Contrary to pup-ular belief, swimming is not a natural behavior for dogs. Although many dogs will instinctively paddle in water, they’re not always great at it! Most dogs require lessons from their older, wiser canine pals or, in this case, their #1 human. Some breeds like Retrievers, Setters, and even Newfoundlands were bred to be graceful swimmers. Others, bred for different purposes are more like barrels of rocks (we’re looking at you, pugs). If your dog is a short-legged, broad-chested Bulldog, Dachshund, Pug, or similar breed…he may never learn to swim. Their bodies just aren’t cut out for it. But hey, that’s what sprinklers and life vests are for! Give your vet a quick call to be sure your dog is up for the challenge before trying any of the following teaching techniques.
Step 1: Overcome Fear
“I hate baths, why would I enjoy this!?”Although many dogs were bred to be great swimmers, their fear of water can get in the way. Slowly introducing your dog to shallow water using a kiddie pool and their favorite treats or toys. Get into the pool yourself to show him that it’s safe and fun. Reward your dog with praise or a treat any time he comes near the water. If he doesn’t come in on his own, it’s okay to pick him up and then reward his amazing bravery! For really nervous swimmers, you can start with just an inch of water and work your way up. This could take some time, but slow and steady is the way to go. With a little luck, your dog will jump right in, but if it’s just not happening, don’t force it. Doing so will just create more anxiety around water. A professional behaviorist can help you get to the root of your dog’s fears and give you specific advice on how to handle them.
Step 2: Make Water Fun
Once your dog is comfortable in shallow water, use a life vest to help him gain confidence. Take your dog to a pool, lake, or bay and encourage him to follow you into the water, a little bit deeper each time. A makeshift ramp is a great way to make the shallow end of a pool more accessible. Use treats and praise to encourage his efforts and try to remain as calm as you can. The security of being wrapped up tightly and not having to worry about keeping his head above water gives him that confidence. If your dog likes playing fetch, you can toss his favorite ball or toy from the water, into another shallow part of the pool or lake. It’s all about creating fun association's little by little.
Step 3: Take The Plunge
Now that everybody’s cool with it, it’s time to learn to swim. With you by his side, encourage him to go deeper until he is paddling with the help of his life vest, and the security of his best friend. If he’s doing well with this, you can remove the life vest next time and hold him in deeper water. Place one hand under his belly and watch for him to start paddling. Don’t let go unless he appears to have steady, sure strokes. Flailing, nervous energy is a sign that he’s not ready. In some cases, he may need to keep the life jacket. If he begins paddling on his own however, use verbal praise and encourage him to swim to shore by your side. Always stay close enough to be able to support his body in case he begins to panic or shows signs of sinking. Take lots of breaks, and listen to his body language. If he wants out, carry him back and try again another day.
Step 4: Paddling Lesson
After swimming together multiple times over a very short distance, it’s time to perfect the paddle. Watch your dog’s paddling technique below the surface. It should look like his is running with all four legs under the water. If he’s only using his front paws, he’ll look like he’s pointing his head straight up in the air. Luckily, this common mistake is correctable. Remember learning to swim by kicking your back legs on a boogie board? You can help your dog learn in a similar fashion by placing your hands on the bottom of his back paws. Sometimes just the touch of your hands will encourage kicking, and other times you’ll have to help him move them back and forth. If he’s not catching on, return to the life vest and see if he manages to figure it out on his own.
Step 5: Learn To Navigate
When your dog is fully submerged, help him learn to navigate the water by encouraging him to follow you, or a treat, around the pool or lake. When he successfully propels himself forward or makes a turn, offer praise, and snuggles for a job well done!
When it comes to teaching your dog to swim, safety should be your top priority. Keep your lessons short, take plenty of breaks, and have lots of patience. Most importantly, never leave your dog unattended by the water, no matter how well they’re doing. An overly confident new swimmer can easily get into trouble without a lifeguard nearby.