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Teach Your Dog To Swim

IS YOUR DOG SWIM SAFE FOR SUMMER?

Australians are a nation of swimmers, so why should it be any different for our dogs? Whether in the surf, a river, a dam or a backyard pool, what better way could there be to exercise your dog on a hot summers day? Not all dogs however have a natural liking for water and some don't even know how to swim. Should they fall into the family swimming pool they could literally find themselves in over their heads and struggling to stay alive.

Is your dog a potential swim champ?

Any healthy dog can learn to swim however many factors make it easier for some dogs then others.

  • Age and early experience - the earlier your dog is exposed to water (from eight weeks on) the quicker and more likely he will be to enjoy it, provided of course that these early experiences are pleasant and fun. A traumatic experience early in life such as falling into a pool could result in a life long fear of water. Even when bathing your dog, try to wet him down gradually, be very gentle around the face and use as little force as possible to prevent an overly fearful association with water. Patience now will pay long term benefits in the future.

  • Conformation - some dogs are better suited structurally to swimming than others. For example a Golden Retriever would have a longer, stronger stroke than a short legged Corgi. A greater percentage of fat to muscle ratio will also help some dogs to float more easily and to stay warmer for longer in the water.

  • Fitness level - being fit alone does not make a dog a good swimmer, however fit dogs are generally more confident about physical activities and can spend more time learning to swim without tiring.

  • Breed - some breeds have been bred specifically for water retrieval and rescue such as the Labrador, the Newfoundland and the Portuguese Water Spaniel. You would expect these dogs to take to swimming very easily, however every dog is an individual and certainly a bad experience can put even the keenest swimmer off his game. Plenty of dogs from other breeds, as well as mixed breeds both large and small, enjoy swimming also. So it's just a matter of try it and see.

  • Coat - some dogs have a water resistant double coat which will help to keep them warm and afloat when swimming. In some breeds a heavy coat actually absorbs water and may weigh down the dog, necessitating careful supervision when swimming and perhaps the use of a swimming aid such as a vest. Short haired and single coated dogs won't feel a drag in the water but may chill quickly if swimming in cold water or on a cooler day.

Before You Start - Safety Considerations

Planning ahead for your dogs first introduction to water will ensure that his first experiences are pleasant and fun.

  • Make sure the area you select is clean and safe both on land and in the water. Typical hazards found in water include oyster shells, broken glass and fish hooks. You don't want your dogs first swim lesson ending up with a trip to the vet.

  • If swimming in the ocean or rivers be aware of currents and rips. Still calm water is obviously the best place to start.

  • Temperature on land and sea should be pleasant for the first time swimmer, especially as you may have to join your dog in the water! While a Newfoundland could swim anywhere in Australia without feeling a chill, a small dog such as a Papillon could easily suffer hypothermia even on a warm day if allowed to stay in the water for too long. Observe your dog closely and be ready to remove him from the water and towel dry him quickly at the earliest signs of chilling.

  • Salt and chlorine in water can be a surprise and an irritant to some dogs, particularly to the eyes. So take along some fresh water that can be used to wipe over the face when you finish swimming.

  • Don't forget to take along plenty of fresh drinking water if your dog is swimming in sea. You can see the look of surprise on your dog's face when he tries drinking salt water for the first time . All this water and not a drop to drink?Swimming is strenuous exercise and the sun and salt will make your dog extra thirsty.

  • Build up the time your dog spends in the water gradually. Swimming is a strenuous activity and your dog needs time to develop the strength in his muscles. Over strain can lead to a condition known as swimmers tail causing your dogs tail to hang at half mast for a few days.

  • Be sure to dry your dogs ears thoroughly after swimming especially if he has long floppy ears. Prolonged moist conditions in the ear can quickly lead to ear infections.

  • Keep your dogs nails short. If you are swimming together there is a good chance your dog will scrape against your bare legs at least once and youll be glad you gave them a trim before you came!

Swim Aids

If your dog is not a natural swimmer you may need to employ a few swim aids to help. (See Your Dog's Swimming Posture below)

  • A swim vest is available at most good pet stores. These flotation devices are useful for the dog that is structurally less suited to swimming and needs a boost in buoyancy, the dog or owner who lacks confidence in the water, or as an added safety precaution when taking a dog on a boat.

  • A non-restrictive harness is a better alternative to a collar if you want your dog to be under control when swimming as it will interfere less with a dogs natural swim posture.

  • A floating light line or lead can be easily made using plastic rope available at hardware stores. This rope is not effected by water or sand, won't tangle or cause rope burn and floats. If you drop it in the water it will simply float beside your dog and can easily be picked up again.

