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Travelling With Your Dog on BC Ferries? Read This First

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BC Ferries Pilot Project: "You Barked, We Listened"

[September 29, 2022]   Great news!  BC Ferries has announced a pilot project (currently only on the Powell River/Courtenay route) where dogs and cats will be allowed on the upper, outside, passenger decks.  This is a solution that we have been advocating for quite some time!  So happy to see that changes are being made.

The pilot project will run for 3 months. With luck it will be a resounding success. We hope to see this solution applied to other routes and vessels in the near future!


As of September 30, 2020 the exemption that allowed drivers to remain in their vehicles on enclosed (lower) vehicle decks will be lifted.  If your vehicle is on the lower vehicle deck you will be required to leave and either go to the upper vehicle deck or to the passenger decks.  Since dogs are not allowed on the passenger decks, if you want to stay with your dog you will have to go to the dog room located on the upper vehicle deck.

As BC Ferries is currently operating at reduced capacity due to Covid-19  restrictions there is no guarantee that you will be placed on the top vehicle deck, even if you have a reservation.  Identify to the ticket booth that you are travelling with a dog and ask that you be placed on the top deck, however, note that this may not be possible.

Travelling with your dog on BC Ferries can be smooth sailing if you’re prepared and you are loaded on the top vehicle deck, however, things can be much more frustrating if you’re loaded on the lower vehicle decks which must be vacated during the sailing.

While BC Ferries advertises on-board pet amenities, consensus from dog owners is that the dog areas are way too small, very uncomfortable and just don’t meet the needs of a dog owner.

BC Ferries FAQs say that you can request to be loaded on the top vehicle deck where you can stay with your dog, but actual experiences have rarely worked out this way. Here are some key things to know before you travel with your dog on BC Ferries:

  • The open (top) vehicle deck is highly coveted by all travellers because you can come and go as you please or stay in your vehicle and take a nap.
  • Reservations always load on the top deck first.
  • Passengers are not allowed to stay on the enclosed (lower) vehicle decks during the voyage – they must go up to the open vehicle deck or the passenger decks.
  • Dogs are not allowed on the passenger decks.
  • Dogs may stay in vehicles (on any vehicle deck).
  • Owners are allowed to stay with their dog or walk them, on-leash, on the open (top) vehicle deck.
  • The designated pet room is located on the open (top) vehicle deck.
  • The designated pet room is very small and only has room for about 4 people and a half dozen dogs.
  • There are no dog-bathrooms on the ferries so leave yourself some time to take your dog for a bathroom break shortly before you board the ferry.
  • You cannot go up to the passenger deck to go to the bathroom or get something from the cafeteria unless you:
    • Leave your dog with a friend anywhere on the top/open vehicle deck – you may return whenever you please.
    • Leave your dog unattended in your vehicle on the top/open vehicle deck – you may return whenever you please.
    • Leave your dog unattended in your vehicle on the lower/closed vehicle deck – but you may only return at the end of the voyage.
  • A tired dog travels well – we’ll show you some dog parks near each of the ferry terminals so you can stop on your way.

Transport Canada policy states that passengers travelling on BC Ferries are not allowed to remain in their cars on any enclosed vehicle decks. This means if you are parked on the lower vehicle deck of the ferry you will not be able to stay in your car with your dog – something many dog owners prefer to do. According to the information put out by BC Ferries, if you have a pet you can request to be placed on the top deck so you can remain in your vehicle and they will do their best to accommodate you.

The reality is that vehicles with reservations are loaded on the top deck first, the remaining space is loaded with the vehicles without reservations, in the order they arrived at the terminal. They do not segregate vehicles-with-dogs in their own staging line at the terminals, so there’s no way to guarantee they’re loaded on the top deck.

