- Dogs must be taught to swim — Although the “doggy paddle” is named after them, our four-legged pals need proper training to tread water safely.
- Teaching your dog to swim can take time — Be patient. Go at your dog’s pace, and offer them lots of encouragement along the way.
- Doggie water safety gear is a must-have — A dog life jacket, sunscreen, and leash will help keep your dog safe at each swimming lesson.
Teaching your dog to swim will help ensure they stay safe whenever they’re in water, whether that be ponds, lakes, pools, or the ocean. It’s also a great workout and one of the best ways to keep your dog fit.
Not sure how to give your dog swimming lessons? In this article, we’ll walk you through tips and techniques to help your furry friend become a confident and safe swimmer.
Can all dogs swim?
The theory that all dogs are born with the ability to swim is a myth. The truth is that, for some breeds, swimming doesn’t come naturally.
Some breeds have physical traits and characteristics that enable them to thrive in the water more than others — longer limbs, webbed feet, a double coat — such as labrador retrievers, Nova Scotia duck tollers, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, and many more.
And then there are breeds whose build make it hard for them to naturally feel at ease in the water. For instance, breeds with shorter hind legs, big, boxy chests, short muzzles/snouts, flat faces, and stumpier tails often struggle in the water — like pugs, bulldogs, basset hounds, or boxers.
Ultimately, never assume your dog knows how to swim or that they can save themselves from a swimming mishap without any training. But the good news is, with the right safety equipment and training, you can teach practically any dog to swim.
Preparing for the swim
Before dipping their toes in the water, make sure your dog is in good health and can withstand the demands of swimming. Those with young pups should talk to their vet about when the optimal time is to start swim lessons. Same goes for those with elderly dogs who may struggle with the exertion.
It’s also important to keep some items on hand when you’re teaching your dog to swim —
- Dog life jacket — A life jacket is vital to help your dog stay afloat in the water, especially as they’re learning. Choose one that’s snug but still allows your dog to jump, run, walk, and breathe without difficulty. Also, make sure it has a leash hook or handle on the back so you can easily pull your dog out of the water if they need assistance. (It’s greatly handy for dogs who go on boats so you can easily pull them back on board!)
- Dog booties — High-quality booties will help protect your dog’s paws from shells, hot sand, rocks, and any other harsh surfaces they might encounter while in the water. (Note: these can weigh a swimming dog down, so they’re best used only in shallow waters where you pup can touch.)
- Fresh drinking water — You don’t want your dog to get into the habit of drinking dirty water in ponds or lakes, chlorine water in pools, or salt water in the ocean. All of these can lead to GI upset, intestinal parasites, or, in extreme cases, death. Always bring fresh drinking water, and be sure to give your dog regular water breaks during each lesson.
- Towel(s) — Pack a towel to dry your dog off after a swim or to protect your car seats while they’re wet.
- Small pet first-aid kit — This is handy for treating minor injuries and helping stabilize your dog in an emergency until they can be treated at a veterinary facility.
- Dog sunscreen — Dog-safe sunscreen is especially important if your pup has a light or short coat. Dogs, like humans, are at risk of getting sunburn and, in rare instances, developing skin cancer from unprotected sun exposure.
Once you’ve gathered your gear, it’s time to choose the right lesson location.
While you can teach your dog to swim anywhere from a pool to the ocean, it really helps if the location you choose has a gradual slant into the water. A lake or pond where they can have a shallow decline into deeper water is an excellent choice.
If you only have access to a pool, make sure they have wide enough steps for your pup to walk down and come back to for a break.
Teaching your dog to swim
First and foremost, ensure that your dog is well-trained in basic obedience before introducing them to water. You want your dog responsive to you if you give them a command while in or around the water, such as “leave it” or “come”.
Put on their life jacket beforehand to let them get used to wearing it prior to swim lessons and be sure to keep their leash on so you can keep some control on where they go while they learn.
You’ll also need to make sure the body of water + the air temperature equals at least 100°F before letting your pup in it. If the water is too cold, your dog can develop limber tail (also known as cold tail or swimmer’s tail) or experience hypothermia in extreme cases.
Introducing your dog to water
If you live near a creek or lake, let your pup explore the shoreline (while on leash) on their own terms. They can get their paws wet without feeling pressured to go deeper into the water.
If you only have a pool, consider getting a kiddy pool for your dog to play in as a first introduction. Fill it up a few inches and let them splash all they want. If they are wary, try using a favorite toy or treat to encourage them to step in, but never force it.
Once they seem comfortable in this scenario, you can begin going into deeper water.
Go with your dog into the water and let them get comfortable as it gets deeper, but still allowing them to touch the bottom. Use a toy or treats to ask your pup to come with you farther in, giving lots of praise and positive reinforcement if they listen.
🚨 NEVER pull your dog into the water, always let it be on their terms, even if it takes them longer to adjust. Always be patient.
Once they’re comfortable in deeper water, see if they’ll follow you where they can’t touch the bottom anymore. You can guide them by keeping a hold of the handle on their life vest and letting them get the feel of doggy paddling. Eventually, you can let go (with a leash on still, in case they go out too far) and let them swim all on their own.
Keep sessions short and be sure to give them breaks between swims. Lots of praise and encouragement will help training go quicker in the long run.
Use another dog
If you have a friend with a dog who is already an avid swimmer, consider bringing them along to show your pup that swimming is fun. They may be more inclined to follow your friend’s dog into the water to explore and play together.
Show them exit routes
If you’re letting your dog swim in a pool, it’s extremely important that they know where the steps are to get out easily. Unlike with lakes or the ocean, your pup won’t be able to exit the water at any spot on the “shoreline”. It’s very unlikely that your dog will be able to pull themselves up out of the water at the side of the pool.
While swimming, keep hold of their life jacket’s handle and guide them to the steps in the pool. Let them rest there or step out if they want to. If the pool has multiple steps or benches, let them see and get used to all of them. This’ll help prevent the panic of feeling trapped and not knowing how to get to safety.
After each swim session, take off the life vest and rinse your dog off well to get rid of any algae, pool chemicals, salt, or other grime from the water. During the rinse, check your dog for cuts or scrapes, especially on their paws.
Finally, towel them dry and give them lots of praise for a good swim!