Feb 262011
 

I am a passionate advocate of swimming your dog.  It is one of the very best all around exercise activities, it is a great way to cool them down on hot days, reduce parasites, keep your dogs clean, and generally have a great time.

The vast majority of dogs will learn to love swimming.  Some will take longer than others, and a few might never come to love it, but for most it will become a favorite activity and is well worth the time spent introducing.

First of all, there are a few things to avoid:

  1. Do not take your dog to the water—the first few times—unless you are ready to get wet.  I am amazed how many people I see on the beach trying to get their dogs to swim while the owners are wearing shoes and are running away from each wave.  You dog looks to you for leadership, and if you act like water is something to be avoided, they will too!  So make sure that, before you get anywhere near the water, you have removed your shoes, rolled up your pants, put on a swimsuit, or whatever else you need to do so that they will see you happily and enthusiastically entering the water.
  2. Do not force your dog—do not pull, push, drag, shove, or trick your dog into the water.
  3. Try to avoid the accidental entry.  Do not start out on a slippery dock, or a steep edge, or in a location where the surface of the water appears solid and your dog will try to run onto it and sink…

A few times before you head out to swim, take your dog to shallow water to splash around.  Warm, fun, shallow, where you can both run and play fetch and generally have a great time in the water.

Next, create an optimal situation for swimming:

  1. Pick a warm day. I know you may be excited, but rushing and trying to get them to enjoy going into the water when they are cold and uncomfortable will backfire.
  2. Select a great location:
    • Select water with no current or waves.
    • Pick reasonably warm water.
    • Look for a place with a gradual slope into the water so that they never have to step off a precipice—they just walk forward and find themselves swimming.
  3. Easy egress: a dog that feels trapped in a pool or other body of water is prone to panic and not want to get back in the water.
  4. In a perfect world, you find a pond that is narrow, so they do not have to turn around to exit, and can just swim a few feet across.  But these are hard to find, so if they have to turn it is not the end of the world.
  5. Take along a water loving dog, or a couple of water loving dogs. Seeing other dogs run and jump into the water can help your dog see that it is fun and not frightening.
  6. Have treats, floating kibble, and a few favorite toys in your pockets.

When you first arrive, head down to the water, enter right away, and start playing in the shallows.  Go out a few feet past where your dog can still stand, and lure him with whatever he finds most enticing.  Ideally you want him to swim just a stroke or two, get rewarded, and then swim back to solid ground so he know he can. Do this a few times, and then start gradually increasing the distance.  And really, that is it—once they are swimming comfortably you just start gradually increasing the distance and you are off to the races.  You may want to carefully introduce them to current and waves and dock diving, but essentially once they can swim these are all easy if you make them fun and go slowly.

Some dogs swim too vertically—instead of kicking with their rear legs and moving forward, they try to swim up and out of the water and their front feet come out of the water and splash and they get nowhere.  The key to helping these dogs is to motivate them forward—throw a ball or a treat so that they are focused on that and are pushing to get to the reward, and they will accidentally start moving forward, and will teach themselves that forward motion works better than vertical…  If necessary, you can support their rear slightly and help them to move forward.

It is possible that with some dogs, even after doing everything above, they will just not take that last step.  If this is the case, depending on your dog’s attitude, it may be time to force the issue:

  1. Find a creek crossing where your dog will have no choice but to swim or be left behind, and wade across.
  2. If your dog is of a size that he can be lifted, carry him out past the point where he would have to swim, face him towards shore, and gently set him in the water, still supporting him somewhat, and let him swim to shore.  Repeat this a few times.  Try to praise when he is swimming, not when he gets to shore.
  3. Find a pond where you can swim out and make them feel like you are leaving and call them to come to you.

I have had many dogs that needed no help—they just ran in and started swimming.  Some have taken a few trips, while a few have taken up to a year to really start loving water.  I have only had one dog over the years that never really came to like swimming.  He liked splashing and wading, but not swimming.  But in fairness, I do want to point out that the point of this is for your dog to have fun, so if your dog does not enjoy swimming, move on to another activity.  But most dogs, if you are a little patient and enthusiastic, will come to love swimming…

 

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 February 26, 2011  Posted by at 11:58 pm

  18 Responses to “Helping Your Dog Learn to Love to Swim”

  1. This is the kind of article I’ve been looking for. I was very disappointed that my Golden Retriever doesn’t care for swimming. I did all the steps you suggested and nothing worked. I have not yet “forced the issue” gently. I thought I’d wait until this season to see if she grew into it a bit. Swimming across the creek looks like a good one to try.

    Interestingly enough, Honey likes riding in the kayak with me. Since we want to do some serious boating with her, it might be a good thing for her not to be a swim-crazy dog. The last thing we want is for her to go jumping off a sailboat.

    • I had the best dog in the entire world when I was a kid… a Golden Retriever. My dad got him to be a fishing buddy, but he HATED water. He wouldn’t even cross a puddle! Weirdest thing… he was still the best lil’ pooch, ever. He thought he was a momma and snuggled our cat. My dad’s current Golden swims every day, in any type of body of water.

  2. wow amazing, how long did dog can hold up on water?

  3. I have a one year old female Belgian Sheepdog. She loves the shallow water, even goes on a boogie board but she does the vertical swimming as described in your article. I put a life vest on her because I am afraid she will drown.

