How To Teach Your Puppy To Swim – A Step-By-Step Guide
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You have a new puppy and can’t wait to enjoy adventures together. And now you’re wondering, how to teach your puppy to swim.
Even if you don’t have a lakeside cottage, it’s important for your pup to learn to be comfortable in and around water.
Chances are he’ll be around some body of water–a pool, a lake, an ocean, a stream, or a bay–during his lifetime.
And it’s better that he knows how to feel confident and be safe around it.
Not all dogs are natural swimmers. But most can be taught to swim. Of course, it takes time and patience.
In this article, I’ll explain how to teach your puppy to swim.
I’ll also set forth what safety measures must be taken and discuss what types of dogs are natural swimmers as well as those who aren’t.
What Types of Dogs Are Natural Swimmers–and What Types Aren’t
Some dogs were bred to perform tasks in water.
Dogs such as Portuguese Water Dogs, Labrador retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels, golden retrievers, and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers were bred to retrieve waterfowl for hunters.
So generally they take like a duck to water (pun intended). Their athletic shape and water-repellent coats help them perform their tasks.
Our guide and service dog puppies are usually either Labs, Goldens or a mix of the two. So far, all we’ve had are natural swimmers.
You’d think that they’d all naturally love water but the majority favored dry land.
The exception is our current black Lab, Elsa. We can’t keep her out of the pool.
However, many other breeds aren’t natural swimmers.
Depending on their conformation, it’s much more difficult for some breeds to swim.
Dogs with broad, heavy chests and short legs usually find it more difficult to swim because of the weight distribution of their bodies.
This includes Old English bulldogs, dachshunds, Bassett hounds, corgis, and French bulldogs.
When I was a kid our neighbors had a Basset Hound named Dudley and a swimming pool. One day when we were playing in the pool, Dudley got so excited he jumped with us!
He shot to the bottom like a torpedo. My friend, David had to dive down and bring him back to the surface. Poor ole Dudley’s short legs and heavy build were not meant for swimming.
Canines with short muzzles (brachycephalic breeds) also have a more difficult time and are more likely to drown than breeds with longer muzzles. This includes pugs, shih tzus, and Pekingese.
Of course most dogs can be taught to swim enough for them to be safe if exposed to water.
There are some devices that are necessary to help keep your puppy safe when learning to swim.
1. Dog Life Jacket
A well-fitted canine life jacket can literally be a life saver.
Even if a dog is a natural swimmer, this flotation device can keep him safe.
Dogs might not realize that a body of water has suddenly become deeper or that there’s a current.
Or a dog can become tired and need the buoyancy that the vest provides.
When a puppy is first learning to swim, he usually naturally paddles only his front feet. He tries to reach the bottom of the water with his rear feet.
A life vest helps him stay afloat until his paddling reflex kicks in.
In choosing a vest, look for the following components:
- Well-fitted to your puppy
- Reflective trim
- Extra flotation piece under his chin to help keep his head above water
- Handle to grab and help guide the puppy
- D-ring to attach a leash or longline to
2. Human Life Jacket
Of course you want your puppy to be safe. But it’s also important that you’re safe too. That’s why it’s important for the humans to wear a life jacket as well.
Even savvy human swimmers need to be aware of risks in deeper areas of water–especially when you’re focusing on working with your puppy.
Have a six-foot leash waterproof leash (a regular leash will work just as well) ready for when you first teach your puppy to be in the water.
It’s important that he gets used to having this attached to his safety vest because eventually you’ll have a longline attached to it when he’s ready and able to venture further away from you.
I believe in making sure that any dog–and especially a puppy– is safe.
Using a long-line allows the dog who’s learning to swim do so safely.
Even for seasoned canine swimmers, a longline attached to a life jacket helps a dog not swim out too far.
It also helps prevent mishaps should there be a swift, unforeseen current or if the body of water is deeper than your canine expects.
They even make longlines that are meant to be used in water so that their makeup isn’t compromised and they won’t become moldy.
When my golden retriever Spencer swam in the bay, he wore a life vest with a longline attached for safety.
Granted, he was a natural swimmer, but he would run out chasing a waterproof ball that floated.
He wouldn’t think first about whether there was a current. He just wanted to have fun.
So I did all I could to ensure his safety.
How To Teach Your Puppy To Swim Step-By-Step
Before even exposing your puppy to water, get him used to wearing his life vest.
Put it on him and give him treats. Play with a favorite toy while he wears it. Then remove it.
Do this type of introduction to the vest for days until he associates wearing it with great things happening.
