How to Teach a Dog to Swim

Like a fish to water? Not all dogs! Here’s how to teach your dog to swim, plus research showing that swimming is not as natural as trotting to dogs. My “how to teach a dog to swim” tips are based on my experience of coaxing my dog into water after three years of living right next to the ocean.

How to Teach a Dog to Swim

Dog Life Jacket photo via

My first tip on teaching your dog how to swim is to think about a life jacket. The one pictured is a Dog Life Jacket with Quick Release, a best-seller on Amazon. Life jackets are especially important for dogs who are learning to swim in waters with a strong undertow, or for dog who aren’t fit. If you aren’t able or willing to jump into the water to rescue your dog from drowning, then you should seriously consider putting your dog in a life jacket when you’re teaching him to swim.

A fellow dog owner used a dog life jacket when she taught her dog to swim. Her dog, like mine, was reluctant to go into the water. A life jacket will ensure your dog doesn’t have a scary experience when learning how to swim – especially if he isn’t thrilled about this new venture in his life.

Remember that if your dog doesn’t like water, he still might like to swim. I thought Georgie was a dog who didn’t like swimming because she didn’t like going into the ocean, lakes, pools, or even streams. But it turns out that my dog LOVES swimming – she just didn’t know how fun it is! We adopted her when she was a year old, so she may have had negative experiences with water when she was young. Don’t assume your dog doesn’t like swimming just because he doesn’t like the water.

Tips for Giving Dogs Swimming Lessons

Give your dog time to get comfortable with water. My dog learned to swim a week ago, and we’ve gone swimming three times since then. I taught her to swim by NOT pushing her into the water and NOT throwing her off a dock. Though, I have to admit I was tempted! I really thought she’d like to swim once she learned, but I couldn’t bring myself to just toss her in the water. When I wrote about exercising your dog in hot weather, I was wishing my dog knew how to swim.

Get your swimsuit on. Swimming myself wasn’t how I taught my dog to swim. I didn’t coax her into the water – though I know some owners say the best tip on how to teach a dog to swim is by being in the water yourself. If you’re swimming and your dog loves you, she’ll learn to swim by coming to you. I think this is a good way to teach a dog to swim, but it’s not what I did because the Pacific Ocean is too cold!

dog toys for swimming lessons

How to Teach a Dog to Swim

Toss a stick or ball into shallow water. One of the best ways to teach a dog to swim is to toss something they like into the very shallow part of the lake. A stick worked for Georgie – I started by tossing sticks into a stream at Bridgeman Park in North Vancouver, BC. We did this for a couple summers, and my intention wasn’t to teach my dog how to swim. It was to cool her off on hot sunny days.

Kong Aqua Dog Toy – similar to the dog toy pictured – may be a better “fetch toy” than a stick. My dog tends to eat sticks when left to her own devices, and they aren’t as easy to see in the water as dog fetch toys are.

Throw the fetch toy, stick, or ball a little farther out, a few inches at a time. Every time your dog grabs hold of the stick in the water, cheer for her! Praise her, encourage her, and clap your hands. Dogs LOVE praise, just like humans, and they’ll respond very well when you encourage them. When I cheered and clapped for my dog when she was learning how to swim, her long wet tail would rise up out of the water and wag!

Consider giving your dog a treat when she comes out of the water. When I taught my dog to swim, I didn’t use treats. Theoretically, you could give your dog a treat every time she swims to you, but I’d be concerned that my dog would expect a treat every time. And, she’d stop swimming for pleasure. I only gave Georgie a treat for learning how to swim the very last time she came out of the water, at the end of each swimming lesson.

Don’t pressure your dog to learn how to swim. The truth is that I learned how to teach my dog to swim by accident. My intention wasn’t to give her swimming lessons. I accidentally threw the stick out a little too far, and when her paws no longer touched the ocean floor, I was scared for her! She reached and strained towards the stick, and when she grabbed it I cheered with relief more than anything. If you pressure your dog to learn to swim, she’ll pick up on your anxiety. This might make her fearful of swimming.

Research About Dogs and Swimming

dog swimming lessons

“How to Teach a Dog to Swim” image by iannnnn, via Pixabay CC License

Dr. Frank Fish is a dog owner and professor of biology at West Chester University. He wanted to learn how dogs perform the doggy paddle. Fish has spent most of his career studying the swimming of marine mammals, and realized that researching how dogs learn to swim can offer clues about the evolution of swimming in marine mammals such as whales.

For the study, Fish used eight different dogs that spanned six breeds, ranging from the Yorkshire terrier to the Newfoundland. Several dog owners, including Fish himself, volunteered their dogs to take part in the study about how dogs swim.

The trick to studying how dogs swim was to find a large area of clear water where the dogs could swim and be recorded. Fish found in a rehabilitation pool for horses at the University of Pennsylvania. In the pool, the dogs were encouraged to swim while their legs were filmed with an underwater video camera.

When a dog trots, diagonal pairs of legs move together. In swimming, the dog’s legs move in a similar fashion, but even faster than a trot. And, the legs move beyond the range of motion for a trot. This means that the swimming dogs are using a basic movement, but with some modification.

The bottom line is that while dogs can swim, it is not as natural for them as walking and other terrestrial gaits because of differences in coordination. Also, while the movements that make up terrestrial gaits like trotting can vary from one dog breed to another, the dog paddle gait showed very little variation among the different breeds.

When you get home after giving your dog swimming lessons, you should definitely give him a frozen dog treat! :-)

What have I missed in these tips on how to teach a dog to swim? Comments welcome below!

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