Is swimming the next sport for your dog?

(c) 2007 Deborah Lee Miller-Riley

Experts say just five minutes of swimming can be equivalent to a twenty minute run.  Impressive!  And yet the biggest health plus for this endurance and strength building, aerobic exercise is that it produces far less joint wear & tear and uses some different muscles than activities on terra firma. That makes swimming a significant, health promoting sport and a great fitness activity for the canine conditioning program.

Water sports is not just for the Retrievers, Newfoundland Dogs and Portuguese Water Dogs anymore.  Jeff King, the four-time Iditarod Champion takes his gang of sled dogs swimming in the summer to give his team a competitive edge in their winter sport.  Cynthia Fox of Connecticut, made history with the first Afghan Hound to earn a Team Swim Certificate and a Novice Retrieve in Canine Water Sports, an organization that issues water recognition awards to all kinds of dogs.  Cynthia has pride in her dog’s water accomplishments, but claims her greatest reward has been the opportunity to share an incredible experience with her dog. Cynthia said she can, thanks to swim lessons, invite her life jacket wearing hound to place his front legs on her inner tube, enabling him to float effortlessly along with her, and the dog happily joins her, totally relaxed, content with the rhythm of the water and their drifting communion. 

Most dogs can physically swim, but swimming seems effortless for dogs who have adequate propulsion (paddle power) and buoyancy, (lung capacity and a fat to muscle ratio).  Because of their body type, Newfoundlands and Labradors are more  energy efficient at swimming than say a Whippet.  But not all Newfoundlands and Labradors like the water and I am sure there are Whippets who beg for water play. Lucky for the Whippets, a high quality canine life jacket can equalize what nature gave to those breeds designed for water work.  Since the combination of  curiosity, persistence, playfulness, innate and learned water confidence, and the desire to learn cooperative behaviors can appear in any breed or mix, a water-loving  aptitude today is recognized more by a dog’s working temperament than by its body type.

When considering swimming for sport or recreation the first question ought to be, does the dog show any interest in water?  Dogs who are attracted to water show it at almost every opportunity - playing in their water bowl, chasing lawn sprinklers, following people into the shower, flopping into puddles.  When first exposed to a large body of water they are drawn in and spend a significant amount of time exploring everything about the water; it’s many fragrances, the taste and feel of the water, the support and texture of the water floor, the things living or lying in and near the water, and the varying depths of water.  Depending on the dog’s age and temperament and the water conditions some dogs move right into deeper water and experiment with buoyancy and paddling.  Confident dogs stimulated by hunting traits may immediately bound into the water in pursuit of water fowl.  Whether the dog is a cautious or a bold explorer - they will show you if they want water in their life.  There is never justification for compelling a dog through social pressure or use of force to enter the water.  Compulsion can escalate fear and fear creates water aversion.  Even innocently placing a puppy in a play pool can create fear, so always let water be the dog’s choice.

The second question would be, is the trainer willing to swim? A water trainer is someone who, while swimming, is capable of directing their dog. They don’t necessarily need to be good swimmers, they simply need the desire to work in the water and the ability to swim while wearing a life jacket.  (Handlers are required to wear life jackets in water sports).  For safety and control reasons the first task a sports team must accomplish is a team swim, which requires the team to swim together through a designated course and/or meet established conditions for a specific amount of time. There are no land training techniques that adequately prepare a dog for the unique perspective of working eye to eye with a human in water depths that terminate height dominance and effect vulnerability.  The only way to teach this is to have the trainer get in the water with the dog. 

Water training also requires appropriate safety equipment.  Besides a life jacket a trainer will need protective swim wear that covers thighs and shoulders ( like a wet suit or shorts & Tees) and water shoes. The dog too needs a good quality life jacket to insure a level of safety. It doesn’t matter if the dog can swim without one.  In addition to buoyancy, life jackets help build canine water confidence, reduce the risk of injury from fatigue, and increase the H2O exposure time for learning.  Because it adds drag on propulsion efforts, a life jacket also helps build muscle and endurance. Water work is an off lead sport, dogs do not wear throat collars and  handlers may not physically guide the dog while in the water.  However, a  short, handle free,  floating line can be attached to the life jacket to provide appropriate intervention for safety during training or gentle guidance when traversing land. 

The last question is, do you have a place to train? Water training requires the selection of a safe water site, safe above and below.  Dogs swimming in public water ways have been injured by fishing hooks, broken glass, the jagged edges of rusted car parts, and by impalement on submerged junk.  Depending on the geographic location, wild life can create a risk to people and dogs.  Snakes, alligators, snapping turtles, mud wasps, and even swans are just a few of the creatures who are territorial.  Water can also hold a host of toxic, bacterial and parasitic challenges for a dog.  So its best to avoid water locations teaming with water fowl, mosquitos, tall grasses that harbor ticks, and locations next to industry, dumps, and golf courses. Remember to check for currents and rip tides too. The water entrance needs to be a gradual slope and firm enough for wading trainers.  A thick mud bottom can quickly become a dangerous situation.   If the water has been approved for public recreational swimming the odds are better that the water has been tested for safety.  Maps, state parks, and Internet sites are  good sources for  finding dog-friendly lakes, ponds and rivers.   Even working & breed clubs can be a source for identifying local water training holes.   With the advent of canine hydro- therapy, the number of indoor canine swim facilities is on the rise in this country. Indoor pools invite safe, year round access to water and are a good place to build swim ability and confidence.