My first experience boating with a cat did not go well, and ended up as an exercise in the proper use of a landing net to get the panicked feline back aboard our pontoon boat. Twice.

Same with a dog. After a calm afternoon float in the family center console, the canine bailed off the bow at the last moment when it didn’t seem to realize the bridge we were approaching offered plenty of clearance. After a couple of apprehensive glances, I received one final look from the retriever as if to say, “Don’t you see that?! I’m outta’ here!” And then, she jumped.

Like most animals, both critters could swim and were quickly brought back aboard. However, not all pets are comfortable in the water, let alone competent swimmers — especially when the dunking comes as a surprise. For their safety and your peace of mind, no matter your intentions regarding keeping them high and dry, you need to assume they will find their way overboard and should be prepared for the experience.

First Draft
Assuming the pet is a dog — perhaps a cat, if so inclined — it’s a good idea to introduce it to water separately from the boat. Try to get it to swim and be comfortable while doing so. Ditto putting the pet in a PFD. I recommend a fitting in the yard or park, or wherever the pet is calm and has pleasant activities to engage in to take its mind off what it’s wearing. Do this a few times over several days to make the experience habitual and non-threatening.

When you feel it’s time move to phase two (the boat), I recommend allowing your pet to board the craft while it is still at the dock — emphasis on the word “still” — with the motor shut down. That allows the potential cruising companion to get used to the motion of the “floating floor” in a calm, quiet manner. Make that first visit fun and relaxing.

On the follow-up visit aboard, start the motor while petting the animal and gauge the reaction. If that goes well, you can try a brief shakedown cruise; make it short and sweet, with lots of attention paid to the furred guest.

Regarding the boat; Make sure the deck’s surface offers enough traction to keep the pet comfortable while moving around and is not too hot under-paw. Remember that, unlike us, your pets don’t have non-skid rubber and insulation between their feet and the deck.

Also, just because they have fur doesn’t mean they can’t be sunburned, so ensure the pet has a shaded area to prevent it from catching too many rays.

To keep your dog or cat cool and relaxed, bring water aboard in a container it is familiar with drinking from; same with pet food, for longer voyages. A throw rug or piece of Astroturf may be welcome as a place for them to rest, or use to answer the call.

All Aboard
If you plan to allow your pet overboard for the occasional swim, make sure you have a good plan for getting it back aboard. Traditional swim platforms can work, but boarding ramps specially designed for pets are better for allowing easy access to and from the deck. Make sure your pet is wearing its PFD, which should have a handle or lifting strap on top to allow you to grab the pet to bring aboard or to assist with floatation or swimming.

As is often the case with two-legged passengers, many incidents happen during the boarding process, when they leave a solid platform for one less stable than they are familiar with — and vice versa. Dogs are especially prone to leaping aboard or attempting to jump ashore unexpectedly. Care should be taken to contain them at each end of a trip, to maintain control during the critical boarding and departing process.

And, of course, don’t forget the safety of the pet during the voyage. Take care that it can’t roam or stumble into contact with boat hooks, fishing hooks, gaffs, fishing rods and landing net entanglements. At least until it proves itself a capable, comfortable sailor. That done, pets can become great companions afloat as well as ashore.

On the other hand, if the pet panics on the walk down the dock, or is miserable on board, you may want to think again about how enjoyable the boating experience may be for all parties and accept the fact that your favorite furred companion might be better suited as a full-time landlubber.

Dan Armitage is a regular contributor to HeartLand Boating magazine