Learn How To Teach A Dog To Swim - In A Few Easy Steps
Living in Australia, it’s hard not to love all things water related… but what to do if your dog is a total newbie? No worries, today is all about how to teach your dog to swim.
Here’s what you should know
Why Should My Dog Learn To Swim?
If you don’t plan on taking your dog to the beach, it might feel like teaching them to swim is unnecessary. However, just like with kids, pups should know their way around a pool or lake at least. In general, swimming is fun for dogs, will help them exercise and improve their health. On the other hand, it’s also a safety issue: if for any reason your dog were to fall into a body of water, you could be sure they are able to keep themselves afloat while you get to them.
Some people think dogs can swim by instinct, meaning they don’t need any teaching. This is a myth, and a dog can in fact drown if they’ve never swum before. Swimming lessons, even with a vest, will help your dog grasp the basics and keep them reasonably safe in case of an accident.
Dog Swimming 101. What You Need To Know
Like people, all healthy dogs can learn to swim in some capacity. But unlike humans, dog breeds have been genetically modified to adapt to specific work environments. This means some heavier, large-boned breeds might have a harder time learning to swim, while water dogs will learn faster and enjoy it more.
If you don’t know if your dog’s breed will help them learn to swim, look at their name. retrievers for example were specifically bred to retrieve water birds from lakes. Other breeds were developed to work as a fisherman’s helper and have a distinctive curly and water-repellent coat. These include Portuguese water dogs and poodles. On the other hand, other breeds prefer staying on land and you will have to lure them in with treats to teach them to be comfortable in and around water. Of course, some dogs are not able to swim at all due to physical inability.
PRO TIP: Before taking your dog for a lap, talk to your vet for a health clearance. Most healthy dogs should have no issues, but certain breeds -like those with a flat muzzle- need special care to ensure swimming is safe.
Safety comes first
To ensure your dog never feels afraid while in the water, you should always guarantee a safe, easy way for them to get in and out of the water. Don’t teach your dog to jump into the pool, and use steps. If you teach them to get in using the steps, they’ll know how to get out when they need to through that same spot.
Remember that dogs cannot pull themselves out of the side of a pool, nor they can use pool ladders. This is a serious safety hazard: dogs can drown if they can’t find how to get out and are exhausted from swimming.
PRO TIP: Cement blocks work just as well as commercial steps to provide your dog with a safe point of entry to the water. In all cases, steps should be secure, stable and strong enough to support well beyond your dog’s weight.
Life jackets should be a basic
Even if your dog is a great swimmer, a good life vest is essential particularly if you out boating. A life jacket will help keep your dog afloat when they get tired of swimming, and might even save their life. Get your pup used to the jacket by putting it on while on dry land, and using a treat as positive reinforcement.
Related: Best Dog Life Jackets Australia.
PRO TIP: Choose the right life jacket size for your dog. Too big and it will slip off, too small and it will rub under their legs. You should also make sure the vest has a handle and a D-ring to attach a leash if you need to.
Swimming is a great exercise for your dog
Many vets recommend swimming for dogs because it’s an excellent physical and mental exercise. In fact, swimming is highly beneficial for dogs that need to lose weight or cannot do other types of heavy exercise. Special treatments like hydrotherapy can be used in rehabilitation after orthopaedic surgery, as well as to improve muscle and joint diseases like arthritis, because the water relieves the pressure on your dog’s joints.
The dangers of swimming
While swimming has many benefits, it might also pose some health concerns for your dog. This is especially true for pups that swim in pools, because the water is heavily chlorinated.
The chlorine that keeps your pool clean can destroy the lipidic layer that coats their hair and skin. In turn, this lowers moisture levels and exposes their skin to irritation, allergies and eczema.
On the other hand, a study that reported the side effects of swimming pools in 412 dogs, found dry hair, dry skin and abrasion wounds at the armpit that increased with swimming frequency. Dogs that go to the pool and beach are also at a higher risk of red eyes and otitis.
