10 Tips For Teaching Your Dog To Swim (Or At Least To Stay Afloat!)

All dogs go to heaven, obviously. But not all dogs can swim. For some pups, swimming is so much a part of their nature that they start paddling their legs if you hold them over a kiddie pool (though that’s not recommended). With other canines, well, it seems they have water confused with molten lava.

Even if water won’t be a big part of your dog’s life, all dogs should know how to swim in case of emergencies. With these tips, you can ensure that your water-loving dog stays safe around water and that your water-averse pup can be safe if push comes to shove. Try these 10 tips for teaching dogs to swim and be safe in the water:

1. Throw a stick, not your dog

You wouldn’t throw a child into the water without teaching them to swim, and while a dog may survive a sudden dunking, she may very well be traumatized from being pushed in the water too quickly. The idea is to introduce your dog to swimming slowly so that she learns to enjoy it on her own. Trying throwing a toy into shallow water, and then throwing farther and farther as your dog feels comfortable. You can also wade in with your dog so she has you by her side. The idea is to get your dog comfortable with the water and have her associate water with fun.

2. Know that your dog may not be meant for water

Some dogs won’t be able to swim. Heavy, short-legged dogs may not be able to stay afloat—think bulldogs and Basset Hounds. Lean dogs may also have trouble swimming because they don’t have enough body fat to provide buoyancy—think breeds like greyhounds and dobermans. Be sure to ease your dog in and watch him carefully so that you can see if he is having trouble or simply not enjoying himself.

If a dog has to work too hard to keep their head above water, swimming probably won’t be enjoyable or safe.

3. Consider a Life jacket

Yes, dog life jackets exist, and just like canine shoes, dogs can get used to wearing them (especially if bribed). Life jackets can be used to make swimming a safe and more pleasant experience for older or heavier dogs, and they should always be used on boats or in dangerous water. If a dog falls off a boat, he can’t call for help and may not know which direction to swim for shore. If your adventurous pup goes with you to the ocean or any water with strong currents, he should always wear a canine life vest. It will keep your dog safe, and he’ll look adorable!

Photo: Courtesy Shannell Keck

Photo: Courtesy Shannell Keck

4. Make your exit strategy

If you have a poolside pup, it’s important to teach your dog how to get out of the water in case she should fall in by accident (if she gets dizzy after chasing her tail or something). Ideally, a pool would be fenced off, but at least make sure your dog knows where the stairs are if she finds herself in the pool by accident. A nervous dog may panic and not know how to get out and keep struggling at the side. If she’s not strong enough to pull herself up (and it’s hard when you don’t have hands), she could tire and drown.

5. Help them level out

If a dog doesn’t know how to swim, he might splash wildly with his front feet, essentially trying to lift his front feet out of the water and climb onto the surfance, which unfortunately doesn’t work. They need to learn how to stroke, not splash. Gently lift your dog’s hind end up so he evens out. If he doesn’t get it from there, you can support his hind end and put your other hand in front of his front legs so he has to stroke, not splash.

If your dog is not a natural swimmer, you may have to repeat this a few times before he embraces the aquatic life.

Photo: AdobeStock/tlcj

Photo: AdobeStock/tlcj

6. Teach your dog to use all four feet

Some dogs are natural swimmers, and others… well, they look like they’re having a spastic attack when they go for a swim. Your dog might use her front legs to swim, perhaps frantically, and not use her back legs at all. Try to get her to use those back feet, so she’ll swim faster and more evenly, by gently touching her back paws. That will get her to kick her legs and she’ll discover she can swim more easily.

You can also try throwing toys into the water for your pup to retrieve to encourage speed, which requires use of the back legs.

7. Watch out for panic!

Even a dog bred for the water can be nervous if introduced too quickly, and while a dog awkwardly splashing around may look funny, don’t fail to recognize panic. Wild splashing and confusion can mean your dog is panicking. Don’t leave your dog unsupervised in the water and be sure to introduce him slowly to swimming. Entering the water with him the first few times can help him feel safe in the water, and offering treats or other rewards after a swim can help develop positive associations with swimming.

A large, scared dog can drown a human while trying to climb up on them, so it’s important to build swimming skills and endurance slowly. Don’t push your dog to swim for too long or too far away from his comfort zone.

8. Keep your pup cozy

For some pups, easing them into swimming is not an option. They want to jump in the water and splash around at first sight of creek, river, or lake! Note that dogs can get hypothermia, so if the water is too cold for you, it may be too cold for your furry friend. A dog won’t necessarily know that the water is making them cold (after all, it’s SO FUN!!), so be sure to monitor cold-water play and have her exit the water at regular intervals so you can check for shivering.

9. Consider your dog’s needs

If your dog has epilepsy, or another condition that causes seizures or other loss of control, water may not be the best choice. A dog can drown very quickly, so if you do have a water-loving epileptic dog, limit water play to a small kiddie pool where you can sweep them up quickly and easily should they have an episode.

10. Water isn’t the only dangerous thing at the beach

Nothing seems more attractive than a nice day at the beach with you canine companion. But even if you’ve considered the water-borne dangers (riptides, waves, strong currents), please take a moment to think about how you’ll can keep your dog safe from other concerns like stepping on jellyfish and broken shells. Beaches specifically for dogs may also be full of roundworm eggs and other parasites. Talk to your vet about beach concerns before venturing out.

Are you safe and prepared, plan in place? Then have a wonderful time playing in the water with your pup!

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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