One of the greatest surprises of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least so far in this year of never-ending surprises, has been the shopping sprees. Amid the most widespread public health crisis in a century, Americans can’t seem to spend money fast enough to acquire two things in particular: boats and dogs.
The boats started flying out of dealerships in May, about two months after the earliest Covid-19 shutdowns. As those initial safer-at-home orders started to ease and the calendar turned to summer, dealerships reported a frenzy of buyers. The trend only intensified throughout the summer, well into August. Even as pandemic hot spots exploded across the South and West and unemployment numbers soared, boat dealers reported being virtually wiped out of inventory.
“When people are faced with oh my gosh, I have nothing to do—I can’t go on vacation, I can’t go to a ballgame, my kids aren’t in summer camp—boating is ideal,” says Ellen Hopkins Bradley, senior vice president and chief brand officer for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “It’s a vacation for them every week and a way for them to do it with built-in social distancing.”
Similar thinking, during the same time period, also led to a buying spree for puppies and dogs. All across the country, starting during the first shutdowns in March, shelters, breeders and pet stores alike reported levels of demand well beyond the busiest Christmas seasons of years past. By late summer, even the biggest shelters from New York City to Los Angeles were still reporting higher-than-usual adoption rates and a lack of available dogs. Commercial-scale breeders said pet stores were buying unborn litters of puppies, just to try and keep inventory in the retail pipeline.
“We all have seen the articles about loneliness and staying calm and the human-animal bond being helpful in isolation,” says Madeline Bernstein, president of the spcaLA shelter in California. “Maybe this subliminal mind meld occurred and everyone just decided to get a dog.”
And so, while people have long shared the boating pastime with their pooches, this past summer saw an unusual number of dogs appearing on an unusual number of boats. In turn, boaters began to realize that bringing a dog on board comes with a whole set of new responsibilities, including ensuring that the dog is properly trained—and won’t, say, leap out of the tender before the lines are tied off and the outboard is shut down.
“The dog is excited. Yay! We’re at the dock!” says Melissa McCue-McGrath, a New England-based trainer and speaker, and author of Considerations for the City Dog. “Learning to wait in that moment is critical for the dog’s safety. You have to have control of your dog.”
Betsie Tegtmeyer knows that moment all too well. She and her husband, John Tegtmeyer, who own Krogen Express Yachts, cruise with their 5-year-old schnauzer-poodle mix Zoey and 15-year-old Jack Russell mix M.E. Like all the dogs they’ve had over the years, Zoey and M.E. are rescues who joined the family long after the traditional puppy-training window had closed. The dogs’ ages have made things like onboard potty training more of a challenge.
“I think that if you had a puppy and started them on the boat and trained them, they would go, but we’ve never had any dogs, unless they were desperate, that would go on the boat,” she says. “We’ve tried everything—and I mean everything.”
The need to get the dogs ashore several times a day is thus an integral part of the Tegtmeyers’ routine cruising plans.
“It totally affects where we anchor,” she says. “When we’re looking for places and considering the wind, the current, we always have to find a place where we can also go ashore.”
A couple times over the years, Tegtmeyer says, one of the family’s dogs has become overly enthusiastic about heading ashore and leaped out of the tender too fast. The dogs ended up in the water without life jackets. Everything turned out OK, but Tegtmeyer realized she had to spend more time on training.
“If you can get your dog to follow basic rules, like you stay until I’ve tied up the dinghy at the dock, you’ll do fine,” she says. “They know to wait until I say OK for them to jump to the dock. It’s the same as basic training that you would use at home.”
McCue-McGrath says the goal should be what trainers call proofing, which means proving the concept, that the dog will respond to a command no matter whether he’s in a house or on a tender or at a beach, and no matter how many distractions may be around.
“Let’s say I want my dog to come,” McCue-McGrath says. “I first start in my house. I say come, and he comes. So then I try at the dog park, but he won’t come. Then I have to proof it—I have to make that command as solid in other places as it would be in my home. You’re still working on the come command, but you’re changing the environment, the distractions and the difficulty level.”
Teaching a dog to stay at top levels of proofing, including while a tender is pulling up at a dock, can be done through a process she calls back chaining. Owners should think of the chain of things that need to happen while the dog is staying put, and then teach the last part of the chain first.
“Let’s say I’m teaching a new puppy to go down the stairs,” she says. “I wouldn’t start all the way at the top of the stairs. That’s really scary. I would take the last step before the landing and put the puppy there. When they get to the landing, give them lots and lots of cookies. Do that a ton, and then move up to the second step. Then, the puppy does it. This is how you build confidence. Usually, by the time you get to the third step, they’ve got it.”
Translating that back-chaining technique to a tender approaching a dock, she says, is a matter of breaking down the moments that occur during the docking process.
“In this case, the last thing the dog does is wait for a cue to get off the boat—no matter what boat it is, the dog waits for permission to exit,” she says. “Start with the boat where it would be when it’s time for the dog to get off. The dog has to wait until the person gets off and says ‘OK.’ Or has to wait until the person grabs the leash. The dog needs to learn what will become that final cue.
“Maybe the next training session, you get out and fiddle a little bit with the boat lines, and then grab the leash,” she adds. “That’s adding a distraction. Do that a bunch of times. Then maybe the next day, tie the boat off and then grab the leash. Then maybe add in the boat moving 10 or 20 feet toward the dock before you tie the boat off and then grab the leash. Now you have the approach, the tying off and the dog waiting for you to grab the leash. Hopefully, at that point, the dog will have it.”
Knowing that a dog is properly trained can make all the difference between a fun cruising experience and a truly challenging one, Tegtmeyer says.
“It really alters your life,” she says. “There are times when I think, oh, I wish we didn’t have dogs because we could do such and such. But then there are times when I think it’s so great that we have our dogs. They’re part of our family.”
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IT'S A RUFF LIFE: MEET THE PUPS OF PASSAGEMAKER
As if we needed any more proof that dogs love to cruise, here's a cute collection submitted by our readers of their favorite furry first mates. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be rushing to go out and get a boat dog of your own. CLICK HERE TO SEE THE PHOTO GALLERY