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There’s just something about the pure joy that comes from watching your dog play in the water. I think it captures the same kind of wild abandon that I know I felt playing on a beach, even if that beach was some dirt next to a muddy pond full of leeches (true story).
Some people will try and tell you that there are breeds that can’t or won’t swim or don’t like the water. That’s just simply not true. I keep hearing people tell me that pugs hate the water. If Jack were still alive I would present him as Exhibit A as to why that’s a false statement.
Even if they aren’t being recruited for the Coast Guard, any dog can be taught to be comfortable near water and there are so many benefits for your pooch:
- It cools dogs on a hot day: a quick dip in a cool stream is refreshing and the resulting coat full of water will help to keep them cool longer.
- It’s a great way to exercise: swimming provides an amazing full-body, low-impact workout which is a must for high-energy dogs who aren’t prepared for long miles of running. It’s gentle on soft tissue and allows for a full range of motion which makes it perfect for older dogs or dogs starting an exercise regime. It also acts as a built-in ice bath to help reduce inflammation. Even if they just wade in the water, they’ll still get the benefits that come with a resistance workout. Think if it like wearing ankle weights. Let’s not forget that tired dogs are not as prone to exhibit undesirable behaviours. A tired puppy is a happy puppy.
- It keeps your dog engaged: swimming is a whole body activity and allows your dog to experience different sensations not to mention all the different scents, sights, and sounds that come with being near water.
- Confidence on the trail: if you do a lot of hiking in the wilderness, you will inevitably come to a water crossing and even shallow streams can unnerve the bravest dog. Getting your dog used to a quick splash means that you can get back on the trail instead of trying to drag, or even worse carry, your dog across a river.
- IT’S FUN: who doesn’t love watching dogs have fun?
There’s benefits for the humans too. After a day on the trail, standing in water can help to ease sore muscles. Or walk with your dog up and down a river for a gentle resistance workout. The deeper the water, the more you have to engage your core which improves your balance. And let’s face it: being around water is incredibly soothing. Even if your dog is tearing around like a lunatic, don’t you feel more relaxed sitting near water?
Not sure how to introduce your dog to the water? I’ll walk you through what I did to get every one of my dogs to love swimming. Ultimately, you know your dog best and what works for me may not work for you.
- Pick your water: if you can, avoid rough water and dangerous shorelines. A calm pond or slow-moving stream with a gentle slope and firm footing to the water would be best. A pool would be even better if you have one or access to one (I do not).
- Recruit a swim instructor: Piper and Jack taught Leo. Leo and Jack taught King. King and Leo taught Lilly. Having another dog that is comfortable around the water demonstrates to your pup that there’s nothing to be scared of. If you’re tossing toys or sticks into the water and your swim instructors are running in, your newbie may just go in on their own. Even if they don’t take the plunge, getting them to at least wade in is a huge step.
- Take your time: if your dog only gets their toes wet at first, then so be it. Don’t try and force or bribe your pup in if they’re scared. Wade in ahead of them and crouch down to pet them. If they’re naturally curious, make little splashes to intrigue them. If they have a favourite toy that is waterproof and floats, bring that with you. West Paw Design toys are waterproof, float, and can be thrown in the dishwasher for quick cleanup. Think of it as play and with no pressure on them at all. You can even use it as an excuse to hang out in the water for a bit. Bring a beverage and a picnic and make it special.
- Help them out: at the same time, they may need your help to show them that they don’t have to be afraid. Wait for a hot day and, if you’re able to pick them up easily, hold them in water that is just deep enough so that they can’t touch the bottom and have them facing the shore. With you supporting them, you can keep your dog from sitting too low in the water so they don’t feel like they’re drowning. They’ll initially start flailing but will settle into a steady rhythm and that’s when you let them go so they swim to the bank. I’ve never had to do that more than twice before a dog got it. If you cannot hold them without struggling (let’s face it: I would never consider this with King) then a lifejacket might provide that little extra bit of support for them. I did this with Piper, Jack, and Lilly and it worked like a charm.
As with everything, there are some things that you have to keep in mind which are especially important if you are just teaching your dog how to swim:
- Hazards in the water: you want to keep a close eye on where you go swimming. Even shallow water can hide any number of risks to your dog. Rusted out metal, wire, glass, sharp rocks, even broken clam shells can cut deep into a dog’s paw. In my opinion silty bottoms are the worst, not only because it feels absolutely disgusting when you sink in over your ankle (shudder) but the fine mud completely obscures what is in the water. And it’s disgusting. And leeches. If you go swimming near a dock or boats, you’ll want to watch for oil slicks on the water. The last thing you want is a thirsty pup to drink some gas or get it on their coat which could be absorbed if they groom themselves. Streams and rivers may have submerged debris that can be dangerous if your dog gets pushed against it by the current. Even slow-moving rivers can have enough force to hold a dog against fallen branches. There’s also the risk of injury if they jump off a log and land in a tangle of branches. Algal blooms are gross when you have to smell them on your dog and can cause health issues if they drink near them. Avoid water that has a thick mat of floating green.
