The Most Useful of Tricks

Louie "going outside" far from shore.

You see them in weekend anchorages, and you pity them:  sailors in their fragile dinghies who brave driving rain, big waves, and "no trespassing" signs to ferry their landlubber dogs to terra firma.  Once on shore, these cranky boaters rush their dogs through the motions and hurry back to their boats in a foul mood, resenting their pets.  It doesn't have to be like this!  Real salty dogs aren’t slaves to the shore.  Training your friend to conduct his business aboard frees you to take longer passages, skip the dingy rides to shore in yucky weather, and saves your poor dog from having to "hold it" while you get your act together.  Here’s the method we used to teach Louie.  It wasn’t horribly difficult, but it does take some time and consistency is paramount! 

1.  Buy “The Mat”, something cheap that will be designated for dog use only, and a couple of identical spares in case the original is lost at sea.  We bought a couple of IKEA welcome mats for $1.99 each, just simple indoor/outdoor rectangles of carpet with a rubber backing.  Punching holes in the mats means you can tie a line through and tow them overboard when they need rinsing off, which will be often.

 2. The next time you take your dog outside, select a mat to take along with you.  Brandish The Mat as if it’s something absolutely delightful, and when your dog sniffs it, praise him and try and convey to him that this thing is so much fun to be around.  Carry it with you while your dog does his business.  Do this for a couple of days, every time your dog goes outside.

3. Begin flopping down
The Mat beside your dog whenever he’s peeing or pooping.  Praise him and again act as though this whole thing is a total blast. 

Brian and Louie in an early tutoring session.

4.  If your dog is a male and big on “marking” things, carry The Mat along with you and sneak it into the stream of pee when he’s marking a tree or a fire hydrant or what have you.  Then act like he’s absolutely brilliant for peeing on it!  Give treats, praise, off-leash time or whatever it is that your dog loves most every time The Mat gets pee on it.   Infusing it with the gross odor of dog urine will help your dog remember what to do next time.  For girls, just sneak The Mat under them when they start to go and then praise/treat/run them.  Continue this for a week or so until your dog is comfortable with all this.

5.  Continue to take The Mat along whenever your dog goes outside, except now don’t let him mark things until he's used the mat first.  Let him get near a tree, hydrant, etc, but when he starts to go, pull him over to the mat so he's peeing on that instead.  This is easier said than done, and I suspect this is much easier with females than with males!  Nevertheless, go nuts with praise and goodies when your dog soils the mat.  Send the message that using this mat is not only acceptable, but better than peeing on other objects.  Keep this up until the dog is voluntarily peeing on the mat, and express your utter delight each time with rewards.

6.  Now it’s time to really throw your dog for a loop!  Carry out your dog's usual bathroom routine - get the leash out, ask him if he wants to go outside, etc, but instead of going to your usual place, take your dog somewhere out of the ordinary and lay down the mat.  This can be on the dock, on deck, on the sidewalk - anywhere your dog previously wouldn't think of going.  Encourage your dog to pee or poop on the mat in this new spot, but if he's not quite getting it, keep things light and positive, and go to your normal area after a few minutes.  Keep trying, and at that magical moment when your dog pees on the mat in the new, weird place, act like he just won the lottery.  Praise, big treats, partying: go absolutely bonkers with happiness so there is no question on your dog’s part that what just happened is fantastic and he is a genius! 

Louie finally embraces The Mat.  Good boy!

7.  Continue this until the dog is consistently peeing and pooping on the mat, wherever you happen to put it.

8.  Take your dog along on a weekend cruise to somewhere pleasant.  Drop anchor and wait until you know your dog really has to “go”.  Bring out the mat, put it up on the bow or wherever you’d like your dog to do the deed, and encourage him to use it.  DO NOT take the dog to shore until he’s used the mat.  Be strong and wait it out.  Our standoff with Louie at this stage lasted 48 hours, but he finally acquiesced once we gave him a little privacy.  Eventually, so will your dog.  When it happens, go totally apeshit with praise.   Putting The Mat in the same place each time helps to get a routine going.


9.  Before long, you’ll get really tired of having a disgusting mat on board that reeks of dog pee.  Once you’ve firmly established The Spot on board where your dog is to pee and poop by consistently putting The Mat there, see what happens if you take the mat away. It might only take a little verbal affirmation from you to assure your dog that even though the mat is gone, The Spot is still The Spot.  When he figures it out for the first time, go completely mad with praise as you’ve done all throughout the whole process. 


-If your dog is already familiar with voice commands for going outside (“go pee pee!”), you’re way ahead.  These will really help get your idea across faster when your dog gives you that “you want me to do what?” look early on in the process.

-Most cruising dog owners choose to have their dogs “go” up at the bow, and a saltwater wash-down pump up there really helps with cleanup.  Otherwise, tying a loop on a bucket and dipping it into the sea works just fine, too.  We’ve found that a poop-scoop designed for cleaning cat litter boxes also comes in handy. 

-Leaving home will be stressful enough for your pet.  Make life easier for everyone involved and start the training process well before your big departure date so  your dog is totally comfortable with his new trick by the time you leave.