How to Teach Your Dog to Swim

By: Sondra Wolfer

If your dog can swim, you already know the pleasure of splashing around with your best friend. If your dog can’t swim as of yet—or you are unsure of his aquatic abilities—chances are good you can eventually enjoy watery fun with him. The first step is figuring out if he’s a candidate for swimming lessons. If he is, then you can teach him to go from furry landlubber to amphibious canine.

Can All Dogs Swim?

Some dogs are natural born swimmers; put them near a body of water and they are raring to doggie paddle, or chase after floating dog toys or sticks. But many dogs are not well suited for swimming, and may even sink like a stone the instant they hit the water.

Labrador Retrievers with their big paws are famed for their ease paddling in the water. Other breeds that tend to love the water are Standard Poodles, English and Irish Setters, Newfoundlands, Golden Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and Irish Water Spaniels.

Dogs with short legs, stubby snouts, or thick torsos, however, often struggle with swimming. Brachycephalic breeds, such as Pugs and French Bulldogs, are particularly ill-adapted to swimming. To keep their snouts above water, these dogs are forced to lift their heads high, which sends their bottoms downward and makes swimming extremely difficult. The short legs of Dachshunds and Basset Hounds make staying afloat tough, or even impossible. Bulldogs have short legs and snouts, and thick, front-heavy torsos that make swimming near impossible. The above dog breeds, or mixed breeds with similar physical features should always wear a dog flotation device when swimming.

Whether purebred or mutt, all dogs are different and their interest and skills in the water should be gauged individually. Though unlikely, a Labrador Retriever may shun the water because of a traumatic experience. Or your short-legged dog may love going into a kiddie pool or even in the big pool as long as you’re holding him above water. Regardless of your dog’s breed or interest in swimming, he should never be allowed in the water without constant supervision.

Teaching Your Dog to Swim

As with all dog training, you’ll enjoy the most success if you are patient and take it slow. Don’t start at the deep end to see how he does—a watery rescue could put him off swimming forever. Begin by taking your dog to the shallow end of the pool or a quiet section of a lake. The fewer distractions the better. It’s also best not to use the ocean as his classroom; the crashing waves and rushing water can be overwhelming.

The following process should occur over the course of several days if your dog shows any uneasiness. If he takes to swimming like a fish to water, then let him enjoy his new favorite activity while you keep a close eye on him. Swimming can tire out even the most athletic dogs.

Once you find a quiet spot, put a collar or harness and lead on your dog, and stash some treats and dog toys in your pocket. Using a reassuring voice, walk him into the water so his four feet are submerged, letting him get used to the feeling. You can use the treats and toys to either reward him when he goes deeper, or draw him out further if he’s slightly hesitant. Don’t ever force the issue—you can lead your dog to water, but you can’t make him swim. If he shows any signs of anxiety at any time, retreat to the previous step or take him out of the water.

When your dog appears comfortable with his paws in the water, walk him in a little deeper until his belly is in the water and reward him again with a treat or by tossing a favorite floating toy nearby. After he’s had time to adjust again, lead him deeper so his paws leave the bottom of the lake or pool. Here you’ll want to put your hand or arm under his belly for support. You may find he immediately starts doggie paddling like a champ. But he may need the support of your hand, arms, or a flotation device until he gets the hang of kicking his front and rear legs to stay afloat. As mentioned above, some dogs will never be able to swim unassisted by their human or a dog flotation device. And if you are taking your dog out on a boat, he should be wearing a life vest just like you.

Practice with your dog, slowly extending swimming sessions as he adjusts to this new form of exercise. Toss a ball into the water and slowly extend the distance of the throw. Have him swim repeatedly between you and the shore or the pool steps.

When Can You Teach a Puppy to Swim?

The earlier you introduce your puppy to water, the better! Start by putting your puppy in an empty wading pool and filling it with water slowly. Over the course of a few swimming sessions, fill it higher and higher. When he’s comfortable with a full wading pool, carry him into the big pool or lake and see how he does while you support him. Some puppies will immediately swim away from your arms, while others need a little more time to adjust. When he is comfortable, have him practice swimming by going in between you and another person.

Before long, your dog will be your favorite swimming buddy in the backyard pool or down at the local watering hole. Just remember to keep an eye on him, even if he’s a strong swimmer, and outfit him with a flotation device if he’s not. Then enjoy one of the most joyful sights of dog ownership—a dog leaping with gusto into the water.

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