    When she is vertical in the water and paddles strongly will she drown or can I just let her keep trying? I always took her out when she does.

    • Marion,

      I have never yet seen a Belgian that could not learn to swim reasonably well, but I am not quite willing to say for sure that yours is not the first, so I would be cautious until she gets it sorted out. I will say that we had a Malinois who swam vertically the first 5 swims of each year until he was 7 or 8. It was almost like he forgot how to swim confidently over the winter, and was worried he was going to sink so he was swimming upwards to stay above water. But after an hour in the water, being lured and encouraged to move forward towards a ball, he would regain his confidence…

  4. I followed the advice in this article. ….”carry him out past the point where he would have to swim, face him towards shore, and gently set him in the water, still supporting him somewhat, and let him swim to shore. Repeat this a few times. Try to praise when he is swimming, not when he gets to shore.”

    This did the trick and now 2 months later she is a super swimmer and dives of the back of the boat.

    Thanks,
    well written article!

  5. Thanks for this article! Our 1-year-old Standard Poodle hates going for a swim in Lake Michigan.

  6. Might want to note for people that some dogs CANNOT swim, most can but some like English bulldogs, pugs, and Bassetts try but sink, can like splashing and wading, but are easily traumatized or drowned in deep water. Others that are very dense can sink at first but can learn, like some pits, so it would be hard to teach them to like it if they have sunk before. Best to check on the dog type first.

  7. Thanks for the article. This summer we’re going to get our pit/lab mix to swim with us in the lake. Ironically, despite being half labrador retirever (a super-swimmer breed), she is afraid of water.

    One thing worth mentioning is to make sure that whoever is teaching the dog to swim is a good swimmer themselves. When we were teching my pit bull, Gracie to swim, she would come and climb into your arms or on your back to support herself while she paddled. Considering that she weighs 70 pounds, she could have drowned a bad swimmer. So if you’re teaching a big dog to swim, be prepared for that type of thing.

  8. Can you help me teach my Doberman how to swim? He tries to get on top of the waterand cant learn how to paddle?

  9. My miniature American Eskimo will swim only to get out of the water although she can swim fine she won’t stay in unless I pull her on a leash. She also swims to the sides and thinks those are exits so wherever we are in the pool she will swim to the side and try to hop out even though she can’t. Help please??

  10. Brooke , If she is only ever trying to swim out of the water, take it slow. Even though she only swims to get out, she knows she can swim. Find something she loves and only give her access to it by the pool. When she is more comfortable hanging around the pool, if possible start having her grab the chosen toy out of the water when she wants it. Then take the item a little farther out and only make her swim a short distance for it. If she is still too scared you might want to use steak or cheese to entice her enjoyment. Dogs are easy to teach. Once she connects the pool with fun and treats she will be jumping in the pool in no time.

  11. I have a new Zealand hunt-away cross kelpie and she hates swimming! I have always wanted a dog that would jump into the water and swim along side of me, but she hates it! If i try to pick her up she scratches me and jumps out of my hands when near the water. So how can i teach my dog indi to love the water!
    Ps we have a rather big salt water pool in our front yard that she drinks out of but barks when anyone goes in or splashes the water

  12. Thanks for your article. Describes exactly what I’ve been doing. My little terrier is super brave and will do anything I ask, so I did not accept that she can be scared of water. I knew that she could swim, because if she lost her footing when we crossed a stream, she would swim. I wanted her to learn to enjoy swimming, though. Our summers get very hot and there’s a beautiful dam at the end of one of our regular walks.
    I first got her to have fun – I’d throw bits of bread on the water and she would splash around and snap it up. I knew she wasn’t afraid of the water. But I could see she was disconcerted.
    Think of it from her doggie point of view: the mountain stream of clear water seems to offer a surface – there’s light dancing on the surface, but it is insubstantial – you can’t bite it or catch it. It is transparent, but your doggie depth-perception goes for a loop. You can see the bottom, you think you’re stepping onto a rock, but then you’re up to your neck in water. It is all very disconcerting. She would stand knee-deep in water on the edge of the dam and watch me swim and float. She would want to come to me, but when she puts her paw “on” the water it doesn’t float. Doesn’t make sense. She’d stand there slapping at the water as if she wants to get up onto it to walk on the surface. Now she is swimming very short circuits around me (to fetch a ball) and back to shore. She’s enjoying the sense of accomplishment and praise. It’s a small step from there to swimming for fun.

  13. my dogs hate the water… dont know if this will work

  14. I have a one year old pitbull. I have been teaching him to swim for a few months now but he is still afraid to go in above his head. He will go in as far as he can with still being able to touch bottom but as soon as he loses his footing he backs out of the water. He can play fetch in the water for hours though, as long as he can touch bottom. I recently purchased a life jacket for him so his head stays above water. Any other advise what I can do for him? I think he just doesn’t understand the concept of kicking his feet to stay above water. I have read a lot about throwing him into a lake/pond in deep water so he has no other choice but to kick his feet and swim but I DO NOT want to do that to him. I am positive he is fond of the water, but just doesn’t know how to actually SWIM.
    Thanks.

  15. Leslie, you’re absolutely right do NOT throw your dog in the water! I have heard life jackets help with confidence. If you can find dog-friends who are strong swimmers I think that would help. Just do not pressure him too much, in my opinion. If he likes water, it’s important that you ensure that he continues to like water.

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