It’s understandable that BC Ferries wouldn’t want these vehicles to jump the first-come first-served queue by creating a staging line for vehicles-with-dogs at the terminals. However, by leaving vehicles-with-dogs in the same staging lines as the other first-come first-serve vehicles, their pet policy is basically useless, unless you happen to arrive at the terminal very early for your sailing and are placed near the front of the non-reservation staging lines.

We all love to take our dogs with us when we travel and have done it enough that we don’t really think about the logistics anymore – we bring food and water for them, stop for bathroom breaks and walks to stretch their legs, and we never leave them in a hot vehicle when we have to run into a store. So what do you do when you’re loaded onto a ferry and you’re not allowed to stay in your vehicle with your dog?

You could leave your dog in your vehicle with some water and the windows down a few inches but in the hot summer weather that’s not really any different from leaving your dog in a hot vehicle when you run into a store. Sure, you’re not parked in the sun, and there is usually a good breeze coming off the water after you’ve set sail, but those vehicle decks get just as hot.

Leaving your dog unattended in your vehicle can be risky and dangerous. You cannot guarantee that leaving the windows down will keep your dog cool enough and leaving your windows down too far could allow negative interactions between your dog and other dogs or people walking by.

All that metal the ship is built with absorbs a lot of heat. Add a whole bunch of vehicles which were baking in the summer sun at the terminal and/or have engines at full operating temperature, and you’ve got an uncomfortably hot enclosed space with little air flow until you set sail, especially on the lower deck which has no “windows” along the side and only gets its airflow from the front and rear loading ramps.

Dog Amenities On the Ferry

If you do end up being loaded on the bottom deck and, therefore, unable to stay in your vehicle, the only way you can remain with your pet is by going to the open (top) vehicle deck. Here you can take you dog to the designated Pet Area, walk around the deck or hang out at the front, or rear, of the ship to enjoy the scenery.

The Designated Pet Area is a small room with a couple of benches and several kennels that you can put your pet in if you wish. The room is not large and if your pet does not do well around other animals this may not be a great choice for you. The catch to using this room if you were loaded on the enclosed (lower) vehicle deck, is that once you are there you are committed to staying. You are not allowed to take your pet back to your vehicle once the vessel is underway and you are not allowed on the passenger decks with your dog which, by the way, are the only decks with bathrooms (for humans).

Bc ferries on-board dog area (3)
The designated pet area on one of BC Ferries
Bc ferries on-board dog area (1)
Heat lamps in the designated pet area on one of BC Ferries

Feedback From Travellers

We have had some interesting conversations with a number of dog owners who have travelled on BC Ferries, here’s what they had to say:

  • It’s too small to accommodate all the foot passengers and everyone from the lower vehicle deck.
  • There’s not enough seating.
  • It’s uncomfortable for both humans and dogs.
  • There are no bathrooms for humans or dogs.
  • And, as more than one person mentioned, “it’s disgusting.”

Their recommendations

  • Always make a reservation so you are loaded on the top vehicle deck.
  • Arrive very early if you cannot get a reservation so you are near the front of the non-reservation line and have a good chance of being loaded on the top deck.
  • Don’t walk-on with your dog – you’re going to be stuck on the top vehicle deck the whole voyage.

So What’s The Solution?

After considering the problems with BC Ferries pet policy in detail it is clear that some changes need to be made. A potential solution could be to designate one of the covered areas on the top passenger deck (the outdoor deck) as a dog friendly area.

These areas have about 40 seats, are closed in on three sides, have plenty of windows for sight seeing and have bathrooms just inside the door. Years ago these areas were designated as smoking areas, when smoking was still allowed on the vessel.

Today they’re used by passengers who want to get some fresh air and watch the scenery go by. It is a larger and more comfortable space than the current designated pet area, and would still leave plenty of outdoor space for other travellers to enjoy.

This solution would mean that owners would have to lead their dogs through the passenger deck to get to the stairwell leading to the outdoor deck (top deck).