Pro tips to take your dog to the pool
- rinse your pup with clean water after swimming to remove excess chlorine and other chemicals. You should also do this after the beach and the lake.
- If possible, thoroughly wet your dog before getting them into the water. Saturating their fur with clean water keeps it from absorbing too much pool or beach water, and improves their skin health in the long run.
- Keep your dog hydrated. The chlorine in pools and the salt of the ocean can dehydrate your dog, so offer clean drinking water before, during and after swimming.
Step By Step. How To Teach Your Dog To Swim
Step 1. Get them used to the life jacket
Buy a good dog life jacket and get them used to it before everything else. This entails slipping it on and making it a positive experience, offering treats and praise for leaving the vest on. All further training will be done with the vest on.
Step 2. Find a kiddie pool and start training
Blow up the kiddie pool but don’t fill it with water yet. Then, train your dog to get in and out. Offer a treat every time they follow your cues, until they associate the pool with positive things.
Step 2. Fill the pool with a bit of water
Only fill it up a few centimetres, enough to cover your dog’s paws. Then let your dog get in and play. Make the whole experience more fun using toys, offering treats and praise. The goal here is to get your dog used to the feeling of water. You should use an anti-slip surface at the bottom of the pool to keep your dog from slipping around. Progressively increase the water level to get your dog used to it.
Step 3. Move to the larger pool
Once your dog is comfortable stepping in water, you can teach him to enter the large pool. You should do this by getting into the pool yourself, then prompting your dog to follow you. Use praise, toys or treats to convince them to get in. remember to only use secure steps to teach your dog to get in and out of the pool.
Step 4. Move to the deeper end
Remember, your dog still has the vest on. Now, once they’re comfortable standing inside the pool, encourage your dog to go to the deeper end at their own pace. This involves offering treats and cheering if your dog tries to swim towards them into the deeper end. Keep these sessions to 5 minutes at most, to prevent your dog from getting too tired.
Step 5. Help them swim with support
Repeat step 5 while holding a treat or toy in front of your pup. Hold their vest up to provide support while they move their legs and start swimming. For larger dogs, this would need two people.
Step 6. Repeat and slowly remove the support
As your dog gets better at swimming with help, gradually let them do it on their own. Step in if they look tired or stressed, and reassure them you’re there to help them. Try to reinforce them using their back legs. You can help him learn to use his back paws by placing your arm under their belly so they are horizontal, holding onto the life jacket handle and/or moving his hind legs until he realizes what you're doing. It should look vs if your dog is doing a running motion under the water.
Step 7. Teach your dog to get out by themselves
This can be done at any point, but it’s easier when they already feel comfortable in the water. To encourage your pup, throw a toy up the steps and praise them when they go after it. Repeat this step a lot, since it’s the only way to know for sure they understand. Knowing how to get out of the water will boost your dog’s confidence and keep them safe if they ever feel too tired to keep swimming on their own. Test your dog consistently to make sure they always remember how to get out.
Teaching your dog to swim can be a long process, but it’s best to make sure they understand everything they need to do. Be patient: with some time, they’ll enjoy being in the water and going on adventures with you!
On the flip side, even if your dog is an excellent swimmer, they must wear a life vest at all times while in or near the water. Plus, your pup should never be left unsupervised by a large body of water to avoid any accidents. If your dog really loves swimming and wants to do it on their own, it’s on you to take precautions and fence the pool.
Of course, not all dogs enjoy swimming, and you should respect that. If you see your pup truly dislikes it, don’t force it. There are other ways to share your time with them!
- Prankel, S. (2008). Hydrotherapy in practice. In practice, 30(5), 272-277. http://www.osteopatheanimal.com/mapage2/hydrotherapy-in-practice.pdf
- Nganvongpanit, K., & Yano, T. (2012). Side effects in 412 dogs from swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. The Thai Journal of Veterinary Medicine, 42(3), 281. https://www.vet.chula.ac.th/dept/tjvm/full_text/v42/423/TJVM423PDF/006-OA03-TJVM423_281-286.pdf