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Getting Smart about Teaching Your Dog to Swim

Last summer, I was out on a pontoon with a long-time friend and her family. We were enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon on the lake. The sun was warm, and we were preparing to jump in the water and enjoy a swim. One of the members of the group, Jim, had brought his dog along, and he set about securing the dog on the boat. Someone asked, “Why are you tying him in the boat? Don’t you want him to swim with us?” Jim replied, “He hasn’t learned to swim yet, and the water is too deep here.” Several people expressed surprise at the notion that a dog would need to “learn” to swim, and Jim continued. “Not all dogs are born knowing how to swim, you know,” he paused. “When I was a kid, we were out on our boat with our pet beagle, Benji. My dad thought you should teach a dog to swim by tossing him in the water, so he did, and Benji ended up drowning.” Everyone was quiet.

Jim’s story is all too common. Many people believe that if you throw a dog in a body of water, he or she will automatically know what to do and begin to swim. For better or worse, however, dogs are as unique as humans. Fortunately, it is no longer the expectation that parents throw children in a pool and expect them to somehow learn to swim, but that old wives’ tale still persists in regards to dogs.

Do many dogs “just know” how to swim? Certainly. There are many breeds of dogs for whom swimming is somewhat innate because it is what they were bred for. For example, Newfoundlands are amazing swimmers, even in very cold water, because they served on ships, retrieving lost fishing gear and rescuing humans in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Standard Poodles were bred to retrieve hunted ducks out of water. In fact, their traditional haircut, shorn close with puffy balls around the ankles, head and chest, kept the dogs from getting weighted down in the water but left the puffballs to warm the vital organs and joints. And of course, we all know Labrador Retrievers live for water.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that even a dyed-in-the-wool Labrador Retriever might not know how to swim in deep water safely the first time out, and just like humans, individual dogs have different personalities that may affect their ability to swim successfully. The safest approach, regardless of the breed, is to ease your dog into swimming in a safe environment. Try starting on a beach on a lake that gets deeper very gradually, rather than one with a sudden increase in depth.

If your dog is a Toy breed that is traditionally a landlubber, (i.e. Chihuahuas, Pugs, Yorkshire Terriers) a canine life jacket is a great way to make sure your dog stays safe. In fact, if you’re on a boat with your dog, we recommend a life jacket, regardless of breed. Any dog can become overly tired while swimming, get entangled by items just below the surface, or have trouble getting back in the boat. Most jackets have a handle on the back so you can pull your dog up into the boat in case of trouble.

When teaching your dog to swim, be prepared to get in the water too, and encourage your dog with a toy or a particularly tempting treat. If he resists, don’t drag your dog into the water, and if you find yourself becoming frustrated, it’s time to stop trying for the day. Otherwise, your dog may pick up on your upset feelings and link your displeasure with the act of swimming itself. Would you want to try something new (and possibly scary) if someone dragged you into it by the neck and yelled at you? Probably not. So keep the experience positive, and celebrate even the smallest successes. With patience, your dog will be cooling off in the water in no time.

Watch Sally learn to swim!

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