How to Create a Water Loving Dog

Deborah Lee Miller-Riley

Here is a simple water enrichment program that works for most dogs


Select the most inviting day to be in the water, sunny and warm. Find a water location that is clean and safe "swim rated" with a firm, gradual walk-in water entrance.

Think safety! Bring and wear human and canine personal flotation jackets. Familiarize your dog with his life jacket at home. (Make sure he gets treats for modeling it for you.)

Attach a water whistle to your life jacket. Tell someone where you will be and when you expect to return. Bring a phone and first aid kits (human and canine). Wear water footwear and clothes expect to get wet with your dog! Remove canine throat collars. If you do not have off leash control of your dog, use a water sports harness or a tracking style harness and a long floating line to keep you dog safely under your control. Bring a friend who can play lifeguard.

Health Check! Put your hands on your dog feel his whole body particularly check his eyes, ears, paws and mouth for signs of health. You want your dog to be well rested, slightly hungry, looking healthy and exhibiting a healthy, happy attitude.

Give your dog a reason to go into the water. Pack the most delicious meaty treats you can cook up. If you will be entering clean fresh water, bring along some treats that float. (Avoid dropping food into water that is unfit to drink.) Bring a group of small exciting toys. Most playful dogs find floating fur-toys hard to resist.

Foster the Desire!

Put you dog's life jacket on and leave him on shore. Take his toys into shallow water and drop them in as he is watching. Then play with his toys be the biggest fool you can. Dance, crawl around and laugh. Pretend the water is rich with wonderful smells and exciting objects. Drop floating treats in the water when he is not looking. If he is now asking you to release him do so. Then you dash back into the water. Hands off while he is exploring. Permit him a loose lead if leashed.

Reward Exploration!

Joyfully reward whatever level of interest your dog initially shows toward the water, including looking at, touching, entering or otherwise exploring the water. Avoid luring the dog into the water with hand held food/toys. Let the toys in (and treats on) the water work for you. It is important that you only reinforce him with treats after he has made an effort to explore the water. Celebrate big time if he picks up a toy in the water or engages in playful behavior.

Watch for reasons to praise and treat. Be generous with your patience and love. Sit down or float in the water and observe your dog. As he explores, praise and treat for looking at objects in the water, sniffing the water, pawing the water, licking the water, for exploring water life, walking in deeper and, of course, for efforts to float or swim.

If he leaves the water and heads back up on land, pack up and return on another day. Repeat the game. If you have other dogs who love the water, bring one with you next time and let your dog watch a water-loving dog play. With repeated happy, safe and rewarding visits to the water, you and your dog may grow into a real water team.

Compulsion is choice you can live without!

Taking away a dog's choice to seek safety or to explore water at his own pace may very well escalate his fear and create handler and/or water avoidance behaviors. Insisting that a dog enter the water will not foster his desire to swim. Convinced I was causing no harm, I gently released one of my water-avoiding pups in shallow water and let him swim to shore. It took four years before that dog would accept me near him around water. He chose to swim on his own at age four and gradually forgave me. When a dog tells you "no" to water, respect him. It is not worth compromising your friendship. Life is not a race. Give him plenty of happy opportunities to explore the water on his own and he may surprise you one day! Some of the best puddle pouncers are nontraditional water dogs!

Consider This!

Yes, the most spectacular splash hounds do come from parents with an affinity for water play; however, there are other factors that affect a dog's desire for water fun.

During puppyhood early fun and safe exposures to water can go far to foster a desire for canine water play. However, an unfavorable water experience during a period when a pup is sorting his world into safe and unsafe may have a strong emotional impact. Whether water becomes a future source of pleasure will depend on the pup's degree of confidence, his perception of the event and future positive exposures to water.

Perception is a personal experience for dogs, too. Two dogs entering the water at the same time will not experience the event in the same way or to the same emotional degree. A cautious dog may quickly find reasons to become concerned about his safety and choose to leave the water for more familiar ground. A confident pup may find the environment a curiosity and highly pleasurable and choose to explore the water becoming a puddle pouncer by his own desire.

Structure and coat type may play a role in a dog's desire to swim. A dog whose body type lends itself to a high buoyancy factor (fat to muscle ratio and lung capacity) may find swimming much easier than a dog whose buoyancy factor creates a significant endurance challenge. Some dogs have coats that act like a sponge in the water. This may feel like you trying to swim wearing a winter coat. Not much fun for a dog either.

Weather and water conditions effect water play. Some dogs seem unaffected by cold choppy sea water while other dogs retreat under such conditions. Certainly wind, weather, temperatures, water currents and action, and water type (fresh or salt) play a role in our enjoyment of a day at the beach. Why would it be different for our dogs?

Health is another factor that effects a dog's desire to be in the water. An undetected injury, illness or disease can turn water work into a very unpleasant experience. Even after the injury or illness has been healed the dog may still associate the pain and or fear from the initial water exposure with future trips to the water.  Emotional healing will depend upon the dog’s temperament and the skill and patience of the trainer. 

(c) 2004 Deborah Lee Miller-Riley