We suggest that a single route be designated from the vehicle decks up to the top deck. We envision doggy paw prints painted on the floor to clearly identify the route for dog owners and other travellers alike.

Other improvements could include a few heat lamps to help make the space comfortable year round (similar to what is currently installed in the car deck pet room), and some means of closing in the 4th wall to cut down the wind on stormy days.

Another benefit to this solution is the bathrooms being so close. Dog owners are not unlike parents, they tend to bond together and support each other when necessary – it won’t be hard for an owner who is travelling alone to quickly make new friends and ask them to watch/take their dog while they run inside for a few minutes.

In light of the volume of summer travellers with pets in tow, BC Ferries would do well to revisit their pet amenities and policies. In our opinion some relatively easy changes could be made which would make the experience much more pleasant for everyone.

Dog Amenities at BC Ferries Terminals

Anyone who has been stuck waiting for a ferry knows that you could be sitting in a large parking lot for an hour or more (sometimes much more). Chances are, sometime during that wait your dog is going to need a bathroom break. All the major ferry terminals have a “doggie spot” where your dog can relive themselves, but some are better than others.

Of importance to note, while the major terminals do have a “doggie spot” they are definitely not set up with “human spots” for those who may be walking on to the ferry with their dog. After checking in at the terminal, walk-on passengers generally wait in a room until it is time to board the vessel. Unfortunately, if you are travelling with a dog, waiting in these areas is not allowed and you must, therefore, wait outside in the elements. This is fine, even preferable, on a sunny day but if the weather is poor (and let’s face it, in BC this is more often than not!) you are stuck waiting with no shelter until it is time to board the ferry.

Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal (West Vancouver)

This terminal does not have an official off-leash area but there is a small width of grass that runs up both sides of the terminal which is suitable for taking your dog for a pee break. If you have a bit more time consider walking next door to Horseshoe Bay Park (just make sure you bring your ticket with you for re-entry!) This park is on-leash only, but still a nice place to stretch your legs.

Duke Point Ferry Terminal (South Nanaimo)

Probably one of my favourite terminals to wait at when I have Avy with me. If you walk down towards the terminal building you can take a stroll around the side and behind it, where there are plenty of grassy areas for your dog to stretch its legs or take a bathroom break. It is also away from the playground and other crowded areas.

Departure Bay Ferry Terminal (Central Nanaimo)

Other than circling the parking lot, there are not a lot of options for exercising your dog a the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal.  There are two fenced dog areas next to the bathrooms (on the opposite side of the terminal from the main terminal building) but both are quite small.

The dog areas are also covered with a large amount of gravel – every time I have been there, dog owners comment that their dog refuses to pee on the gravel.  Avy is no different – for whatever reason, I have not been able to convince her to use this area.

Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal

Tsawwassen is the largest of all the BC Ferry terminals. The parking lot is huge and there are several green spaces on the edges and through the middle where the playgrounds, bathroom, shopping and food services are are located. One of these green spaces is designated as a dog area, it is not fenced so you should probably keep your dog on-leash, but it does have a small grassy hill to stroll while your dog “uses the facilities.”

Bc ferries tsawwassen terminal dog area
The grassy knoll at Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal

Dog Parks Near Major BC Ferries Terminals

Once off the ferry, your pooch is likely going to be ready for a bit of a leg stretch. Check out our Directory to find dog parks near each of the ferry terminals. Here are some links for your convenience:

Summary / Conclusion

Avy and I love to travel, hopefully as more dog owners make their opinions known, travel service providers will understand our challenges and see the value of investing in their amenities and policies to ensure the experience of travelling with your dog is seamless and stress free.

15 Responses

  1. I travel with my ESA. (emotional support animal) . I do travel with her documentation from my mental health provider, that can be verified.
    I wish BC ferries could recognize
    EMA . I have no problem showing my documentation. If it would allow her and I to freely move about the ship, understandably with some reasonable restrictions.

