5 min read


Why Dogs Know How To Swim



5 min read


Why Dogs Know How To Swim




'Doggie' paddle is the swimming stroke associated with dogs. When you watch a dog paddle across a pool or see a beginner swimmer do the same paddling movement, this is known as 'doggie' paddle.You may think this is a stroke all dogs just know how to do. This is, however, not entirely true. There are some dogs that can swim because they are natural born swimmers and they swim as part of their training to be retrievers and gun-dogs. There are other dog breeds that do not do well in water because they physically cannot stay afloat and manage to swim. Dogs fit into three categories. Those that swim naturally, those that can be taught to swim, and then a group that will never be able to swim unless life jackets are provided. Many dogs can swim and do so with great excitement and just love the water. They are happy to jump in and 'doggie' paddle around whenever they have an opportunity. These dogs just know how to swim. Other dogs have been known to fall in the water and after a great deal of thrashing around have made it to the other side. This is instinctive survival swimming.

The Root of the Behavior

Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Labradors, Water Spaniels, and the Newfoundland are all among the natural swimming group. They have strong limbs and have been bred to retrieve in the water. Their coats are semi waterproof and their feet slightly webbed. They manage to hold their heads up out of the water as they paddle along confidently. Their movements resemble the walking action they make on land, but a strong front leg paddling movement keeps them afloat. They enjoy being in the water and love to get out and shake their coats to get dry. At the other end of the scale of canine swimmers are the lovable but physically challenged group from an aquatic perspective. The Pug and the Bulldog, for example, are not physically structured to be able to swim. Short legs, short necks, and their facial features do not make them physically geared to swim. The Maltese, Chihuahua, and other small breeds feel the cold and tire easily in the water. Dogs with large heavy chests find it challenging to swim and often dogs panic in the water. Fear, as well as disorientation, can lead to drowning. The ability to manage the ‘survival swim’ is just nature’s way of trying to help an animal in water get to the other side and this is instinctive, but it does not really make the animal a swimmer. Going out into the water voluntarily and swimming around with a purpose is what classifies the 'doggie' paddlers as swimmers. There are dogs that can learn to swim with the right encouragement and if they have the right temperament. Teaching a dog to swim would require patience. It would be important to start with paddling and building confidence since your dog is not going to dive off the pier just because you think all dogs can swim. The results could be disastrous. There are doggie life jackets available to help your dog get used to the idea of swimming. Always make sure your dog knows how to get out of the water via the shallow side or a ramp. Never force your dog into the water if you know they are not natural swimmers. They may thrash about and make it to the side in their survival mode. You will see the fear in their eyes that tells you this is not fun for your dog.

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Encouraging the Behavior

The dogs that know how to swim have had the ancestral backing and through successful breeding are equipped and motivated to swim. They love the water and they enjoy working in water with their owners and trainers. The many tasks they can perform in and around water gives proof to the fact that these dogs can swim confidently. The Newfoundland is a good swimmer and has been known to rescue people in rough seas. The Poodle, thought to be a fashionista, is very comfortable in the water. The Poodle’s name comes from the German word "pudein", meaning splash. The little Schipperke or Belgian Barge Dog live on canals and act as a security guard or pest controller. These dogs are comfortable around water. Watching the Labrador Retriever swim with his strong legs, webbed feet, and a rudder-like tail is sure proof that this breed is a natural swimmer. They take to the water like ducks! These dogs know how to swim. Other dogs may find the need to thrash the water to swim as a survival strategy but they are not great swimmers. Teaching a dog to swim can be rewarding especially if your family outings center around water sports or outdoor places with large stretches of water. Knowing your dog can join in the fun and be water safe is important. Dogs have been seen in the water riding on surfboards and diving off boats, while their owners are enjoying a day out at the beach. It would always be advisable though, in larger areas of water, to get your dog used to a life jacket. It is preferable to be safe than sorry as your dog may have mastered great swimming technique, but large expanses of water can become overwhelming.

Other Solutions and Considerations

Enjoying the outdoors with your dog is a special privilege. Your dog will soon let you know if he is comfortable around water. You may have chosen your dog especially because you wanted a dog that can swim confidently and likes the water. It is a good idea to find out about the breed you have and see if it ranks among the water safe breeds of dog. Teaching your dog to swim if you can see they are not afraid of the water is a bit like teaching a child to swim. They need lots of encouragement and support. Making sure your dog knows the safe way in and out of the water is very important. Then let your dog see you act as a support. Hold him under the tummy as you help him float. Never force the reluctant swimmer! Your dog may take time to get used to the idea that paddling in the water, leading to a little dip, will be a comfortable experience. If swimming is a priority seek some advice and let an animal behaviorist assess your dog’s threshold for water sports. 


‘Doggie paddle’ is a recognized method of swimming for dogs and humans. Some dogs take to water naturally and are trained to be involved in water activities. A Newfoundland, named Whizz, was able to save many people as he was trained to be a lifeguard rescue dog. On one occasion he put his ‘paw patrol’ skills into canine rescue mode and rescued another dog. Bravery combined with natural swimming skills and an inbred love of water makes some dogs swimmers, while others are happy to wag their tails and enjoy the day from the shoreline. 

By a Rhodesian Ridgeback lover Christina Wither

Published: 03/01/2018, edited: 01/30/2020

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