We own a small French Bulldog who has become very used to our boat over the last couple of years, but last month one of his friends, a large German Shepherd, came to stay.

He is much bigger than our dog Claude, but we promised his owner that we would take him out on the lakes, so they could both play and have fun with us in the water.

henry dog

Henry had never been on a boat before so took a little bit of training and encouragement.

We’ve always owned dog boat ramps and ladders, and Claude is very used to getting on and off our pontoon boat now. But for Henry the German Shepherd, it was a different matter as he had never been on a boat before.

But we got it working, and very quickly got him used to getting on and off.

If you want to know how to get a big dog on a boat, or any sized dog for that matter, then please read on for my tips.

How to Get a Dog on and off a Boat

With most well-trained dogs who are used to following commands, you should get them coming on and off with around 10 minutes of training.

It also helps if you already have a dog who knows how to climb aboard, as the other dog will copy them, so we did have a slight advantage.

Here’s how I recommend you do it.

Step #1. Buy a Dog Boat Ramp or Ladder

I recommend a dog boat ramp or ladder. You can buy floating ramps, static ramps, steps, and ladders all of which serve the same primary function of letting your dog easily enter and exit your boat.

But there are different types of boarding ladder set-ups. You can buy a simple solution that lets them walk up onto the boat deck when beached or docked, plus get ramps designed for use in the water so they dog can swim to and from your vessel.

dog ramp

This is a great way to get a bid dog onto and off your boat.

Recently I reviewed the best dog boarding ramps and ladders elsewhere on Pontoonopedia. Read that guide if you want to know which is best for your canine friend.

In that guide it has a couple of different options for larger and bigger dogs that way between 40 to 100 pounds in weight.

It also has some options for smaller dogs who perhaps aren’t as mobile or as strong and need help in getting on the boat when in deep water.

Handy Hint: See what the best dog boarding ladders and ramps are in this essential guide.

Step #2: Train Your Dog to Use the Ramp or Ladder

This can take around 10 minutes.

It’s way easier with the boarding ladders you are usie when docked, with the trickier boarding coming when you’re out on the water and your big dog has been swimming.

What we did first was enter the water with Henry and swam out a few meters into the lake for a little game of ball.

Once we had spent a few minutes getting used to the water, we started our first attempt at getting him back onto the boat using the dog ramps and ladders we own.

ramp beach

You can also buy ramps that can be used when beached

With this first run I swam with him to the boarding ramp, whilst my wife was on the pontoon boat beckoning him up.

I had to help him get his paws onto the ladder steps, which wasn’t easy because he weighs nearly 90 pounds. I almost had to force him up.

But he got there in the end.

The next attempt was to see if he could do this by himself, so I threw his ball into the water, he jumped in, and headed back to the side of our pontoon boat.

I sat at the top of the dog boat ramp with one of his favorite treats.

He had a couple of stumbles, but slowly pulled himself on and managed to walk on up.


Now I can’t say it will be that easy for you with your big dog, but I think they key is to get in the water with them for the first few attempts.

How to Get a Dog Used to a Boat

But even though he could now get on and off our boat, he was also trained to be used to the boat in the first place, as our pontoon can make quite a lot of noise from the engine.

When a boat engine kicks in it can growl and roar, and that’s a sure-fire way to freak your dog out.

What we did with Henry was carry him onto the boat whilst it was still docked that morning.

We led him around the deck for a couple of minutes, so he could get used to all of the smells and had a blanket from his owner sat in one corner, so he had a familiar smell on board.

Once he was settled and knew the layout, I turned the engine on, but didn’t rev it just yet.

I left the engine running idly for a couple of minutes, whilst at the same time distracting him with a tug of war game.

He didn’t bat an eyelid and seemed to get used to the boat noise from the first few seconds.

Next, I gently gave the engine some poke to see how he reacted to the louder noises.

He was absolutely fine from that point, so I continued to increase the noises, stopping, starting, and making irregular noise patterns for a couple more minutes.

Henry the dog soon got used to the boat, so we knew he should be fine to take his first trip.

Training a Dog to Pee on a Boat

This is still very simple, but not something we had a chance to train Henry with (thankfully I think he must have relieved himself in the lake), but Claude is now an old hand at this. 

To train our dog to pee in the correct place on our pontoon boat we came up with a psychological trick that has worked so far.

As you will know, well trained dogs don’t pee indoors, and know that outdoors is for peeing. On a pontoon boat with a large open deck that’s outdoors as far as our dog was concerned so he did pee on the carpet the first couple of weeks.

how to get a dog on a boat

Our fully boat trained French Bulldog Claude is trained to get on and off our pontoon boat.

But what we also know is that dogs like to pee where other dogs have already done so. You will notice this when you take your dog for a walk.

What we did was wait for our dog to sniff around a tree and then pee when we took him for a walk in the marina.

We then rubbed our dog boat pee pad against the tree, took it back on board, placed it back on deck, and since that point he has always used it.

Worked for us, give it a go.

PS: You can see the perfect dog boat potty in our list of the best dog boat stuff you need for your trip.

And finally…

It’s imperative that you have a place out of the sun for your dog to rest and sleep. I recommend a boat dog bed that won’t fly out of your boat, will stick to the floor, and gives them a comfortable place out of the heat. Take a look at my new post all about dog beds for boats.