Presented by @DogBoyNYC
For many folks, the last weeks of summer mean taking some time to soak up those precious, warm, sunny days! In fact, I am writing this from our riverside campsite in upstate NY where my dog happily frolics in the stream with my wife and daughter. Many dog parents have fantasies of spending the summer playing in the water or swimming with their dogs. Some even hope to go kayaking, or paddle boarding or just have their pooch be that chill beach dog running into the surf occasionally to cool off. It can be a real bummer when you finally get to your destination and your dog refuses to even get close to the water.
Dogs need to have a clear understanding of their surroundings to feel safe. Running into the water may seem crazy to many dogs. Even dogs who have been bred for water, like Labs or Newfoundlands, need some guidance contextualizing the situation and can become traumatized if forced. Luckily, there is a game plan for familiarizing your dog with water and possibly even having your dog love it and become your confident summer sidekick! Whether your dog loves the water, tolerates the water, or is a land lover, here are some guidelines to best support them:
• Begin young if possible. If this is no longer an option don’t worry, this approach will work on older dogs as well. Puppies go through a developmental stage called the Critical Socialization Period (2-16 weeks of age). During this time, pups learn what is safe and unsafe in the big, exciting world around them. At around 4 months or so, they will become increasingly unsure of things that are unfamiliar. Early puppyhood is a great time to show them how fun and safe water is.
• Start slow and go at your dog's pace. Many dog’s first experience with water is getting a bath, which may involve having water poured over their head while being held still in the tub, or sprayed with the cold hose in the yard. If their introduction into water is negative, it will likely be filed into the ‘unsafe’ category in the dog's mind. Instead, try introducing water slowly with a positive approach. Start with about an inch of water in the tub. Praise and reward your dog for exploring the shallow still water. You may also want to smear a little peanut butter on the side of the tub at about nose height.
Over the next few days, repeat this process increasing the amount of water in the tub little by little. The speed at which you can progress will vary from dog to dog. If your dog seems fearless with water, then great! But if they are a bit apprehensive, slow down and give them time to assess the situation. If you are consistent and patient, your pup could be hopping into the tub happily in no time.
• Never use force. Lakes, rivers, and streams should be approached similarly to bathtubs, but avoid pulling them into the water and allow them to escape if they want to get out. Knowing the way out is an important part of getting comfortable with the water. Your pup may not feel safe enough to actually swim and will likely still need to feel the bottom. Eventually with your positive support and encouragement they may venture deeper and start to swim.
• Be patient and provide positive reinforcement. Not all dogs are natural swimmers and safety is always most important! Swimming is a complex behavior and will need practice. You can support your dog by supporting them under the belly with your forearms much the way you might support a child learning to swim. Dogs will often explore deeper water once they feel safe and want to come to where you are.
• Build your dog's confidence one step at a time. As for pools, your progress may be faster if you have done some preliminary exposure in the tub. Take some time and allow your dog to sniff around and investigate the edge of the pool. You can get in the pool and encourage them to enter onto the first steps of the pool. If they have had positive experiences in the tub you can likely pick them up and place them on the first step. Let your dog hang out there for a bit before progressing deeper. Some dogs will take a few minutes, and some may take a few days. Always go at your dog's pace and never force them into the water. The ocean is a lot of fun and some dogs love to play in the surf! However, going into the ocean will require a dog who is already a strong and confident swimmer.
• Keep it fun for both you and your dog!