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Discover the safe way to introduce your pet to the joys of swimming.

By Karen Weir-Jimerson
January 25, 2021
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The first swim stroke that most of us learned as kids is the dog paddle. In fact, the human dog paddle and the dog version look very similar. Although this swimming method is named after dogs, it doesn't mean that all dogs like—or are good at—swimming.

Some Dogs Like Swimming …

A number of dog breeds were bred to be swimmers. Retrievers (golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers) and other hunting dogs were bred to retrieve waterfowl such as ducks and geese for their hunting owners. Some breeds have implied swimming prowess built right into their names: Spanish water dog, American water spaniel, Portuguese water dog. But don't assume that all dogs of water breeds are good swimmers—or that they even enjoy getting wet. 

Hobson Fulmer, DVM, owner of Apalachicola Bay Animal Hospital in Eastpoint, Fla., says that "any dog should be able to swim if they are in good health." But not every dog will want to swim—or is suited to the sport. A dog's ability and desire to swim aren't breed specific, Fulmer says. "I've seen Labs that hate the water and won't swim, and I've seen chihuahuas that love to swim."

… and Some Dogs Aren’t Built to Swim

Many dogs with short legs and long bodies (think dachshunds, corgis, and basset hounds) may not be agile swimmers due to their body shape, short legs, and weight distribution. And dog breeds with flat muzzles (called brachycephalic breeds), such as pugs, French bulldogs, and Pekinese, may not be candidates for the family swim team because they have a hard time breathing while swimming since they have to tilt their heads upward to breathe.

How to Teach a Dog to Swim (And Make Sure He Enjoys It)

To find out if your dog can add swimming to his list of skill sets, Fulmer offers this advice:

Test the Waters to See If Your Dog Knows How to Swim

"It's best to find calm water, shallow water for your dog's first swim," Fulmer says. Ideally, the best swimming spots for dogs are in water where it doesn't get deep quickly so the dog can walk in the water a bit before he starts to swim. Keep in mind that for small dogs and dogs with short legs (we're looking at you, corgis) the water gets deep enough to be over their head very quickly. Never urge your dog into swimming until you know that he is comfortable in water. Never throw a dog into the water; let him make the decision to swim. 

Suit Up With Your Dog

To gauge your dog's interest in swimming, get into the water yourself to entice him in. "Wade out and see if your dog follows," Fulmer says. If your dog follows you into the water and seems confident and happy, he's likely to become a swimmer. On the other hand, "If your dog is frightened about getting wet, don't force him," Fulmer says. "If you frighten your dog, he will never want to swim." 

Make It Fun

Once your dog shows you that he likes swimming (and that he's a confident swimmer), you can urge him into the water on his own by throwing a ball, Frisbee, or bumper. Dogs who like to retrieve on land may find water retrieving equally exciting. Free swimming and retrieving are great overall exercise. And for dogs who require rehab for an injury, hydrotherapy is one of the best treatments (just as it is for humans). Training equipment, such as underwater treadmills, can help with orthopedic rehab. Your veterinarian can recommend hydrotherapy for your dog as needed.

Blonde dog swims under water in pool
Credit: Bicho_raro / Getty

Dog Swimming Pool Safety

"You need a pool with shallow steps so dogs are able to get out," Fulmer says. A dog is at risk of drowning in a backyard pool if there's no way out of the water. To keep your pet safe around your pool, use baby gates and pool alarms. Fulmer cautions dog owners to never allow pets to swim without supervision. Even if your dog wears a life vest in the water, he's not completely safe in water unobserved.

Additionally, pool chemicals and chlorine should be locked safely away from dogs. According to Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, if ingested, these chemicals can "result in severe ulcers in the mouth, esophagus and stomach." Also note that the water treatment chemicals used in pools can make your dog's skin more dry as well as dull his coat.

Fresh-Water Fun: Dog Safety at Lakes and Ponds 

Dogs who love to swim see a long dock as a veritable launch pad. In fact, there are nationwide Dock Dog competitions for enthusiastic dogs. (A whippet named Sounders holds the record of the longest jump: 11.02 meters / 36 feet 2 inches according to the Guinness World Records.) Follow the same safety rules with outdoor fresh water as you do with pools. Supervise your dog when swimming, and make sure there's an easy way for your dog to get out of the water.

In some areas of the country (in summer), blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) can appear in ponds and lakes. This algae is toxic to dogs. Dogs that swim in water with these algae blooms can experience minor problems such as eye irritation to major symptoms which include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy—and even death. Bottom line: If you wouldn't swim in the water, don't allow your dog to.

Keeping Your Dog Safe Around Salt Water

Swimming in bays and oceans also requires special vigilance for dogs. According to Fulmer, whose practice is near the Gulf of Mexico, fun trips to the beach can turn dangerous for dogs if their owners aren't aware. Dogs can ingest salt water when swimming, which may result in mild diarrhea to more serious symptoms, including death. Bring along fresh water for your dog to drink at the beach.

It's also important to keep an eye out for plants, fish, and other debris that have washed in with the tide. "Dogs like to eat dead things on the beach," Fulmer says. Even the sand at the beach can potentially cause problems. "Dogs ingest sand by licking their paws," Fulmer says. "Some dogs will actually just eat sand." He urges dog owners to trade your dog's favorite tennis ball for a Frisbee when you're at the beach. "Wet tennis balls get covered with sand," he says. And dogs ingest that sand, which can lead to sand impaction in their stomach, which requires a visit to the vet—not something you want to do on a beach vacation.

How Cold Is Too Cold for Dogs to Swim?

Your dog can swim outdoors any time of year, provided the water isn't too cold to risk your dog getting hypothermia. A good rule of thumb is that if the water is too cold for you to swim in, it's too cold for your dog. It's also a good idea to rinse off your dog after a dip in fresh or saltwater. Your dog will smell better too (you know, wet dog smell … phew).

Swim Smart, Have Fun

Swimming is great exercise for dogs—and there's no reason most dogs can't swim whenever you want to take them. Water-loving dogs become wiggly with anticipation when they catch a glimpse of a dock, diving board, or the rolling waves of the ocean. With the right attention from you, your pet will leap, frolic, and dog paddle in joy and safety.