You see them at the dog beach, on boats, at the lakefront—dogs running in and out of the water—having a blast.
But your dog just stands at the shoreline, barking, or quivering. It’s so hot; you just want your dog to cool off in the water. The cool water is so inviting—but not to your dog.
You jump in and call your dog to follow. He stands there and whines. What can you do?
I’ve probably done all the things you shouldn’t to train your dog to swim.
Don’t do these things or your dog will Hate Swimming
- Don’t pick up your dog and toss him into the lake so he learns to sink or swim
- My dad did this with my first dog, a border collie mix. Penny never learned to like swimming, even though we took her whitewater canoeing a lot. If the canoe came too close to shore, she’d jump out—abandoning ship.
- Don’t use a leash to drag your dog into the water.
- On a really hot day, I dragged my current dog, Buffy, a cocker spaniel into Lake Michigan. She ended up walking under the water. I had never believed my mom when she told me one of her dogs had done this, but it actually can happen for a few seconds. Buffy learned to tolerate water up to a depth of about six inches. That’s it—no more. Her long floppy ears didn’t like the water either. She got ear infections every summer that took months to clear up. It’s been two years since I last took her to the beach and she hasn’t had an ear infection since.
- Don’t let your dog fall or jump into deep water when they’re not expecting it.
- Chipper, my senior cocker who died last year, walked out on to a pier used for launching boats with my husband. I walked on to an adjacent pier with Buffy. Chipper must have decided to visit Buffy. Next thing I heard was a loud splash when he fell in, sinking down about six feet. My husband reeled in Chipper’s retractable leash and led him to shore. I don’t think Chipper ever voluntarily entered the lake again.
Okay, now you’ve heard all the things not to do, what should you do to get your dog to love swimming? Remember, even a dog bred to love water, such as Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or springer spaniels, can still develop a fear of water if they have a bad experience.
I have had success with my springer spaniels—by letting the dog decide to enter the water.
Tips to encourage your dog to love swimming
Remember, your dog’s first experience is critical. If it goes bad, you’ll have a lot more work to do to get him to at least tolerate swimming. And he’ll probably never love it.
- Have your dog play with other dogs in the water—this is the best way. Your dog will be too engaged to get scared.
- Go into the water yourself. Often your dog will follow you.
- Encourage your dog into shallow water with treats and / or toys. Tennis balls work well.
- Gradually enter shallow water, by wading in when there is a gentle slope. With a pool, make sure there are steps.
- Always allow your dog an escape route if they want to get out of the water.
- Get your dog used to water when the water is warm or slightly cool compared to the outside air. Your dog is not going to love cold water.
- Use a lake or pond or a pool with a gentle slope for your dog’s first few experiences. Do not use a river since the current may sweep him away or cause him to panic.
- Praise, praise, praise. Make it a positive experience.
- Use a kiddie pool with a few inches of water to get your dog used to water. Throw toys into the pool or use treats to encourage him to step into the water.
- A life jacket may give your dog confidence and provide extra support. Some dogs, like bulldogs, have a very dense body and may sink. A life jacket can help.
- Get a life jacket with at least one handle. If you have a very long or heavy dog, get a longer life jacket with two handles.
- A recent article in Dogster Magazine, suggested not to do anything to your dog that you wouldn’t do to a toddler (like toss your dog into the water).
- Use an indoor dog swimming pool if you have access to one. I just found one within driving distance and may use it in the winter once I get a springer.
- This video is very cool. The dogs are so enthusiastic about the indoor swimming pool—and it involves springers—my favorite breed. It will make you smile! https://youtu.be/gzwDFdSEP-4
Above all, accept your dog as he is. Some dogs just do not like water or swimming.
Additional water safety tips:
- If your dog loves to swim, don’t let your dog swim too far from shore. I’ve seen some ambitious owners lob a tennis ball far into a lake. Rip currents or an undertow could catch your dog and drag him out farther from shore. If your dog is pulled into deep water and struggling to get back to shore–don’t go after him! We’ve all heard stories of caring owners that drown trying to rescue their dogs, while their dog survived. If there is a rip current walk along the shore to encourage your dog to swim parallel to the shore instead of straight back. That should help him get out of the rip current.
- Beware of hypothermia. Some water can be quite cold even while the beach is warm.
- Read more about beach safety at my blog.
The more often you expose them to swimming and water, the better. Time and exposure helps alleviate their fears. Happy swimming!