The Salty Dog’s Life: Boating Safety with Dogs

If ever there was a man’s best friend, it was Drake. Faithful and loyal, the golden retriever was a high-energy companion that would follow my husband to the ends of the earth. His devotion was probably best displayed one December afternoon when we were picnicking on one of the many ‘boat only’ islands that we frequent throughout the year. Mark, my husband, decided to take our little jon boat exploring further up the creek. Our two goldens were on patrol roaming the island while the rest of us relaxed on the beach. Out of nowhere, Drake splashed into the water and after Mark. It seemed harmless until minutes later my husband was forced to turn around to scoop his first mate out of the chilly winter water.
As fun and relaxing as boating can be, it’s not carefree. Knowing our dog, we could have anticipated Drake’s reaction to my husband’s joyride. It’s a funny story to tell now, but the risks were real: the potential for exhaustion or the dangers of propellers and other boats.

Boaters should always be prepared by stowing anchors and securing dog life vests and leashes to protect their pups. If you’re thinking of boating with your dog, pack your emergency kit and consider some of these cautionary tales from local boaters before shoving off.

All Aboard

An iconic image of a boat dog shows the happy pup on the bow, ears flapping in the wind as the vessel cruises through the water. This is also the posterchild of what not to do with dogs on a boat. Channels are marked alerting boaters to hazards under the surface, but as you move into the smaller creeks, there are no such indicators. An unexpected hit on a sandbar or oyster bank can cause a sudden stop, sending everything in the boat forward, including a bow-riding pooch. A wake from a passing boat or even a misstep from a not-so surefooted pet could call for a rescue. If your dog won’t stay safely in the boat, a leash is a good idea, as Blake Young discovered one summer.

Hank, a lab rescue from Charleston Animal Society, has been boating with Young since he was three months old. One afternoon, Young trawled the boat over to the marsh for a closer look. Hank unfortunately took the dark shore as a safe place to explore and jumped in only to immediately sink up to his neck. “If you have a lot of people on the boat, a mud-covered dog is not a lot of fun,” Young warns. “Just try to imagine pulling a 75-pound dog out of the pluff mud.” Hank was lucky to only have a few minor oyster cuts.

Keleigh Porter thought for sure her German Short-Haired Pointer would love the boat, but she never predicted the level of anxiety six-month-old Abby would have. The vessel offered no refuge from the constant swaying or the roaring motor. Abby tried to find comfort hovering behind her people, but finally the dog had enough. Porter recalls, “We weren’t going very fast so she just stepped right off the boat into the creek. It was like she thought she could walk on water but all she did was sink.“
Porter believes the event traumatized the puppy and advises that short boat trips to calm areas is wise for new boat dogs or anxious pets. Allow them to get used to the sounds, smells and feel of the boat first.

Matt Walker recalls a boat trip when his friend’s dog took a taste of some raw squid and ended up with a barbed hook in her upper lip. “Take home message,” Walker writes on Facebook, “if fishing with dogs on boats, be careful of food on hooks.”
And, don’t forget the bathroom break. Jared Villalobos tells us that his dog, Beta started pacing frantically and trying to jump off the boat after a few hours on the water. Beta couldn’t hold it anymore and decided to use the boat deck as a place to relieve herself. “She tried to warn me,” he writes. “I just wasn’t listening well enough.”


When it is time to disembark, remember to protect those paws! As many flip-flop-wearing beachgoers know, the sand can be extremely hot in the summer months, so consider placing your blankets on the wet sand below the high tide line.

That is just one reason to consider dog boots or paw protectors (starting at $12 on Amazon). Broken glass and trash are also concerns, as well as cacti and other prickly plants. Sandspurs specifically can cause much discomfort, as Young warns. “Hank gets caught up in them a lot when on the beaches. You can see something is wrong with your dog limping but the sandspur can be lodged way up into the web of the feet and not easily seen. I’ve taken probably six or seven from one paw before.” These plants are mostly found in the vegetation on the dunes and are best avoided by everyone.

If your dog is a swimmer, jellyfish and sharks are possible threats in the salty rivers near the ocean. Move upstream and there’s the very real danger of alligators. As the old-timers of Moncks Corner would say, a splashing dog is fair game to any gator.

“Some Dogs Don’t Know How to Swim”

When I was on the island recently, a little girl pointed to my golden and asked her mom why he had on a life jacket. The mother responded, “Well honey, some dogs don’t know how to swim.” I was embarrassed for my water-loving retriever in his slightly lopsided, sun-faded, sand-covered life vest. I didn’t bother to explain that we use it as a precaution because he swims too well, and too far, despite his advancing age. But, perhaps a bit of storytelling would help future boaters learn secondhand the mishaps that can occur when boating with man’s best friend.