Tucker, our six-year-old Cattle-Dog mix, loves to swim. Every morning when we walk the quarter-mile down our driveway with our four-pack of dogs to pick up the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, Tucker casts longing glances at the pond in our next-door-neighbor’s front yard. As long as we occasionally remind him to stay with us, he’s fine. But if we let our attention lapse for too long, especially if it’s a particularly warm day, a loud “Splash!” announces in no uncertain terms that Tucker has once again gone for an unauthorized swim. You would never know that Tucker used to hate the water, and that we had to make an effort to convince him to give recreational swimming a try.
Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, and many of the herding dogs are among dozens of breeds renowned for their affinity to water. Newfie owners laugh about how their dogs drag them out of lakes even when they don’t need saving. (Newfoundlands have been bred for generations to do water rescue work.) Labs are commonly seen at parks, belly-slamming into ponds and lakes with spectacular spectator-drenching leaps as they dive into the water after sticks and tennis balls. And many Border Collies, Cattle Dogs, and Australian Kelpies like nothing better than a refreshing dunk in the livestock tank after a hard, dusty day of herding sheep, cows, or tennis balls.
It’s not always natural
Instinctive and genetically programmed as some of these behaviors may be, many dog owners are surprised to discover that, like Tucker, their future water-loving pals need some serious coaxing and coaching before they come to fully appreciate the joys of swimming. While some dogs are more inclined to water sports than others, most of them, even Poms and Chihuahuas, can learn to swim if it’s done properly. If your Retriever is a candidate for a class in remedial doggie paddle, take heart. It may be easier than you think.
One approach often used in the past to teach a dog to swim was to toss him into deep water and let him learn the hard way. While that method may work for some dogs, others are so badly terrified by their sink-or-swim experience that they never want to go near the water again. Obviously, we don’t recommend that approach. Like every other training challenge, we use a gentle method that invites the dog to offer the desired behavior voluntarily, and uses rewards to reinforce and encourage more of the same.
Swimming is a complex behavior, so we will use the process known as “shaping” to get Surfer in the water, rather than expecting him to offer the behavior all at once. Shaping consists of breaking down the final behavior into very small increments, rewarding small steps along the way to the final goal behavior. Rewards can be food, praise, playing with a ball or stick, contact with us, or anything else that our dog likes. In the case of swimming, we can often use balls and sticks to encourage Surfer to get brave about water – somehow swimming and fetching just seem to go together!
NOTE: Dogs, just like people, display varying amounts of aquatic ability. Many dogs swim well with little practice. Others bob in the water vertically like corks, unable to steer well and squinting their eyes against the splashing of their front paws. While some of these swimming-challenged canines improve with practice, some never learn a graceful doggie paddle. If your dog fits this description, you may wish to curtail his beach invitations, or consider buying a canine life jacket.
The training plan
It helps to write our plan down in advance when we are trying to shape a complex behavior, so we know where we are trying to go and how we intend to get there. When Surfer accomplishes one step of the plan we are ready to move on, without stopping to think about what’s next. Always keep in mind that a good trainer is flexible. Surfer may surprise us and leap ahead several steps in the plan, in which case you need to be ready to leap forward with him. Or he may need one or more steps broken down into even tinier increments. In this case, rather than getting frustrated and angry with his slow progress or trying to force him, use your brainpower and creativity to figure out how to make it possible for him to succeed.
Here’s one sample training plan for swimming:
1. Sit in a folding chair near the edge of the lake. (Always start your water-training with a very calm, shallow water source.) Toss Surfer a treat every time he goes near the water. (Define “near.” Depending on the dog, near could mean six inches, it could mean six feet, or it could mean 20 feet!) If you train with a reward marker, such as the Click! of a clicker or the verbal marker “Yes!”, mark the “near the water” behavior with a Click! or a “Yes!” each time just before you toss the treat.
2. Gradually raise the criteria. If you were rewarding for six inches, you will see Surfer starting to spend more time within six inches of the water. Part of that time he will be even closer. Start rewarding for four inches, then two inches, then only when he actually touches the water.
3. You can speed up the shaping process by luring (encouraging) Surfer into the water. If he loves tennis balls, place one just into the water, so he has to lean over the lake to get it. Click! and reward him by tossing the ball on dry land for him to run and fetch. Then try another in the edge of the water. (If he won’t give you the ball that he has in his mouth, carry several balls and toss a different one for him to retrieve. Work on his “give” behavior as a separate exercise some other time.)
4. When Surfer is eagerly and easily grabbing the ball out of the shallow water’s edge without stepping into the water, roll the ball a few inches away from the edge. With luck, he will take a step into the water to get it. Click! and toss the ball onto dry land. Repeat this step until he walks into shallow water easily to get the ball.
5. Now toss the ball a little farther out. Be patient. You can verbally encourage him, but don’t try to force or help him to get it – let him figure it out himself. If he won’t, you have taken too big a step. Toss another ball in the water, not as far as the first one. Make it possible for him to succeed. When he’s off chasing his reward ball on dry land you can retrieve the one he wouldn’t get.
6. Continue this process until he is moving deeper and deeper into the water, and eventually swimming. When he starts to look forward to going into the water after the ball you can start tossing the ball back into the water as a reward, and you’re home free.
Other training plans could include having you walk into the water and encouraging him to follow you (using yourself as a lure).
