How to Teach Your Dog to Swim: Let Your Dog Paddle and Float Safely

Image showing a bulldog jumping out of water
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Be it in a pool, while boating, or while taking short walks by the sea or a nearby lake, recreational water activities are fun for the whole family. When Fido doesn’t know how to swim and is afraid of the water, however, it tends to put a damper on things. Don’t you just wish you knew how to teach your dog to swim? That will probably be one of the most rewarding, not to mention fun things you can do with your furry pet.

Not only will you be able to add swimming to the list of fun activities you can do with him, it is also good for your dog’s physical and mental health. Physically, swimming will not only allow your dog to stay in tip-top condition—it also helps maintain their body temperature on the desired level when it’s hot out. Mentally, swimming provides an outlet through which your dog can work off any excess energy, so they won’t be pent up.

Two Black Labradors both retrieving the same frizbee whilst swimming

In this article, we’ll first discuss some basic information regarding the dog breeds that you can teach to swim because not all breeds are meant for the water. Next, we’ll go over some basic safety precautions so that you’ll be prepared—then, of course, we’ll explain the best way to teach your dog to swim.

Dog Breeds and Their Affinity to Water

Contrary to the common idea that “dogs are natural swimmers,” not all dogs swim. Just because the “dog paddle” carries the word “dog” in it, doesn’t mean all dogs naturally know how to paddle either.

Some dogs are naturally designed for water. Some dogs aren’t meant to swim, but you can teach them to. Some breeds aren’t meant to be left alone in the water since they will just sink like a rock. Here’s what you need to know regarding some dogs breeds and their affinity (or lack thereof) to water:

Built for the Water

Dog breeds that are known to swim well normally have medium-to-large sized bodies, water-resistant coats, and some even have webbing between their toes. These include most retrievers—for example the lab, the golden, and the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Bred as a water rescue dog, Newfoundlands are also good swimmers.

purebred english cocker swimming in a swimming pool

Other dogs that perform well in the water have, well, “water” in their names. Examples include the Spanish Water Dog, the Portuguese Water Dog, the American Water Spaniel, and the Irish Water Spaniel. There are other dog breeds that are comfortable in the water. These include the standard poodle, English and Irish setters, and the rare Otterhound.

Not Really Built for the Water

There are dog breeds that aren’t specifically designed for swimming. These breeds, which normally have large chests and short legs, include bulldogs, dachshunds, and boxers. Breeds with squished faces, like pugs, tend to tire easily. Their respiratory system isn’t all that good from the first place, and they tend to develop breathing problems as they grow older. That’s why teaching them how to swim might only exacerbate the problem.

Other dogs can be good swimmers, but because of their small size, they tend to get chilled quickly or get easily frightened once in the water. These include Chihuahuas and the Maltese.

Image showing a scared chihuahua swimming

Now that we know some dog breeds are or aren’t meant for the water, we can set our expectations according to their limitations. Is your dog on the list of those that can swim? Don’t be hasty. You’ll first need to train him well before letting him swim on his own. Is your dog on the list of those that can’t swim? Don’t be discouraged. With some help, you’ll still be able to enjoy water activities with him. Just be patient and follow these steps so the training will be effective.

Prior Preparations

I’m sure you’re excited to see your pet swim, but before you do train him, here are a few safety precautions that you need to remember:

  • First, don’t ever leave your dog alone and unattended in the water. If your dog isn’t used to swimming, make sure to keep a close eye on them even if it seems like they’ve got it. Dogs, just like humans, get tired while trying to stay afloat in the water.
  • Second, invest in a flotation device, especially one with a handle and a D-ring for a leash. There are many dog life vests or jackets available today, and letting your dog wear one will help ensure that he stays afloat in the water even if his limbs fail him.
  • Third, use a leash. This will help you pull him out of the water if he starts struggling to stay afloat. This will also help you keep him within reach.
  • Fourth, knowing basic Pet First Aid will be a plus. Also, make sure you know the directions to the nearest Animal ER on hand, just in case you need help.
  • Fifth, don’t worry. Any anxiety on your behalf will be transferred to your dog. Instead, be hopeful and cheerful as you train your dog to swim. Prepare a lot of treats to reward him for his progress. Remember to be patient and show your love for him.
  • Sixth, a doggie pal might help. Dogs learn by example, and having a dog that knows how to swim may help teach Fido to swim, too. This is optional, but if you have friends with such a dog, you can ask them to join you.

How to Teach Your Dog to Swim

If you have done the prior preparations and made sure that all the safety precautions are in place, then it’s time for the fun to begin. Here’s how you can teach your dog to swim:

Step One: Selecting Where to Train

Find a safe spot where you can train your pet to swim. This could be in a pool or in a shallow lake area. Ideally, it’s somewhere you can walk beside your pet. Avoid places where the water current is strong, such as a river. Also, avoid places where the water is deep.

