You’d think naming a swim stroke after canines (ever heard of the doggie paddle?) would mean all dogs are excellent swimmers. Au contraire! Swimming is a learned skill—one some breeds never quite get the hang of. As summer starts and pools open up, many dogs need to be taught a few things before you let them loose into the backyard. Even pups in areas where pools are open year-round could use a refresher. Your dog’s safety is at stake, so don’t put this training off.
Try to teach your dog what a pool is.
To humans, pools are obviously giant vats of water made for entertainment. We swim for fun or exercise or to cool down. Pools are also safe to be in, as long as you know how to swim. Stepping into water won’t hurt you. Also, you can’t breathe under water. Again, facts we all know to be true. To dogs, however, these facts aren’t always intuitive. Tie them up so they can safely observe you enjoying the pool.
And show teach them what a pool is not.
A pool is not a scary void to be barked at. It doesn’t swallow you whole. A pool is also not a giant water dish for drinking. The experts at Banfield Pet Hospital note while slurping down chlorinated water won’t cause serious health problems, it’s not good to allow your dog to form a pool-drinking habit. At the very least, your pup will probably have some dry mouth or stomach irritation, which could lead to diarrhea. Be stern when they drink the water, and treat them, instead, when they drink from their actual water bowl (not the huge chlorinated one in the middle of the backyard).
Teach your dog to get into a pool.
Some dogs love water (lookin’ at you, Labrador retrievers) and will leap right in. Others are afraid of it, perhaps because they don’t like the way it looks or because it feels uncomfortable to be submerged in water. Regardless, dogs have to know how to get out of a pool should they fall in, so it’s smart to show them how to get into one, too. Familiarity with the entire concept increases the level of safety when it comes to pools.
According to PetMD, it’s best to begin slow (and ideal to start when the dog is still a puppy). Stand in the shallow end with a leash connecting you to your dog. Lure her into the water with a treat. Even if she only puts a foot or two in, that’s success and should be rewarded. Slow and steady wins this race, folks, especially with dogs who are very nervous about swimming. If the pool steps pose too much of a problem, drag an empty kiddie pool into the backyard and toss in a treat for easy retrieval. Next time, add a few inches of water before tossing in the treat. Work your way up over time to a full kiddie pool, rewarding her every time she takes the plunge and steps into the kiddie pool. After she’s conquered that little body of water, a bigger one will seem less daunting. This could take a few weeks, so have patience.
If you live near a lake or the ocean, this process might work better at a beach. Gradually entering the water may be less scary than taking big steps or giant plunges into a pool.
Never push or force your dog into a pool. This is not only mean, but it can solidify a negative association with water, which is—hello!—the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.
And how to get out of a pool.
Even if your dog decides for himself he doesn’t like swimming and will not get into a pool, it’s important he knows how to get out of one should he slip and fall in. This is relatively easy if your dog enjoys swimming. Simply plop him into the pool and guide him to the steps with treats or commands (followed by...treats). Practice from various spots in the pool, too. Being in water can be disorienting, and dogs need to know how to navigate to the steps from the shallow and deep ends.
If your dog prefers dry land to wet water, you’re going to have to carry him into the pool and help him swim to the steps. Luckily, he’ll be so pumped to get out of the water, he’ll probably be pretty happy about this aspect of training. Again, keep the treats and rewards (toys, belly rubs, etc.) coming! Associating pools with positivity is the goal.
And finally, teach your dog to swim.
Now, the real challenge: teaching a dog to swim. Most dogs instinctively know how to do this. If your dog doesn’t, or is skittish around water, remember these five Ls:
- Life jacket - Always keep a life jacket on your dog. We love this one from PetCo, though as long as you find one with effective floatation for your dog’s size (it should be tight enough to stay on and keep your dog’s head above water while allowing for fluid movement) and handles to help you hoist her out of the water if need be, you’re good.
- Lifeguard - Don’t leave your dog unattended in or near water. Put fences up around your pool to ensure she won’t sneak in alone. Even if she’s a good swimmer, falling into a pool can cause confusion and exhaustion, which could lead to drowning.
- Leash - Until your dog learns to swim well and get out of the pool when called, use a leash to keep her connected to you. This way she can’t get too far on her own.
- Lessons - Make swim lessons a part of your routine. Support her (physically, by holding her belly) as she learns to use all four legs to swim. Allow for plenty of breaks so she doesn’t overwork herself.
- Love - Reward her effort and her progress with lots of positivity and love!
Keep in mind, some breeds will need more time to acclimate themselves to water than others. Breeds like bulldogs aren’t built for swimming, so life jackets at all times are highly recommended.