Swimming and playing in the water comes natural to many, but not all dogs. Some canines are uncomfortable or even nervous about being in the water. You can help to encourage your dog to swim with planning and lots of patience.
Finding the right location to teach your dog to swim is key. Make sure that any water you bring your dog to is clean and safe. Look for locations that have calm water free from strong currents and waves, such as swimming pools (with shallow steps or ramps dogs can access), lakes, quiet streams and calm rivers. Seek out areas with a gradual entrance into the water and a shallow area instead of a steep bank or drop off into deep water as this will help your dog build confidence in the water.
Finally, check park or local notices for any warnings about local water. Pay special attention to warnings about blue-green algae because exposure to the algae blooms can be fatal.
While even dogs that are strong swimmers can benefit from a life vest when in the water, for reluctant swimmer’s life vests are good for safety, and confidence-building.
Life preservers are essential if you are going to have your dog out on a boat and if you will be taking your dog to swim in water that does have more current or waves. In addition, puppies, senior dogs and any brachycephalic breed of dog should wear a life preserver anytime they are in or near water for safety. Make sure that the life vest is approved for your dog’s size and weight, is well fitted so it will keep their head above the water.
If you have a dog who is a reluctant swimmer, the key to building confidence and enjoyment with swimming is to go at a pace that your dog is comfortable with, and not push or pressure your dog into swimming. Old-fashioned approaches of forcing or throwing a dog in order to teach them to swim are not only cruel but also dangerous. We want our dogs to feel safe and in control over when and how they enter the water. By working at your dog’s pace, you will be helping your dog build positive associations with swimming and playing in the water.
Step 1: Start by using high- value treats to reward your dog for being near the water. A long-line leash clipped to a back-clip harness is helpful to keep your dog with you but also giving them more freedom to go in and out of the water. Stay at the distance your dog is comfortable with, for some dogs that will be at the edge of the water or pool and for other dogs that might be several feet away. It’s ok if your early training sessions don’t actually involve your dog swimming! Taking the time to help your dog build confidence near the water is the primary goal at this stage.
Step 2: As your dog becomes more comfortable, move closer to the water continuing to reward your dog. Have lots of high-value treats and/or high-value toys for your dog. If your dog is toy motivated, floating water-safe toys can help to build confidence as your dog plays with them in shallow water.
Step 3: When your dog is comfortable playing at the water’s edge move into the shallow water and continue to offer treats and/or to play with toys. Don’t pressure or coerce your dog into deeper water. Keep interactions fun and playful. If you have multiple dogs, or if your dog is dog social and has canine friends that like water, it can help for your dog to watch other dogs enjoying swimming in the water.
Step 4: Gradually increase the depth of water your dog is playing in. This is why finding a pool or natural water location that has gradual slope into the water is very important especially for dogs who are new or nervous about swimming.
Step 5: As your dog is comfortable entering the water up to swimming depth, get in the water near your dog where you are able to stand yourself. This way, if your dog gets worried, you can support getting him back to the depth he was previously been comfortable at. Offer lots of verbal praise as your dog begins swimming and then encourage him back to the shallow water: praise, treat and repeat! Going back and forth between swimming and shallower water with lots of rewards will build confidence and understanding that your dog has control over getting in and out of the water.
If your dog seems very nervous about swimming, or if you are feeling concerned about helping your dog learn to swim, you can get professional help. Canine aquatic centers and therapeutic veterinary swim centers are becoming common across the country. These pools provide safe and positive introductions to the water. Just like people often go to professional swimming lessons as kids to learn to swim, swimming lessons with a therapeutic swim coach can help dogs and puppies gain confidence and experience in the water.
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