Many dogs are afraid of pools, perhaps because they are unable to gauge the depth of the water. People enter pools by navigating steps or diving, and neither approach is canine friendly. Following are suggestions for introducing your puppy to pools:
1. Choose a pool that features a wading area or beach front ramp entrance. This allows the puppy to walk around in the water without having to swim.
2. Attach a leash to the puppy’s collar so you may direct his movement.
3. Consider using a lifejacket as a precaution, especially if your puppy is not bred to swim, or if you are uncertain of your own timing, strength, or mobility. Practice with the life jacket before taking your puppy to the pool. Have him wear the life jacket on a few walks so you are familiar with its fitting ahead of time, and so he may get used to it before going into the water. That said, many dogs swim easily without life jackets.
4. Lure the puppy into the water using high value rewards (food or toys). Separate the act of getting in and out of the pool from the act of swimming. The dog should be proficient at getting in and out of the pool before he is asked to swim. During later lessons, and after successful short swims, practice getting in and out again for a few minutes.
5. Once the puppy is in the wading area, reward him with small, palatable treats like diced chicken for walking with you. (A floating toy may also be used.) A walk in the wading area is a good stopping point for a first session in the pool. At this stage, it is more important to build your puppy’s confidence than to see him swim.
Dogs that walk with stiff legs in the wading area should be allowed to navigate the space at their own pace. Dogs that freeze and refuse food may be picked up and put at poolside after a few minutes if they do not respond to encouragement or the influence of other puppies. Tomorrow is always another day.
6. Once puppies are comfortable in the wading area, encourage them into deeper water, but help them to paddle a small semicircle from the edge into the water, and then back again. Do not ask puppies to swim a lap until they are relaxed leaving the edge of the wading area. One hand on the leash, close to the collar, will help direct a puppy’s path. Puppies should always know how to navigate new spaces safely, whether from in the pool to poolside or from deep water to shallow.
7. For longer swims, place one hand near the collar and one under the dog’s ribcage. Support the sternum and keep the body horizontal. When puppies panic, their bodies incline vertically, and their hindquarters push harder than necessary. Keeping the body horizontal will help the dog relax and learn to trust his ability to float and move forward through the water. Good swimmers relax so thoroughly that they appear to glide through the water. Learning to swim means developing the necessary strength, coordination, and relaxation, and takes practice. Make sure the effort is proportionate to the puppy’s age, stage of physical development, and breed.
8. Keep yourself safe: puppies may scratch you if they come too close, and you may wish to wear water shoes to ensure your stability in the water. Introducing floating toys is great fun, but it’s easy to get nicked by an errant tooth, so keep your eyes open. Animals are unpredictable, and you don’t want the occasional misstep to ruin the fun. Dogs that retrieve water toys but do not yield them easily benefit from practice learning to give up the toy away from the pool.
9. Many people want to control access to the pool when they cannot supervise swims. They worry that dogs will not find their way out if they fall in. If this is the case, consider buying portable stairs (e.g., Skamper Ramp) for pools that do not have wading areas. Pool guards (fences that surround pools) may be a good investment for homes that wish to control access to the pool.
With grateful appreciation to Linda and Ira Fiebert and family (human and canine) for the pleasure and learning their pool has offered us.