Dog Swimming Lessons: 11 Tips for Teaching Your Pup to Swim Safely

Teaching your dog to swim is not as simple as just bringing him to water and letting him jump in (never do this — your dog could drown). We’ve got a few tips on safe dog swimming practices and how to teach your dog to swim.

A dog swimming, wearing a personal flotation device.
A dog swimming. Photography by Wasitt Hemwarapornchai / Shutterstock.

It’s summertime, and the swimming is easy — or it should be, if you’re a dog. But not every dog is a natural dog paddler. Some breeds, in fact, have all the buoyancy of a cinderblock. Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pugs, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and other basically round breeds without long legs to act as a keel, tend to roll, sink — and even more seriously, drown. And even long-legged dogs, like sailboats with deep keels, can have difficulty finding vertical once they’ve passed a certain point. I had a Greyhound visiting us whose owner asserted he could swim. He was doing an okay job until he tried to turn and instead overturned, and then just started to sink on his back. We had to dive in after him. So how do you teach a dog to swim? What are some safe dog-swimming practices? Here are our top things to know about dog swimming:

1. Yes, dogs can drown

A beagle swimming, wearing a personal flotation device.
Keep your dog safe by ensuring he always wears a personal flotation device specifically made for dogs when he’s around water. Photography by Easy Morning / Shutterstock.

Yes, dogs can drown, especially if they panic and don’t know how to swim.

2. Invest in a personal flotation device made specifically for dogs

To prevent tragedies like dog drowning, a doggy flotation device is a must when it comes to dog swimming. This allows dogs to enjoy water sports they couldn’t partake in without one, and even for experienced swimmers, they make swimming easier and safer, especially in water with currents. One with handles can be a lifesaver if you need to grab your dog quickly. You can get your dog used to it at home by doling out treats for wearing it.

3. Teach your dog swimming early on — if you can

Human infants learn swimming these days. As early as you can, buy a child’s wading pool for your puppy and encourage him to play in it. Even an adult can appreciate a pool for lounging in on a hot day. Keep filling it more and more, until the puppy is splashing around in tip-toe deep water.

4. Bring a role model

What kid or dog doesn’t want to follow his buddies wherever they go, even into the water? Seeing another dog swimming will not only tempt him in, but will give him confidence once he’s braved the deeps. But do make sure dogs don’t try to climb on one another’s back or start play fighting in the water.

5. Go slow when it comes to dog swimming

Find water with a gradually sloping shoreline. Swimming pools are the hardest place to teach dogs to swim because they go almost instantly from a knee-level step to fully over their head. (Check out these tips for keeping your dog safe around your swimming pool.) Ocean breakers can be terrifying. You want water the dog can run alongside the shore, occasionally hitting a deeper spot and then finding a shallow area a foot or so away.

6. Go swimming with your dog

Lead by example. Go in the water with your dog. Not only will it entice him to go with you, but it will give him confidence, and provide him with a safety net should things go wrong. Besides, you may need to give him some hands-on lessons.

7. Bring bribes

Dog in personal flotation device or lifejacket by the water.
Bribes can help those dog swimming lessons go smoothly! Photography by GoDogPhoto/Thinkstock.

Dog swimming lessons are an area of training where bribery is acceptable. Bring a favorite treat or toy to entice him in farther. Lure him along behind you with treat. Throw a floating toy parallel to the shoreline; you don’t want to throw it into deeper water than where you’re at because that’s neither fair nor safe. When he gets more proficient he can play retriever, but not yet.

8. Be supportive

The main problem many dogs have when first learning to swim is that they really don’t know how. They panic and try to raise their front feet over the surface, as though trying to climb out of the water, which does not work. In the process their rear end sinks further and further down, and they start to sink. You need to support their rear.

With my long-tailed dogs, I usually can just use their tail to ease their rear to the surface until they’re fairly level. Or just place your hand beneath their rump. This should help the splashing considerably. But you may also need to place your other hand on the water surface just over their front legs, preventing them from breaking the surface. You’ll probably have to repeatedly help them remember to keep their rear up as they’re first learning. Keeping them calm goes a long way toward keeping them level.

9. Teach four-paw drive

Many dogs only use their front feet to paddle, with their rear feet only occasionally contributing a random kick. You can encourage your dog to kick with his rear just by touching or tickling his rear paws. He’ll kick! Keep at it and he’ll discover he goes faster that way. If he likes to retrieve, encourage speed by throwing a toy in the water and sending him after it — maybe with you or another dog racing him!

10. Teach water words

Once your dog has mastered swimming, teach him some swimming cues. “Ashore!” for example, means to swim quickly to shore. To teach this, throw a toy to shore, or have a friend place a treat there or swing a tug there, and race her to it. “Man overboard!” means to race to you, and if he’s capable, you can also teach him to tow you to safety.

11. Be safe when it comes to dog swimming

Know your water before letting your dog in it. Are there riptides? Rushing water? Waterfalls? Undertow? Alligators? Steep sides? If you have a pool, always train your dog to know how to get out. They can hang on the side but for only so long. And as with kids, you should always supervise no matter where he’s swimming.

Tell us: Have you taught your dog to swim? What tips would you add about dog swimming?

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.

Thumbnail: Photography by Wasitt Hemwarapornchai / Shutterstock.

This piece was originally published in 2014.

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13 thoughts on “Dog Swimming Lessons: 11 Tips for Teaching Your Pup to Swim Safely”

  1. I doubt anyone would see this in a timely fashion, but I'm desperate at this point and looking for help from anyone who's gone through this.

    My 6 month old Rott can't swim. She's constantly in front wheel drive. We've been doing work in the pool for a month and a half. She and her sister know to get to the stairs just fine. But she can't swim any distance without support.

    Supported her stomach to keep her horizontal, she only uses front paws and glides.
    Tickled and touched her back legs, she just tucks them in further.

    Sister is just fine and no worries with her. But this one hasn't had any progress on the back legs at all over all this time. Not sure what to do because they are yard dogs and there's a 40ft pool in the yard. Right now they're let out from their kennel or play area 5-8 hours a day, but that means I need to be there supervising all that time since she can't swim.

    This isn't feasible in the long term for either them, or myself.

    Any help will be greatly appreciated.

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  7. We have a 7 month old female westie that is totally crazy about the water! My husband has fixed up two white ramps and bolted them onto the pool (deep end) and the other is bolted to the side of the hot tub. He trained her to use the ramps so she now has several outlets to get out of the pool. We spend every evening in the pool with her. It has served as a great outlet to calm her agressive moments since she is in that “teenage” time of her life.

    We also hose her off afterwards and rub in a spray conditioner to keep her coat & skin from drying out.

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