By Jennifer Kyzer, Master Trainer and Behavior Specialist
"I want my lab mix to start swimming, but she's terrified of the water! I have tried to get her in a swimming pool, in the river, even taken a trip to the beach and she wants nothing to do with the water beyond lapping at it. I'm afraid that if I push it, she'll never want to swim. Do you have any tips for encouraging her?"
Teaching your pup to swim can be a fun and rewarding experience. However, it can also be frustrating. As with all experiences when fear can be involved, the environment needs to be calm and confident. For your pup to experience something new without fear (under the category of aroused energy), it is best to plan ahead. Some key strategies to succeed at a new experience:
- be calm
- move slowly
- continue forward momentum
- repeat exercise until it is consistent
I would recommend introducing your pup to water in a lake, pond or pool as opposed to the ocean, due to the waves. The ocean beach setting can be overwhelming and not the safest method of introduction. I would also recommend fitting and familiarizing your pup with a dog life jacket before introducing them to the water. Pair this introduction of the life jacket with another positive activity, such as fetch, obedience with treats, or a game of find it. If you introduce your pup to the life jacket several times over several days, wearing it will become a non-issue.
Finding a great location for introducing your pup to water may take some effort. Asking friends or dog lovers for recommendations can be very helpful. Some suggestions for picking a location:
- Quiet area with little traffic
- shallow water leading to deeper
- safe area free of debris, fishing hooks, etc
- easy access
Remember that although most dogs have a natural ability to swim, but it is natural for them to have some fear initially. Make sure you are comfortable and confident with the water and surroundings. Rushing this process can create more fear and trepidation, so be patient. Speaking little and using body language to encourage is also helpful. Stating "let's go investigate this" as opposed to "it’s okay sweet baby, don't be afraid" is helpful as well. Your attitude will influence the experience, so keep it positive and encouraging.
Along with a calm and confident attitude, some items to bring with you are:
- Life jacket for your dog
- 6 foot leash
- Tight fitting collar (one that will not slip over the head)
- Floating fetch toy
So now that you have some key strategies to succeed, you have picked a great location, you have all of the supplies you need, it is time to get swimming! As with the life jacket introduction, pairing the swimming exercise with another positive, fun activity is helpful. Again, this could be fetch, tug, or even walking.
Taking a walk with your pup around or beside the water for 10 to 20 minutes can also help ease the transition.
If your pup loves to play fetch, first throw the fetch item along the side as opposed to directly in the water. At a river, pond or calm water's edge, throw the fetch item parallel with water, each throw going into the water a little more. At poolside, throw fetch item along the side of the pool and then have the pup step in at the stairs a step or so to retrieve, alternating it with fetch along the side of the pool.
After the pup is comfortable with this exercise, but not tired or done playing, throw the fetch item a little further. If the pup goes in for it, encourage them, praise them and continue until pup is retrieving in deeper water. If pup resists at any time, you can use the leash to give a quick tug with verbal encouragement, and once the pup complies, relax the leash. Also at a sign of resistance, you can turn and lead the pup away, then walk back confidently with the leash and continue in the water a little further each time.
Leading your dog into the water and swimming with them is often the extra nudge a dog needs. And once you have your dog swimming, holding them in a settle is beneficial to the experience too!
A few more helpful hints:
- with a pool, make sure your dog knows where the stairs are- take them in and out the same place.
- make this activity fun for both of you
- be consistent and encouraging
- keep the sessions short if needed
Finally, if you have followed these steps and are not successfully swimming with your dog, please seek the help of a professional.
Editor’s Note: Using another dog or two also works great! If your dog is nervous about the water, introduce them to a couple of avid swimmers and have the dogs show them how much fun they’re having in the water. Often, it won’t take long for the prospect of a fun water-romp to overcome their hesitation about trying to swim.