Dog Swimming Lessons And Safety
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Dog Swimming is great fun and exercise for your dog. Swimming can also be used to rehabilitate injuries, and is good exercise for older dogs with arthritis and hip dysplasia. I think all dogs should learn how to swim. Dogs need to learn so that you have an alternate way of exercising them, especially if you live in a hot climate, and in case your dog falls in water your dog won’t drown.
Last year, I was discussing dog swimming lessons for a student’s Doberman. A friend of hers came home to a tragedy one day: her pit bull was dead, floating at the bottom of the backyard pool. This kind of thing happens more frequently than you might think. Dogs need to learn basic swimming skills in order to be safe around water. Dogs know nothing about water safety, so it is our job to train and supervise them around water. It is also mandatory to construct a safe environment if we are to have a backyard pool. And if we live near a natural body of water, whether a lake, ocean or river, to ensure our dogs will take commands, and if we are not around, to for them to have some skills so they can get back to safety. None of this comes naturally. It is our job to make sure all this comes together.
Training Your Dog To Swim
The MOST important dog swimming lesson doesn’t happen in the water. It happens in the dog’s obedience lessons. If a dog isn’t mannerly and obedient on land, then the dog will be even less mannerly and obedient in water. Therefore, any dog that might be expected to ever swim must be skilled enough to do competent off leash obedience. A dog that won’t reliably come when called on land, won’t come when called when in the water. A dog that chases live animals on land will chase birds and other animals into the water… and even off a cliff into water. A dog that defies you on land will defy you in water. A dog that can’t take directional commands, left or right, can’t take directional commands in water, so you can’t point them to where the safest place is to get out of water. A dog that is bratty with kids or adults in the home, can cause a child or adult to drown in water. A dog that isn’t well socialized on land, won’t suddenly get confidence to not swim away in terror when in the water. A dog that can’t surmount obstacles on land can’t swim around obstacles (trees, seaweed, reeds, floating ice, floating debris) in water. A dog that will fetch and not bring a toy or dead animal back, will fetch objects or dead animals in water and not come back to shore and possibly swim away or drown. And a dog owner that doesn’t have the experience and ability to command their dog off leash, around distractions, will not be able to lead a dog to safety or demand a dog in water to come back.
Dogs that have never gone swimming don’t know how to swim. They do have some genetic preprogramming to paddle the water if they fall in, but that isn’t the same thing as knowing how to swim. Thus, all dogs need to be properly introduced to water. There are a variety of techniques to do this, and the correct way will depend upon the temperament of the dog, and the type of water (lake, salt water, river, pool, etc.). Some dogs are more natural “water dogs” and will jump right in without any coaxing. Most others are more hesitant, and need help. And some dogs absolutely detest the water, and must be made to learn how to swim for their own safety.
Yes, some dog trainers, such as myself, teach dog swim classes in the summer. If you can find such a class in your town, then enroll your dog so that the skills are properly taught. And remember, it is going to be important to complete your dog’s obedience lessons before you enroll your dog in formal dog swimming classes.
A novice dog should never be thrown in the water to force them to swim; or have a fetch toy tossed in the water for them to either get or refuse to get; or be encouraged to just jump in without anyone thinking in advance if the dog is ready. I know of an 8 week old Miniature Schnauzer that was called into the pool by the owner’s brother in law, partly as a joke. The guys had been doing a lot of physical labor that day, and so they jumped into the pool at the end of the day to cool off. Well, that pup ran with all her might and jumped in. She breathed in water… and the bacteria that was floating on top of the water from their sweat, and got a bad, very expensive case of pneumonia. Some joke. The puppy was in the hospital for over 2 weeks. In addition, dogs need to be in good cardiovascular shape in order to have the endurance to swim for any length of time, otherwise they will easily get exhausted and drown. I’ve seen novice dogs not be able to swim much more than 5 minutes before they start getting desperate. And a dog that is desperate is afraid, and will bite you hard if you attempt to touch or grab them while swimming.
There should be no running games with a dog in the pool area. Just like kids need to be taught that running games on and around water are unsafe, so should your guests be informed that it is dangerous to get a dog too excited and running around the pool area.
Dogs need some very specific skills for dog swimming in home pools, such as being taught to stay out of the pool and pool unless given permission to go in; learning where to enter the pool and how to get out; coming when called and getting out of the water on command; and how to calmly swim and not panic.