Always have him wear his vest with an attached leash or longline so that he’s safe and becomes accustomed to wearing these pieces of equipment when he’s becoming “aqua dog.”
1. Choose where to first expose your puppy to water
You want your puppy to have a positive experience with water.
Many puppies have already had negative experiences with water.
Your pup may already have had his first bath or been rinsed off from some yucky stuff he’s rolled in.
And he may not love seeing the sink or bathtub or hose because of those bad memories.
Of course, there are ways you can teach your puppy to tolerate–and even like–his baths. But that’s a subject for another time.
So it’s crucial that this new introduction to water be a positive one.
You should choose an area where your puppy just gets his feet wet.
This can be in a tub or sink if he doesn’t already have a bad association with it.
You can also use a doggie pool with an inch of water in it.
If your puppy’s really new to being exposed to water or has already had a bad experience with it, you can start by praising and rewarding him when he even looks at the water.
Then, praise and reward when he takes a step towards it. You can end the session there.
You may need to repeat these steps during a few more training sessions until your puppy looks forward to being near the water.
2. After he’s comfortable being near the water, lure him into the water with a small yummy treat
PRO-TRAINER TIP: Have a supply of great, yummy treats that your puppy can’t resist ready as a reward. They should be small, no larger than a pea. Always have your reward treats ready before giving your obedience cue.
Don’t just pick him up and put him in it if possible.
Alternatively, you could try to have your puppy target to your hand to move forward if you’ve taught him that cue.
Be calm, but highly praise your puppy as he enters as well as when his feet are wet.
Make sure that your body language is loose and your tone is happy.
Dogs can really read our body language and tone.
You can even have him retrieve or play with a water-safe toy.
I recommend getting him to play with the toy on land first so that he enjoys it while in the water.
Keep the session short: about five minutes at most.
Do this shallow session for at least a few days before increasing depth.
Prior to increasing the water’s depth, your puppy must be comfortable with the shallower depth.
3. During successive sessions, increase the depth of the water slightly
Still lure him in with a treat and have him move around naturally following you in the pool.
End each session on a happy note.
The sessions should be brief: no more than five minutes or so, depending on your pup.
Your puppy shouldn’t be tired at the end of the session.
It may take a week or two until he’s comfortable in deeper water.
Don’t rush the process.
4. Physically support your puppy
When your puppy is in deep enough water and starts to paddle, support him underneath his belly with your arm.
This gives him confidence and incentive to paddle with his rear legs too.
5. Take it on the road
After teaching your puppy to have a positive association with water at home, you can take him to other places to learn to swim.
But make sure to first check with your vet that your puppy’s had a sufficient number of vaccinations to venture into the great outdoors to swim.
And ask whether your vet believes that he’s old enough to try swimming in different locations.
6. Safety considerations regarding bodies of water
Taking your puppy to swim in new locations should be fun for him.
This may be a swimming pool, a bay, the beach, a pond, or a lake. When deciding on your puppy’s next exposure to water, make sure that:
- There isn’t a current that he could be carried away with
- The water isn’t polluted, including not filled with dangerous algae and bacteria
- The water isn’t too rough
- There is a shallow area where your puppy can enter and exit
- Dogs are permitted there
7. Teach your puppy where the shallow area is
Lure him into the shallow area with a small tidbit of a yummy treat.
Praise and reward even when he first gets his feet wet.
Over the course of successive training sessions, you can have him enter and be lured into deeper water. Remain next to him.
8. Teach your puppy how to exit the water
Lure your puppy with a treat out again.
He should always learn how to exit.
In a pool, start at the steps and show him where to exit.
In other bodies of water, always start at an area with a gentle slope.
9. Have your puppy rest
Even after the short swim session, your puppy will need to rest.
10. Teach your puppy to swim in deeper water
Over subsequent swimming training sessions, teach him to swim in deeper water.
Stay alongside him in a depth that’s safe for you and in which you can stand comfortably.
Wear a life vest too for safety. Remember: you’re your puppy’s lifeguard.
Put your arm under your dog’s belly to support him at first.
Make sure that his rear is aligned with his head.
Go only at his pace.
It may take many sessions until he’s confident and able to be in water that is deeper than his height. Don’t rush the process.
When I taught my sheltie Duffy to swim, he was very hesitant at first.
We started with him getting used to water in a kiddie pool, then moved onto a swimming pool when he was ready.
My being by his side holding onto the handle of his life vest gave him confidence and helped him learn to paddle with his rear legs.
Over time, he enjoyed it.