- Be aware if the place where you’re swimming has strong currents or dangerous tides. If that’s the case, consider keeping your dog on a leash or put a lifejacket on them.
- Wildlife: where I live in southern Ontario, there isn’t much risk from wildlife in the water. Except leeches. Did I mention that I hate leeches? We’re more likely to startle a deer and then have a chase through the bush. However, farther south poisonous snakes and alligators are a real risk not to mention jellyfish in the oceans. Jack was five kinds of mad at me when I didn’t let him go swimming when we went to Magnolia Plantation in Charleston. Of course, he didn’t notice the gator that was sneaking up on us.
- Rules: most public beaches forbid dogs and despite how I may feel about it, those are still the rules. Luckily, there are some excellent beaches where they may allow dogs, have a designated dog area, or allow dogs on specific dates and times. To play it safe, I just assume that dogs aren’t allowed until I see otherwise.
- Cold: even with a thick coat, dogs can still get chilled and it’s up to you to watch them. Jack was notorious for going in the water no matter how cold it was. He would stop at a break in the ice at the side of the river in the middle of winter for a drink and then wade right in. Needless to say that ended the walk because I didn’t want those little stick legs to get frostbitten. Luckily all of the other dogs have a bit more sense to them.
- Exhaustion: no matter how strong a swimmer your dog is, they can still get tired. If your dog wants to practice their inner Baywatch, consider putting a lifejacket on them and keep them close to shore. That’s even more important if you’re going out on a boat: your dog may see something exciting, jump off the side of the boat, and get stunned when they hit the water. The life jacket will keep them afloat and minimize further risks. I've never used a life jacket but if we lived near large bodies of water, I would definitely have one for each of the dogs. Check out life jackets here.
- Your dog: this may seem a bit strange but if you go swimming your dog may be a hazard to you. Most of the time I wade in the water and the dogs do their thing but there are times when I swim out a bit. Piper would always come to me and I would always get gouged by her nails. I don’t know if she was trying to save me or was just curious about what her human was up to. So what I started doing was that when she began to swim towards me, I would say “Piper save me” and when she got close I would very lightly touch her rump and steer her towards the shore. Then when her feet could touch the bottom, I praised the dickens out of her. This is my logic: in case I actually had trouble swimming sometime, I had already established a command for her to come to me. And I wanted to redirect a behaviour that she was already exhibiting to one that didn’t leave me with gouge marks. She was such a momma’s girl that there was no way she was not going to come to me anyway and trying to tell her not to would only stress her out. If you like to swim out into deep water, your dog may follow after you so be aware of that as well.
All of my dogs have some quirk around the water. When I first took Piper into the river, I picked a slow moving section with a soft bottom. She did not like it at all. Then when we went to a different section with a stronger current and rocky bottom, she swam right out into the middle and started doing figure-8’s. She also used to tuck her back legs up and use her whole back side as a rudder.
Jack HATED the water when I first got him. He would go to the river to drink and keep as much of himself away from it as he possibly could. Once he learned how to swim, I couldn’t keep him out. Even at the end of his life when he was blind and arthritic, he would get so excited when I took him to the river in his wagon. That will always be the image of Jack that I remember the most. And because he didn’t float well and his dark coat, usually all you saw of him was his tail poking out of the water like a flag.
Leo can swim and is a good swimmer but prefers to wade up to his belly. I think that because he has zero body fat (yay me) and a thin coat he's more sensitive to the water temperature. But he will walk out onto every log like he’s walking the plank and he is so agile that I have seen him walk on branches that looked like they could barely hold a bird.
King is so stocky that he can’t swim well but that doesn’t stop him from going in the water. If I don’t let him walk downstream when he wants to or I turn around before he’s ready to go, he has a full on meltdown. Because he has no recall, he has to stay on a longline when he swims and he has gotten good at following my directions around obstructions: I’ll get his attention and use verbal cues and hand gestures to direct him. Not just simple “this way” but I’ll point out a sequence and he’ll follow it. Not only that, but he has learned to read the river so he knows where the deep spots are.
Lilly has just learned how to swim and I think I’ve created a monster. Instead of just running along the edge of the water like she did when I first got her, she goes right out into the current and lets it carry her downstream. Then I get the side-eye when she has to come back. It’s actually very similar to what Jack used to do. Maybe pugs really are water dogs. Since she’s still young, swimming is turning out to be a great way to tire her out.
As much as I love extra gear, you really don't need any except maybe a beach blanket and lots of towels. However, if you do plan on getting in the water, I definitely recommend water shoes or sandals to protect your feet from rocks or sticks. I love my Teva Tirra sandals. They may be a bit pricey but they last forever and are really rugged. I practically live in mine over the summer and I just had to replace them after five years.
If your dog is going to be spending a lot of time in the water, you may want to invest in a waterproof collar. Nylon collars stink after a while. Believe me...I know. Unfortunately because my dogs tend to be pullers, I have to stick with the nylon martingale collars.
How does your pup feel about the water? Are they a swimmer or a wader? Do you have any tips or tricks to encourage your dog to swim?
Splash on friends!