Why Some Dogs Can'T Swim



Many people operate under the assumption that all dogs can naturally swim. Though it is true that all dogs carry some instinctive ability to paddle, this doesn’t always translate to the ability to swim and move easily in the water. If you have a dog with a disproportionately large head or short legs, you might have already found this out the hard way. Not all dogs who like playing in shallow water can swim, either. You and your dog might enjoy long walks on the beach or by the lake, and your dog might like to splash around and get its paws wet. It might be confusing then when your dog expresses fear or nervousness around your pool. If you have or know a landlubber dog that doesn’t swim, here are some reasons it prefers to keep its paws on the ground. 

The Root of the Behavior

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and some of these shapes are not ideal for swimming. No matter how much a dog may instinctively try to paddle, its facial structure and anatomy may prevent it from effectively keeping above the water. These factors are determined exclusively by breed. Some breeds, most notably the various types of water dogs, were bred to swim and hunt game out of the water. These dogs have ideal body structure, coat type, and facial structure for swimming. The Bulldog, Pug, Dachshund, Pekingese, Basset Hound, and Boxer are some of the most popular breeds of dogs who are generally unable to swim due to their anatomy and facial structure. Additionally, dogs with ideal anatomy might struggle to keep afloat if they have heavy, thick fur coats. Some anatomical traits that all non-swimming dogs share are flat and short muzzles, disproportionally large and heavy heads, and disproportionately short and stubby legs. Dogs that have flat and broad faces like the Pug or Bulldog have to position their bodies upright in the water in order to keep their noses and mouths above the waterline. Once fully or partly vertical in the water, it becomes immensely more difficult to stay afloat. Dogs with disproportionately large heads have a similar issue, in that they must position themselves awkwardly or work extra hard to keep their heads above the waterline. If a dog has short and stubby legs, it may not matter the shape or size of their head, their legs may not provide enough power to keep them afloat at all! Of course, since all dogs are born with the instinctual ability to paddle when their legs hit water, there are exceptions to the general rule. Some dogs that shouldn’t be able to swim are somehow intuitively able to find a way. Conversely, some dogs that should be perfectly capable of swimming seem to have a natural dislike for water and will avoid it simply because they do not want to get wet. These cases are exceptions, and not the rule, but it is worth considering that some dogs are able to overcome their natural disadvantages, and others are repelled enough by water that they will refuse to swim.

Encouraging the Behavior

If your dog is unable to swim, you will need to watch and be wary of your dog when it is around water. You can test and see if your dog is capable of swimming without much consequence by holding it above water or setting it in shallow water, as long as you are right there and immediately able to react if your dog shows signs of struggling. If you have a pool in your backyard and want to enjoy it without worrying about your dog falling in, there are precautions that you can take, such as using a life vest built for dogs, or making sure that there are no objects floating in the water that your dog might be attracted to. It is generally a good idea to leave your non-swimming dog alone when it comes to the water, but some dogs who are not natural swimmers can learn to swim over time. If you want to introduce your non-swimming dog to the idea of learning to swim, do so very slowly, and always let your dog back onto land when it is scared. Allowing your dog to approach the water naturally and at its own pace is the only way to ensure that it feels safe and comfortable with the idea of learning to swim. In all cases of dogs in water, be sure that your dog is updated on all of its vaccinations and medications. Some waterborne parasites could cause problems for your dog if it isn’t properly vaccinated.

Other Solutions and Considerations

Some dogs resist the idea of swimming because of a traumatic experience that they have associated with water. You cannot force some dogs to swim; their body types or facial structure simply may not render them physically capable of it. Dogs who are repeatedly forced to try and swim or even those that experience a single negative event may for the rest of their lives experience extreme stress and anxiety around water. If you adopt a dog who has a fear of the water, be extra careful not to make their fears or traumas worse. In some cases, you may be able to train a dog to move past its fear of water with the assistance of a vet, but the process is difficult, and should only be considered if you have a pool or know that your dog will regularly be exposed to bodies of water.


The belief that all dogs can swim may put your dog in an uncomfortable, or even life-threatening situation. You should make it a point to know how your dog will react in or around water, that way you can make sure that your dog lives a long and happy life. Even if your dog doesn’t swim, it still might enjoy being with you in the water, so if nothing else, strap a life vest onto your dog before you send it up river without a doggie paddle.