Evaluating Puppies and Dogs for Water Attraction

Deborah Lee Miller-Riley

Water attraction and enthusiasm for water play  is  predominately   genetic.  For some handlers it will be a training task just to keep their dog out of the water.  Other dogs may require some play and positive association to awaken their water instincts.  And, a few handlers may  be able to teach their dog to swim, but may always struggle with their dog’s enthusiasm for water play.

Things you will need:

Life Jackets for you and your dog. Better safe than sorry!

Water shoes for you

A floating, water safety lead

A lot of tasty treats - some that float and some that sink

Some toys that float and some that sink

A friend to help

A video camera or something to write on and a stop watch

A first aid kit with instruction booklet

Access to a phone for emergencies

Phone number for the nearest emergency vet hospital

Patience and a smile

Plan for success!  

Think about how your are going to create a positive association with the water while evaluating the dog’s natural water attraction level. A negative experience (like a surprised submersion) during water introduction may create fear of  water that will  last the dog’s life time.  Plan for a safe and positive experience!

Bring a hungry, healthy, alert and well rested dog to the water.  Continuously monitor her for health issues.  Watch for changes in normal movement, withdrawal from activities, any sudden temperament changes,  or work refusal,  any of which may be signs of an illness or injury.   Feel your dog’s entire body with your hands - does she feel strong and healthy or does she pull away or cry when you touch a body part?  Check inside ears.  Make sure they are dry and look and smell clean.  Are her eyes clear? Are paw pads free of sores & debris?

Choose a lovely, warm, inspirational day for water introduction.

A canine life jacket is required for CWS water training programs and is  recommended for dogs who are:  under a year old, seniors, recovering from an injury or illness, learning to swim, learning to jump from a platform, riding on a boat, swimming in cold water, beginning water sports conditioning or for any dog who has not be in the water for a long period of time.  Introduce and condition your dog to a life jacket before the trip to the water.  Play with the jacket, present it to your dog and let her explore it.  If she appears confident around the jacket put it on her, feed a handful of treats one at a time and then slip it off.   Repeat a few times and practice snapping down the straps .  Organize a modeling session so everyone in the family can praise her and give her treats while she is wearing the new coat.   (Canine Water Sports recommends the K9 Float Coat by Ruffwear.com) 

Select a  site (land & water) with minimal distractions and a safe graduated entrance into the water.  This allows the dog an opportunity to safely explore water depth at her own pace. 

Pack some motivation. Include food that floats -like nitrate free hot dogs and freeze dried liver cookies and food that sinks like cheese or cooked meat.  Bring her favorite toys, (floating and submergible).

Know your area wildlife, (i.e. snakes, mud wasps and large snapping turtles - in the ocean watch for creatures that sting, shells and coral).  Inquire about water quality.  Any known Giardia outbreaks?

If using a deep natural body of water make sure the swim area is safe above & below. Check for and avoid dense muddy conditions, toxic or hazardous materials (in or near the water) including lawn care products,  glass,  rusty or sharp objects, fishing gear (hooks & lines),  overpopulation of water fowl, and submerged trees & junk.  If you wouldn’t swim in it -don’t send your dog into it.

Think water safety!  Handlers need water shoes,  a life jacket and protective clothing (canine claws can be quite painful); train with another person present; leave a note at home or tell someone  where you will be and for how long;  bring a phone for emergencies; remove canine throat collars;  learn the basics of canine first aid  & CPR; and,  bring a first aid kit that includes an instruction manual.

At the Water!

When you arrive at your safe water location, remove all k9 throat wear  and dress the dog in her life jacket. A floating line may be attached to the dog’s life jacket to prevent flight, but  the handler must  avoid  using the line to pull  the dog into water.  Compulsion tends to increase fear, increase water avoidance behaviors, and ebb away at trust.

Give the dog some space to explore the water on her own.  Set her free about 15 ft from the water and start the stop watch. Note how long it takes before she approaches the edge of the water.  Avoid the temptation to ask her to enter the water. This may be too much social pressure for a  young or cautious dog.  Respect her choice to avoid the water and give her time to become curious.  You need merely observe her activity and record it on video or through good notes. How she initially reacts to the water will give you important information about her temperament and  her degree of water attraction. 

Watch for the dog’s desire to enter and explore.  Does she appear relaxed and playful in and around the water?  Make notes about her intensity, duration and frequency of water exploration.  Watch for her attraction to people, animals or things in the water.  A confident, curious dog will explore the shore and things in the water.

A bold puppy may run immediately into the water, oblivious to the fact that the wet stuff is deeper than her water bowl.  The life jacket will protect this pup from her naiveté.  Note her reaction, she may show pleasure & curiosity or fear may cause her to freeze or leap for shore.  If she leaps out, watch to see how quickly she recovers from the surprise and when and where she further explores the water.

Secretly drop floating treats into the water near the dog and some a little further away at the same water depth.  How does she respond to the floating food? If she eats the treats and wants more drop some treats a little deeper.  Note her determination to go into deeper water.  Does she paw at, try different paths to reach the treats, vocalize,  stop and watch, follow the treats,  leave the water.  A confident, hungry dog will be  unconcerned about the water depth and may even swim to reach a treat. 

Have a friendly, familiar person, (not the owner),  sit in the water with floating toys.  Is the dog normally social and friendly toward people?  Note if and when the dog  approaches the assistant.  When the dog does approach,  the assistant will toss and place a couple of toys in the water.  Does the dog pursue a toy?  Does the dog pull one or more toys out of the water? Next have the assistant take a toy and play in swim depth water for the dog.  Note the dog’s reaction.  Does she attempt to join the assistant? How long does she remain interested in the assistant?  If she swims to the assistant what does she do next?

Have a friendly,  experienced dog  swim and play in the presence of the inexperienced dog.  Is the dog normally social and friendly to other dogs? Observe the dog’s response to the swimming dog.  Does the dog attempt to join the swimming dog? Does the dog watch, vocalize, run away, ignore the other dog? How long does she remain interested in the other dog?

Drop toys and food that sink into shallow water (below the dog’s elbow)  and watch for the dog’s effort to obtain these objects.  Record what attempts she makes (pawing,  circling, sniffing, biting the water, vocalizing,  degree of submersion, etc.),  Note the duration of her efforts and if she succeeds. How many treats/toys does she recover?

If a dog is not curious about the water and never approaches it, consider ending  the experience with a land game or some treats for rehearsing known behaviors like sit or down.  Repeat water exposure on another day and again watch for the dog’s degree of confidence and curiosity around the water.   Note if there are any changes to her degree of water attraction.

Discuss recorded observations with experienced water dog trainers and instructors. 

Have a veterinarian go over your dog’s structure with you so you are aware of any weaknesses.   Have your vet discuss with you the diseases (along with their symptoms)  and  dangers that are common around waters in your area.

Once the dog’s initial  degree of water attraction, overall health, structure and  temperament  have  been assessed,  you are ready to find a training coach and begin your water training program.