If you don’t have access to your own or a friend’s swimming pool, there are some other places that you can go to with your dog to teach him to swim.
Some dog facilities have swimming pools for dogs.
Make sure that you are permitted in with him so that you can help train him and build his confidence.
You can even purchase a deeper kiddie pool to help him practice swimming where he can’t touch the bottom when he’s ready for that step.
Helpful Tips for Success
There are additional steps you can take for your puppy to be successful and confident when learning to swim.
- Arrange for your puppy to watch a confident, able dog swim
- Socialize your puppy to a wide variety of experiences and places
- Teach your puppy obedience commands
He needs to pay attention to you and come reliably to you when he’s called.
And teach him to nose target to your hand so that you can help guide him to various places without yanking him around.
- Keep your swim training sessions short
Depending on your puppy’s age and endurance level, sessions should be no more than five to 10 minutes.
Water Safety Tips
There are many considerations regarding whether it’s safe to have your dog swim in addition to whether the water is clean enough or not too rough.
1. Make sure that the water or air temperature aren’t too cold.
They should, when added together, equal at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the water’s too cold, your puppy can be susceptible to hypothermia.
Dogs can also suffer in the cold water swimmer’s tail (aka limber tail syndrome or cold tail).
This is a condition in which the tail drops and the puppy’s unable to raise it.
It’s dangerous because the puppy is likely to sink if this occurs.
2. Seek veterinary help if your puppy jumps into water that’s too cold, shivers, or isn’t using his tail
It’s better to be safe than sorry. Puppies can’t regulate their body temperature well.
3. Make sure that your puppy doesn’t ingest too much water
This can cause water toxicity. Vomiting after swimming is a sign that your pup has swallowed too much water and should be taken to the vet.
4. Beware of creepy creatures
Don’t venture into bodies of water where there may be dangerous items or creatures, including: alligators, water snakes, snapping turtles, jellyfish, sting rays, or fish hooks with bait.
5. Provide dog-friendly sun protection and sunscreen
This is crucial for hairless dogs and light-coated dogs and for dogs with pink noses.
6. Place a visual marker, such as a flag, where the puppy should enter and exit
Your pup may become disoriented. The visual marker helps you guide him to the correct area to enter and exit the water.
After the Swim
Here are some important tips for after you take your puppy swimming:
- Have fresh water available for your puppy.
- Rinse him off with clean water to remove any chemicals or other matter.
- Give your puppy a nap so that he can recharge.
What NOT To Do: Don’t Try This at Home
Training your puppy to swim should be a positive experience for all involved. Puppies have long memories and will recall any negative experience.
1. Don’t force your puppy into the water
Tossing, pulling, or pushing your puppy into the water would be frightening to him and most likely he’ll never want to be near water again.
Plus it will ruin the bond you have with him. Chances are, he won’t trust you any longer.
Of course this will impact every interaction you have with him.
2. Don’t take him to areas where other loose dogs are present.
If your puppy is pounced on or attacked by another dog, his swimming training and socialization will be irreparably harmed. And he might even become physically injured.
3. Don’t feed your puppy a large meal or have him drink a lot of water before his swim lesson
You don’t want him to get an upset stomach or even possibly bloat.
Are all dogs natural swimmers?
No. Some dogs are natural swimmers depending on their breed, natural inclination, and body build.
But all dogs should be taught to be safe around and in water and not be fearful of it.
Should I push my puppy into a pool to teach him to swim?
No! Most puppies would find this to be very frightening.
Doing so may create a lifelong fear of water and a distrust of you. Instead, slowly teach him to be safe in shallow water, increasing the depth after he’s learned how to swim.
How long should my swimming lessons be for my puppy?
For young puppies of eight weeks until about five months, keep the session very short–a few minutes at most.
As your puppy gets older, six months and up, the sessions can get longer, from between five to 10 minutes maximum.
Of course, if you have a small breed, a brachycephalic breed, or another breed that finds swimming to be difficult, you should still keep your lessons short, a few minutes at a time.
Not all puppies are natural swimmers. And some love water whereas others don’t.
But all puppies should be taught to be safe around water.
Using positive reinforcement of treats, praise, and toys, a puppy can learn that fun things happen in and around water.
It’s important to go slowly at your puppy’s pace when training him how to swim. You don’t want to overwhelm him.
If done properly, your puppy’s swimming lessons with you can be a great time to bond and have memorable adventures.
How about you?
Did you teach your puppy to swim?
Are you about to give your puppy swim lessons?
Tell us your story in the comment section below.
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