The tips, tricks and techniques for teaching your dog to swim

There are numerous reasons why it is a good idea to get your dog comfortable traversing water.

You may be compelled to teach your dog to swim as a fun, cooling activity during hot summer months or see it as an opportunity for exercising and increasing stamina. If you have a pool or live near a large open body of water, swim lessons become imperative for safety reasons.

But where to start? The right answer is not simply heading to the ocean and dragging your canine into the surf.

First of all, swimming is not instinctive, like sniffing or barking. Dogs must be taught, and even then, not all breeds are natural swimmers. Bulldogs, dachshunds and pugs, for instance, experience difficulty or cannot swim at all, while spaniels, poodles, setters and retrievers often take easily and joyfully to water. Starting young, when it is easier to cultivate positive associations, is optimal for most dogs.

Slow and steady

The learning process should be completed in steps that likely will span several days and sessions. Use a lifejacket or flotation device for all breeds when starting out, and even longer for lightweight dogs or those whose body types are not as compatible with swimming (for example, barrel-chested or short-legged dogs). Fill each lesson with praise and treats for accomplished goals.

For your beginning lessons, choose a quiet, peaceful setting, where your dog will not be bothered or distracted by excessive noise and activity. Don’t drag your dog into the water; instead, use vocal instructions and commands.

“Don’t force the dog,” Wendy Diamond, the founder and editorial director of Animal Fair magazine, told TODAY. “If they don’t want to do it, don’t force them to do it.”

Start in shallow water, and let your dog get acclimated to the wet, cold environment, advises petMD. If your dog is comfortable, move on.

Keeping her on a leash, allow her to walk into deeper water until she has to start paddling. Try throwing a ball or standing a few feet in front of your dog and drawing it to you with a treat or toy, suggests the American Kennel Club.

Teaching proper technique

To prevent your dog from overusing her front legs, offer her support under her midsection or hindquarters, which will induce her to use the back legs, as well. As you progress, remove the lifejacket, and eventually the leash – but only when your dog is at the appropriate skill level.

“The leash should not come off until she is able to swim unassisted and is consistently returning to you when called back,” petMD states.

If at any point, your pooch seems stressed out or overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to move back toward solid ground. Your ultimate goal is to alleviate your dog’s fear of water and swimming, and help her feel a positive association to the activity.

To guide your doggie swim lessons, here are a few important safety tips:

  • You cannot throw a dog in the water and expect it to swim.
  • For extremely small dogs, you should start in a tub or wading pool before introducing them to deeper, and especially moving, water.
  • Even when your dog knows how to swim, don’t leave him unattended at a lake or the ocean. Dogs, particularly those who are good swimmers, can keep going farther out and end up lost.
  • Show your dog the right way to exit the water onto a boat, dock or dry land. If you are in a pool, show him the location of the stairs and how to use them for entrance and exit.

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