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How to Teach a Dog to Swim

Dog swimming with toy in a pool
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Swimming is a wonderful way to bond and have fun with your dog. It’s also a great activity for your puppy or hyperactive canine to burn off energy. But contrary to popular belief, dogs are not natural swimmers. In fact, some dogs, like Dachshunds and Bulldogs, are not capable of swimming well at all, and even your water-loving Labrador or Golden Retriever needs encouragement and guidance to swim with confidence and ease.

Despite a swimming style named the doggy paddle, our four-legged friends require training to navigate waters safely. Once your pooch feels comfortable swimming, imagine the joy you both can have at doggie pools, beaches, and on hikes to your favorite swimming holes. And if your dog needs to lose some extra pounds, or rehabilitate from an injury, this low-impact exercise can prove helpful.

Here’s your guide to teaching your dog how to swim, with information on lessons, safety, gear, and everything you need to make your dog’s swimming experience enjoyable.

Can All Dogs Swim?

Just because a dog instinctively starts air paddling when placed above water doesn’t mean she will be the next Michael Phelps. Even if you have a dog that shows interest in water, assuming she can swim without any training or exposure is dangerous. Dogs can drown if they panic and don’t know how to get out of the water.

“Many dogs never feel fully comfortable in the water,” says Dr. Rachel Barrack, founder of Animal Acupuncture. “Dogs need to learn to swim just like humans do.”

More importantly, when bringing your pet to the pool, it’s vital to keep safety in mind. “Your pet does not understand pool safety rules,” says Barrack, “so it is important that you provide supervision and structure to keep your pet safe while swimming.”

Never leave your pets unattended around a pool or large body of water, she adds.

Dog Breeds That Like to Swim

Happy dog swimming in a pool

Photo Credit Avalon Ranch

Certain dogs like to swim more than others, and some dogs have special traits and characteristics that help them thrive in the water.

Labrador Retrievers

With forebears like the St. John’s Water Dog from Newfoundland, modern-day Labrador Retrievers, with dual-layered, weather-resistant short coats and strong hind legs, are among the most popular swimming dogs.

Newfoundland Retrievers

Also hailing from Canada’s Atlantic Coast, the hearty and capable Newfoundland Retriever—another descendent of the St. John’s Water Dog—helped fishermen retrieve fish-filled nets, tow lines, and rescue swimmers in trouble.

Portuguese Water Dog

Found along the coast of Portugal, the Portuguese Water Dog was a crucial member of the coastal communities.

Golden Retriever

The ancestors of the Golden Retriever were bred to recover waterfowl on hunting trips and our current Goldens love the water. They also have strong and long legs that make swimming easier.

Other Dog Breeds That Like to Swim

Other dog breeds that like to swim include:

  • American Water Spaniel
  • Irish Water Spaniel
  • Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Dog Breeds That Can’t Swim

Dog at side of pool with a swimming trainer

Photo Credit K9 Water World

Pugs, Corgis, Bulldogs, Dachshunds, and Basset Hounds, with their boxy chests and shorter limbs, are not equipped to swim. Without long legs, these round-shaped dogs can’t paddle and tend to roll and even sink when placed in water. Flat-faced French Bulldogs, Pugs, and Boxers (also known as brachycephalic breeds), which have short snouts, have trouble keeping their airways above water.

Canines with heavy coats, like Shih Tzus and Komondors, are weighed down. Smaller dogs like Chihuahuas and Maltese are capable of treading, but they get tired or overwhelmed quickly.

If you have any of these dog breeds or mixes, swimming is risky and they should wear life vests and be monitored when near water.

Teaching a Dog to Swim

Dog jumping for something in a pool

Photo Credit K9 Water World

Similar to how dogs learn to sit, stay, and walk well on a leash, they need to master the art of swimming. Pet parents should take the following steps to help their dogs learn how to swim.

Step 1: Start Small, Slow, and Shallow

If you have a dog breed with a propensity towards swimming, you can slowly introduce and teach her in a pool or a shallow lake, so long as she knows a way to get out.

An introductory lesson at your local dog aquatic center could be a good start to get your pooch’s feet wet. Be sure to strap her in a doggie life jacket and be patient.

“Don’t expect your dog to swim on the first visit,” says Meghan Luna, Trainer at K9 Water World in San Marcos, Texas. “If you force it, you’ll go backward 100 times and it’s hard to get a dog to learn a new task if you break their trust.”

If you are practicing swimming with your dog in the open water, stay in the shallow area and train parallel to the shore, avoiding deep water until she becomes a pro. Luna also suggests starting in a small area and keeping initial swim sessions short. “Don’t expect them to swim a mile,” she adds.

Step 2: Get in the Water and Stay Nearby

Even if you have a water-loving dog, the first time your pup hits the water could be a scary experience. Encourage your dog to follow you into the shallow end of the pool and show her where the underwater steps are, in case she needs to get out. Your presence in the water will encourage your dog to build confidence and work towards a reward—whether it’s verbal praise or a special treat in your hand.

Step 3: Use Your Hands to Guide Your Dog

Owner holding a dog in the water

Photo Credit Avalon Ranch

At the beginning, your dog may raise her front paws to try and get out of the water, causing her behind to sink. To prevent this, place one hand gently under her behind and the other over her front legs to stop her from breaking the surface.

Once she starts to paddle, she may not fully utilize her back legs. To guide her along, touch or tickle her rear paws, making her kick those legs and accelerate.

