Why Teach a Dog the Doggie Paddle?

The “Dog Days of Summer” are here. And as the temperatures creep higher and higher, nothing spells relief for man and beast like a dip in the nearest body of water.

Unless you can’t swim. Then it’s just a danger to be avoided.

And the same applies to your pooch. Swimming is great exercise for your dog. Many experts believe that just 5 minutes of continuous swimming is equivalent to a 5-mile run in a lower impact activity. Swimming is great for high-energy, active dogs that need to release a ton of energy, recovering Rovers that need to build back muscle tone after surgery, or pudgy pups that need to slim down.

Swimming is great across the board. We believe that so much that at the Dog Gone Smart Canine Center we have an indoor pool just for dogs.

We also have a full-time swim instructor.

Why you ask?  

Because contrary to popular belief, not all dogs instinctively know how to swim.

I have found that there are Natural Swimmers, Teachable Swimmers, and Non-Swimmers.

Natural Swimmers

Breeds like Labradors, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels, Portuguese Water Dogs, Standard Poodles, and even the giant Newfoundland tend to be natural swimmers.

These breeds naturally have longer legs and webbed feet to give them more power to propel them through the water. They also have longer snouts which allow them to keep their heads lower to the water (requiring less work for breathing).

Although bred to swim, these breeds should still be slowly introduced to swimming. While some dogs will run and leap off a dock on the first visit, a gentle meeting is usually safer. Going to the beach or lake where there is a slope or incline into the water is perfect.

Walk them in, let them get used to the feeling, and watch as their natural instincts kick in.

Teachable Swimmers

Some breeds of dogs are not natural swimmers and need to be taught and acclimated. They need to be taught the doggie paddle.

Dogs that have flatter faces like Pekinese, Boxers and Pugs, breeds that have shorter legs and long ears like Basset Hounds and Dachshunds and breeds like Corgies with thick bodies and short legs are typically not great swimmers and have difficulty.

I had a Doberman that was initially a terrible swimmer. She was deep-chested and her front end would just naturally raise up out of the water. Then - because she didn’t know she needed to kick with her hind legs - she would start to sink.

We see many breeds of dogs that will do the same thing when initially introduced to the water. But if you take it slow and follow a few simple steps, you can usually have good success with these dogs:

  1. You are going to have to get into the water with your dog. You should cover yourself so you don’t get too badly scratched. There might be a little panic at the beginning. A wetsuit is ideal protection but a heavy sweatshirt will work in a pinch. Believe me, using no protection on the initial swims will leave you really marked up.
  2. I recommend you get your dog a life jacket. This gives your dog much more comfort and allows her to relax a bit. It’s stressful enough just getting into the water, let alone trying to stay afloat. The life jacket usually has a handle on top to help you guide them.
  3. If your dog starts to raise her head high and slap the top of the water, you need to teach her to stay level and kick their back legs. Take your hand in front of the dog’s chest and gently pull the (chest) life vest down into the water. This will lower her front end and raise her rear. The dog should instinctively begin to reach out with her front legs and keep them in the water to propel forward. This will keep her level and learn proper swimming position.
  4. Keep swim sessions very short. One to two minutes maximum in the beginning. Remember, this can be very stressful for the dog until they get the idea. It usually takes three to five sessions, so be patient. Remember, this is supposed to be fun!
  5. Once the dog starts to get it, try throwing a toy or floating ball to get them to swim by themselves.
  6. If swimming in a pool, take a few moments before each session to reintroduce the stairs as the entry and exit point for the pool. This can save a lot of panicked energy and prevent a tragedy.

Non-Swimmers

For certain breeds swimming may just not be in “the cards”.

Breeds with deeper chests and shorter legs will have a much more difficult time keeping afloat.

Dachshunds and Basset Hounds have short legs, which make it very difficult for them to swim (their long ears can also trap water and make them prone to ear infections from swimming).  

It can even be outright dangerous for some breeds to swim without a life jacket and close supervision. Dogs that typically have shorter muzzles like Bulldogs, Boxers, Pekinese, Pugs, and Boston Terriers are brachycephalic, and tend to have breathing difficulties. When swimming they can breath in water, which can create a dangerous situation for them. Because their faces are flatter, these breeds actually have to lift their heads out of the water further in order to breathe. When they lift their heads up, then their rear ends sink down and they just can’t keep afloat. If these breeds go into the water (and maybe they shouldn’t at all), they must use a life jacket and be closely monitored to keep them safe.

Many dogs just love to swim and it is one of the best ways to get their needed exercise.

By introducing them correctly to the water and even teaching or guiding their natural instincts, you will ensure success. Unfortunately for some breeds it may not be a healthy option and you may have to pick another activity. If you have any questions on whether you can or should introduce swimming to your dog, contact your veterinarian for advice.

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