How to Teach Your Dog to Swim

Updated Feb. 2, 2024
A Black Lab swims in a pool.

In This Article

Can All Dogs Swim?

Swimming is an excellent form of exercise for dogs, providing a low-impact, full-body workout that strengthens muscles and improves cardiovascular health. The buoyancy of water reduces stress on joints, too, making it ideal for dogs with mobility issues.

Swimming can also be a bonding experience for pet parents and pups! Time in the water fosters trust, builds a stronger emotional connection, and provides an opportunity for both physical and mental stimulation for the dog (and humans too).

Key Takeaways

  • All dogs can learn to swim, including senior pups.
  • Start with a calm body of water or a pool to begin swimming lessons.
  • Check water quality first (especially if a natural body of water) to ensure safety.
  • Invest in a life jacket and water toys to keep your pup engaged during training.

Can All Dogs Swim?

One common myth is that all dogs instinctively know how to swim. While some dogs may have a natural inclination toward swimming, not all dogs are born with this skill.

Breeds with physical characteristics such as webbed paws and water-resistant coats (like most Labrador Retrievers) are generally better swimmers, and individual temperament and previous experiences also play a role. But retrievers aren’t the only exceptional swimmers!

Other breeds that are well-known for their aquatic athletics include:

This breed was historically used for fishing and water rescue; they have webbed paws and a waterproof coat.

Despite their large size, Newfoundlands are incredibly strong swimmers. They have webbed paws, a thick double coat, and an instinct for water rescue, making them excellent swimmers and lifesavers.

Originally bred for retrieving waterfowl, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have a dense, oily coat that repels water. They are powerful swimmers and are known for their endurance and retrieving abilities in water.

  • Labrador Retrievers

Labs are well-known for their love of water and natural swimming ability. They have webbed paws and a water-resistant coat, making them excellent swimmers and retrievers.

But if your pup doesn’t have webbed paws or doesn’t know how to swim, it’s important to consider the following when approaching swim lessons for your dog:

  • Introduce the dog to water gradually and ensure they feel safe and comfortable.

  • Start in shallow areas and use positive reinforcement to build confidence. Not all dogs enjoy swimming, so it's essential to respect their preferences and not force them into the water if they show signs of fear or anxiety.

  • Pet parents should always supervise their dogs while swimming, provide appropriate safety measures like a life jacket if necessary, and be mindful of any potential hazards in the swimming area, such as strong currents or deep water.

Senior Dog Swimming

Dogs can learn to swim at any age, including senior dogs. In fact, swimming can be especially beneficial to senior dogs who often suffer from uncomfortable joints, including arthritis.

However, when introducing swimming to a senior dog, there are a few things you’ll need to do a bit differently:

Take It Even Slower

Senior dogs may have physical limitations or health conditions that require a more gradual approach. Start with shallow water and allow the dog to get comfortable at their own pace. Gradually increase the depth and duration of swimming sessions as their confidence and stamina build.

Consider A Life Jacket

Older dogs may experience joint stiffness or muscle weakness, so using a buoyancy aid such as a life jacket can provide additional support and make swimming easier and more enjoyable for them. This ensures their safety and allows them to conserve energy while swimming.

Stick With Regular Breaks

Older dogs may tire more quickly, so provide frequent breaks during swimming sessions to prevent exhaustion. Monitor their energy levels closely and give them plenty of rest and recovery time.

Get The ‘All Clear’ From Your Veterinarian 

Consult with your veterinarian before introducing swimming to a senior dog, especially if they have any underlying health concerns or mobility issues. The vet can provide specific guidance and ensure that swimming is safe and appropriate your pup.

How Do You Teach a Dog to Swim?

Teaching a dog to swim involves a gradual and positive approach. Below are some steps to help you introduce your dog to swimming:

  • Start in a shallow, calm area such as a pool with a gradual entry or a calm lake or pond. Avoid areas with strong currents or rough waves, like the ocean.

  • Begin by letting your dog explore the water at their own pace. You can use treats, toys, or praise to encourage them to approach the water's edge and dip their paws.

  • For dogs who are hesitant or new to swimming, use a gradual entry. Walk with your dog into the water, keeping it shallow at first.

    • Stay close to provide support and reassurance. Consider using a leash for dogs that are excitable or easily frightened.