Image showing a dog sitting next to a swimming pool

Avoid choosing places where the water is murky and those that have lots of plants that might catch your dog’s paws. Also, avoid places where there are sudden drops because those may startle your dog and cause them to lose control.

If your dog loves to be around people, choose a place where some other people are swimming with their dogs as well so they can relax. Don’t forget to attach the life vest and the leash before doing anything in the water.

Step Two: Getting Fido Used to the Water

If you have a pool or even a kid’s pool at home, start by letting Fido get used to the water there. Start by tossing a ball into the shallow water and letting him fetch it. If he runs into the water, give him a reward for “a job well done.” Keep repeating this until he gets used to the water.

If you don’t have a kid’s pool, you can do this in a shallow part of a lake. Again, reward him for stepping courageously into the water. Keep repeating this until he gets used to the water. Once your pet gets used to the water, you can encourage him to slowly wade out into deeper water—under supervision, of course.

Image showing a labrador sitting in swimming pool

Alternatively, you can walk slowly into the water and call out to him so he will follow you. If he is reluctant to follow, a toy or a few treats may encourage him to come closer to you. Remember to use a positive tone when speaking. Praise him when he enters the water. Gradually wade out into deeper water.

Once there, hold your pet with one hand under the belly to support him. Place him in the water and wait until you see him paddling. Keep supporting him until he learns to stroke using all four limbs—you’d want him to use all four limbs to stroke as using his front legs alone will tire him out very quickly, not to mention that he may just learn to splash around instead of actually swimming.

A Labrador learning to swim in a swimming pool

Observe your dog and watch out for signs that he needs to rest. If he is breathing heavily and his back begins to sag in the water, it’s time to give him a break. Take him out of the water and let him rest for a while.

If at any point he gets scared and starts panicking, back up to shallow waters and calm him down before trying the procedure again. This might take time, but it will be well worth the effort. Be patient. Keep holding him until he develops a good form, with his back on top of the water, and until he seems confident with his strokes.

Image showing a husky swimming in the pool

After a few minutes of confident stroking in the water, point him to shallow waters and release him. If he is wearing the life vest, it will help him stay afloat. If he isn’t, only lend him a hand if he sinks immediately—if he’s simply splashing around, wait a few seconds because this is usually the moment when your dog really gets it.

Start walking to shallow waters and observe to see if he’ll follow you. Keep your hand on the leash and make sure he is within reach. Once you and your dog have reached the dry areas, praise him and give him a reward for a job well done. Repeat this procedure until your dog gets used to swimming, and soon he’ll be doing it like a pro.

Step Three: Post-Swim Procedures

After the swimming lessons, it’s time to take Fido out of the water. Take time showing him the proper way to exit the pool or lake so he knows how to find his way out by himself the next time.

Playful golden retriever in swimming pool stand on the bottom after jumping and diving underwater to retrieve stone. Active games with family pets and popular dog breeds like a companion.

Next, make sure you give your dog a good and thorough cleaning. Chlorine can irritate the skin and the eyes, and bacteria from lakes or rivers can make your pet sick. Wash his coat, and take extra care to dry out his ears as well. Lastly, reward him with an extra treat. This will help him associate swimming with fun and positive times.

Things to Remember

Are you excited to teach your dog to swim? I know you are. Before and during training, however, here are some things you should remember:

  • Train your dog while he’s still young. Get your puppy comfortable with water using a bathtub or a baby pool with shallow water (one- to two-inch deep). It’s easier to teach them to swim when they are trained not to fear the water early.
  • Take your time discovering whether your dog enjoys the water and whether he has the build and aptitude for swimming. Don’t rush your dog into learning how to swim. Even if your dog has a body built for swimming (or belongs to a recognized swimming dog breed), never ever suddenly drop him into the pool or the lake especially if he has never been in the water.
  • Food stays in your dog’s tummy longer than yours, so wait for at least an hour and a half after eating before swimming to prevent bloating.
  • Like humans, dogs can get sunburned, too. Talk to your veterinarian about sunscreen made for pets, and don’t forget to give your dog plenty of time under the shade.

Wrap Up

And there you have it. I hope this helps you train your dog to swim so they too can be included in the family fun whenever your family vacation involves a trip to the beach, the lakeside, or even a canine-friendly pool.

Just make sure he has access to the shade and plenty of drinking water. This is especially important if you’re taking your dog to bodies of water in the wilderness, such as a lake. You don’t want him to start drinking contaminated water.

Labrador swimming with a stick in his mouth

Did this article help you? Do you have experiences of your own and other tips to share regarding how you taught your dog to swim? Hit the comments sections below!

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.