We overcame Tucker’s fear of the water by parking ourselves on lawn chairs in the middle of a shallow, slow-moving stream on 90+ degree days. Eventually his aversion to heat overcame his fear of the water and he joined us. Once he realized that the water cooled him off, he became a huge fan of swimming – the cooling factor of the water was the greatest reward we could have engineered!
You can also use a kiddie wading pool in your back yard, gradually increasing the depth of the water in the pool. Of course, this won’t get Surfer swimming unless he’s a tiny toy breed, but it will get him to start associating being in the water with fun times and rewards.
Even a young puppy can learn to swim. In fact, it’s easier if you start young. Puppies have a critical socialization period, during which time they learn what is safe in the world. This stems from their wild heritage, when, for survival purposes, after about the age of four to five months anything not known to be safe is assumed to be unsafe. The more positive experiences we can expose our puppies to during this early window of time – including swimming – the better. Because puppies also learn to make very strong negative associations with things that are not safe during their critical learning period, it is triply important to use positive methods when training a pup to swim.
A wading pool is a great starting tool for puppy swimming. Lots of happy play sessions in a gradually deepening pool can convince your pup that water is a very fun place to be. Then it’s an easy transition to deeper water in the lake – you’ve already accomplished the first five steps of our six-step training plan!
As much fun as swimming can be, it’s important to remember that dogs – just like humans – can drown. In addition to all of the standard safety precautions that the Red Cross offers for human water safety, there are a number of things to keep in mind for canine water safety:
• Beware of fast moving currents, surf and undertow. I’ve spent many hours walking with my dogs on the California coast, and it always amazes me how cavalier some owners are about tossing sticks and balls far out into the surf for their dogs to retrieve. My dogs tend to be a bit leery of moving waves, and I encourage their caution.
Dogs have been swept out to sea and drowned, and in at least one recent case an owner was drowned trying to rescue his dog from the ocean. Rivers can also kill. It can be difficult to judge the strength of a current, and it’s easy for Surfer to get carried far downstream if you misjudge. Err on the side of caution, and avoid the temptation to test Surfer’s strength and swimming skills in swift water.
• Beware of unattended swimming pools. Once Surfer has learned to love the water, he may decide to leap into the backyard pool. Ideally, the pool should be fenced off to prevent unplanned swims by dogs as well as children. If that’s not possible (or even if it is and you want to teach Surfer to swim in the pool under supervision), it is vitally important to teach him out to get out of the pool. Show him where the exit is, and how to use it, by starting close to the steps and helping him find his footing so he can climb out. Gradually move him farther and farther away from the steps and reward him for swimming to them and climbing out.
Since all edges of the pool can look similar, it’s a good idea to mark the steps with an orange cone or flag so it’s easy for Surfer to find them if he is in trouble. Dogs can fall into swimming pools by accident, especially ones with pool covers, so it really is a good idea to fence them off to avoid tragedies if at all possible.
• Beware of ornamental garden pools. Many of these pools have steep sides with absolutely no way for a dog to get out.
• Check the beach or diving area for underwater obstacles. It is great fun to throw a ball off a dock or bank so you can watch your water-loving dog launch through the air and splash into the water below. Dogs love it, and we love watching them. No problem – as long as you make sure there are no rocks or sharp objects hiding under the water to impale your dog when he lands.
• Keep an eye out for poisonous snakes – they often can be found sunning themselves on the rocks around natural water sources. In some areas of the South, alligators are a serious threat to water dogs. Scope out the area carefully, and don’t risk Surfer’s life (or yours) in an area likely to be inhabited by large meat-eating reptiles.
• Choose water-fetch toys carefully. Anything you throw in the water for your dog to fetch should float well, so your fetch-obsessed dog doesn’t drown himself trying to retrieve something that has sunk under the surface. Fetch items should neither be too small (because a dog who snaps at the floating toy can accidentally swallow and choke on a small ball, for example) nor too large (because a heavy or awkward fetch item can interfere with a dog’s swimming).
• Keep a safe distance from your swimming dog. If you are using yourself as a lure to encourage Surfer into deeper water, be careful. A swimming dog has claws and strong front legs. He can scratch you badly, even push you under the water, especially if he panics in mid-swim. Until you know that Surfer can handle the deeper water, be sure to have a human buddy around who can help you if the two of you get into trouble.
• Know when to call it quits. Some dogs will naturally protect themselves from over-exercising by declining to fetch once they are tired. Obsessive/compulsive types will try to fetch until they are exhausted and sinking lower and lower in the water. Seize and put away all available fetch items and encourage your dog to take a break. If friends or beach acquaintances won’t stop encouraging your tired swimmer to “Get it!” put a leash on your puddled pooch and enforce some rest.
On the positive side
Don’t let us scare you. The benefits of swimming far outweigh the risks, and all of the hazards described above are avoidable if you use good common sense. Swimming is great exercise for your dog – and you! It’s low-impact exercise, and can be especially beneficial therapy for dogs with joint or arthritis problems. It’s a good survival skill for your dog to know. And water-fetch is a very rewarding game for both dog and human, that can help strengthen the bond between you and your canine companion. Maybe it’s time for the two of you to get in the swim of things!
-By Pat Miller
Pat Miller is a freelance author and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee.