Can Dogs Naturally Swim?

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Introduction

If you're planning on taking your dog to a beach, lake or even pool for the very first time, you might be wondering whether your fur-baby will know how to stay afloat. Before encouraging your pooch to dive right in, however, make sure you're aware that dogs can't naturally swim.

Although our pets respond by "dog paddling" when they find themselves in the water, this shouldn't be taken as proof that your pooch can swim safely or comfortably for any length of time. While some dogs take to swimming like ducks to water, others are the complete opposite and feel much more safe and secure on dry land.

Signs Your Dog Loves Swimming

How can you tell whether your dog is a natural-born swimmer? There's no hard and fast rule that helps determine whether your dog will sink or swim, but there are a few key factors to consider.

Some breeds are simply physically more capable of taking to the water comfortably, usually due to their strong limbs and general athletic ability. There are even breeds that were specifically developed to work in and around water, so it's no great surprise to see dogs like the Newfoundland, Labrador or Portuguese Water Dog splashing about to great delight.

However, even among these breeds that you'd expect to feel right at home in the water, it's not all that uncommon to find a pooch that is eager to avoid getting wet at all costs. These dogs can have a strong fear of the water and panic when submerged, with the panic quickly leading to fatigue and potentially serious trouble. Others are simply all at sea in such an unfamiliar environment, and aren't capable of comfortably staying afloat. 

Low, sturdy breeds like the Bulldog and Dachshund often have trouble keeping their heads above water for any length of time, while delicate and dainty breeds like the Chihuahua may be more competent swimmers but are also susceptible to cold water.

Body Language

Your dog's body language can contain plenty of telltale clues that indicate they don't like the water, such as:
  • Whining
  • Shaking
  • Low tail carriage
  • Back hair on edge
  • Dropped Ears
  • Whimpering

Other Signs

Other signs your dog doesn't like swimming include:
  • Refusing to enter the water
  • Staying as far away from the water as possible
  • Shaking

The Science of the Doggy Paddle

Throughout history, several breeds have been developed and even become highly sought-after for their ability in the water. The Newfoundland, for example, was originally a working dog bred to pull nets for fishermen and deliver lines to shipwrecked vessels. Labrador Retrievers and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers were gundogs developed to retrieve prey in the water, making these just a few of the breeds with a reputation for being adept swimmers.

But how exactly do dogs swim? The very aptly named Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University, and his colleagues decided to study the mechanics behind canine swimming. Released in 2014, their study used eight dogs from six different breeds, with animals ranging in size from the Yorkshire Terrier to the Newfoundland. 

Using a rehabilitation pool for horses at the University of Pennsylvania, the researchers analyzed the dogs' swimming movements and found that they were swimming with a gait similar to a trot on land. This means that diagonal pairs of legs move together, but swimming sees the legs move even faster than when a dog is trotting and have a greater range of motion.

Perhaps the most fascinating finding was that although gaits on land can vary quite markedly between breeds, there was very little variation between the swimming actions of the breeds included in the study.

Teaching Your Dog to Swim

If you want to teach your dog to swim, speak to your vet before you start. This will ensure that you're aware of any health issues that may preclude them from taking to the water, or any physical shortcomings that may limit their swimming ability. 

Next, be aware that even if your dog is perfectly capable of swimming a few laps from a physical perspective, they may be anxious or fearful of venturing into the water. If they've never seen a larger body of water than the bathtub before, or if their only experience of water is at the dreaded bath time, then these fears may be even more pronounced.

As an owner, the key thing to remember is to take it slowly. Don't simply throw your pooch in the deep end and expect them to figure it out as they go; instead, adopt a patient and measured approach for the best chance of success. Encourage your dog to swim by going out into the water yourself and seeing if your pet will follow — if they do, reward them with a treat and plenty of praise.

Other dogs with a strong retrieving instinct can be enticed into the water to fetch a ball or a floating toy, but remember to start in the shallows and progress gradually to deeper water. Just as important is to never force your dog to do anything they're uncomfortable with or frightened of — if they'd rather sit back and watch you from the shore, let them do exactly that.

Staying Safe in and Around the Water:

  • Check the conditions. Before entering the water, check for any potential dangers or obstacles, such as strong currents and riptides.
  • Check the temperature. Check the water temperature before you take a dip, as swimming in extra-cold water could put your dog at risk of hypothermia.
  • Don't drink it. Drinking seawater could make your dog very sick, so make sure your pooch is well hydrated and doesn't feel the need to sip from the ocean.
  • Pool safety. If you've got a swimming pool at home, make sure it's securely fenced and that your pet only swims when supervised. Make sure you teach your dog how to get safely in and out of the water.