All of the dogs who live here swim; I cannot imagine a dog that does not swim. A typical scene in the summer is several dogs, adults and children all in the pool. Family bonding! Fun! And then Lyra joins the family and wasn’t showing much interest in the water. I’ll admit I made a few mistakes which made the introduction to water less than ideal. I’ll mention them so hopefully someone else will avoid them.
First, I tried to introduce her to the pool when she arrived last year. That would have been late October, and the water was already cold. Cold water is not a good choice for a first swim, especially with a puppy.
Second, my pool is not appropriate for introducing a small dog or puppy to swim. The steps are too steep, so there is no way she could get out of the pool, even from the first step, without help. Not good. It is far and away better to teach swimming in a pond or lake with a gradual bank; that is how all of my other dogs learned.
Third; when I realized she was nervous, I decided to let the other dogs teach her to swim. Basically, I took everyone into the pool area to run around like lunatics. I figured she would see how much fun they were having and would want to join them. That is not what happened. What actually happened is that Lyra discovered that she could grab chunks of hair and skin off of dogs as they ran past and they would be too busy to stop her. Now I had a dog who loved the pool area so that she could antagonize the other dogs without penalty.
After a couple of weeks I put a stop to all Lyra pool time, and I re-evaluated the situation. I decided to teach her to swim in a systematic fashion. Because the other dogs were a major distraction, they were not present for her lessons.
I started by taking her into the pool area alone and off leash, and sitting at the steps. I gave her food as she ran by, and after a few days she was comfortable sitting with me at the entrance to the pool. Next I hopped into the pool – no more food from this point forward. I sat on the top step and pet her while she sat on the edge. My hope was that she would become curious and step down with me, but that didn’t happen. After several days I decided to go with a leash – I was taking away her choice to leave. I didn’t make that decision lightly, since I rarely force dogs to do anything.
I put her on leash and sat on the edge with her. Fine with that.
Next, I picked her up and placed her on the top step. I held her there for about 10 seconds, praising and petting all the while. While not seriously afraid, she was uncomfortable enough that she would have avoided the situation if she could have. To try and return choice to the equation, I encouraged her to come in on her own, but I still used the leash to prevent her from leaving altogether. If she did not hop in, I quietly placed her in the water, holding her while praising. Within a day, she was hopping onto the top step on her own, sitting next to me. Lots of praise for that! Soon she was willingly hopping in and out of the pool – to the top step. She appeared to be “practicing” and getting comfortable with this.
When she was easily hopping in on command, I moved down one step and repeated the procedure. At first I had to pick her up and place her on the next step. At this point the water was up to her mid-chest.
Once I felt she was comfortable with this, I removed the leash. She was still willing to come in and sit on the steps with me for copious praise.
At this point, she would have to swim – she cannot reach the third step.
I faced her in the water, and put my hands in her ruff/collar and pulled her up and off the step (up so she wouldn’t get water in her face). I then kept one hand in her ruff and the other under her belly. (a life vest would have been better but I don’t have one). I “swam” her a few feet, supporting her the whole way and keeping her head level so she would not go vertical and start to panic. I then “swam” her back to the step. Again, huge praise. Once on the step she was welcome to hop out of the pool if she wished, while I continued to praise her.
After a few days, I moved into the water and called her to the second step – she came willingly. From there I backed up in front of her, but without my hands in her ruff. I called her to me off the step. She did it! She turned around almost immediately and went back, but that’s ok!
Then it was simply a matter of building up her confidence. She did best swimming after me, so I took her on very short swims out into the water and then back to the steps or out the second entrance on the other side of the pool.
Finally, I added a toy. I had her get her ball in the pool area but not in the water. When she was playing fetch in the pool area, I got back in the pool and started by putting the toy on the top step; she would pick up the ball and hop out. If the ball went beyond the first step she would not get it, but over the course of a day or two, she became braver and would swim out to the ball. The worst part seemed to be her tendency to start swimming vertical when she was heading for the ball. That would scare her and she would go back to the steps.
Now we are at the point that she’ll go after a ball in the water, as long as the other dogs are not present. She still goes in by the steps and she won’t go more than about half the distance of the pool, but her swimming is beginning to smooth out. For the first time, I’m seeing her choose to go in the water on her own.
When other dogs are swimming, she’ll enter the pool on her own – jumping quite far from the top step. She still chases and bites at the other dogs, so she requires intense supervision.
The last step is going to be keeping her focused on the toy when the other dogs are present. I think we’ll make it. She is clearly enjoying the pool now, which is a relief for me.
This video is a re-creation starting at the point where I place her on the second step and ending with a ball toss.
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Love swimming dogs! Dragon knew how to swim but only once did I find a place where he went into the water willingly (for his ball, of course). It was a little stream in my parents’ town, which had an area where the water pooled and was slow-moving, and had a very gradual slope. For a dog that was 30 pounds or larger, it would have been too shallow to swim in. I’m planning on visiting it often with my next puppy while they’re young and encourage a love of swimming as much as I can. Also planning on playing in the bathtub, and in the kiddie pools at work.
Any other suggestions? I don’t have access to an actual pool. Unless I visit yours, haha. I’m planning a session with you shortly after pup comes home, anyway. 🙂
This is very similar to how kids are taught to swim – particularly the adult supporting the child and the swim to me from the steps procedure.
I would have to say I’m very happy not to have to have done anything like this with my dog! She is a natural swimmer and I took her to Fiesta Island (off leash water dog park) She was only 5 months old and I just kept throwing the ball into deeper and deeper water and she just took off! She swims regularly and I have swam a mile with her on many occasions. If she can see land no lifevest if not she wears one. I have went kayaking and stand up paddleboarding with her too. I can do lots of obedience at waters edge before we do any water retrieves and she won’t take a treat or another reward knowing she’s going to get to go in the water when we are done.