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Teaching Your Pooch to Paddle

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People oftentimes assume all dogs were born to swim and don't need to learn or be taught how to act in the water. Soccer, the Jack Russell terrier who starred as the day-dreaming Wishbone in the PBS series of the same name, hated to swim. Producers of the popular children's show had a dilemma because several scenes called for the dog to swim. He wouldn't.  The solution:  they found a dog stunt double who did the swimming for him.

"Some dogs are afraid of water,'' said Alison White, a pet hydrotherapist who works in Oceanside, Calif. "Some dogs love water and instinctively jump into it. But don't assume that your dog is naturally able to swim.''

The best way to get dogs to swim is to train them when they are pups, according to White. "Many dogs learn by watching other dogs,'' she said. "I would put them in a life vest and start them on the stairs of a pool, massage them and comfort them, then walk out and let them swim a little and give them lots of praise...let them get used to the water and voila, they are swimming.''  If you take your dog to the beach to swim, make sure you follow some basic safety rules.  

Do it yourself

The good news is that training a dog to swim is something that can be done by owners.

"I don't think that a dog needs to be taken to a trainer to be taught how to swim,'' said Melissa Bain, DVM, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis. "Since it is a natural behavior, the owner needs to work gradually to get the dog used to the water. If help is needed with that part, a trainer using positive-reinforcement methods can help get the dog into the water and enjoy it. But beware of trainers who say or demonstrate 'just toss the dog in....he'll be fine.'"

Breed-based swimming

Some dogs are much better swimmers than others. Some breeds that have great difficulty with swimming are basset hounds, bulldogs, dachshunds, pugs, corgis, Scottish and Boston terriers and greyhounds.

"Theoretically all dogs can swim,'' Bain said. "But owners need to be aware of their dogs' physical ability, stamina, body shape, condition and breathing ability when encouraging their dogs to swim.''

Swimming can be great exercise if done safely. There is very little stress on the joints, especially compared with running on the ground. However, Bain said, "owners should contact their veterinarian for the best method to keep the ears dry, so as not to predispose (the dogs) to getting ear infections.''

Remember to have fun

The big things to remember are not to force the dog, take it slow, have reasonable expectations, and have fun. "It should be a fun thing for the owner and the dog,'' White said. "If the dog doesn't enjoy it, or if the owner's expectations are too high, then the owner will be disappointed.''

The following are some "Do's'' and "Don'ts'' when teaching your dog how to swim:


  • Encourage your dog to enjoy water.
  • Have reasonable expectations.
  • Take it slow to make the experience a positive one.
  • Use pet flotation devices to promote safety.
  • Wash off your dog after a swim in a pond or pool, and brush it, too.


  • Force a dog to swim if it doesn't want to.
  • Throw a dog into the water.
  • Play rough by pushing your dog under the water.
  • Use swimming as a substitute for a bath.
Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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