Are Dogs Natural Swimmers?

Although many owners are nervous about their dog going for a swim, most dogs are natural and strong swimmers. This really shouldn’t be that surprising; after all, there is a swimming stroke (the dog paddle) named after them.

In fact, thanks to their relatively large lungs, fur and subcutaneous fat layers, which all provide the buoyancy needed to float, most mammals can swim from birth. The great apes (including humans) are one of the most famous exceptions, although giraffes may also lack natural swimming ability – we don’t know because it is a hard thing to test.

But just because most dogs are good swimmers doesn’t mean they all are, nor does it mean that dogs never run into problems and drown. So, while swimming is a great activity that most dogs love, you’ll need to take your pet’s breed into consideration and embrace good water safety practices.

Breeds that Are Strong Swimmers

Some breeds simply love the water and are capable of paddling around as though they were born there. This doesn’t mean that every individual of these breeds likes swimming, but most of the breeds listed below are eager and skilled swimmers.

  • Labrador retriever
  • Chesapeake Bay retriever
  • Flat-coated retriever
  • Curly coated retriever
  • Golden retriever
  • Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever
  • Newfoundland
  • Vizsla
  • Weimaraner
  • Standard poodle
  • Portuguese water dog
  • Spanish water dog
  • English setter
  • Irish setter
  • Otterhound
  • Boykin spaniel
  • Irish water spaniel
  • Cocker spaniel
  • American water spaniel
  • Lagotto Romagnolo
  • Barbet
  • Schipperke

Breeds that Are Poor Swimmers

On the other side of the coin, some dogs are extremely poor swimmers, who will struggle to keep afloat and may even drown if forced to swim. Accordingly, the following breeds should be considered poor swimmers and you must take extra precautions when near the water:

  • English bulldog
  • French bulldog
  • Pug
  • Pekingese
  • Boxer
  • Basset hound
  • Daschshund

Additionally, some pit bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers occasionally experience problems swimming, although others love the water and swim as well as any retriever. Those with large heads and particularly muscular chests will tend to struggle the most, while with more run-of-the-mill bodies will usually swim well.

Characteristics That Distinguish Strong Swimmers from Weak Ones

While the previous lists identify some of the best and worst swimmers among dogs, they aren’t very helpful for those with unlisted breeds or mixed-breed dogs. Fortunately, there are a few general characteristics, which can provide clues to your dog’s likely swimming ability. Of course, you’ll never know until you let your dog try to swim, but the following traits suggest that a dog will not be a good swimmer.

Brachycephalic Breeds

Brachycephalic breeds are those dogs that have shortened faces. Some of the best examples include pugs, bulldogs and boxers. Brachycephalic breeds often have trouble keeping their nostrils above the surface, which can cause them to inhale water, with potentially disastrous results.

Breeds with Short Legs

Because dogs rely on their legs to propel themselves through the water, those with relatively long legs are generally among the strongest swimmers. By contrast, those with short legs –bulldogs, dachshunds, basset hounds and others – often struggle to move forward, even if they float well.

Breeds with Large Heads

English bulldogs and other dogs who have exceptionally large heads relative to their bodies often make poor swimmers. The heavy nature of their heads forces them to lean back while swimming, which is a much less effective posture than the typical horizontal position strong-swimming breeds employ.

Thin or Docked Tails

While many dogs can still swim despite having essentially no tail, most of the strongest swimmers have long, deep, otter-like tails. This shape serves as a great rudder, and helps many breeds to steer themselves through the water. Lacking this, some dogs struggle to keep a true course, which can cause them to wander into dangerous places.

Exceptionally Muscular Breeds

Much of a dog’s swimming ability is determined by its buoyancy. Labrador retrievers, for example, have relatively slight shoulders, and swim well. By contrast, many bulldogs, pit bulls and American Staffordshire terriers have body-builder-like shoulders and chests, which present problems. Because muscle weighs more than fat these dogs often struggle to stay afloat, and their front-heavy design causes them balance problems too.

The Benefits of Swimming for Dogs

Swimming is actually a very beneficial activity, which can provide dogs with a number of physical, mental and emotional benefits. Accordingly, it is generally wise to give strong-swimming dogs as many opportunities to go for a swim as is possible.

Burning Calories

Swimming is hard work and dogs can burn a ton of calories while taking a dip in your pool or at the local pond. This is not only helpful for keeping your dog healthy and in good shape, but by providing sufficient exercise, you will likely notice improvements in your dog’s behavior and obedience as well. Although there isn’t much data available for dogs, we know that humans burn about 25 percent more calories swimming than they do running a similar length of time.

Low-Impact Exercise

Swimming isn’t just a great exercise, it is an exercise that is relatively easy on your dog’s bones and joints. This can be especially important for dogs with high energy levels, who are of advanced age or have physical ailments that prevent them from being able to run or walk like most other dogs.

Mental Stimulation

Swimming not only provides an outlet for physical activity, it helps to challenge and stimulate your dog’s brain too. This is especially true of dogs that have just begun swimming and are still learning the ins and outs of the activity. Playing games like fetch or training dogs water-retrieval skills can help provide even more stimulation, which most dogs enjoy greatly.