If you have multiple dogs, then every one should be very well trained before they are allowed to swim together. I know of a young Labrador Retriever that was bullied into a river by two Newfoundlands. The Newfoundlands kept dunking the puppy over and over again in the water, for over a half hour, traumatizing the puppy. The bigger dogs would not listen to the owner to come back, and the river was too dangerous for the owner to go into and get his dogs. Also, it is possible for dogs to encounter wildlife in the water. Raccoons are known to swim into water and drown dogs. Sea lions can attack a dog. Killer whales could kill a dog. Some birds could mob a dog and cause it to drown. And boaters can’t always see a dog, and could run over and kill your dog.
Some dogs are terrible swimmers. Some dogs should never even get in a pool because they will sink and drown. When on the water, such as in a boat on a large lake or the ocean, then it would be wise to fit all dogs with a specially made life jacket. Yep, they make such things.
It is best to do a step by step program of introducing all dogs to water, so that they don’t become afraid, and so that something bad doesn’t happen. Then, the training of water skills can commence. Dogs need to be taught to be mannerly around the water, and in the water. Dogs also need to be taught to obey around the water and in the water. And the people who will be expected to be around the water need to be supervised and trained so as to manage the dogs properly. There are a number of fundamental skills a dog needs to learn in order to be considered ready for some regular swimming, and some specific skills depending upon the type of water they are going to be around.
Dogs drown in pools all the time. It doesn’t make the news, but living in the Phoenix area, I’ve heard a number of gruesome stories. So, here are some of the basic pool safety rules for dogs and owners
1.) Supervise Dogs As If They Were Small Children: The same pool safety rules that apply to children apply to dogs. Just like you hear that kids will silently drown in a pool, even when surrounded by a group of people, a dog will silently slip under water and drown if you aren’t being vigilant. So, someone needs to be assigned to be a dog’s supervisor when the dog is allowed into the pool area. And if the supervisor leaves the pool area, the dog needs to be out of the water and out of the pool area, too. Even if it is for just a few minutes. And just like kids can get too tired, so can dogs. So, you have to learn their stamina level, and keep an eye on how well they are swimming, and when they’ve had enough. Guests need to be told when the dog has had enough, and to not toss a toy again in the water for the dog to retrieve.
2.) Learn Some Basic Dog First Aid: Every dog home should have a dog first aid kit, and those who are supervising the dog need to know where it is and how to rescue a drowning, drowned, or injured dog. Dogs can slip and fall, break bones, get cut on glass, drink alcoholic drinks, chew on pool implements and swallow pieces, or get into pool chemicals. Talk to your veterinarian. See if there are any classes available. Some fire departments are starting to learn how to work with injured dogs, and it might be possible to attend these classes, too.
3.) Make Sure You Tell Everyone The Safety Rules: Not only should the family have a good idea of what can and shouldn’t be done with the dog, so too, should you inform guests before they enter the pool area what you allow with your dog. That includes not allowing the dog to drink a lot of pool water. Dogs need a separate water bowl in the pool area filled with normal drinking water. And dogs shouldn’t be swimming on a full stomach of food because of the risk of bloat / torsion. So, wait at least 3 hours after a meal before letting your dog swim.
4.) Learn How To Swim: I have never met a healthy person that couldn’t benefit by being in a swimming pool. Yet, every family has someone who doesn’t know how to swim. You should NEVER have a person supervise the dog around or in the pool, if that person doesn’t know how to swim. If the dog somehow endangers another person or animal in the pool, then someone needs to be able to jump in and save that person or animal. And if the dog needs rescuing in the pool, then that person needs to be able to jump in and save the dog. Even if you don’t have a dog, if any person that is ever to be around a pool should know how to swim. Swimming isn’t that hard to learn, classes are fun, and once you have the basics, pools become very enjoyable.
5.) Build A Good Pool: Living in Phoenix, AZ, I see a lot of pools. Some are well made, safe, and are managed well. Others are poorly made, completely unsafe, and are a mess. If you are going to own a pool and a dog, then it is time to hire a pool expert to perform a professional pool inspection, and let them know that part of what you are concerned with is your dog’s safety, and your family’s safety with the dog. For example…
a.) Hidden underwater features, such as built-in cement stools or seating platforms might be cool for humans, but if a dog jumps into a pool and lands on that feature, the dog could break a leg and drown.
b.) Unsafe underwater suction drains have caused children to drown, and new laws require them to be of a different design. Such a drain could also kill a dog that liked to swim to the bottom of the pool to retrieve toys.
c.) Slippery swimming pool decks could be a problem if a dog races past a person and causes someone to fall. Pool decks can get VERY HOT and burn your dog’s feet. Remember, they aren’t wearing sandals like you are. The new decks are designed to not get burning hot, and dogs need a shady, comfortable place so they don’t overheat. Just because you are cool in the water doesn’t mean a dog has enough sense to go in and cool off, so the dog needs a shaded spot on the deck for their comfort.