  • Floating toys and treats such as most dog biscuits, liver cakes, hot dogs etc. are handy for encouraging and rewarding your dog in the water.

  • Wading pool, bucket, hose for in-home, pre-swim training.

Introduction to water play

Even before you head for the beach, you can get your dog use to the feel of water by walking through puddles, or wading pools, or dropping floating treats or toys into a shallow bucket of water to desensitize him to the feeling of getting his muzzle wet. Make sure you act happy and relaxed at all times and never force your dog to get wet (with the inevitable exception of bath time!)

The best place to teach your dog to swim is at a beach area with a natural and gradual descent into shallow, calm, clean, water. Your dog will have four phases to conquer:

  • Getting paws wet - this is easily achieved by most dogs and can be practiced at home.

  • Getting underbelly/groin area wet - on a hot day this is also easily achieved.However many dogs are reluctant to leave this stage and move on to

  • Stepping out into the water beyond reach of ground - necessitating swim strokes

  • Putting head underwater to retrieve an object (an optional extra for advanced swimmers only!)

Start by simply walking in an inch or two of water parallel to the shore while your dog explores the new environment. If you are at the ocean, there will be many new smells to intrigue your dog as well as the strange texture of moving sand beneath his feet and perhaps the lapping of small waves adding to the amazing sight of the endless body of moving water he now finds before him. Give him plenty of time to acclimatize. You can help by being relaxed, laughing and perhaps playing with some of his favourite toys in the shallows. If you can, take along an older, water confident dog as a role model for your dog. Many dogs will follow another dog into the water when they would not follow a human. Praise any steps toward or into the water. Learning to Swim

  • If your dog appears relaxed and is enjoying the water, you may step things up a little by taking him just out of his depth while supporting his weight with your hands under his sternum/rib area, turn and release him toward shore. Praise lavishly while he is swimming.

  • Encourage the dog to walk back out with you on his own accord or go in a little ahead of him and call him to you allow him to turn around whenever he chooses.

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  • If your dog has enjoyed the experience he will let you pick him up and take him a little way out again. If he is very reluctant to be caught quit and just allow him to play in the shallows until he becomes more confident.

  • If you need to keep your dog restrained for safety reasons and/or control, use a non-restrictive harness rather than a collar with a floating line attached to the front. If necessary, apply encouraging little tugs rather than a steady pull which would only cause the dog to pull back in the opposite direction. Always apply any pressure horizontally in front of the dog not up or down to enhance his natural swimming posture.

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  • If your dog lacks confidence or doesnt seem to float easily, try a swim vest. The extra buoyancy will give your dog and you greater confidence and will make it easier to assist your dog in the water. Make sure your dog is comfortable wearing the vest at home before you introduce him to the water. Some dogs are more worried about being abandoned than they are of water, no matter what the depth. You can take advantage of this situation to get your dog into the water but remember to reward his swimming efforts with praise and by returning with him to shore at frequent intervals for a rest and reassessment of the situation. Your aim is to create a dog that enjoys and is confident in the water, not one who associates it with the stress of abandonment.

  • Be wary that your dog doesn't swim over the top of you, scratching your legs. Take a few treats with you and dropping them well in front of the dogs nose, guide the dog in a circle around you at arms length this will teach the dog to swim beside you rather than on top of you. This can actually be practiced first on dry land, then in the shallows and finally when your dog is swimming.

Some dogs may pass through all phases in one visit and start swimming right away. Other however may require several trips before feeling confident enough to step into even shallow water so be patient. This is a time when haste makes waste, and a fearful incident could put your dog off swimming for the rest of his life. The most important thing is that your dog learns to enjoy the water, so let him develop at his own pace.

Swimming Pools

Swimming pools are both the safest and most dangerous place for your dog to swim. They are safe because you know the water is clean, there are no currents or rips to pull your dog out to sea and there are no injurious bits of debris lying around for your dog to cut his paws on. Swimming pools however rarely have a beach area and are difficult for dogs to exit at any point other than the proportionately small step areas. To fully appreciate the danger one must understand a little about how a dog perceives the world when swimming. When a dog swims he stretches his head and neck out in front (see Your Dogs Swimming Posture below). Because of the set of his eyes, your dog is unable to see much of what lies in front of or beneath him and will have only limited peripheral vision. The view would be similar to the one you would see if you were laying on your back being towed by your feet. It is much more difficult from this perspective to find the pools exit points. Sadly, many dogs have fallen into pools and drowned after becoming exhausted from swimming aimlessly around hoping to find ground beneath their feet.

