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How to teach a dog to swim

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Teach your dog how to swim in four steps.
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Owner teaching dog how to swim in a pool.

Dogs have so many instinctual behaviors that you may wonder, “Can all dogs swim?” But while certain dogs gravitate to water or will swim if coaxed into a pool or lake, others may sink.

Still, just as you can teach a dog to sit or stay, you can usually teach a dog to swim. This step-by-step process will show you how.

How to Teach Your Dog to Swim in Four Steps

 

1. Make Sure Your Dog Has a Life Vest

Dogs new to swimming should wear canine life vests, as the buoyancy helps the dog feel more confident in the water. Swimming abilities aside, life vests are also important in case of an accident or other unforeseen circumstance, such as the dog falling off a dock or out of a boat. A good life vest:

  • Fits snugly
  • Has a handle for the owner to hold onto the dog
  • Is brightly colored with reflective trim for visibility

While teaching your dog to swim, make sure to wear your own life vest. If your dog is a large breed, they could drag you underwater if they get frightened.

2. Choose a Quiet Spot for the First Swim Lesson

Many breeds can be easily taught to swim even if they are initially wary of the water. Regardless of breed, remember to go slowly and start in a quiet, controlled setting, like a backyard pool or kiddie pool. A bathtub can also be a good starting point for beginning swimmers.

3. Swim in Shallow Water

To start, tempt your dog into shallow water with a toy or ball. When they respond, reward them with a treat and positive reinforcement. Repeat this step until your dog seems comfortable and relaxed. If they are not easily tempted, pick them up and very gently place them in shallow water, watching for signs of panic or distress. Patience is key: If your dog seems truly frightened or uncomfortable in water, end the lesson and try again later.

4. Gradually Move to Deeper Water

Once your dog is comfortable with wet paws, move into deeper water. Hold your dog by the handle of their life vest until they get used to the sensation and all four of their legs begin paddling.

Be sure to show your dog how to leave whatever body of water you’re in. Gently sloping ramps are ideal; stairs will also work. If a ramp is too slippery, layer it with a kennel mat to provide traction. Repeat the entrance and exit steps, along with positive reinforcement, as often as necessary.

How to Keep Your Dog Safe While Swimming

Swimming can be more hazardous for your dog than you might realize. Before you start lessons to teach your dog how to swim, keep the following factors in mind:

Water Temperature

As a good reference point, never let your dog swim in a body of water you would not be comfortable in.

Additionally, on cooler days make sure to dry your dog off as soon as possible. Otherwise dogs could succumb to hypothermia. Hyper, energetic puppies in particular are often more eager to jump into water than adult dogs — and can be more susceptible to hypothermia.

Likewise, small or toy breeds with fine hair or short-hair coats — such as papillons, Havanese, Maltese and Italian greyhounds — chill very quickly. These dogs can develop hypothermia and may violently shiver, thrash or panic in water. If your dog develops hypothermia, take them to a veterinarian right away.

Water Intake

If dogs swim for too long, they might swallow too much water, vomit, or, in rare cases, develop electrolyte abnormalities. Keep swimming sessions short, and play with small toys, like soft discs, to restrict the amount of water entering their mouths.

Water Toxicity

If you’re swimming in a pool, provide plenty of fresh drinking water so your dog will be less inclined to quench their thirst with chlorinated pool water. In a natural body of water, check the region before allowing dogs to enter; certain algae and aquatic creatures such as toads can be highly toxic. When swim time is over, give your dog a bath with a hydrating shampoo, as some swimming pool chemicals can dry out their skin.

Water Currents

Remember that dogs are just as susceptible to ocean currents as people. Throwing a ball far out into the waves while you stay on the beach could endanger your dog as they try to retrieve it.

Sun Exposure

Keep in mind that dogs have skin in addition to hair! Make sure to apply sunscreen designed just for pets, especially to hairless breeds, dogs with light coats and all dogs’ delicate pink noses.

What If My Dog Doesn't Like to Swim?

Some dogs simply don’t enjoy being immersed in water and probably won’t learn to swim. Dogs that usually don’t like to swim include bulldogs, dachshunds and pugs, as well as breeds with short legs and heavy chests. Overweight and older dogs may struggle to stay afloat after a short amount of time in the water.

On hot days, your pup can still find ways to cool off, even if they don’t like the water. These include:

  • Standing or laying down in an inch of water in a kiddie pool
  • Licking ice cubes made from low-salt bone broth
  • Drinking plenty of fresh, cold water
  • Spending time in the shade or in front of a cooling fan

Teaching your dog to swim takes patience, time and encouragement, as well as a safe environment where they can acclimate to the water at their own pace. In the end, your dog may take to the water like a fish and enjoy swimming all summer long. But even if your dog isn’t suited to or particularly fond of water, there are still plenty of ways they can find relief from the hot summer sun.

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