Are all Dogs Good Swimmers?

I remember a day when I had a hard time explaining to my father that no, not all dogs are swimmers, let alone good swimmers. He insisted that ALL dogs just for being dogs had been given an innate ability to swim. He said, “if you throw a dog into the water with more or less enthusiasm, he will paddle all the way up and forward” But, is that so?

By the way, this exact same method is what my father thought would work for human beings. So when I turned five and he thought it was about time for me to learn how to swim, he decided to throw me in the deepest side of our hotel’s swimming pool. The next thing I remember is two strangers throwing themselves into the water to come to my rescue while my father screamed at them that “there was nothing to be worried about, he was teaching me how to swim!”

My father obviously meant no harm. He simply didn’t believe such an experience had the potential to traumatize her young daughter for life. He was just “teaching me how to swim.'' Well, it was certainly not the best pedagogical way to go about it! While on the subject, I must say that I’ve always loved swimming and being around water, but it could have potentially created the opposite effect.

“Dog Paddle”

Coming back to the question, “Are all dogs swimmers?” Even though most adults remember our first success in learning how to swim using the “dog paddle”, not all dogs are effective “paddlers”. Swimming, in most cases, doesn’t come as natural as walking or running. Swimming ability really depends upon your dog’s breed, body structure and even psychological factors.

Breed & Body structure

Let’s first consider the dog’s breed. Some breeds are natural and enthusiastic swimmers. Some of them were bred for water rescue and activity, really and truly enjoying the water (generally speaking). Some of these very recognisable breeds are: Retrievers, Spaniels, Setters, the standard poodle, the large Newfoundland, the Portuguese Water Dog, etc. By the way, do you know where the name “poodle” comes from? It comes from “pudeln” which means to “splash” in German. Isn’t that self explanatory?

Many of these breeds have special adaptations, which help them swim: water-shedding coats, webbing between the toes of their feet, strong and long hind legs excellent for kicking water.

On the other hand, other popular breeds of dogs even though they may be trying their best, have bodies that just aren’t built for water. These types of breeds include: Boxers, Pugs, Basset-Hounds, Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, Dachshunds, etc.

Bull dog

Some of them are the so called brachycephalic breeds, with a relatively broad short skull and therefore short noses prone to severe respiratory distress. I mean, I’ve seen Pugs barely breathing on the street on a normal day, let alone adding to that the big effort of keeping themselves afloat.

In particular, this breed has to position her body upright in the water to keep her nose and mouth above the waterline. Once the dog achieves this vertical position, it becomes harder to stay afloat! Same or even worse with a Bulldog, which has a disproportionate excessively large head plus disproportionately short and stubby legs! Even if the dog has a long nose but too short legs like the Dachshund, these may not provide enough power to keep the dog afloat.

Of course, as it is always the case, there are exceptions to the rule. I’ve seen, and couldn’t believe my eyes, dogs that challenge all laws of physics when keeping themselves afloat and even manage to swim to the shore. On the other hand, I’ve personally known Labrador Retrievers who are wary of even the shallowest of puddles, or Nova Scotia Duck tolling retrievers who simply cannot be bothered or even dislike the water!

Psychological factors matter

Mind you, psychological factors may also enter into the equation. A negative first experience with the liquid element may condition your dog’s life relationship with it. As with any new stimuli, a gradual and positive introduction should always be the way. Starting with pleasurable experiences in shallow water, such as throwing a ball/toy or simply playing “catch me” may be all that is needed to build up your dog’s confidence around water.

Not a swimmer

As in the case of people, there is also the possibility that your dog is just not capable (nor sometimes interested) in swimming, especially if your dog belongs to one of the “non-natural-swimmers” breeds mentioned above. These breeds may need a little extra help which may come in the form of a doggy life vest.

Doggy Life Vest

Just as “nautical” people need to be outfitted with the proper gear to keep them safe, so do dogs. If you plan to spend long enough time in or around water, and especially when going kayaking, windsurfing or participating in any other kind of water activity and you plan to bring your dog with you, it goes without saying to please put her in a life vest. If your dog has a low body fat like a Greyhound, please do provide her with a life vest. Senior dogs, dogs with mobility issues, etc. would also require one. Buoyant enough, reflective, proper size and properly fit and with nice lifting handle/s are things to look for in a good life vest.

Golden Retrievers swimmers with lifejackets

It is also important to properly and gradually introduce the life vest to your doggy, starting slowly long before you intend to use it in the water. Even before trying it on, you should show it to your dog and let her have a good sniff followed by some treats. Every presence of the life vest will be paired with a tasty treat, rest the vest on your dog very loosely for a couple of seconds, take it away and treat your dog if she remains calm. Gradually building up the time that you leave the loose-fitting vest on your dog without even attempting to connect the straps.

As long as your dog remains calm you can very gradually build up the time that you leave the vest on. Careful, as what I mean by remaining calm is not the same as freezing in terror! If there’s absolutely no movement, or it even looks as if your dog stops breathing while trying the vest on, stop the training session immediately as it’s very likely that your dog is no longer comfortable with the whole scenario! The next day pick it up from where you left off at the point when your dog felt relaxed enough, and very gradually build the time up for short training sessions during a few more days.

There’s no specific time frame to achieve this, as every dog is different, but in around two weeks without rushing it your dog should have learnt to comfortably wear the life vest strapped around her body. Always make sure that the straps are appropriately tight. Too loose or too tight won’t serve a purpose! Also, regardless of your dog wearing a life vest, act with common sense and never let her unsupervised!

To conclude, not all dogs are built for swimming. Those that are may dislike the water for a number of reasons, whereas for some impossible non-athletic breeds water may act like a magnet. Use common sense, positive reinforcement, be patient and respect your dog’s preferences and learning abilities.