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How to Teach Your Dog to Swim

Originally published on 08/01/2012


Pet caregivers often wonder how to keep pets active without having to walk in 90-degree weather. Swimming, and other games in and with water, can be fun for both people and dogs, especially during hot summer days.

Dog swimming in a swimming pool.

Although swimming can be enjoyable and entertaining, it is not a natural behavior for a dog, like sniffing and eating are! Swimming needs to be taught to your dog, just as the skill must be taught to people. There are breeds that take to swimming naturally, like beagles take to howling, but there are also breeds that are physically unable to swim. This group includes pugs, bulldogs, dachshunds, and basset hounds. Another breed to keep out of the water is the maltese. Although maltese dogs are physically capable of paddling, health issues, such as arthritis and rheumatism, may arise from playing in the water.

Even if your dog is physically capable of swimming, it doesn't mean he enjoys it. Your dog may prefer to stay on dry land. Be mindful of your dog's likes and dislikes, and do not force a dog to swim if the dog would prefer to stay dry and enjoy a nice stuffed Kong. On the other hand, don't assume a dog hates water just because the dog is not eager to jump in to every body of water that appears.

Small steps

Before getting in the pool with your dog for paddling lessons, the first step is to make sure he likes water!

Keep in mind that success with any training process takes patience; progress at your dog's pace. Do not rush, because that could result in a setback. A steady pace will help you determine how quickly your dog can learn to get into the pool. Most of all, try to have fun! You and your dog should find every step of the process to be enjoyable.

(Note: If your dog already likes water, skip ahead to The Pool Party!)

Training to like water—what you will need:

  • kiddie pool
  • treats (ones that can float in water, such as Charlee Bears and cut-up pieces of hot dog) and any other treats that are of high value to your dog
  • target stick, or you can use your hand as a target
  • clicker
  • dog's favorite toy
  • dog's life jacket
  • dog's ear wrap—to prevent water entering the dog's ear and causing an ear infection.
  • ear-drying solution—in case water goes in the dog's ears. If this should happen, consult with your vet before taking any action!
  • sunblock—the upper part of a dog's nose and a dog's ears are especially susceptive to sunburn.
  • foundation skills—Knowing foundation skills such as touch and follow a target, capturing and shaping, go to the mat, cueing, and standing on different surfaces will help you and your dog go through the training process with ease and confidence.

Step 1: Kiddie pool time!

Dog wearing life jacket in a kiddie pool.

Who would have thought that a kiddie pool would be so much fun? Some dogs need convincing. I often hear from owners who hire me to train their dogs to swim that the dogs do not like water. My first step is to convince the dogs that the kiddie pool, and playing in it, are super fun!

Start by introducing your dog to the kiddie pool without any water in it. You can either shape this behavior or use a target to get your dog interested in the pool. Your goal is to click and treat your dog for going into the pool. Repeat this positive association of click and treat each time he goes into the pool. If you have taught your dog to go to his bed using shaping, then this step will be familiar. Once your dog is inside the pool, simply call him out of the pool to repeat the shaping steps. Repeat a few more times until your dog is going into the pool reliably. Don't be surprised if when you call your dog to come out of the pool, he wants to stay inside. This is where the reinforcement is happening!

Shaping steps for getting a dog inside the pool
  1. Dog looks at or approaches pool. Click and deliver treat.
  2. Dog steps toward pool. Click and toss treat near pool.
  3. Dog touches pool with his nose. Click and deliver treat.
  4. Dog puts one paw inside pool. Click and deliver treat or toss treat inside pool.
  5. Dog gets all four paws inside pool. Click and jackpot!

Once your dog is going in the pool reliably, start adding a cue to this behavior. As the dog goes in the pool, say the cue, click, and give a treat inside the pool. Repeat. If your dog is comfortable, move to the next step.

Step 2: Just add water

Next, add about 1 inch of water to the kiddie pool. You may see some hesitation from your dog since there is water in the pool. As your dog approaches the pool, give the cue and see if he goes in. If your dog is hesitant, go back to shaping him to get in by clicking and treating each step of the way. Since you have already been through the shaping process in step 1, this step should be quicker. You can also try getting inside the pool yourself and encouraging your dog to go in. When you get the dog inside the pool, offer a jackpot!

Start throwing the floating treats in the water so that your dog can enjoy the game of finding treats in the water. This game teaches your dog that water is fun and that good things happen when he gets into the pool with water. The treat-tossing game also teaches your dog to blow bubbles out instead of inhaling water if his head happens to go in the water.

End this introduction to water session after a few minutes by saying "all done!" Dry your dog and put the treats away.

Step 3: Left, right, and all around

Fill up the pool another inch or two and repeat step 2. Keep delivering treats, sometimes in the water so your dog has to search for them and sometimes delivering the treats directly to your dog. A toy is another reinforcement option for your dog once he gets in the water, or have your dog fetch his favorite toy in the water.

Teach your dog to turn left and right and to turn full circles while in the water. If your dog knows to follow a target, then start by placing the target a few inches to the left or right and click/treat for correct responses. Train your dog to go in complete circles and figure eights in the water, clicking and treating for correct responses. (This is very easy for agility dogs!)

Why are these skills important to teach? Have you ever seen a dog go into the water for a swim? Have you noticed the dog swims in a straight line? Your dog should be able to turn in the water to get to where the steps, ramp, or other exit may be to leave the water. When your dog knows to turn left and right on cue, you can cue him directions while he is in the water.

If your dog is comfortable with the increased water level, try adding more and more water to the pool. Each time, give your dog the cue to get into the pool. Play water games with him inside the pool! When your dog is enthusiastic about going into the kiddie pool on cue, turns different directions inside the pool, and doesn't want to leave the pool, then advance the training to actual swimming!

