Your Dog’s First Swim

(c) 2007 Deborah Lee Miller-Riley

Read: Create a Water Loving Dog

Things you will need:

Life Jackets for you and your dog. Safety promotes learning positively!

Swimwear (include T-shirt and shorts)  and Water shoes for you

A short, floating, water safety lead

A lot of tasty treats

Some toys that float

A friend for support and feedback.

A first aid kit with instruction booklet

Access to a phone for emergencies

Phone number for the nearest emergency vet hospital

Select a day and water site that is inviting - like a warm sunny day with pleasant and refreshing water

At the water!

Remove throat collars and put on your safety equipment.  Remember that a K9  life jacket helps build confidence and protects against an unwanted submersion occurring when the dog is at swim depth.   A swim harness should be worn over any k9 life jacket that might not support the dog’s weight during an emergency lift from the water. 

Lead your dog into shallow water with toys and or treats.  Take a step back and let her play and explore until she appears confident.

Ask her to follow you into the water.  Be prepared to encourage her to push off toward you as she crosses into swim depth.  If she becomes cautious at the transition point of walk to float, be patient.  Some dogs  may require days or weeks of positive exposure to the water to acquire the confidence to cross this point.  You may verbally encourage, toss a treat or toy, or send a friendly dog swimming to entice her to lift off the bottom.  Praise her for any effort she offers to push off the bottom.  Celebrate the moment she lifts off.  If she begins to thrash,  gently place the back of one hand under the dog’s stomach and lift up to keep her level in the water.  Guide her back to shallow water.  Remain quiet and let her absorb the experience.  Evaluate her performance and confidence level, repeat if she is willing.

If a food/toy target is used,  keep it low and level with the water and just ahead of the dog’s nose.   Let her swim into the treat or toy - do not tease and then move the food or toy when she gets close.   Show her the prize, let her achieve that distance, and give her the earned reward. 

Some dogs work fine with a cheerleader for a coach, but keep in mind that too much celebration can actually be stressful for some dogs.  Be aware of your energy level, your intensity of praise, and learn how to use the right level of emotional reinforcement for your dog.

Avoid going deeper than waist deep in the water so you can better control your dog and be quick to rescue her from unsafe behavior.

Gradually increase the duration of the swim.  Keep it parallel to shore.  (Distance from shore is a separate accomplishment).  Strive for canine confidence and enthusiasm before adding more distance.  Next, encourage & practice about turns - celebrate success. 

Play with her in the water and let her swim with other friendly water loving dogs.  Endurance and speed will come with confidence.  Practice in different weather and water conditions.  Try different training sites, but remember to give your dog time to feel safe and confident in a new location!  A confident,  eager  swimmer is a trainer’s greatest reward!