How Can You Safely Teach Your Dog To Swim?

Swimming is a low-impact, full-body exercise that’s great for dogs as well as people. Teaching your dog to swim can support their overall health and well-being by improving their cardiovascular fitness and helping them stay physically and mentally stimulated.

But swimming doesn’t just have health benefits. Many dogs (and people!) also have a lot of fun swimming. Teaching your dog this new skill can help strengthen your bond.

All dogs can swim, though some may dive in more readily than others. For a successful (and fun) swimming session, you’ll need plenty of time, patience, and of course, treats!

Read on for expert tips from a dog behaviorist and canine swim coach on how to teach a dog how to swim.

Can All Dogs Swim?

Swimming may come more naturally to sporting and working dog breeds, like NewfoundlandsGolden Retrievers, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Their webbed feet and thick double coats make them stronger swimmers.

On the other hand, brachycephalic breeds like PugsBoston Terriers, and Bulldogs may find swimming more challenging due to their short muzzles and flat faces.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a Bulldog can’t swim or a Golden Retriever will automatically enjoy the water.

To check your dog’s comfort level around water, watch them, suggests Russell Hartstein, a certified dog behaviorist and trainer in Los Angeles and founder of Fun Paw Care.

Is your dog curious and playful? Do they approach the water? If they seem scared, could they be nervous due to new sounds, the water’s texture, or the temperature?

It’s important to consider your dog’s reaction to water before you try teaching them how to swim.

Malamute puppy swimming in pool

Wasitt via iStock

Do Dogs Need Life Jackets?

All new canine swimmers should wear a dog life jacket, recommends Erica Etchason, BS, CPDT-KA, owner of 4 Paws Adrift in Allentown, New Jersey.

Without a life jacket, dogs have to swim fast to avoid sinking. A life jacket can help them keep their head above water without having to paddle as quickly. It also allows them time to get their bearings, learn how to move their feet, and determine the speed they need to go to keep their head above water.

Plus, life jackets can help dogs gain confidence in the water as they play with buoyancy and prevent panicking when their feet start to come off the ground.

When shopping for a life jacket for your dog, Etchason says to choose one that has a good handle and a sturdy leash loop.

To make sure the life jacket is the right size for your dog, check that it doesn’t go beyond the end of their rib cage, is adjustable, and doesn’t restrict your dog’s movement. Their rear end should remain free to move and turn so they can swim safely.

Teaching Your Dog To Swim: Step-By-Step Guide

“All dogs will naturally swim to survive, but if you want swimming to be a fun activity, the dog has to want to swim,” Etchason says.

Here’s how to encourage your dog to dip their paws in.

1. Help your dog adjust to shallow water first

No matter the water environment, you’ll want your dog to feel comfortable and enjoy walking or running in shallow water.

Food and toys make great rewards to encourage dogs to interact with water for the first time, Etchason says. She recommends giving high-value treats for every step your dog takes shallow water.

This will help excite your dog—which can help them launch into swimming on their own, she says. Dogs forced to get into the water can easily end up afraid of swimming.

2. Pick a good spot for swimming

A lake or other natural, shallow body of water makes a great place for canine swimming practice.

“At a natural body of water, a dog can run parallel to shore and gradually play in different water depths to learn how their body feels when they are buoyant,” Etchason explains. “It can take some time and several safe and positive exposures to feel comfortable with their body being buoyant.”

Dogs can also learn to swim in a pool.

Hartstein says it’s helpful to have a graduated incline into the water, such as a kiddie dog pool, so your dog can get used to water slowly and safely.

An ideal spot for your dog’s swimming lessons is a low-stimulus environment that doesn’t cause fear, anxiety, or stress. And of course, having loved ones in the water providing lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement can go a long way.

3. Take it slow

Teaching a dog how to get in and out of the water can build their confidence as they learning how to swim. Etchason recommends showing them how to turn around to go back to shore using a small circle so they know where to put their paws back on land.

Avoid holding them in the water or letting them go too far from shore until they feel confident and comfortable in the water. In the beginning, keep the amount of time your dog spends in the water brief. This will help them get used to having their feet off the ground.

4. Teach them to get out safely

If your dog is learning how to swim in a pool, turn them and show them how to safely get out so they can learn to exit on their own.

