his family to get off. It took several trips for him to get comfortable and stop getting off the boat as soon as he heard the ignition alarm. Fortunately, once we were under way, he loved being at sea.
That first year, Kirby learned a lot of new things, most notably, getting in and out of the dinghy. Of course, he quickly associated the dinghy with relieving himself and being able to explore new places ashore, so he and the dinghy formed a nearly inseparable bond which holds to this day.
After being aboard our new home for only six months, we knew this was a long term adventure. Consequently, when an "offer we couldn't refuse" came along to trade up to a new Lagoon 420, we took it. We were already planning on spending a lot of money to make improvements to Bedazzle, so it was easy to rationalize acquiring Makeitso.
Kirby adapted most readily, as usual.
We tried the same tricks that Jeff and Karen used, including a few that Jeff probably won't admit to - ones reserved for the most isolated anchorages. For Kirby, we needed to try something different.
As we all know, dogs love to please and Kirby is no exception. He also knows what he wants, and as Popeye says "he wants what he wants"! One day it occurred to us to help him use his intelligence to get what he wants. He wants to pee and he wants to go in the dinghy.
For years, we'd told him "do your business" when we took him for walks. We repeatedly tried that on the portside trampoline out front, to no avail. Until the light bulb went on one day as we were preparing to lower the dinghy to go ashore. Kirby was in the habit of almost turning back flips when asked "do you want to go in the dinghy?" We simply connected the two behaviors one day.
"Kirby", says Rick, "do you want to go in the dinghy?" Jumping all around, shaking himself until he almost wrapped his tongue around his muzzle, his answer was a very unambiguous "YES! YOU BET! LET'S GO! (And hurry it up... I have to pee!)".
"OK", says Rick, "let's go do your business" as he headed toward the bow.
"Huh? Wait a minute, Dad. You're going the wrong way! Let's get in the dinghy so I can do my business and smell all those new things ashore!" says Kirby.
Rick walked back towards him a little and asked him again "do you want to go in the dinghy?" Again, his excitement was all too obvious.
"Duh! Can't you tell I'm so excited I'm about to pee myself?" says Kirby.
"That's what I'm counting on, Mr. K! Now come on and let's do your business!" says Rick.
"OK, ok, ok" says Kirby. And to our astonishment, he went out on the trampoline and hiked his leg like he'd been doing it all along, then ran back to the dinghy. "NOW can we get in the dinghy?"
Needless to say, we were lavish with our praise, despite being stunned by what had just happened. His reaction was almost "yeah, yeah... let's get in the dinghy!"
Hurdle "Number 1" was cleared. Hurdle "Number 2" proved nearly as easy, now that he understood. We just had to pick a calm day so the motion of the boat, together with the springiness of the trampoline didn't cause him to lose his balance. It worked beautifully.
We're now free. We can plan an overnight with little concern for Kirby's bladder. Same goes if we're in an anchorage that either doesn't have easy access, has snakes or alligators, or we're just too tired after a long travel day to take down the dinghy.
As any of our cruising friends can attest, there's a side effect to our method. We just have to be prepared for cleanup duty whenever
someone comes to visit in their dinghy. Kirby says, "hold on... be right back... have to pee, then I'm ready to go! Be right with you! Hold that dinghy!"