Can All Dogs Swim? - Breeds Better Suited to Water

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: November 21, 2018
Can All Dogs Swim? - Breeds Better Suited to Water

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When walking along the beach or hanging by the swimming pool, many will have seen how excited a dog will get around water. They appear to know how to swim naturally without us having to train them to do so. Canine affinity with water is so strong, we have named a style of swimming after dogs known as the doggy paddle. But, can all dogs swim?

Unfortunately, not all dogs have the ability to swim, but this is not always due to the breed. The diversity of morphology (body structure) across different dog breeds is vast. This means not all dogs may be as capable at certain tasks, even if we can see many examples of small dogs swimming. While some breeds may be better suited to water, whether a dog can swim depends on the individual dog's ability. Here AnimalWised looks further into dogs and swimming, as well as how to keep your pet safe around water.

Can dogs swim naturally?

If you hold a small dog over water, even if they have never been near water before, you may see their legs start to kick back and forth as if they are about to swim. This is a natural instinct which is likely coded into their genetics due to the necessity for their ancestors to swim. However, it does not mean that they necessarily will be able to swim once they are in the water.

The kicking movements are a reflex used by the dog to feel stable. This is a similar reflexive movement to closing their eyes if an object approaches or when a hungry puppy calls their mother. Once in the water, many dogs will use this reflex to propel them along, usually in a similar motion to walking on land. Certain dogs may take to the water quickly and be natural swimmers. Others may have the ability to swim, but cannot do it immediately. They might need training and experience to develop these skills.

Some dogs may be very poor swimmers and will not be able to stay afloat. There are various reasons why a dog might be a poor swimmer, including:

  • Age: older dogs with little previous water experience may find it difficult to swim. This may be exacerbated by various joint conditions which often accompany the aging process.
  • Health: a dog's general health will affect how well they fare in thew water. Respiratory disease, injuries, hip dysplasia, wobbler disease and other conditions can lead to poor swimming ability.
  • Breed: the breed of a particular dog can affect whether they can swim. Some dogs, may have longer front or hind legs which make it difficult to create the movement needed for propulsion through water. Others may not have the stamina to meet the exercise level needed for swimming. The ability to swim within a given breed may vary animal to animal.

The breed of dog can affect swimming due to particular shared characteristics or due to health problems common to the breed. For example, many German Shepherd dogs suffer from something known as degenerative myelopathy[1] which causes their back legs to malform, leading to poor swimming ability. Not all suffer this problem, so it is possible for a GSD to be a strong swimmer.

Brachycephalic dog breeds are those with a head shape which can lead to respiratory, choking, eye and other problems. Their airways are often restricted making it difficult to breathe at the best of times. Being submerged in water can make this even more difficult. Bulldogs are a brachycephalic breed and are generally not strong swimmers. This is partly due to their physical build and their propensity to joint problems. Brachycephalic dogs can sometimes struggle to get enough oxygen when exercising, so it it imperative they are accompanied near water in case they pass out and drown.

Can All Dogs Swim? - Breeds Better Suited to Water - Can dogs swim naturally?

Dog breeds which find it difficult to swim

There are some dogs which are recognized for their strong swimming ability. Many of them have even been bred to develop these traits and become water dog breeds. Water dogs are those which are well suited to swimming. They may have longer limbs to help them paddle as well as webbed feet for the same purpose. Even their coat is often adapted to water by having a waterproof undercoat to protect them from cold sea environments. Water rescue dogs are so well adapted to swimming they are used by lifeguards to save lives.

When a dog swims, they get a different kind of exercise to walking or running on land. It reduces the strain on certain parts of their body and stretches out others. It has even been discovered that swimming can greatly improve the symptoms of certain joint conditions such as osteoarthritis[2]. Swimming may even be used as a preventative measure in breeds with a greater chance of developing such problems.

