Can All Dogs Swim? How to Teach a Dog to Swim

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Does your dog run with excitement to every body of water in sight? Maybe you can’t walk past a creek or pond without your pup diving in. Or maybe your dog treats water like the enemy and will do anything to stay dry. Every dog is different and not all are born with a love of getting wet. But can all dogs swim?

Depending on their breed, your dog might be a natural in the water or swimming might be challenging. However, whether your dog enjoys taking the plunge or prefers staying on land, it’s essential for safety that your dog learn to be comfortable in and around water.

You might want to go boating together, go to the beach, or enjoy a cottage vacation. You might even have a backyard swimming pool or visit somebody who does. Read on for pointers for training dog swimming skills and tips on water safety.

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Not Every Breed Is a Natural Swimmer

If you think about a breed’s traditional purpose, it becomes obvious that some will be drawn to the water. Certain breeds were born to swim because they were developed for jobs in and around water. Consider the Labrador Retriever or the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. These dogs were bred to retrieve water birds for the hunter.

Some breeds even have “water” in their name, like the Portuguese Water Dog, which was developed to work in the water as a fisherman’s helper, or the Irish Water Spaniel, which has a distinctive curly and water-repellent coat. These dogs have the physical structure to be excellent swimmers, and most will love nothing more than playing in the water.

According to Michele Godlevski, NADD Dock Diving Judge, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant, and owner of Teamworks Dog Training in Raleigh, NC, some breeds seem to know how to swim from the moment they see a body of water.

Other dog breeds just don’t see the point of swimming. “There are also some breeds who have a weight distribution that would not make it possible for them to swim very well without a life vest.” Short-legged or long-bodied breeds can also struggle in the water. So, can all dogs swim? Although it’s a myth that all dogs are natural swimmers, with a life vest and some dog swimming lessons from you, every breed should be able to get around safely in the water.

The Importance of a Dog Life Jacket or Life Vest

Godlevski says a canine life jacket or dog life vest is always a good idea. What’s the difference between dog life vests and dog life jackets? Life jackets cover more of the dog, help them float, and keep them visible in the water. This is ideal for boating and similar activities. And dog life vests are a bit lighter, cover a bit less of your pet, and tend to be better suited for pool swimming and relaxed activities.

For Godlevski, purchasing and fitting a dog flotation device is the first step in her dog swimming lessons. She advises, “Buy a doggie life vest that fits your dog comfortably. No matter what breed you have, you always want that first experience to be fun, and not scary.”

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This means never tossing your dog in the water and letting them figure things out on their own. According to Godlevski, “Throwing a puppy or young dog in the water is not only a terrible idea, but it may, in fact, damage the dog’s courage about swimming for life.”

Godlevski has taught many dogs to swim over the years, and she strongly believes that dog swimming is all about courage. Which is another reason for the life jacket. A first-time swimmer in a life vest will have more confidence and therefore feel braver than one without a dog life jacket.

Even dogs who seem confident, such as those who run into the water as they chase a toy or another dog, can end up in trouble. Godlevski says, “They often just chase that dog right into the water without realizing that the surface has changed.” You don’t want your dog to panic upon realizing the ground has disappeared.

Godlevski says, “In my experience, dogs who run into the water for the first time, do so like a cartoon character running off a cliff. In other words, the drop-off is a complete surprise.” Dogs in a life vest will simply float while they get their bearings and realize they can paddle their feet. But the dog without a flotation device might panic, gulp water, and drown in the few seconds it takes for the paddling reflex to kick in.

Another reason for the life vest for a newbie dog swimmer? What Godlevski calls “front-wheel drive.” In other words, dogs learning to swim only paddle their front feet while their rear legs dangle down, usually trying to find the bottom. “On the other hand, if you have a life vest on a dog, the dog’s back stays level with the water. When the dog’s back is level, it occurs to the dog that they actually do have ‘four-wheel drive’ and all four paws paddle. Before you know it, your dog is moving through the water smoothly and confidently.”

Choosing a Dog Flotation Device

Whether your dog is a swimming breed just starting out or a breed that needs some extra buoyancy, be sure to choose the most suitable style of life jacket or life vest. And even the experienced swimmer should have a properly fitting life vest.

Your dog might become tired or get disoriented and the extra buoyancy will help with safety and confidence. Finally, a doggie flotation device is essential for boating. If your dog falls overboard, there could be rough water or strong currents, and that life vest could be a lifesaver.

What should you look for in a dog life jacket? Choose one that is durable and made of waterproof materials. It should also be adjustable so you can ensure a snug fit on your dog. Consider a canine life vest with reflective trim if you plan on any evening water-based activities. Along the same lines, a dog life jacket made of brightly colored fabric is a bonus for visibility. You might also look for an extra flotation piece under the chin to help keep your dog’s head above water if that kind of extra support is needed.

