Perhaps this summer finds you on a tour boat in Iceberg Alley in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In the middle of viewing icebergs and marine life, the boat gets a bit tipsy and over you go. Not to worry, a passing Newfoundland dog swims over despite the rough, cold currents and deposits you safely on dry land. The Newfoundland is well able to accomplish this rescue mission due to his webbed feet, muscular body and thick coat. As you stand there shivering and fruitlessly wondering when the St. Bernard with the small keg of hot ale around his neck is going to arrive, you notice several Labrador Retrievers playing water fetch off the coast. Right then and there you decide that Fido is going to learn how to swim!
If you have a Portuguese Water Dog or a Chesapeake Bay Retriever or even a Golden Retriever this training task might be as simple as taking him to a safe body of water and unfurling the dog’s genetic potential. There are many breeds of dog or mixed breeds of dog that have webbed feet, thick oily coats, an extra layer of body fat and high drive (a good work ethic!). These dogs tend to have a natural affinity for water so teaching them to swim really involves making sure that your “Recall” command is sufficiently well rehearsed such that you can actually get them OUT of the water! Even dogs who are excellent swimmers need their guardians to monitor their water play and keep them safe.
What if you don’t have a dog whose forbearers were selectively bred for water work? Can you teach your dog to swim? Should you teach your dog to swim? Absolutely you should, it is always good for Fido to be comfortable in the water in the unlikely event of a water landing. The “can you” part is a bit more complicated, however, the answer is “yes,” provided you prepare and follow a thoughtful training plan.
Although swimming is a fantastic low impact exercise for your dog (as it is for people) there are a couple of safety concerns to consider. From time to time, blue-green algae (which is also called cyanobacteria) blooms can release toxins in the water. It presents as a green-scum layer on top of the lake. Clear water with no visible algae is low risk and there are web sites that contain data about areas that are currently experiencing an algae bloom where toxins might be present. It is also a good idea to hose off your dog once you return home from a swim session. If your dog does happen to enter water with algae present, monitor his condition carefully for any unusual behavior. If you see any physical abnormalities or unusual behavior, immediately seek medical attention.
To begin your training plan, choose your location carefully. A natural, calm, freshwater body of water with a sandy, sloping floor is absolutely ideal. We further recommend that you schedule this project in the afternoon when the water is relatively warm. Even the most avid swimming canine can balk in the snowmelt pools of the High Sierra, and you can just imagine how the Chihuahua or the Mexican Hairless feels about chilly water. !Hace frio!
If you have a dog who is crazy about fetching the process generally moves along quite quickly and smoothly. Start by doing easy fetches in the shallow water and move progressively a bit deeper, but not so deep that Fido has to swim. When he is having the most fun ever, stop! Take a break or be done for the day. Next session, start off easy again and ramp up a bit more quickly. The trick is to keep it very fun, put no pressure on your dog, but continue to try to advance while staying well within your dog’s comfort zone. Go at your dog’s pace and take as many short sessions as you need. Resist the urge to take a shortcut and just push your dog in. This can undermine his trust in you and turn him off to swimming (and potentially other new activities) forever. However, sometimes you can get in the water and gently tug the leash toward you. Be patient and make it fun!
Using a retrieve to teach your dog to swim is fun! Playing swim retrieve is excellent exercise and so much healthier on the dog’s body than is regular dryland ball retrieve. Ball chasing can be very harmful with most injuries occurring to the shoulder during braking. Additionally, there is micro-trauma to muscles and cartilage and is the cause of long-term damage which accumulates as your dog ages. Unfortunately, chasing a ball combines sharp acceleration, high speeds and rapid and uncontrolled deceleration that includes “rotatory focus on fundamentally unstable joints.” Compounding the issue is the fact that fetch is usually played over and over again. If playing fetch with your dog is your main source of daily exercise, consider a more balanced exercise program. The only physical concern for water fetch for the overly enthusiastic canine is water intoxication. This occurs when a dog swallows too much water, usually when swimming or playing in fresh water. While this is quite rare, it does require medical attention.
Speaking of the overly enthusiastic fetching dog, once he learns how to swim, then learns water retrieve you are a likely candidate for a dock diving dog! Please refer to my previous blog Strange and Wonderful Things to do with Dogs – Sport Version Dock Diving. The world is your oyster!
For the non-fetching Fidos, you can wade out a bit, have Fido come to you and give him a cookie. Play around in the shallow water letting Fido chase you and whenever he comes to you give a cookie. Use your hand targeting cue of “Touch” to encourage his forward water progress. Work progressively deeper and follow the same rules of thumb above. This is when you are happy you chose warm water! If you are teaching your dog in a swimming pool, it is recommended that you set up a ramp or get your dog very comfortable using the steps before you try the swimming part of the program.
We will admit that there are some tricky customers. Sometimes this happens because you lack the “ideal” swim coach location. Possibly, your dog had a bad experience with water in his past. Or, maybe, he just needs some additional support. If you have a friend with a dog who swims, maybe you can try swimming together. Another idea is to purchase a doggie life vest. These are relatively comfortable for your dog and can provide a big boost in self-confidence.
Now, go enjoy the final dog days of summer with a refreshing swim!