Introducing Your Dog to Water

A safe introduction can lead to a lot of summer fun

As the heat of summer builds, water activities become increasingly popular for all family members. We may take a trip to the lake or beach, or wander with our canine companions along local creeks and river banks. However, not all dogs take like ducks to water. Here are some ideas on how to safely introduce your dog to swimming while having fun.

Not All Dogs Swim

Some breeds, like the Labrador retriever, are notorious swimmers; they have webbing between their toes to help them better paddle in the water. Other dogs, like the bulldog, do not have the build or natural enthusiasm when faced with open waters. The reality is anatomy alone does not dictate if your dog can swim, and genetics will not guarantee that your dog will enjoy water activities. Careful introduction, fostering confidence through motivation, and building trust are key to making your dog water-savvy, regardless of breed or genetic makeup.

Introducing Water

Using a life vest will reduce fear when introducing your dog to swimming, as the dog only has to worry about paddling and not about staying afloat. JD Harvey

For young puppies, or those dogs averse to water, consider investing in a baby pool. Begin by throwing toys and treats in the empty pool until puppies are eagerly jumping in and exploring the area. Praise and make a big fuss for dogs that show interest. Try coaxing those that are more hesitant with a tasty treat. Once dogs eagerly enter the pool, begin filling it with water, adding no more than a couple of inches at a time to ensure that the pup remains interested. Early exposure to the temperature changes, the feel of a wet coat, and movement of water will build a solid, positive foundation.

Start Desensitization In Shallow Waters

If you’re visiting a creek or watering hole, start off with shallow waters. Walk into the water with your dog, praising them along the way. Use a toy to encourage him, or use some high-value treats for curious and confident behavior. Start off by having your dog get used to standing in the shallow water before attempting a deeper area and swimming. You can slowly begin going further into the water, calling your dog to you to further build confidence. When introducing your dog to swimming, ensure it’s a gradual process over multiple days. This will help to prevent your pup from getting overwhelmed. Make the practice sessions short and sweet to ensure the focus is on confidence.

Check with your destination regarding leash laws and limitations on pet accessibility before planning a trip to the lake or beach with your pet. JD Harvey

Use a Life Vest

The use of doggie life vests is great when teaching your dog how to swim. It minimizes the pressure on the dog of having to worry about multitasking by staying afloat and paddling to move. This is an ideal piece of equipment for dogs that are not built to swim well, and for those lacking confidence to swim. Put on a vest and voila, all your dog has to worry about is paddling forward. Using a vest also prevents your dog from getting its head under water, thus limiting negative experiences in the water. Going boating? Life vests are good to have for boat trips too. Check out the Ruffwear Float Coats available through your local outdoor outfitters and through, or browse your local pet store for a vest with a good fit. The coat should not be loose when worn and should also have a handle attachment so you can help guide your dog in the water. Try it on at home and get your pet comfortable before using it outdoors.

In the Pool

If you have a backyard pool it is vital to teach your dog how to safely climb in and out. Start off by guiding him to the stairs and rewarding him for stepping in. Then, from just a couple feet inside the water, reward your dog for climbing back out. Heavily praise and reward your dog for exiting the pool. Once that has been firmly established as a habit, allow your dog to further explore. Even with dogs who are averse to water, it can be a life-saving skill to teach them how to at least tolerate exiting the pool should they accidentally fall in.

Say “NO” To Sink Or Swim

Some people believe that simply throwing their dog into the water will encourage them to swim. For a handful of dogs this may be a successful approach, but for the majority of canines it may be a traumatic experience. This method of “flooding” (as opposed to slow exposure and desensitization) often leads to a negative association and total resistance to water. Mere over-exposure and expecting the dog to adapt can cause dogs to become fearful and lose trust in their owners. Instead of forcing your dog to be in the water, take your time to slowly build their confidence through guidance, praise, reward, play, and tons of support for confident, curious, and exploratory behavior.

Restrictions To Water Access And Activities

Not all places are pet-friendly, so make sure to check out your destination regarding restrictions. Certain beaches only allow access to dogs during off-season months, whereas others have pets banned altogether.

Local leash laws may further restrict your activities. Some public lakes and ponds do not allow swimming or access for dogs because they are used by recreational fisherman. Note the dangers lurking in fishing destinations: stray hooks, snagged fishing line, and leeches in the water.

In moving water, be aware of the risk of drowning due to strong currents and waves. Learn more about the various types of waters, if there are any pollutants, or if there is a health hazard to your pet (some forms of algae and bacteria can make your dog seriously sick).

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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