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Also, ensure the device has a handle. This can help you lift your dog out of the water, grab them if they’re struggling, and guide them as they are learning to swim. But Godlevski advises the handle should be sturdy enough to actually lift the dog out of the water. You might also look for a D-ring that will allow you to attach a leash. That can be useful at public beaches, for example.

Teaching Your Dog to Swim

When you start dog swimming lessons, it’s key that you entice your flotation device-wearing dog into the water. Whether it’s playing with you or with a toy, create a situation that encourages your dog to enter the water on their own. Godlevski suggests, “Bring a toy or a ball. If your dog will come to you from the shore or edge, you can carry the dog around in the water, holding the handle of the life vest, to allow your dog to paddle.”

Don’t pull your dog into the water. Also, be sure to wear a life vest of your own. If your dog panics, they might climb on you to escape. Particularly with a large dog, this scenario can put your safety at risk.

Another method Godlevski recommends is finding a friend with a dog who is already a confident swimmer. “Arrange a time for your dog to watch the other dog swim. If the two dogs are friendly, let your dog follow the other dog around, wearing a life vest.” With this technique, your dog can watch and learn, but even more importantly, see how fun the water can be.

If possible, start in shallow water and be close to your dog. Let your dog get used to simply having wet feet. Don’t move out of the shallows until your dog seems happy where they are. Encourage gradual movement into deeper water, and use lots of praise and positive reinforcement – if you reward your dog for being in the water, your dog wants to go in the water again. Anytime your dog seems overwhelmed, move to shallower water or the dry land and let your dog calm down before trying again.

It’s also important to teach your dog how to exit the water. Godlevski advises pointing your dog to the shore or pool ramp while you’re swimming together. If you’re not able to enter the water with your dog, she says it’s important you stay near the exit to help your dog find the way. Continue to repeat these steps until your dog understands how to get out of the water.

There are many places to teach your dog to swim, from the lake to the pool, but Godlevski advises that it definitely helps to have a gradual slope into the water. In addition, she says the bright blue water in a pool can look unnatural to dogs, which may make them reluctant to get in. (Another reason to get in there with them!) However, she stresses, “Usually a pond or lake seems a bit more natural for the dog, but water is water. If they don’t like being wet, it doesn’t matter what color the water is!”

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Water Safety Tips for Dogs

There are a number of precautions to take whenever you have your dog in or near water. The first is temperature. Godlevski advises making sure the water temperature plus the air temperature equals at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit before letting your dog swim.

When the water temperature is too cold, you risk your dog suffering from cold tail, also known as limber tail or swimmer’s tail. This is a condition where the tail will droop and no longer wag or lift up. Your dog could also experience hypothermia, which is even more serious. Godlevski says puppies are particularly sensitive, and she cautions, “If your dog jumps into water that is too cold and begins to shiver or not use his tail, please see a veterinarian immediately.”

Water toxicity is another issue Godlevski advises watching out for. This is when a dog swallows too much water while swimming. A common sign is throwing up after swimming. To prevent water toxicity, Godlevski suggests keeping swimming sessions short, 10 minutes maximum.

Also, she says, “Do not throw a large toy in the water for your dog. A flat, small toy, like a soft flying disc, is best. After your dog comes out of the pool, you can feed your dog some dehydrated or freeze-dried food, to help absorb the excess water in the stomach.”

And of course, if your dog is swimming in a natural body of water, Godlevski says to be cautious of other critters such as water snakes or snapping turtles. There can even be alligators in saltwater or inland coastal waters in the south. And the ocean can present even more dangers.

Finally, Godlevski says fish hooks with bait on them are another risk in natural bodies of water. “Dogs will gobble up fish bait—hook, line, and sinker—before you know what happened. If this happens, get to the emergency vet as soon as possible.” Never leave your dog unsupervised in or near the water and keep your eyes peeled for hazards.

And whenever your dog is outside in the sun, be sure to provide access to shade as well as fresh, clean drinking water. Your dog might otherwise be tempted to sip from the pool, ocean, or lake, and that isn’t the healthiest choice. And don’t forget the sun protection. Hairless breeds like the Chinese Crested or even light-coated dogs can get bad sunburns. And Godlevski says not to forget to put sunscreen formulated for dogs on the pink nose of any dog, as dog sunblock helps protect your pup.

So, what if your dog never takes to swimming despite all your lessons and encouragement? They may still enjoy water-side activities or a sized-down version of taking a swim, particularly on a hot summer’s day. Godlevski suggests a cooling jacket or a plastic kiddie or dog pool. “While some dogs love a baby pool, many dogs are afraid of the slippery surface. You can make that surface less scary by putting kennel decking or a rubber drainage mat, the kind with circular holes in it, on the bottom to provide traction for your dog.”

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>