Dogs on the Alaska Marine Highway System (Alaska Ferry)

I’ve shared a lot of stories/photos from my trip on the Alaska Marine Highway, but I have more!

When I decided to go to Alaska I wanted to bring my dogs with me.  The original plan was to drive.  After thinking about it and some sound advice from my dad, I decided to take the Alaska Marine Highway (Alaska Ferry) from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska and then drive the rest.  The change in plans didn’t result in my getting there any sooner, but it did limit stress on both my car and me.  And, my dogs could still go.

The Rules

There are specific rules for taking dogs (or cats) on the Alaska Marine Highway.

  • They must have a health certificate.
  • They must stay in a car unless they are service animals in which case special documentation is required.
  • The owner must clean up after them during deck calls.
  • They can be walked on land during port calls.

Room to Live

I knew my dogs would be spending a lot of time in the car, so I made it quite comfortable for them.  Since they are small dogs they had plenty of room to move around.  If I were bringing a larger dog, I would do everything I could to make sure they had the room to walk, stand, and stretch out.

Deck Calls

On days that didn’t include port calls, the only chance to see and take care of my dogs were deck calls.  Deck calls occurred at 8:30 am, 2:30 pm, 8:30 pm, and 12:30 am (times were dependent on weather and crew preference).  Each deck call is announced except the one at 12:30 am, which they call a silent deck call (you have to wake yourself up).

During deck calls anyone can get to their car, but it’s mainly for pet owners.  The car decks are open for 15 minutes at each deck call.  It’s not a lot of time to feed, water, and potty your dogs.

MV Columbia Dog ParkDeck calls are like being at a dog park without any grass.  The MV Columbia (which is the vessel we took each way) has two car decks.  We ended up on the upper deck going to Alaska and the lower deck coming home.  There is a HUGE difference.  The upper deck had very little room for the dogs and there happened to be an intimidating mastiff on board.  I had a hard time finding a private location for my dogs.  The lower deck has much more space to move around.  I doubt there is the ability to select between the upper and lower car decks, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.  By the way, large vehicles will only fit on the lower deck.

Proudly, my dogs are well trained (especially my oldest).  Going potty indoors was not something they wanted to do.  AkerKinley and Aker on Lower Car Deck finally went potty after holding it for over 24 hours.  Kinley never went on the car deck; he waited until our first port call which was over 36 hours.  It’s hard to believe, but it’s not uncommon for dogs to hold their potty on the ferry.  It’s not necessarily a good thing, but they WILL survive.

In hindsight, I think the entire deck call process was more stressful for me than them.

Port Calls

The days with port calls were my favorite.  I felt guilty leaving my dogs in the car for the entire ferry trip.  On the days we were in port, I loved taking them out for a walk/potty break.  Kinley had some anxiety about walking the narrow path, along the car ramp, to exit the ferry so I had to carry him off and on.  Although, Aker has knee issues he was a trooper.  I only had to carry both of them once…thank goodness because even though they are small breed dogs they are quite hefty.

Would I do it again?

I loved the ferry and even though I was a bit stressed about the well-being of my dogs I would take the ferry again.  I’d probably try a couple of different things:

  • Prior to leaving I would attempt to train them to the “Potty” command in hopes that they would be comfortable going no matter where we were.
  • I would take along a small piece of artificial grass.

More about My Trip

To see all posts about my Alaska/Canada Road Trip click here.

7 thoughts on “Dogs on the Alaska Marine Highway System (Alaska Ferry)

  1. I will be moving to anchorage in February and my husband and i have 4 dogs ( 2 chihuahuas, boston terrior, and a american pull dog. We plan on buying a camper shell so they will have room to move around in the bed of the truck. My only fear is my smallest chihuahua who is only 4lbs and has seizures due to low blood sugar. I would hope they ferry crew would be understanding enough for me to check on her more fequently and be able to make sure she has good blood sugar. Any thoughts??

    • Sarah – Sorry for the delay in responding. I wish I had good news for you, but I really doubt they will let you check on your dogs more frequently than planned. They are not even required to do deck calls and if the water is rough sometimes the deck calls are cancelled. The only guarantees are ports of call and the first one is 36 hours from the time you leave Bellingham. With that said, on my two trips (and my parents trips every year) I think only one deck call has been cancelled due to rough seas. The problem is that by law they cannot allow people on the car deck…they make the pet deck calls an exception, but they are short (15 minutes) and supervised. They are “by the book”. Anyone caught on the car deck outside of allowed times will be removed from the ferry at the next stop. My parents saw this happen once…the people ended of stranded. The car deck can be a very dangerous place on these ferries and they are only following the strict rules and laws. Is there any way that one of you could fly with your Chihuahua? I think the ferry is a very good option and I don’t know your dog’s health issues, but I can almost promise they will not make an exception for you to go down there more than scheduled. Sorry and I wish you the very best. I hope you love living in Alaska as much as I did.

    • I wanted to add…

      You could call the ferry system and ask, but I would be cautious of their answer if they say “yes”. The thing is that the ferry is much like an airplane in that the Captain gets the final say. If the Captain doesn’t think it’s safe or they don’t have the manpower to make someone available to go down there with you, then it won’t be allowed. And, they absolutely will not let you down there without an employee.

  2. I am so glad I found this post! We are moving to Alaska in the Fall and will be traveling on the ferry with our dog Charlie. You are the first person to give all the details I have been seeking. Now I don’t feel quite as stressed. Thank you!

    • I’m thrilled that you found it so helpful. I think I was more stressed than they were. Just remember if he doesn’t go potty until the first stop, he’ll be ok.