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First-Time Swimmers: There's No Shame in Mastering the Doggy Paddle

Has a dog ever inspired you to overcome a long-held fear? My pack of five (and the new man in my life) recently helped me face my fear of drowning.

 |  Mar 19th 2012  |   4 Contributions


Who is that waterlogged woman in those mugshots? Two months ago, I would hardly have recognized her -- but she is, in fact, me.

To explain: I recently took up swimming after a lifetime of shunning the water, and quickly discovered that I am (in the words of my lovely instructor, Rose), a natural. Considering the fact that, for the first 46 years of my life, I couldn't swim at all and dreaded the very concept of submersion in a pool or (gasp!) the sea, this is huge. What gave me the resolve to overcome swimophobia? My dogs, of course. The five-pack I live with has done so much to empower me, from comforting me when I'm sad to keeping me fit and strong with thrice-daily power walks. So it's really no surprise that they also helped me conquer my fear of drowning.

Someone else had something to do with my success -- someone on two legs. I've written before about the wonderful man who has changed my life in many positive ways. It's been three months since we met on OKCupid. Mr. Wonderful, aka Peter, is an accomplished athlete and a Water sign, so he enjoys and excels at any activity performed in the deep blue: swimming, waterskiing, sailing, scuba diving ... you name a water sport, he does it. I pictured a future of watching him from the water's edge, and didn't love that image. So I resolved to join him in his element. Like Ariel in The Little Mermaid (only in reverse), I wanted to be part of his world. I would learn to swim.

Okay, so I wouldn't be any threat to the excellent Esther Williams, iconic brunette star of Million Dollar Mermaid, who's still swimming at age 90-something.

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The lovely Esther Williams. Photo by Slim Aarons.

I figured I'd probably look a lot more like a different brunette water baby -- one of the underwater dogs photographed by lensman Seth Casteel. But the closet fashionista in me would do her damnedest to look presentable in the water, even if I couldn't be Esther-elegant. (I guess I also hoped that a fetching swim costume would distract Peter's gaze from my subpar swimming!)

Although Williams does market a collection of swimwear that's very appealingly retro, I opted to outfit myself like a modern-day athlete rather than a movie star. So I went for head-to-toe TYR, makers of gear worn by Olympian swimmers (my dogs do nothing halfway, so I figure I'd rise to this occasion in their honor). As soon as I put on one of their racerback suits, I felt like a superheroine. 

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Your writer as photographed by Christian Johnston.

Meanwhile, the silicone cap keeps water out of my ears -- which was always a pet peeve of mine. Dogs hate it, too, which is why I always take extra care, when bathing my beasts, to prevent canine swimmer's ear by plugging their ears with cotton and then giving them a thorough aural wipedown. Thanks to the swim cap, I've managed to completely overcome my fear of turning my face in and out of the water and my horror of latex. 

Once I'm out of the pool, I hate for my skin to stay wet and cold a minute longer than necessary -- I'm just like my dogs that way -- and one old-fashioned cotton towel is no match for a drenched swimmer. Here's an apres-swim trick I picked up from caring for my dogs: I swipe their microfiber towel, the Dry Pet. This hypoallergenic, antibacterial textile cuts drying time by more than half and eliminates the need for blow-drying. 

On Facebook, after lesson one, I posted an iPhone snapshot of my watery persona in the pool, grinning like a lunatic. Several friends, knowing well my love for dogs and how pretty much everything I do touches on K9 culture, had comments along the lines of: Doggy paddle? ;) 

Well, yes, actually -- the doggy paddle is the first stroke I did. And, after years of watching dogs do it -- including my late, great dog Sam, who thoroughly enjoyed hydrotherapy sessions in a vet-approved pool designed for dogs -- I didn't do too badly. Now, weeks later, the doggy paddle is still the stroke I do if I feel a sudden need to get to the edge of the pool in a hurry (I still get intimidated in the deep end sometimes). After all, dogs instinctively know how to keep their heads above water. But as puppies, they are incredibly dorky in the water -- so there's hope even for me.

"The first time in, dogs/pups may sink before the paddle mechanism kicks in," says Sarah Wilson, author of Dogology. "This is as terrifying for them as for us, and it's why introducing them in a shallow area like a shoreline or stream is better than in a pool or off a dock. But suspend a puppy over the water, and as soon as his feet touch the surface the paddling starts. It is absolutely automatic. The doggy paddle may not be the most elegant stroke for us upright walkers, but it works! And if you find yourself in the water and wanting to stay above the surface, do what works!"

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Doggy paddle photo via Shutterstock

Olympic gold medalist and swim safety advocate Cullen Jones, whose nonprofit, Make a Splash, promotes teaching youngsters how to swim, agrees that there's absolutely no shame in mastering the doggy paddle. "If you can master this, you will have the basic mechanics to keep your body afloat," he says. "It's a fast, fun way to move across the pool while keeping your head above water. Plus it's great exercise."

As for the churlish Facebook "friend" whose comment on my watery enterprise was "You're kidding," Jones has this to say: "Different strokes for different folks! Some people are robbed of the opportunity to learn how to swim at a young age. It's never too late to learn, though. Keep up the hard work. Your body will grow stronger and adapt to the techniques, and swimming will become less difficult over time. Not only is swimming a great extracurricular activity and challenging exercise, it's an important, life-saving skill."

If swimming is an activity you'd like to do with your dog, Wilson offers a few expert lifesaving tips.

"Some breeds are designed more stone-like than [Mark] Spitz-like," she explains. "Big-chested breeds like French Bulldogs, English Bulldogs, and Pekingese need canine life vests around water along with close supervision. As with us humans, swimming skill-building takes time -- more time for some dogs than others. For many dogs, their front legs can churn the water to a froth while the hind legs try to figure out what to do on their first attempts. They proceed vertically through the water splashing wildly, eyes closed, nose pointing up. It isn’t pretty, but since when is learning how to swim always pretty? This passes with practice. Incidentally, my mixed-breed Pip was an Olympic-level vertical churner as a pup, but with patient introduction, swimming is now one of our favorite activities to do together. Her water joy is contagious and I love catching it from her!"   

And speaking of joy, just imagine mine when, at last week's lesson, my swimming instructor had this to say about my backstroke: "That was very Esther Williams." I die!

Dogster readers, has a dog ever inspired you to overcome a long-held fear and/or start a new fitness regimen? Please tell all in the comments!

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