The dog-swimming myth: It's not as easy as it looks

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to teach a dog to swim

Story at-a-glance -

  • Teaching your dog to swim is a multistep process that should start slowly and gradually build up to spending more time in the water
  • If your dog is a puppy, exposing him to water between the ages of 6 to 16 weeks can help him to get used to it and develop positive associations with being in the water
  • Start off in a few inches of water just getting your dog’s feet wet, then slowly move to deeper water
  • When your dog starts swimming, support him under his midsection until he is confident and using all four limbs to swim; do not leave your dog unattended in the water
  • Some dogs may never be confident swimmers and will always need a doggy life jacket on when around the water

Swimming is excellent exercise for dogs, providing both physical and mental stimulation. But contrary to popular belief, not all dogs take naturally to the water. In fact, depending on their body type, they might not be suited to be a strong swimmer, and depending on their personality, they might love the water or despise it.

Many dogs, however, both enjoy the water and are strong swimmers, though not all of them start out that way. Teaching your dog to swim is a multistep process that should start slowly and gradually build up to spending more time in the water. Keep in mind that some dogs may never be confident swimmers and will always need a doggy life jacket on when around the water.

Is your dog suited for swimming?

Before you get your heart set on having your dog as a swimming buddy, take a look at his physique. Brachycephalic breeds and other short-muzzled dogs, top-heavy breeds and those with short legs, including bulldogs, pugs, Dachshunds and boxers, generally have difficulty staying afloat.

Small breeds may also need assistance in the water, as they get easily chilled and some are frightened of the water. Puppies and elderly dogs may also need extra help in the water.

On the other hand, medium-to-large sized breeds with water-resistant coats and webbing between their toes are typically strong swimmers. Some dog breeds that tend to love the water include Newfoundlands, standard poodles, the Portuguese water dog and Labrador retrievers.

Getting your dog used to the water

If your dog is a puppy, exposing him to water between the ages of 6 to 16 weeks can help him to get used to it and develop positive associations with being in the water.1 If your dog is older and new to the water, take it slowly, starting with just a few inches of water to get his feet wet — literally! A baby pool or even a bathtub can work well for this.

Plan to accompany your dog in the water when teaching him to swim. As noted by Whole Dog Journal, "There is no faster way to make a dog fear water than to drop him into it. Believing all dogs are 'natural swimmers,' there are people who try to teach their dogs to swim by doing exactly this. Never drop your dog into water; it is cruel and may quickly end his swimming career before it starts."2

Once your dog is comfortable in a few inches of water, you can gradually go deeper. Use praise and treats to reward him as he ventures into the water, and stay by his side in case he needs assistance. If possible, find a location where your dog can wade in gradually (as opposed to a pool step that has a steep drop off).

You can also bring toys along. If your dog enjoys fetching, toss his ball out a short distance and let him retrieve it. If your dog shows signs of hesitation or anxiety, don't push it. Retreat to shallower water until he is relaxed and then try again.

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Teaching your dog to swim

Once your dog is comfortable in the water, it's time to move on to actual swimming. Many dogs will naturally dog paddle to stay afloat, but while your dog is still learning, support him under his midsection until he seems confident and is using all four limbs to swim. Speak to him in a positive, calm voice and continue to offer praise and floating toys as he swims about.

Your dog may take to the water instantly, or it could take several days of practice for your dog to swim. Once your dog is swimming comfortably with support, allow him to swim to you on his own and practice having him return to the shore when you call him.

Even if you consider your dog to be a strong swimmer, do not leave him unattended in the water, and if he'll be swimming in a natural body of water such as a lake or the ocean, I recommend using a life jacket with a handle to protect him from strong currents or steep drop-offs.

While your dog is learning to swim, you can attach a leash or long line to the life jacket (or to a harness) so you can pull your dog in if he gets distracted or cannot reach the shore on his own.

Swimming safety precautions

Swimming is hard work, so be aware that your dog may tire quickly. Avoid having him swim out too far, where he could grow tired and be unable to get back to shore. If you have a backyard pool, install a ramp that you dog can use for an exit, and teach him to use it. Also be sure to keep the pool area fenced so he cannot fall in accidentally.

Bring plenty of water for your dog to drink during swimming sessions, and keep a close eye to be sure he's not consuming too much of the pool, ocean or lake water. Doing so can lead to water intoxication or saltwater poisoning, both of which can be fatal. Also, do not let your dog swim in lakes, streams or ponds that have algae growing on the surface. Although some algae are nontoxic, exposure to certain types of blue-green algae can cause life-threatening or fatal illness in pets.

When your dog is done swimming, give him a rinse with fresh water to remove chlorine and other contaminants from his fur. With the proper precautions taken, you and your dog can enjoy swimming sessions together. The more time your dog spends in the water, the stronger a swimmer he's likely to become, but if you've tried to teach your dog to swim and he simply isn't built for it, it's OK to let him hang out on dry land, too.

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