  • As your dog becomes more comfortable, gently support their body by placing your hands under their belly or using a buoyancy aid such as a life jacket. This provides them with additional support and confidence in the water.

  • Use positive reinforcement techniques such as treats, praise, and encouragement to reward your dog for their progress and efforts. This will help associate swimming with a positive experience.

  • Once your dog gains confidence in shallow water, gradually increase the depth. Always monitor their comfort level and offer support as needed.

  • Use your hands or a toy to encourage your dog to paddle their legs and move through the water. Offer praise and rewards for their efforts.

  • Always supervise your dog while they are swimming. Be aware of their energy levels, monitor for signs of fatigue, and provide rest breaks as needed.

    • Ensure that the swimming area is safe, free from hazards, and easily accessible for your dog to exit the water.

Water Safety Tips for Dogs

Water Quality

Pools are typically treated with chemicals like chlorine to maintain water cleanliness. While these chemicals are safe for humans in controlled amounts, they can be irritating to a dog's eyes, nose, and skin.

It's important to ensure that the pool water is properly balanced and the dog's exposure to chemicals is minimized.

In contrast, open bodies of water like lakes or oceans have natural water compositions, but they may contain bacteria, parasites, or other potential hazards.

Before allowing your pup to swim in a natural body of water, check with local public works officials on the water conditions.

Not all swimming spots are the same, and there are some big differences between lakes, pools, ponds, and oceans when it’s time for your pup to take a swim.

Water in the Great Lakes region (including states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) as well as Florida and Texas can all experience toxic algae blooms, particularly in stagnant water.

These toxins, produced by cyanobacteria, can be lethal to dogs, who can ingest them by swallowing water or licking their fur after a swim.

Many local authorities provide updates on water conditions, including algae blooms. Avoid bodies of water with visible algae or that appear stagnant, as they can pose a significant risk.

Access and Safety

Pools usually have defined entry and exit points, making it easier to control and manage the dog's swimming experience.

They often have steps or ramps for dogs to enter and exit the water safely. In open bodies of water, access points can vary, and some locations may have steep or slippery banks.

Pet parents need to ensure there is safe entry and exit points for their dogs and consider the water conditions, such as currents or waves, which can impact safety.

Distractions and Stimuli

Pools are typically a controlled environment with minimal distractions, providing a more predictable swimming experience for dogs.

Open bodies of water such as lakes or oceans can have various stimuli, including waves, currents, wildlife, and other dogs or people. These additional factors may affect a dog's comfort level, attention, and behavior while swimming.

Visibility

In a pool, the water is usually clear, allowing both the dog and the pet parent to see each other easily. In open bodies of water, visibility can vary depending on factors like water clarity, waves, or vegetation.

Dogs need to navigate these conditions and rely on their swimming skills and instincts while staying close to their pet parents.

Swimming Accessories for Dogs

When going swimming with your dog, it's important to have a few essentials on hand to ensure their safety, comfort, and enjoyment. Consider bringing:

Specific items may vary based on the swimming location, your dog's needs, and any specific requirements or regulations of the area.

Be prepared, prioritize your dog's safety, and enjoy your swimming adventure together.

Swimming Lessons for Dogs

Swimming lessons for dogs and group lessons for pet parents are available in many areas.

These lessons are typically offered by professional trainers, swimming facilities, or specialized doggy daycare centers that have swimming facilities.

They can provide guidance on teaching your dog to swim, improving their swimming skills, and ensuring their safety in the water.

Group lessons for pet parents can also be beneficial, as they provide an opportunity to learn alongside other pet parents, share experiences, and receive expert instruction.

Some doggy daycares also offer pool options as part of their services. These facilities may have specially designed swimming pools or access to safe water bodies where dogs can swim and play under supervision.

Doggy daycares with pool options can be a great choice for pet parents who want their dogs to socialize, exercise, and have fun in the water while being supervised by trained staff.

If you're interested in swimming lessons or finding doggy daycares with pool options, search online, consult with local trainers or veterinarians, and inquire with pet businesses in your area to find out what options are available.

Featured Image: James Love/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images


Georgina Ushi, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Georgina Ushi, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Georgina Ushi completed her undergraduate education at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, where she earned a Bachelor of...


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