Swimming Lessons: 11 Tips for Teaching Your Pup the Dog Paddle

Some dog breeds need swimming lessons; here's how to make the training safe and easy.

Caroline Coile  |  Jun 27th 2014

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 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 alright 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. This is not the way to teach a dog to swim.

So how do you teach a dog to swim? Here are our top 10 tips:

1. Forget sink or swim

Sure, some swim. Dogs can drown, especially if they panic and don’t know how to swim. But others can sink. I guess we just never saw the dogs that sank and didn’t swim. Sort of evolution in action. Don’t sacrifice your dog to test Darwinism.

2. Wade in early

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.

3. Invest in a vest

Especially for our sinking breeds, a doggy flotation device is a huge help. It allows them 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 doling out treats for wearing it. Even if you don’t use a vest, have your dog wear a harness when swimming. You can haul him out of the water with it, especially if you have a long floating line attached to it.

4. Bring a role model

What kid or dog doesn’t want to follow his buddies wherever they go, even into the water? Having a swimming dog 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 when it’s over their heads.

5. Go slow

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. 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. Get wet

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

This is one 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 the swim, 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

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 who 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.

Have you taught your dog to swim? How did it go? Tell us in the comments!

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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.