Getting Fido On and Off a Bouncing Boat

               “Are we there yet?  Are we? Are we?  Is it boating season yet???”  Judging by the excitement and giddy grins at the Seattle Boat Show, we boaters are just like a bunch of kids on the way to Disneyland.  Even if we take our vessels out almost every weekend during the cold winter months, we’re still counting down the hours until the official first day of boating season. As we prepare for our own great times we might want to take a few minutes to consider what we can do to help our four-legged crew members enjoy the fun with us. 

            One of the questions I’m frequently asked during my “Doggy on Deck” presentations is  “Our high freeboard.  How can we easily get our dog on and off the boat?”  It’s a good question, and in fact, even if your deck is low to the water, there are times when getting Fido down to the dock or into the dinghy can be problematic.  I have several simple suggestions that will help you solve this boating challenge.

Boarding Steps

When I’m living aboard or spending an extended time in one marina, I use boarding steps. I’ve tried all kinds of steps, from the slick models found at  most large chandleries to a funky home-made set.  The nice thing about my home-made boarding steps (constructed of wood and covered with a coat of waterproof paint)  is that they were designed specifically for my boat.  I included a door in the back of the steps for storage creating a mini-dock box.  The not so great part of my home-made steps is that they list, quite significantly, to port (okay, I’m a writer – not a wood worker).  Manufactured dock steps are made of molded fiberglass or heavy plastic and can be lifted onto your boat.  And, unlike my home-made model, they are straight and true making them an excellent solution at your home port. However, if you take your boat out of the marina, dock steps can be impractical as  they take up a fair amount of real estate on deck and they are clunky. 


A more portable solution is a folding ramp designed for geriatric or handicapped dogs.  Most of these ramps weigh less than 20 pounds.  They fold to about three feet in length and are approximately 72 inches long when opened.  The one I have is strong and supports up to 500 pounds. I can scurry up and down my “gang plank” quickly and it’s easy for dogs to negotiate its gentle slope. Small garden carts and most folding dock carts roll right up the ramp to the deck.  Because the ramp is constructed of heavy duty plastic and folds flat, I can stow it on deck, out of the way.  When lashed to the stanchions it makes a great support for fuel cans or other equipment.

            As all cruisers know, every item aboard should have at least two functions.  Folding ramps serve at least three functions, maybe four:  One, they make it easy for you to get on and off your boat.  Two, they can be lashed on deck providing a solid surface for securing other equipment. Three, you can wedge a folding ramp into your companionway to help an older dog, or a heavier dog, get to deck level.  Finally, some models come with removable legs letting you turn your ramp into a portable, seven-foot long buffet table!  In all honesty, even if you are on a budget and a folding plastic ramp seems extravagant, it will be money well spent.

Slings and Things

Boarding steps and folding ramps are great in marinas but they won’t work at all if you are trying to get your dog in or out of a dinghy that’s bouncing in choppy waves or riding a swell.  As with all boating challenges, there are several solutions and I’m pretty sure my Border collie (Kip McSnip – the Famous Sailing Dog) and I tried most – if not all – of them.  For example, one time I tried sliding Kip down a plastic float.  You know, one of those brightly colored floats with a puffy little plastic pillow attached and a little plastic stem you blow on until your face turns violet. I imagined Kip quickly and efficiently sliding down the ramp to the dinghy waiting below.  He’d make, I thought, a kind of  “Emergency Exit Landing” something like the drawings you see on safety cards in the seat pockets on airplanes.  Well, it didn’t work that way.  The float folded under Kip’s weight on try number one, landing him in the water in the humiliating position of being the sandwich stuffing between two slices of chartreuse plastic. He adamantly refused to play that game again.

Finally, I discovered the Ray Allen Company.  This company manufactures equipment used for training and handling working dogs.  Military and police dogs as well as rescue dogs are outfitted with equipment from Ray Allen.  The company makes a sling designed to lower rescue dogs weighing 50 pounds or more into remote areas. I’ve tried several other brands of doggy slings, but I like this one best because it’s s strong, constructed well and uses stainless steel hardware.  Adjustable inside straps ensure a snug, safe fit and tail/leg holes are placed for maximum comfort. In addition, these slings give protection under the dog’s rib cage and belly.  There are places on almost all boats – from power to sail – to attach the sling.  Consider using your man overboard equipment, a halyard or even dinghy davits.

For dogs weighing fewer than 50 pounds, you may want to try another brand of sling or use your dog’s PFD (most are outfitted with a handle), to raise and lower your pet from the boat.  If you do use a PFD to lift your dog make sure it provides full protection under his belly and ribs.  In addition to safety and floatation, these models will provide greater warmth should your smaller dog land in cold water. 

Okay, now you have a few simple, easy to use, solutions for getting Fido on and off your vessel.  And just it time  -  ‘cause it won’t be long before you and your four-legged crew members are hoisting that sling, climbing those steps and scampering up that ramp for some great boating fun!


Most large chandleries, such as Boater’s World, West Marine, Fisheries Supply and Downwind Marine carry a wide selection of manufactured dock steps.  You can take a look at several different designs by going to  or

Check out to order a dog sling if your dog weights 50 pounds or more.  These slings sell for  around $160. The Ray Allen website features a moving K-9 memorial page and a special photo gallery worth viewing.

If your dog is mid-sized, take a look at the PFDs offered by the Altrec company  The RUFF Wear K-9 Dog Life Jacket is a good alternative to using a sling.  There are two sizes available and both offer belly protection.  I don’t recommend the Master Dog Harness for the purpose of  lifting a dog as it uses two nylon straps to secure the vest and does not provide enough protection under a dog’s rib cage.  The RUFF Wear PFDs run between $40 and $70.

For teeny-weenie dogs go to .  PetSmart online offers a variety of backpacks, front packs and slings for smaller dogs.  These run between $20 and $50.00 and come in a wide variety of colors and designs.  There are even high fashion models.

I purchased my folding ramp for just under $200 from Handicapped Pets .  Most PETCO and PetSmart outlets also carry folding ramps although you might want to call ahead as  the stores don’t seem to stock many of them at a time.  Some chandleries, such as Boater’s World, are also starting to carry dog boarding ramps, PFDs and other equipment for your own salty dog.

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