Step 4: Extend Your Distance in the Water

Move a bit further away and call for her to paddle towards you, while keeping an eye on her body language to make sure she’s still enjoying the water. If, at any point, you sense that she’s uncomfortable, guide her towards the exit and start over once she’s calm.

Step 5: Play Games in the Water

Once your dog gets comfortable being in the water, playing games can entice your dog to keep swimming. “The best way for owners to ease their dog into the water is by making it fun,” says Luna. “You can find shallow areas and play fetch with your dog by throwing the toy into the water and slowly making bigger tosses to encourage your dog to go in further.”

Step 6: Provide Plenty of Praise

Happy owner in a pool praising dog for swimming

Photo Credit Avalon Ranch

Finally, shower your dog with lots of praise for a job well done, so she associates the activity with positive feelings. Rinse her off before heading home to get rid of pool chemicals or algae, dirt, or salt from a natural body of water.

Swimming Classes for Dogs

Dog jumping in a pool

Photo Credit Avalon Ranch

Guided dog swimming classes are a great way to help your water-loving breed get started and excel at swimming. Teaching your dog to swim on your own is possible, but a trained professional can teach your dog the proper technique to paddle, dive, and even float, while avoiding any pitfalls. Dogs also learn faster when aided by the presence of other dogs.

Additionally, a pool at a canine aquatic center is specifically built for dogs, so they can exit with ease. Your average backyard pool can be potentially dangerous for dogs because they don’t have an easy way to jump out. Also, another bonus of taking your dog to a swimming class is that you can continue training your pooch indoors when the weather gets cold.

Dog pools also provide life vests, floating toys, and other training supplies, mitigating the cost of lessons.

During dog swimming lessons, pet parents are encouraged to go in the water with their dogs. This way, they can learn how to do the exercises and implement the steps on their own.

“Being hands on will help [pet owners] remember what to do once they are on their own,” says canine behaviorist and trainer, Mary Spurrell, from Avalon Ranch in Ontario, Canada. “It makes the dogs more comfortable.”

Dog pool businesses that offer swimming lessons typically require that your pet is vaccinated for their own protection as well as for the protection of other animals frequenting their facilities. Attending group lessons may also be beneficial for pet parents to help socialize their pets and meet fellow dog-lovers.

Dog Swimming Gear Checklist

Dog jumping in pool wearing a life vest

Photo Credit Avalon Ranch

If you plan on swimming with your dog, these are the items you should have on hand:

  • Dog life vest
  • Dog booties
  • Towel(s)
  • Fresh water / collapsible bowl
  • Dog sunscreen
  • Small pet first-aid kit

Whether you are going swimming at the beach or at your neighborhood dog-friendly pool, always put a life vest on your dog—even for the most experienced swimmer. A floatation device makes the activity safer, especially if you are dealing with currents. Help your dog get used to the vest by putting it on at home and incentivizing her with treats.

The best dog life vest is one that can be put on easily and is snug enough for her head to stay above the water’s surface. Look for a vest that has a handle on the back, so that it’s easy for you to pull your dog out of the water if necessary.

If you are going swimming in a lake or near a rocky shoreline, quality booties help protect your dog’s paws. Have clean water available so she stays hydrated and pack a towel or two to dry her off after rinsing.

When swimming outdoors, apply sunscreen formulated for pets—especially on dogs that have light skin and white fur, and reapply it after she comes out of the water. Avoid using human-formulated sunscreens on pets since dogs could lick the sunscreen and ingest harmful ingredients. “Eating these products can cause bloody diarrhea and vomiting,” she says.

Swimming Safety for Dogs

Dog swimming in a pool

Photo Credit Avalon Ranch

Whether your dog is a beginner or a swimming pro, swimming safety is the highest priority when hitting the pool or surf with your pup.

Follow these important swimming safety tips:

Watch your dog at all times. Don’t let your dog go unsupervised when she’s in or around any body of water. Lakes and ponds may harbor parasites or unfriendly animals, so don’t take your eye off your pup.

Always use a dog life vest. As previously mentioned, make sure your dog wears a life vest—especially if you are on a boat or out in deep water.

Beware of rip tides and currents. Ocean riptides, rushing rivers, and waterfalls could all pose danger to your swimmer, so always be on alert when swimming with your pet.

Don’t let your dog drink pool water. When using a pool, don’t let your pet drink the water. “Chlorine, salt, and other chemicals used to keep pools clean and free of bacteria can cause health problems for your pet, such as gastric upset,” says Barrack.

Dry your pet’s ears after swimming. Barrack also recommends to check your pet’s ears for any leftover moisture following a swimming session. Both ocean and lake water can cause an ear infection. If your dog is prone to ear infections, your veterinarian may recommend an ear cleaner for use after swimming.

Remove flea collars when swimming. If your pet is wearing a flea collar, remove it so the water doesn’t wash off active ingredients. Just make sure to put the collar back on your dog when you’re done!

Teach your dog a safe word. Teaching words like “ashore” to your dog can help her if she’s ever in a bind. Dog trainers can teach your dog to swim to the shore upon hearing the term. This involves throwing a toy or placing a treat near the shore, and saying the cue word as she swims towards it.

Watch for exhaustion. No matter where your canine is swimming, there’s a chance she could become tired or overwhelmed by the immensity of the water. Keeping a watchful eye on her is key to her safety. If your pet shows any signs of tiring, help her out of the water and let her rest.

Seeing your pet do her first lap, race into calm waves after a stick, or jump in the lake with you, are priceless moments. These experiences are worth every bit of effort put into training your dog how to swim.