Swimming is quite possibly the perfect form of exercise, offering a full-body, zero-impact workout that also happens to be social and fun. That goes doubly for our canine companions. Contrary to popular belief, however, not all dogs instinctively know how to swim. Believe it or not, most dogs – even Labradors and other sport dogs – need a little extra help learning how to comfortably keep their heads above water. It’s not a hard process, but it may take a little practice.
If you are swimming in a natural setting such as a pond or lake, you should invest in a doggy life vest to ensure your pup’s safety. Then, to get started, guide your dog on a leash into the water gradually and gauge his reaction. Some dogs will instantly love it, but others may be fearful and so will take a little longer time to acclimate. Don’t push too forcefully and instead let your pup take his time in the shallows to get comfortable.
Once Fido is obviously receptive and playful, wade in and pick him up under his torso so he’s cradled in your arms. Venture deeper until you are about waist deep, and then start walking, following the shore line. This is when nature kicks in and your dog will start to kick his legs instinctively. Once he begins, walk around in small circles and watch Fido’s paws: If he’s paddling at a rapid pace, then slowly slide your arms out from underneath him and release him. (Be sure to keep a handle on the leash so he doesn’t take off for the middle of the lake!) All the while offer verbal encouragement to your pup as you guide him back to shore for a rest and to bask in the sun.
Teaching a dog to swim in a personal pool uses the same techniques, but there are a few precautions you’ll need to take. For one, if it’s an out-of-ground pool, be sure your pup’s nails are clipped and keep him away from the sides of the pool or he can accidentally puncture the lining. You’ll also want to consider a doggy dock, which is a floating stair that allows the dog to exit the water on his own (with a little effort). Teaching in a below-ground pool is a little easier because of the stairs leading from the water to the ground surface. Using a leash, guide the dog to the stairs and have him walk on to the first step. As you enter the water, begin to cradle the dog and repeat the swim lesson as before. Once he’s swimming on his own, guide him to the stairs so he can learn to calmly walk out. Continue this process until the dog begins to move towards the stairs without guidance from you.
Swimming doesn’t put much strain on joints and tendons, and so is an activity that dogs of all ages and fitness level can partake in. Just remember to never leave your pup unattended near any body of water, no matter how good a swimmer he becomes.
‘Men’s Journal’ contributor Taylor McKenna is the head trainer and a co-founder of The Confident Dog in Brooklyn, New York.