d.) Pool furniture needs to be pet safe. Dogs shouldn’t be tethered to pool furniture. The furniture needs to be sturdy, too.
e.) Fencing needs to keep the dog inside the pool area when swimming, and outside the pool area when the dog isn’t supposed to be in the swimming area. Fencing is often required by law, so make sure yours is in compliance.
f.) Certain pool surfaces and pool decks can be damaged by a dog’s nails. Is your pool ready for your dog?
g.) Install spring loaded, locking gates.
h.) New, high tech detection devices and pool alarms should be installed: motion detector lights; water motion detection alarms to notify you if the dog is in the pool with no one around; security cameras; web cameras which you can log into from your phone or computer when away from the home. You can even purchase collar alarms for dogs which will notify you if your dog falls in the water or is submerged.
i.) Many dogs can climb chain link fences, and some wooden fences can be broken down by a very determined dog. Discuss better fencing systems with your pool professional
j.) Consider landscaping risks. Some plants are poisonous. Here in Arizona, I see cactus planted inside the pool areas, which could impale some dogs. Some plants will attract bees, again a serious danger living in the Southwest (since we have Africanized bees which can swarm and kill a human or dog). Plant pots can fall over if bumped into, not only pouring all that dirt into your pool, but also a tripping / falling hazard. It is also important to use pet safe fertilizers and pest control products. Dogs will dig in planters and consume dangerous chemicals in the process, so look into organic solutions, and consult with your veterinarian about poisoning risks. Remember, dogs aren’t ever going to be wise or careful like humans.
k.) Install a dog safety pool ramp so your dog has an easier time exiting. Often times, the steps are just too high for the dog to navigate, especially if a smaller dog accidentally falls into the water and can’t jump out. Above ground pools have ladders that dogs can climb, so those need to either be removable or somehow enclosed so the dog can’t get in the pool without anyone knowing.
l.) Dog water toys should always be put away when you aren’t playing with your dog. You don’t want a dog to be tempted to jump in the water without you seeing. And loose toys on the pool deck are a tripping / falling hazard. Have a storage area for all pool toys, both human and dog.
m.) Pool covers should be installed so that the dog can’t get in the water, if no one is around, even if the dog gets into the pool area. Pick a durable cover that can support the weight of your dog.
n.) Dogs should be taught to stay off diving boards. If you want the dog to learn to jump into the pool, it should be from a safe point at the side of the pool, or the dog should be taught to climb down the steps into the pool.
o.) Routine maintenance should be done on all pools. Especially if there is a dog. Have a plan and be proactive.
p.) Dogs SHOULD NOT be encouraged to get into a hot tub. They can’t handle the heat and will die. Be sure to keep covers on hot tubs when not in use.
r.) Pool vacuums can be dangerous for dogs to play with, and dogs can get tangled or trapped behind the floating pipe. All of that should be moved out of the way before a dog is put into the pool to swim.
s.) If your pool is attracting wasps, then hire a pest company to find the wasp nest and have it removed so your dog isn’t stung.
t.) Lap pools can be used for your dog, too
u.) Good landscape design is a necessity. Think about safety.
v.) Your pool house should be designed to be pet safe. Just like a home needs to be child proofed, same with a pool house if a dog is going to be inside.
w.) Pools are becoming a backyard oasis for family recreation. So, it is only natural for the pool and backyard to be pet friendly.
x.) If you have a poolside barbeque, consider pet safety, as well. That means food will be around, and some foods aren’t safe with pets. Fire isn’t safe for pets, either, so a open fire pit isn’t a good idea when you own a dog.
y.) Pools should be designed for people with disabilities. If you go to resell, it will make the pool more valuable. But also, the dog needs to be taken into consideration so that the person with the disability isn’t at greater risk having the dog in the pool area. Since this is a complicated topic, what should or shouldn’t be constructed has to be considered on a case by case basis.
I totally approve of, and encourage all pool owners, boaters, and swimmers to teach their dogs to swim. I also approve of teaching dogs to safely swim in your pool, a lake, the ocean or a river. You just need to be wise about how to go about it.
Sad Story Update…
I received this post from a friend on Facebook the other day: “This is a very sad story on Easter weekend, that we in Arizona see this much too often. This morning our neighbor’s 12 week old Mini Schnauzer puppy fell into the family backyard pool and accidentally drowned. The pool is fenced but somehow little ____ found an opening. Our entire neighborhood is just crushed. Please…. Always watch your kids and pets around water. 🙁”
Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.
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