Automatic De-Shedding

Swimming in the water for a while will help get rid of some of your dog’s fur that is ready to be shed. This can be a big help for those breeds that are known for being heavy shedders, such as German shepherds. If you want to maximize this benefit, consider brushing your dog with a shedding brush after drying her off.

Fun

Aside from all of the health and mental benefits swimming provides dogs, you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that swimming is simply a fun activity for many dogs. And because you presumably want your dog to enjoy a high quality of life, it just makes sense to let them swim as often as is possible.

Great Water-Based Activities for Dogs

Now that you understand the benefits of letting your dog swim (assuming she is well-suited for swimming), you may want to explore some of the best games and activities to play during water time. The following activities are some of the most effective ways of maximizing your dog’s water-enjoying experience.

Free Swimming

You don’t really have to do anything special with some dogs to help encourage them to swim and enjoy the water. They are content simply swimming around, often while biting the splashes they create. In fact, some dogs will effectively swim “laps” at the pool or local watering hole, while simply enjoying the chance they get to swim.

Fetch

If your dog requires a little more interaction to enjoy swimming time, simply turn it into a game of fetch. Many dogs will love retrieving floating toys that you hurl out into the water. Be careful not to throw your dog’s toy too far when doing so and only play these types of games with dogs who are strong swimmers, as they’ll have to keep their mouth partially open while retrieving the toy. Labrador retrievers and other strong swimmers will do so easily, but others may find it too challenging to keep water from going in their mouths.

Dock-Jumping

Dock-jumping or dock-diving, as it is also called, is a competitive sport in which dogs take a running start and try to jump as far into the water as is possible. While not all dogs are cut out for these types of games, many others seem born for it. If you like, you can even enter your dog in dock-jumping contests that are common throughout the warm months of the year.

Surfing or Paddle Boarding

If you like to surf or paddle board, there’s a decent chance your dog will enjoy the activity as well. Despite the somewhat comical appearance of a dog standing on a surf board, many seem to love it and eagerly look forward to trips to the beach. Just be sure to fit your dog with a life jacket whenever you are in deep water.

Towing

Dogs that love to work and have a job often enjoy learning how to perform water-rescues. Essentially, you’ll need to teach your dog to swim to you (or another person) in the water, and then turn around, let the person grab hold and swim back to shore. And not only do many dogs love this activity, it burns even more calories than swimming alone.

Swimming Safety

Even if your dog is a strong swimmer, you’ll still need to keep safety at the forefront of your mind, lest something tragic occur. Just keep the following safety tips in mind to help ensure your dog stays safe and every swimming outing ends with smiles and a tired dog.

Never let your dog swim in unsafe areas.

Ponds and rivers are often fraught with dangerous currents and a variety of submerged hazards, from rocks to fallen trees. Given this, it is wise to avoid unfamiliar areas or those featuring these types of dangers. Generally speaking, pools are safer than natural waterways, although well-used beaches and play areas are usually cleared of hazardous items. Nevertheless, you should always verify the safety of the water yourself, before allowing your dog to jump in.

Consider tying a tether to your dog to keep her from swimming too far away.

Some otherwise-obedient dogs love swimming so much that they will fail to respond to their owners’ commands to come back. One good way to prevent this sort of obstinate behavior is by attaching a thin, yet strong lead to your dog’s harness or life jacket. You’ll want something at least 50 to 100 yards long, and strong enough to hold your dog’s body weight.

Fit your dog with a life jacket anytime her safety is in question.

Life jackets are a great safety tool that more owners should embrace. While they aren’t infallible, and problems can still arise for dogs wearing these floatation devices, they help ensure that your dog will stay on top of the water, no matter what kinds of problems arise.

Never leave your dog unattended while swimming.

It only takes a second for a dog to run out of energy and slip beneath the surface. And unlike what is commonly portrayed in the movies, drowning victims usually don’t create a lot of noise and chaos when sinking – it is often a silent affair. Accordingly, you’ll always want to keep your eyes on your dog when you are near a pool or lake.

Be careful of riptides.

If you like to take your dog to the beach, you’ll need to be aware of the dangers of rip tides. These currents flow in the opposite direction of the waves, and they can quickly sweep your pet out to sea. In general, it is a good practice to keep your dog between you and the shoreline, to provide an extra measure of safety.

Never let your dog swim in a predator-populated location.

The odds of your dog being attacked by an alligator or shark are exceedingly low, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to let your dog swim in areas teeming with big, hungry predators. This is especially important for small-dog owners, who are vulnerable to more animals than larger dogs are.

Use caution when the weather is cool.

While Newfoundlands and Labrador retrievers often swim through icy winter waters while working with hunters, most dogs lack the fur and body fat to stay warm in cold water. But that doesn’t mean they won’t jump in and go for a swim anyway. This can lead to hypothermia and other health problems, so always err on the side of caution and restrict swimming to the warmer months of the year.


Does your dog like to swim or is she afraid of the water? What are some of her favorite water-time activities? Let us know all about it in the comments below.

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