By Dr. Becker
Some people mistakenly believe all dogs have a “swimming gene” and are born with the natural ability to swim.
But the reality is that while most dogs instinctively make a paddling motion if they happen to wind up in water, it’s often the extent of their ability to swim. Not every dog paddle is effective at keeping the animal afloat, and many dogs have no idea how to move toward shore or the side of the pool.
In my experience, dogs generally fall into one of three categories when it comes to swimming. There are dogs that naturally take to the water, those who just aren’t built for the water and should stay safely ashore (unless in a hydrotherapy tank with a therapist hovering nearby), and dogs who can be taught to swim.
There are always exceptions to every rule, of course. There are dogs bred for water work who are terrified of the wet stuff. And there are those that by design shouldn’t be able to swim, but manage to anyway.
Breeds Known to Be Good Swimmers
Medium-to-large sized breeds with water-resistant coats and webbing between their toes are typically strong swimmers. These dogs have been bred for water work and include most retrievers, including the lab, the golden, and the Chesapeake Bay retriever.
Dogs with “water” in their breed names are a given. These include the Portuguese Water Dog, the Spanish Water Dog, the Irish Water Spaniel, and the American Water Spaniel.
Newfoundlands, despite their giant size, are also great swimmers. Other breeds comfortable in the water include English and Irish setters, the standard poodle, and the Schipperke.
Breeds Not Built for the Water
Dogs that aren’t designed for swimming include “top heavy” breeds – those with large chests and small hindquarters. Short muzzled dogs, including the brachycephalic breeds, and dogs with very short legs also don’t do well in water.
For example, bulldogs, dachshunds and boxers are generally not able to stay afloat. Brachy breeds like the pug tend to tire easily due to the abnormal structure of their respiratory organs.
Many small dogs can be very good swimmers, but because they get chilled easily and tend to be frightened in the water, they don’t always do so well.
Getting Your Dog Used to the Water
Go slow in the beginning. Always use a PFD (personal flotation device, or life preserver). The goal is to discover whether your dog enjoys the water and whether he has the build and aptitude for swimming. Even if your pet is a recognized swimmer like a retriever, you should never simply drop a dog who has never been in water into the pool or the lake.
Some natural swimmers need no coaxing to go into the water, but other dogs bred for swimming need to get used to the water gradually. The first time you take your dog to the lake, if she’s hesitant at the shoreline, try wading in yourself and encourage her to follow you. If she does, give her plenty of praise.
Get her used to the feel of the water in a shallow spot, then gradually work her into deeper water. If she’s moving around well and seems comfortable, you can throw a floating toy or ball or even a stick out for her to fetch. If she swims out to the object and retrieves it, call her and encourage her to swim back to you. Praise her liberally when she reaches you.
If your dog is a natural in the water, it won’t be long before she’s diving in on her own every chance she gets.
An alternative to going into the water yourself is to try bringing your pet around a group of swimming dogs. Some dogs easily get the hang of being in water in the presence of other dogs swimming around them.
If your dog isn’t a breed recognized for being good in the water, you can try introducing him very gradually, but my recommendation is to stay right with him and start out with your pet in a flotation vest. If he seems comfortable and can move around well, he’ll probably enjoy swimming. If he’s mostly scared, shivering and looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, he may need more time to get used to the water – or he may never enjoy it.
My dog Rosco (a brachycephalic Boston Terrier), instantly loved swimming, despite the fact he couldn’t respire well during the activity. We had to condition his body to the sport of recreational swimming, allowing his muscles, heart and lungs to coordinate their abilities before we took his life preserver off.
If you have a breed that isn’t physically built for swimming, my recommendation is to keep him on dry land. The water is dangerous for dogs that can’t stay afloat or tire out before they can swim to safety. If you do bring your non-swimmer to the lake or the beach or even out to your backyard pool, I recommend putting a dog flotation vest on him as we did with Rosco, until we knew he was able to swim without risk.
Even Michael Phelps tires out, so don’t be overconfident that your pet can handle anything in the water. Even the best canine swimmer can get very tired – especially in deep water. Older dogs and puppies tire more easily than adult dogs, and special care must be taken not to let them overdo it.
If you take your dog boating, no matter how great she is in the water, I recommend you use a dog flotation vest except for those times when the boat is anchored for swimming – and you’re keeping an eye on her. Dogs can fall into the water unnoticed, and if you’re at cruising speed, by the time you realize your pet isn’t onboard, it could be too late to save her. A flotation vest will help her stay on top of the water and will also help you spot her more easily.
If your dog is swimming in unfamiliar water, beware of strong currents, steep drop-offs, and any other potential dangers that could pull your pet under or sweep her away before you can get to her.
For Canine Landlubbers
Even if your dog isn’t built for the water or just doesn’t like it, he can still hang out at the lake or around the pool with you as long as you take some precautions.
Make sure he’s in a flotation vest just in case, has plenty of cool, clean water to drink, access to shade, and can walk around without burning the bottoms of his feet. If he starts to heat up, fill a container with water and gently pour it over him, starting at the back of the neck and working toward the tail. Then have him roll onto his back and drench his belly in cool water as well.
Whether your dog is on land or on the water, be alert for signs of heatstroke.