At my parents pool this past weekend, talk turned to dogs as per usual. I told the family I was working on a post on how to teach dogs to swim, and my Dad chimed in —
“All dogs can swim.”
Uhm, sorry to disagree Dad, but not so! My childhood Golden Retriever Ginger fell in the pool when she was 6 months old. I reminded my Dad that he had to hold up her tail for a week because she thought swimming was an upright affair. Ginger would thrash about with her front legs way up in the air and her hind end nearly touching the bottom of the shallow end of the pool.
My Golden went on to be a great swimmer, and would dive off the diving board, up the ladder and off any dock I took her to. As a Retriever, she was indeed a natural swimmer. But even our wonderful retriever needed intervention in the beginning.
The caveat before we get to the good stuff.
Check with your vet. Swimming while great exercise, is a job for the fit and not for all dogs. Be extra careful with short snouted dogs who cannot breath well, and keep in mind that deep chested muscular dogs are going to have a harder time and may likely sink!
Step one, getting your dogs to like the water
Let’s face it, not all dogs like water. Consider starting with a child’s kiddie pool. Teach your dogs to get in and out on cue, as well as on their own. This will help you to cool them off on the doggiest days of summer. If you have other doggie friends that love the water, by all means have them around. Many a dog has learned to swim just by following a buddy. For some dogs being restrained on leash while their pals are out swimming and retrieving is all it takes. For some, once the leash is off, off they go swimming after their friends.
Next, get the dog interacting with the water. Following in a doggie friend, retrieving favorite toys, like a floating Kong slathered in peanut butter or gravy, are all good starting points. Try treats in the water. Floating cheese balls, and bobbing for sunken hot dogs work great for this. You can start in the kiddie pool and move onto the beach.
Your mileage with your dog will vary. Go slow and try not to freak your dogs out people!
Next step—depends on your dog
I am pretty sure my new rescue dog Beck never saw a body of water before. Like many herding dogs, he tried to herd waves, which in turn gave me a stomach stitch from laughing. Beck is a bold sort and the first time I took him to the ocean, he waded in after balls and the plop of a rock. Of course don’t ever let your dogs eat rocks!!! but rocks can be helpful to get them moving into the water. Beck and I just walked along the ocean and he explored on his own, with big praise for bringing me back a toy from near the shore. Waves can be really freaky to dogs at first, and I didn’t push any more that day and instead chose to teach him at my parent’s pool. It is a good idea to check the tide and go at dead low tide, and if going to a lake, try times that are less likely to have big waves from passing boats. I utilize a few choice locations where I can wade in to shallow water that gradually slopes, while they are getting their sea legs. If you don’t know of any such places near you, ask around.
Basically the first few times at the beach, I was just looking to make pleasant associations with being there. At Willard Beach, there were lots of other dogs fetching like fiends and Beck had a good look at them and nearly followed them in on his own.
At my parents pool I gave Beck some time to get used to the idea. Beck watched the kids intently and seemed quite interested in where they were and what they were doing. The first step in a pool is showing the dog how to get out. This is where the cheese doodles came in handy. I dropped them in at the top step and in short time Beck was standing on the step and having a comfy snack.
The next step may or may not work your YOUR dog. At this point, I picked up Beck and walked out about 15 feet and put him down pointing toward the shallow steps. Like my child hood golden, Beck’s front feet started thrashing and his hind end sunk. With very little help from me, I guided his hind up and off he swam to the steps. He got out shook, took a lap around the pool, and was no worse the wear. I have taught lots of dogs in this manner.
Once the dog is interacting with the water, and is no longer weirded out by water, try picking them up and carry them out over their heads and point them towards home. Beck has swam in the pool a few times now, each time with help from me. He has not offered to go in on his own but he seems to like it so we will keep at it.
Yes, by all means get one and use it. It will help your dog to gain confidence while learning. Some dogs need life jackets for life.
-Be aware of birds and wildlife around where you are. You don’t want your dog swimming out to sea or to the middle of the lake after a duck now do you? That can be quite dangerous. Use a lightweight floating long line if you think your dog may take a hike.
-Dog scratches in the water hurt and leave welts. Be careful to keep yourself and others away from your dog’s paws.
-Please be aware of how much water your dog is drinking. Dogs can DIE from water overdose!
-There are some dogs that will not enjoy swimming no matter how hard we try to teach them (I am looking at you Finney). I have seen my Collie swim when he finds himself in over his head, yet there is no way he finds swimming enjoyable. We need to respect that like people, not all dogs will love the water.
Special thanks to Sharlit Wagner for sharing photos of her new addition Virginia learning to swim.