    1. Hello Irene. BC Ferries does allow guide, service and emotional support dogs. I just pulled this quote from the BC Ferries Accessibility page on their website: “We accept guide, service and emotional support dogs for passengers with disabilities in accordance with the Guide Dog and Service Dog Act and B.C.’s Human Rights Code. Customers with a guide, service or emotional support dog are welcome in all public areas of our ferries and terminals.” Please follow the link for further details.

  2. The Salish ferries (Tsawwassen to/from Southern Gulf Islands) have a human bathroom on the main parking deck. This was a game changer. I’ve walked on with my 70 lb golden doodle multiple times. In my experience, two dogs in the pet room was my limit. I often packed a stadium seat so we could settle down on the perimeter of the car deck. Bring a thermos and dress for the weather and it works great.

  3. Great article! I just had a horrible experience taking my dog as a walk on passenger on the Tsawwassen to Duke point ferry. When I asked the ticket agent which way to go she gave a vague wave in the air. I ended up in the passenger (no dog) area. Had to drag my poor dog down a flight of stairs (couldn’t find the elevator) and eventually found the correct location. I would suggest PUPPY PRINTS on the ground. A simple way to guide dog owners where to go. Also staff did not know what floor the puppy room is. I was told 3rd floor, 4th floor by two different staff. How am i supposed to know where upper car deck is ???? My poor puppy and I are traumatized from this experience!

  4. Hi, great article! My husband and I are thinking about booking a ferry adventure and could not find any pet information on the BC Ferries website. No wonder. Does anyone have feedback on whether there were issues with pets at the hotels? We would be travelling with two small dogs under 15lbs. Thanks

  5. I think that pets should be allowed in berths. What’s the difference with that or a hotel. They are cleaned between sailings. I would be happy to pay a reasonable fee to keep my dog with me. And yes an outside area for them would be great!

  6. Thank you so much for this detailed review of the BC Ferries experience travelling with dogs, from both the foot passenger and vehicle perspectives. Based on my reading of the pet policy, I had thought the situation would be workable, but after your review, I’ve decided it’s too uncomfortable, and I’ll leave my dog behind. It’s a pity, because I’d probably go on more trips if they were dog-friendlier.

  7. Bc ferries just doesn’t care about pets. It would be so easy for them to accommodate us but nothing has changed in years.

  8. I’ve taken my small 10lb Maltipoo on the Ferries multiple times as a foot passenger. All I have to say is that the pet area is disgusting. It’s so uncomfortable to sit in and it’s clear that it is not maintained. It’s disappointing to be paying the same amount as other passengers but not be provided with the same amenities. I have provided BC Ferries with this feedback through their survey but it doesn’t seem like they care.

  9. Wow, I am planning a trip from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, a 17 hour trip plus loading/unloading.

    I wonder if the amenity room for pets is the same small area on the Northern Expedition. From above photo there are only 4 kennels and what happens if you don’t get one? Sit with your dog in a room overnight with no bathroom?

  10. There are many excellent suggestion s made in this woman’s article. BC Ferries please read this article at your next staff/management session and let’s see some follow through.

    1. Excellent ideas, if you leave your dog or children in a car anywhere for any amount of time you would be fined. I have used the 6×8 dog area is nothing to be proud of its kinda can have game areas children areas maybe a glass of wine with a meal then drive off the ferry. Well it’s time to think how you can improve areas for dog owners who also may full fare for an enjoyable trip with there love ones. Extremely concerned for any animal that must be confined to such a small area God help the person who allows these conditions to continue please give them a play room worthy playing and socializing in.

  11. Great article. Once or twice a year I take the ferry at Tsawwassen as a foot passenger with my lab. It’s very frustrating to pay as much as everyone else and have no amenities, well, a seat if I’m lucky and a bowl of water for my dog. You have an excellent solution! I expressed my views to BC Ferries during a survey…and yes we all need to let them know how we feel.

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