Even breeds which are not normally good swimmers can use water to help them with fitness levels. However, they will need supervision and have particular safety requirements. Breeds which are generally not strong swimmers include:

  • Boxer
  • Dachshund
  • Basset Hound
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • English Bulldog
  • Bichon Frise
  • Corgi
  • Pug
  • Shih Tzu
  • Maltese
  • Greyhound
  • Whippet
  • Pekingese
  • Chow Chow
  • American Bulldog
  • Chihuahua
  • Yorkshire Terrier
  • Pomeranian

Teaching a dog to swim

While a dog will not necessarily be a natural swimmer, this doesn't mean they don't have potential. With the correct training you may be able to help your dog get used to the water and enjoy a different type of exercise. Here are some tips to help your dog to enjoy the water.

  • Take the dog to an appropriate pool. Make sure you have permission for the dog to enter the water as many public swimming pools will not allow it. Also ensure you are wearing something appropriate so that you can enter the water yourself.
  • Give the dog a special dog life vest. This will help keep the dog afloat even though they are not yet able to swim.
  • Start by seeing if the dog will enter the water of their own accord. Do not force them to get in and certainly don't surprise them and throw them in. This can cause serious aversion and lead to trauma.
  • Get in the water yourself and bring some treats with you. Try to coax the dog into the water with treats, but be there to reassure them if they are uncomfortable. Let them sniff the side of the water and become used to it.
  • If the dog does not enter of their own accord, lift them onto a step which is covered by water, but which they can still stand up in. Steps or swimming pool ramps are essential to not overwhelm the dog.
  • Try to encourage the dog to enter the water. If they don't get in themselves, you can gently lift them in and place them in the water. Hold onto their vest as they paddle so they stay buoyant.
  • Let go, but remain close and let them paddle. If they panic, you can pick them up again. Let them paddle for a very short distance and then bring them to the side and lift them out. This will help them realize they are indeed able to get out of the water safely.
  • Repeat this a few times and stop the training session if they are becoming stressed. If they respond well, you can bring them into the water a little bit and hold them as they paddle. You can let them paddle on their own, but ensure you reassure them you are there to pick them up.
  • Once they become confident they can swim with the life vest, you can try them without it. Again, ensure you are with them and are able to catch them and reassure them.

Once your dog gets used to the water, they will be be able to swim on their own. Ensure you always have somewhere for them to get out and don't ever let them feel trapped. You can encourage them with toys by throwing them a little further ahead in the water and always use positive reinforcement to encourage them. One of the best tips to help your dog learn to swim is to have other more experienced dogs present to show them how its done. If you have access to water dogs, this would be ideal.

If your dog is one of the breeds which cannot swim as well, then be extra careful. Don't push them and if they look at all like they might be getting too tired or overheated, stop the training. While swimming can be a wonderful and happy activity to share with your dog, it won't be for everyone. Small dog breeds are generally not good swimmers, but this doesn't mean you can't attempt it. You just have to be patience and careful.

Can All Dogs Swim? - Breeds Better Suited to Water - Teaching a dog to swim

Can dogs dive underwater?

Since the doggy paddle is such a well-known movement for dogs, you might think this is the only way they can swim. While a dog's body structure won't allow them to do the butterfly, they are able to swim underwater, although not for very long.

When a dog dives into the water, it is usually more of a belly flop. However, once a dog becomes more confident, they may be able to go underwater for short periods of time. Some dogs may develop this skill on their own, but others can be taught it once they have learned how to swim.

You can do this by playing with them using a weighted toy (i.e. one that can sink to the bottom of the pool). Get them to retrieve the toy on the ground. Use positive reinforcement and treats to encourage them. Once they have become attached to the toy, you can throw it into the pool and get them to retrieve it. This will take patience and practice and the breed of dog will have a large bearing on their ability to swim under the water. They will need to be strong dogs with longer limbs. Small dog breeds will have a lot of trouble getting underwater.

No dog will be able to hold their breath for a long period of time and they will be unlikely to swim long underwater, Still, it is possible for some dogs to dive and they can find it a rewarding and fun game. Only use relatively shallow pools and deep pools can increase the possibility they drown.

If you want to read similar articles to Can All Dogs Swim? - Breeds Better Suited to Water, we recommend you visit our Sports category.


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