Safety gear

I highly recommend using a doggie life jacket even for dogs that you believe would not have a problem swimming. Ear wraps are also very helpful, as they keep water out of the dog's ears. If you are going to use items like these during training, start putting them on your dog as soon as possible and definitely during the training stages. Your dog will need to get accustomed to any gear. If your dog has an adverse reaction to equipment, condition it during separate training sessions outside of the water area.

The pool party!

There are many different places you can teach your dog to swim (the beach, the lake, a river, or a full-size swimming pool). Since a pool is the most accessible body of water for many pet parents, I will discuss teaching your dog to swim in a full-size swimming pool.

Be sure to have on hand the items that were necessary for preliminary training, as well as these new items:

  • Pool steps or ramp
  • Tall targets to place by the steps or ramp. Your dog will use the targets to see where the steps/ramp is when it is time to exit the pool.

Position the targets where the dog will exit the pool. Use cones or other targets that are visible to the dog from a distance. Ready your dog by putting on his life jacket and ear wraps. Have your clicker and treats ready, along with any other props you need. For swimming lessons, it is very helpful to have high-value treats, such as liverwurst or cheese. The harder the task, the higher the value of the reinforcement should be.

Start by standing inside the pool near the area where your dog will get in. You can also stand on the steps of the pool. Try giving your dog the cue to get in the water (just as you did during the kiddie pool training). If your dog seems confused, don't worry. Confusion is normal, as your dog has not generalized the idea that when you give the cue to get into the pool, you mean any pool regardless of size or location. Shape your dog to get in the pool, or use targeting to get him on the steps with you. Your dog will catch on quickly. "Oh, this is what we are doing! Thank you so much for being there to remind me!"

Some dogs have more confidence than others and will jump into the pool and be ready to swim quicker than others. Regardless of how fast or slow your dog progresses through the swimming lessons, remember to have fun and go at your dogs pace. Never rush by throwing your dog into the water! This mistake will only create a longtime, or lifetime, negative association with water. It will also teach your dog that you cannot be trusted.

Once the dog is on the pool steps, start throwing treats in the water for your dog to find and eat. Do not play this game if you're in a chlorinated swimming pool, as the chemicals can be harmful to your dog if ingested. Fresh water pools are safe, but I still recommend keeping the "treat in the water" game to a minimum.

If access to the pool is by ramp, use your target stick or your hand as a target for your dog to follow on the ramp. Click small approximations toward the end goal. Some ramps may move when the dog sets a paw on it, so be sure to hold the ramp in place. Ramp instability could scare the dog.

When the 3-5 minutes allotted to the training session are up, say "all done" and encourage your dog to come out of the pool with you. It is crucial that your dog takes a break and has time to process all that you worked on.

Start the next training session where you left off. Ask your dog to go in to the pool via the stairs or the ramp, and start treating for entering the water. Let your dog think his way through the process and try to figure out what next step he can take to earn that click and treat!

Proper form

When your dog is in the water, he should look like he is running. Watch to see if all four paws are moving—examine his back paws or see how his head is positioned on the water. If his back paws are not doing what they are supposed to be, your dog's head will be looking straight up and his bottom will be sinking. Help your dog learn to move his paws by putting your hands on the bottom of his back paws. When you do this, your dog is likely to start kicking. Or, try moving his back legs for him gently.

In (and out)!

Dog walking down a ramp into a swimming pool.

When your dog has made it into the water, start moving within the pool, but only in small increments. Begin by moving away from the steps a foot or two and then helping your dog turn back to the exit of the pool. To help with his turning, grab the handle on his life vest or use a target in front of his nose to encourage him to follow.

Repeat this step many, many times. Start increasing the distance from the steps very gradually.

Once your dog starts loving to swim in the pool, keep an eye on him and watch for signs of exhaustion. Sometimes a dog is having too much fun to realize he is tired. It is the owner's job to get both person and dog out of the water for necessary break times.

There are some dogs that don't seem to like the water, no matter how slowly, patiently, and lovingly you try to introduce water play. Respect your dog's likes and dislikes and find more enjoyable activities for him than swimming. To keep your dog cool during hot summer days, fill frozen Kongs or find puzzle toys you can fill with water and freeze.

Safety first

When it comes to teaching your dog to swim, safety and accident prevention are the top goals. Use patience and common sense!

As swimming lessons progress, have fun and move at the dog's pace. Keep sessions short; 3-5 minutes is plenty. When you are done say "all done" and give your dog a potty break and/or a water break. Be sure to take at least a few minutes away from the pool.

The handle on your dog's life vest is not for throwing your dog in the water, but only for helping him get in, for helping him stay afloat while he learns to paddle, for steering him once he is already swimming, and for helping him get out of the pool.

If you have a pool in your backyard, these rules are important for keeping your dog safe and out of the pool.

  • Never leave a dog unattended by the pool, just as you wouldn't let children roam around the pool unattended.
  • Put up a fence around the pool. Some fences are reasonably priced and easy to install.
  • Install an alarm system in the pool that will go off if your dog falls in the pool.
  • If you are having a party out by the pool and cannot keep an eye on your dog, put the life jacket on your dog and provide other entertainment for him away from the pool.
Teaching your dog how to swim is a terrific way to be a trainer and to enjoy a summertime activity with your best friend.

Victory lap

Teaching your dog how to swim is a terrific way to be a trainer and to enjoy a summertime activity with your best friend. With positive reinforcement, a life vest, and patience, you can make it a safe and fun experience for everyone. Your success is sure to create a deeper bond between you and your dog, through all seasons to come.


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