How to Teach Your Dog to Swim

Not all dogs know how to swim! If you live near water, or have a pool, it’s a great idea to teach them how to swim. Here’s how.


Contrary to what many believe, dogs don’t naturally know how to swim. When dogs “dog paddle,” it’s more of a survival mechanism than a swim stroke, and it’s a very inefficient way to move through the water. Here’s how you can help your dog develop a smoother swim stroke:

  • Practice safe swimming. Bodies of water pose numerous dangers to dogs: playing to the point of exhaustion or heat stroke, “water poisoning” (a frequently lethal condition that results from the body taking in more water than it can handle), or poisoning from toxic algae blooms are all possibilities when working around the water. Know where the nearest 24-hour emergency veterinary hospital is located – both near your home and when travelling. For more safety tips, see “Keep Your Dog Safe Around the Pool This Summer.”
  • Fit your dog with a life jacket. A well-fitting life jacket can help your dog relax in the water when he realizes he’s not sinking. The added buoyancy also helps support heavily muscled breeds and can make it easier for older or less athletic dogs to maintain their limited endurance.
  • Go slow. Not all dogs enjoy water and that’s OK. Never throw your dog in the water thinking he’ll figure it out. If you’re working around a pool, take time to build a positive association with the steps – where your dog will safely exit – so he knows how to get out. Feeding treats or offering a toy on the top step helps. You can also build your dog’s confidence by taking him to a natural body of calm water and letting him wade at his own pace.
  • Practice an effective swim stroke. Work in calm water where you can safely and comfortably stand. Once your dog is comfortable around the water, on the top step or wading in so long as there’s land below, carry him in and lower yourselves into the water. Using the handle on his life jacket or a hand gently supporting his midsection from below, point your dog toward the exit point and let him go once he’s relatively relaxed.
  • Don’t overdo it. Swimming is not only a good workout, learning to swim is a mental workout. Keep sessions short and positive and give your dog plenty of time to rest after a swim session.

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Stephanie Colman has been a contributor to Whole Dog Journal since January 2010, with multiple articles recognized by the Dog Writers Association of America.  Colman has an extensive background in positive-reinforcement dog training, having spent more than 15 years teaching group and private training classes focused on basic manners, problem solving, sport-dog training, therapy dog prep, and more.  She’s also competed at high levels in a variety of dog sports including obedience, agility, Rally, hunt tests, lure coursing, and working trials.  She currently serves as the puppy program coordinator at Guide Dogs of America, where she leverages her dog training and journalism/PR backgrounds to recruit and support the organization’s volunteer puppy raisers.  In addition to Whole Dog Journal, her work has also been published in APDT Chronicle of the Dog, Off-Lead Animal Behavior, and the book Magical Dogs: Love and Lessons from our Canine Companions.  She holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in Mass Communication from California State University, Northridge.  Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @caninestein, or on LinkedIn at