Any dog can fall into a pool, after slipping through a fence or gate or while running around the pool after children. To be truly pool safe all dogs should be taught how to reach the steps from anywhere in the pool.

How to make your dog pool safe.

  1. Identify the way out of your pool with a landmark tall enough to be seen by your dog looking up from anywhere in the pool. This object should be clearly marked in contrasting colours such as black and white which are much more visible to your dog than a single colour. A simple solution may be to candy strip a strip of the pool fence near the steps. A statue, a tree or a pole with a wind sock (dogs see movement particularly well) might all serve the same purpose. The landmark does not need to be directly next to the steps as long as it is permanently in the same direction thereby orientating the dog to the exit.

  2. Ideally you should teach your dog to swim by slowly encouraging it to enter the pool at the steps. Get in yourself and use floating toys and food treats to entice the dog to come to you. Be prepared to take several days to get your dog even onto the first step. Pools are scary for most dogs because of the sudden drop off in depth. Even a dog who knows how to swim at the beach may initially be reluctant to take the plunge into a pool.

  3. Work through the three stages as before, paws wet, the underbelly wet, followed by the plunge off into deep water. Keep dropping floating treats just ahead of your dog so that he keeps his head and neck straight. If necessary support his underside with the palm of your hand, turn him toward the steps and let him swim back and out. Repeat gradually increasing the distance away from the steps.

  4. If your dog is enjoying swimming, encourage him to jump into the pool from a variety of spots then guide him to the steps. After a few repetitions, do not offer any assistance and watch to see whether or not your dog is finding the exit by himself. Finally watch your dog enter and exit the pool with you standing away from the pool area. You want to make certain your dog isn't picking up some clues about getting out from your presence as you may not be there should he fall in.

  5. Some dogs may never reach the point of voluntarily jumping into the pool or even entering at the steps. It is important that these reluctant swimmers still learn how to exit the pool in case of an accidental fall. In this case you will have to place the dog into the pool, firstly just a short distance from the steps then gradually further and further away.

  6. Initially your presence in the pool will help your dog to gain confidence in the water and will enable you to physically offer support to make certain your dog assumes the best swimming posture. If this is difficult however you can use a non-restrictive body harness or swim vest and floating light line to teach your dog.

  7. Put the dog in the pool at slowly increasing distances from the steps and call him. Reward heavily with praise and treats when he reaches the steps. Keep the floating safety line as loose as possible. The harness and line should only be used if necessary to guide your dog or in case of an emergency to help pull him out. As the dog gains confidence remove the swimming aids and repeat the drill. Again, as a final check leave the pool area completely and watch from a distance making certain your dog can exit the pool unaided no matter where he may have fallen in.

  8. If you have a young puppy remember to shorten all training sessions. Puppies have shorter concentration spans, tire more easily and feel the cold more quickly. Be extra careful also to make the experience a pleasant one by using lots of praise and rewards.

Your dogs swimming posture.

The dog's posture while swimming is of utmost importance. The dog should lie flat and straight in the water similar to a crocodile. If the head or forequarters come too far up, the back end will go down and the dog could start to sink. This is a common mistake seen in novice swimmers, as they raise their front legs up too high, they splash inefficiently on the waters surface and break the straight line of the back. The dog should stretch his neck forward to keep it and the head in line with the body, not pointing up. One reason retrievers often swim so well is because their necks are stretched forward toward the object they wish to retrieve. This action also increases the tension in the muscles that support the chest and back when swimming.

The Use of Treats in Water

If your dog is willing to take treats while swimming, he will learn what you want faster. However it is important not to spoil your dogs correct swimming posture by offering treats from above as you would on land, as this would raise his forequarters too high and upset his balance in the water. Instead offer treats at the surface of the water just in front of the dogs nose and virtually allow him to swim into the treat. Use treats that are likely to float such as many dog biscuits or thinly sliced hot dogs.

The benefits of swimming

It is well worth taking the time to teach your dog to swim. Swimming is a great muscular and cardiovascular work out for your dog and is one of the few exercises recommended for dogs suffering from dysplasia, arthritis or obesity. It is an easy way to work off excess energy in the summer months and beat the heat at the same time. Whether it be at the beach or in your own home pool*, a dog who feels safe and confident in the water can look forward to a whole lot of summer fun!

* A handy hint: Line your pools leaf filters with panty hose to prevent dog hairs from entering the main filter system.
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This article first appeared in Dog's Life magazine in 2002. It is reproduced on the CLEAR Dog Training Website by kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge, part owner and instructor at Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney.