Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Turning Your Dog Into a Natural Swimmer
There are skills that come naturally to a dog. For instance, no dog ever needs to be taught how to dig. No dog ever needs to be taught how to mark its territory. These are what ethologists refer to as ‘motor patterns’.
Swimming, however, is a different affair. Water is not a canine’s natural habitat. Yet, there are certain breeds that happen to be more of an exception than the rule. They are comfortable either way, whether on land or in water. These make for great swimmers. Examples include Newfoundlands and Labrador Retrievers. For a comprehensive list of dog breeds that are naturally adapted to swimming check out this list compiled by the American Kennel Club.
Other breeds like Scottish Terriers and Dachshunds belong on the other end of the spectrum. The APSCA also lists Pugs and other Brachycephalic dogs as natural non-swimmers. Some breeds are further challenged by their physical characteristics like having short legs, as is the case with Corgis.
Still, dogs can also enjoy the very same hydrotherapeutic benefits that their human counterparts do. Swimming can be loads of fun and an ideal way for a dog to offset hot weather conditions. It is a healthy exercise and promotes their wellbeing.
Swimming builds the physique, tones and develops the muscles, increases stamina, and eliminates excess fat. For dogs with stiff joints, the activity is preferable to walking as it gives them an alternative range of motion without having to bear their own weight.
The ability to swim can be life-saving especially for dogs that live around swimming pools or near water bodies like ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes. Prevention is always better than cure. The training adds a layer of safety. One does not have to wait until their furry companion’s casual trot along a slippery edge results in loss of footing and drowning.
Swimming is an activity you can start practicing with your pet and eventually be able to play fetch as comfortably in water as on terra firma. Whether it is joining you in boat rides, plunging confidently on cue, or swimming alongside you as a companion, waterborne skills are a wholesome way to go for your pet.
If your dog hasn’t quite figured out its way around water, here are practical steps you can take to turn it into a natural swimmer.
- Identify a suitable setting
- Make the necessary preparations
- Provide initiatory guidance
- Instruct and incentivize
- Take appropriate precautions
1. Identify a Suitable Setting
The setting of the training is essential. Kiddie pools or swimming pools are excellent for the introduction, so are shallow water bodies with still waters.
Oceans, seas, or rivers with rushing waves would not be ideal, as the noise and force of the water can become a permanent deterrent. Moreover, in the case of the larger water bodies, a dog may take in too much seawater, be caught in a rip current, or harmed by the creatures along the shore.
The catchment area of your choosing should be comprised of clean water. Avoid bodies that contain bacteria, viruses, or blue-green algae, all of which are physiologically harmful. It is also not recommended to practice in chlorinated or salty water.
Avoid places where the water is chilly, tends to flow too fast, or where the depth cannot be properly determined. If anything unforeseen was to take place, it should be in an area where the canine can easily be rescued or retrieved back to safety. A dog should never be left unsupervised near any body of water, natural or man-made.
If the objective is to eventually make your pet accustomed to oceans or seas, the knowledge of the specific times the tides rise and fall is essential. Bear in mind also, that the sand along a beach can be quite uncomfortable for a dog on a particularly hot day. Extra precaution is also required because courageous dogs can easily wade in too far and be swept away by rising waves before help can reach them.
As mentioned before, temperature is an important factor to consider. The water should neither be too hot nor too cold. Similarly, the prevailing weather conditions of the area need to be taken into account both in terms of duration and intensity.
Another way to encourage your dog to learn is to attend organized group swimming lessons where both of you will be able to interact with other pets and their owners. There is strength in numbers and training with others will keep the morale going.
There are also a number of sport training centers for dogs where they can learn all aspects of swimming as taught professionally by experts. These include hydrotherapy and recreation centers with programs designed to keep the canine respiratory and cardiovascular systems in proper functioning order. It is encouraging for the dog to practice swimming alongside canines with various levels of competency. This is an effective means of boosting confidence.
2. Make the Necessary Preparations
Swimming is an activity that draws from the fortitude of body systems. It is therefore advisable from the outset to ensure your pet is adequately covered by health insurance and is current with vaccinations. A routine checkup at the vet could also help to rule out any medical anomalies prior to the swimming lessons.
It is always best to begin training your pet when it is still a puppy. As alluded to before, this can be done by procuring a small kiddie pool where it can play often and get used to being in the water. You could also use a regular or inflated bathtub for this.
The advantage of engaging a dog in its formative stages is that it will not yet have developed any aversions to water. Once it has come of age and is already accustomed to playing with water, it will be easier to introduce it to larger water bodies.
However, even if your dog has never been trained as a puppy, it can still learn the fundamentals of swimming and develop competence. The place to begin the training is at the shallow end. Progress from this level only after your dog can remain afloat without submerging. Avoid starting off at the deep end because if a mishap occurs there, the dog may never want to see or feel water again.
Bear in mind that the dog may be inclined to lap up the water, especially if it happens to be a hot day. This may not be healthy, because of the substances and micro-organisms that tend to be present in water bodies as well as the chemicals that are found in pools.
Ingesting one wrong thing can set off a chain of medical problems including diarrhea and internal organ failure. To avoid this eventuality, ensure your dog receives a lot of clean drinking water and is fully hydrated prior to starting the lesson. This also applies to all future swimming excursions.
3. Provide Initiatory Guidance
Guide your dog with the leash slowly and steadily into the water until the point where its paws are no longer able to make contact with the bottom. We will look into how your pet can be supported at this level. Let it remain there for a while and then move it back to firm ground again.
If it is the very first time, the initial reaction will be for the dog to attempt keeping afloat by using its front legs, while the hind legs remain stationary. Unfortunately, this is typically how dogs drown, because the inactive hindquarters become an encumbering weight that carries them under the surface. The goal of this session is to bring the dog to the point where it is able to use all four of its legs to swim, because this is how it will be able to overcome the discomfort.
Suspension can be achieved as follows. At the point where the dog can no longer wade, hold it up gently by the belly, making sure that its head does not submerge under the surface. Your pet’s natural reaction at this stage will be to move its legs about in an effort to remain afloat. Keep holding it steady while it paddles, until it is able to keep itself suspended without any assistance. You may need to repeat the procedure a few times for the lesson to crystallize.
Once its time in the water is over, the dog needs to be completely dried. This is especially so on cool days during which it could succumb to chills. Microfiber towels are ideal for this as they are light and can be conveniently packed for excursions. They are also easier and faster to clean and dry than other towels.
Additionally, you could consider procuring a moisture-absorbent coat that your pet can wear on the way back home. Remember to thoroughly wash and rinse the dog with fresh water in order to remove all bleaching agents, salt, and other substances that may have found their way onto its fur and skin.
It makes a difference when the leader of the pack ventures in first and then gives the cue to the follower. Your presence alongside your pet, your supportive hands and encouraging voice will quell anxieties and make the learning process easier.
4. Instruct and Incentivize
As previously stated, one key way of encouraging a dog to overcome its fears and make progress is by being a participant. After all, as they say, this is the mentality that separates leaders from managers. It makes a difference when the leader of the pack ventures in first and then gives the cue to the follower. Your presence alongside your pet, your supportive hands, and your encouraging voice will quell anxieties and make the learning process easier.
Another method is to motivate your pet using a favorite toy. Naturally, the toy has to be floatable and should not be tossed too far, but within a reasonable distance that can be covered. As your pet’s abilities improve, you will be able to toss it further from the shallow end and have it fetched successfully. The dog may eventually be the one that prompts you to play the game in the future.
If the dog still hesitates to enter the water by itself after the initial tries, don’t let this discourage you. Being patient is what will enable your pet to develop the confidence it needs to succeed. It is just a matter of time before your furry friend starts plunging in boldly and unaided.
Remember to offer the dog a reward every time it attempts to get into the water and to verbally encourage every progress it makes thereafter. In this way, the dog will learn to associate water interaction with positive results, which in turn accelerates the mastery of the skills.
5. Take Appropriate Precautions
Some dogs catch on the training faster than others, depending on factors such as type of breed and developmental background. The process can be broken down and applied in stages over a couple of days to prevent the dog from being swamped (pun intended). There is no pressure and things do not have to turn out perfectly at the beginning.
Consider having the dog in a life vest and leashed so that both of you can stay close to each other as you start wading gently through the water. For your pet, prior experience with floatation devices is a plus. To get your dog used to a life vest, make it wear it occasionally while on land. Encourage your dog with treats and verbal compliments when it stays with the life vest.
Avoid pushing or dragging your dog into the water as this can cause panic and thrashing. Also, observe your dog’s actions and reactions while in the water. If it shows signs of considerable weariness or anxiety, or perhaps has an intense reaction, simply remove it from the pool and start again when it is calmer.
Don’t be concerned about repetitions. If strain or fatigue occurs in the deep end, turn and guide it back to the shallow end again. Avoid rushing the training if you sense hesitation or fear. Customize your training approach and pace to match what the dog is able to cope with at a given time.
If you are using a pool that has steps or a ladder, it is best for your dog to be aware of this beforehand. Practice using this exit in the shallow end a few times until the canine can emerge without assistance. This is necessary because a sense of being ‘trapped’ in the water without a way out can be frightful and can lead to desperate impulsive actions.
Be careful not to leave your pet swimming in the water for too long as this can lead to ear infections, itchy skin, and discolored eyes. Canines can also end up ingesting much water to the detriment of their health. Such outcomes can create a negative association and affect any confidence the dog may have interacting with water in the future.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.