Etchason advises against letting them climb out over the side or lifting them out from the side. This will get them out of the water, but it won’t teach them how to do it on their own. Learning how to get out themselves can help them feel safer as they learn to swim.

5. Practice consistently

For new swimmers or dogs who are fearful of water, a good swim session should only last about 20 minutes at a time. “It takes a lot of brain power to get over things that are scary or new,” Etchason says.

She recommends once-a-week sessions until your dog has become more confident in the water. A longer gap between lessons when your dog first learns to swim may delay or even undo their progress.

6. Keep sessions fun

Using food and toys can engage your pup and make their swim sessions a positive experience.

“Even running with your dog in and out or parallel helps them get into their session,” Etchason says. “Also, bringing a water-loving swim buddy is helpful. Some dogs need other dogs to help them feel safe and confident.”

Etchason says a confident dog will move easily in the water with good speed. They’ll also take food or interact with toys.

Frenchie taking a swimming lesson in pool

Kunlathida Petchuen via iStock

How To Keep Your Dog Safe While They Swim

Hartstein shares some tips to prioritize your dog’s safety during their swimming lessons:

  1. Allow your dog the autonomy to come and go as they please. Don’t force them to go further into the water. “We need to allow dogs to have a choice of what to do and when to do it,” he says.
  2. When your dog gets into the water, guide them gently and hold them under their chest or stomach. This will help support them as they practice doggy paddling until they become more comfortable swimming on their own.
  3. If your dog’s life vest has a handle on the back, hold it to help keep your dog’s head above water. This can increase their confidence.

When to take a break

Always supervise your dog while they’re swimming so you can keep them safe at all times in the event they’re tired or stressed.

“Some dogs won’t stop or don’t know when to stop, even when it’s healthy for them to stop,” Hartstein says.

Signs a dog needs a break from swimming include:

  • Fatigue
  • Panting
  • Shaking

If your dog is prone to canine compulsive disorder (CCD) or has trouble resting when they should, Hartstein recommends providing plenty of breaks so they can catch their breath, calm down, and relax.

“We want the pool, lake, or beach to be more of a socializing event and fun time rather than a serious workout with hyperactivity and intense working out,” Hartstein says.

Once your dog is done swimming, make sure to rinse them off and offer plenty of fresh drinking water.

It’s also a good idea to learn basic water rescue and CPR skills and bring along a basic first aid kit, just in case.

In some situations, you may want to get your dog out of the water fast. Generally speaking, if you can lift them up and stand, that’s the best method to help them out, Hartstein says.

Salt toxicity

If your dog is swimming in salt water, it’s important to make sure they don’t drink it. A mouthful or two won’t harm them, but too much salt water can poison your dog.

Salt toxicity can be fatal. It’s important to take your dog to the vet right away if they’ve recently spent time in salt water and develop any of these symptoms:

Tips For Reluctant Swimmers

Even if your dog is afraid of water, you can still teach them how to swim. The key is allowing them to decide for themselves when they’re ready to swim and let them go at their own pace, Hartstein says.

If your dog is already fearful around water, avoid pulling or pushing them in. Instead, try:

  • Using their favorite food, rewards, and toys to make it a fun, enjoyable experience.
  • Teaching them to come to you in the water, then inching deeper and deeper. This can be a fun training exercise that boosts your dog’s confidence and encourages them to start swimming.
  • Staying at a distance just far enough for them to reach you. Offer a treat and inch further away until your dog swims to you.

Just keep in mind that not all dogs will want to swim. Hartstein emphasizes that every dog is an invididual—even so-called “water dogs.”

Hartstein says the biggest problem he encounters is pet parents who want to accelerate their dog’s learning process during swimming lessons.

He stresses the importance of never forcing a dog to do something unless in an emergency. Instead, set up a welcoming water environment by using floats or other objects your dog enjoys playing with. Getting a family member in the water can also encourage your dog to join.

“We just have to remember to be patient, supportive, and encouraging,” Hartstein says. “But in the end, if your dog doesn’t want to swim, that’s OK.”


Once your pup has learned how to swim, the possibilities of tail-wagging fun activities to do together are endless—whether you take a trip to the beach, play water games, or try aquatic therapy.

To find a dog-safe pool near you, research swim facilities that are highly-rated and trusted by fellow pet parents. Don’t forget the dog sunscreen, fresh water for your pal to drink, and towels!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *