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Natural Awakenings

Water Doggies: Given a Pool or Lake, Canines Dive Into Action

Jul 31, 2014 11:35AM ● By Sandra Murphy

photo by Maria Schultz

Water sports for dogs can be done just for fun or to earn recognition. Venues range from a backyard adult or kiddie pool to a lake, river or ocean. All offer healthful exercise for canine bodies and brains.

Some dogs seem born to swim, while others learn to love it and a few make entertaining spectators. It all depends on temperament, breed and body style plus energy and confidence levels, as well as training.

Not all dogs love to swim, says Eileen Proctor, a pet lifestyle expert in Denver, Colorado, so proceed cautiously. “One of the first things to do is buy a properly fitted life jacket that keeps his head out of the water,” she counsels. “Once he is used to wearing it, train him to use steps [like in a pool] to walk into and out of the water every time.”

Michelle Yue, a professional dog trainer in Washington, D.C., takes her dog, Max, to a dog-specific pool twice a month. At the Canine Fitness Center, in Annapolis, Maryland, Max swims in one pool while canine buddies paddle in another. To prevent possible squabbles, company policy allows only samehousehold dogs to swim in the same pool.

Michelle Yue and Max ~ photo by Sam Matlick
Michelle Yue and Max ~ photo by Sam Matlick
“Max is a fetching maniac in the water,” remarks Yue. “He doesn’t like to dive, but if his ball sinks, he’ll go after it. It’s low-impact, high-exercise playtime and the only thing I know that will wear out a 2-year-old German shepherd pup.”

The skill of directed retrieval can be described as advanced fetching. Several toys or dumbbells are placed on the bottom of the pool and the handler tells the dog which item to retrieve. Nautical nosework is the most challenging—five floating objects like tennis balls or dummies are launched into the water by another person. The dog must then find, indicate and retrieve the one ball his person has handled.

Other fun options are teaching a pet to tow a raft in the pool or to team swim with his owner. In a more complex aqua-agility exercise, the dog swims a circle around his owner as a prelude to both of them swimming a synchronized, zigzag course between floating markers before returning to their starting positions.

Ernie, a 95-pound Labrador retriever that lives with Sierra Prause, a marketing assistant, and Jaron Clinton, a search engine content marketer, in Phoenix, Arizona, rides in the storage area of Clinton’s kayak. Ernie came to them at age 4 and has always loved to jump in and swim alongside his owners. “Ernie’s claim to fame is fetchfetching two tennis balls at once,” says Prause. “He wasn’t allowed in the pool at his former home, and now revels in taking a cooling dip after his twice-a-day walks.”

Maria Schultz, author of How to SUP with Your Pup, enjoys stand up paddleboarding with her Australian shepherds, Riley and Kona, on rivers near her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She and Riley learned together in the living room. “I brought the board home and taught Riley how to hop on and off, where to sit or lie on the board, and to relax,” she relates. “I forgot the living room floor stood still. Riley was surprised when he got on the board on the river to find that it moved.” Riley was a good sport about it; within a week, he knew how to ride along.

Kona took several months to get the hang of it. “Have patience, make it fun and all positive,” Schultz advises. “Know what motivates your dog. Riley works for food, Kona for praise.”

For the more adventurous, Loews Coronado Bay Resort, in San Diego, offers one-hour surfing lessons for canine guests. Taught by Coronado Surfing Academy instructors, the only requirement is that a dog enjoys water. Of course, board shorts and a bandana are also provided so that Fido gets the full surfer dude experience.

Enjoying warm weather and cool water with man’s best friend provides perfect fun for these dog days of summer.

Learn more at

Sandra Murphy writes from Missouri. Connect at [email protected].



photo by John Schultz
photo by John Schultz

First, check if area community pools allow dogs for special sessions. Many offer canine swims as fundraisers during off-season periods. Make sure the pet is sociable and wears a life jacket.

The best swimmers include breeds used in water rescue or retrieval, such as the Newfoundland, Labrador retriever, Portuguese water dog, poodle and spaniel, as opposed to those with shorter snouts and airways. The stocky bodies and shorter legs of Scotties and dachshunds are also less conducive to water play.

Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of Veterinary Services at Petplan Pet Insurance, in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, gives three key safety tips: Be alert for signs of tiredness, like trouble staying afloat or struggling to catch their breath; watch for vomiting, diarrhea or fever due to harmful bacteria in some waterways; and don’t let dogs drink from the ocean. Ingested salt water can unbalance electrolytes and lead to dehydration, brain damage, kidney failure and even death.

Pet expert Eileen Proctor recommends dabbing sunscreen on pet noses and ears before swimming and putting on the dog’s life jacket before going into, on or near the water. Always ensure that dogs are well-trained to come when called and leave found items and to take a break to rehydrate and rest.

Supervise swimming dogs closely and make sure they aren’t drinking the water. If a dog hesitates to enter the water, leave his non-retractable leash on to reassure him he has assistance if needed, and stay in the pool with him. Establish a cue for entering and leaving the pool and use it before the dog overtires. Don’t allow a pet to climb the pool’s ladder to exit because a paw could slip, causing injury or panic.

When boating, pull into a secluded area with no running propellers, active paddling or underwater snags, and keep the pet on a non-retractable lead or trained to swim close by. Rinse fur immediately after every swim to remove chlorine, bacteria, dirt or salt, and then dry the dog’s inner and outer ears.

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