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Understanding Different Breeds & Their Abilities to Swim

Updated: Jan 4

Does your dog love the water? Many dogs will do anything they can to go for a swim, while many others will do everything in their power to stay dry. There’s no consensus among dogs about whether they like the water. Here’s a big question, however: can all dogs swim?

There are a handful of dog breeds that have been selectively bred to be experts in the water. For instance, retrievers have been trained for generations to go into the water to grab birds for hunters, while dogs such as Irish Water Spaniels have developed waterproof coats so they can work in the fields.

These breeds are generally believed to know how to swim the second they lay eyes on a body of water, and will usually be happy to do so since their physical structure is perfect for swimming. Other breeds often prefer not to swim, or simply don’t see the point.

Some of the dogs that most love the water are:

  • Labrador Retrievers

  • Toller Retrievers

  • Portuguese Water Dogs

  • Irish Water Spaniels

  • Poodles

  • Newfoundlands

  • Irish Setters

Which Dog Breeds Can't Swim?

As a rule, dog breeds that can't swim tend to have some common characteristics, says American Kennel Club (AKC). For example, brachycephalic breeds — those with flat faces or extremely short snouts — are generally unsuited for swimming because it's too easy to get water up their noses, making them a drowning risk. Dogs with large, barrel-shaped bodies struggle to stay afloat, as do dogs with long bodies and short legs. Dogs with long coats or thick double coats can also struggle with swimming. Finally, some breeds simply cannot withstand the shock to their system brought on by a plunge into cold water.

1. Bulldogs

Both English bulldogs and French bulldogs possess the triple threat of flat faces, barrel-shaped bodies and short legs. In other words, bulldogs simply aren't made for swimming. Only one of these traits would make swimming a challenge for these dogs, imagine having all three! So, in the land of dog breeds that can't swim, bulldogs are king.

2. Pugs

While pugs might enjoy wading and splashing in shallow water, their flat faces make breathing a challenge during the best of times. Add in the exertion of trying to keep their head above water, and it's hard to get pugs to stay above water. For many brachycephalic breeds, including pugs, keeping their faces above water means tilting their heads back so far that their back ends dip too low.

3. Bull Terriers

Despite belonging to the active terrier group, the bull terrier's combination of short legs and a deep chest makes it struggle to stay afloat. Even the breed's close cousin, the Staffordshire bull terrier, who is a much larger dog, wouldn't necessarily make a better swimmer as the dense, heavy muscle and oversized head on this breed also presents a challenge for these dogs in the water.

4. Basset Hounds

Besides the fact that the body of a basset hound isn't designed for swimming (with their large heads and short legs that make it difficult to stay afloat), the large, floppy ears that are the trademark of this breed are prone to infections when water gets in the ear canal.

5. Boxers

This is another large, athletic breed you might think would be a natural-born swimmer. But the flat face on the boxer makes swimming just as dangerous for these dogs as it is for the more diminutive pug. The struggle to breathe and keep their noses above water means boxers may tire quickly and run the risk of drowning if in the water too long.

6. Corgis

Despite having an affinity for water, neither the Cardigan Welsh corgi nor the Pembroke Welsh corgi are strong swimmers. This is due to the combination of a long body, barrel-shaped chest and disproportionately short legs. So, it's best to let them enjoy splashing in shallow water.

7. Dachshunds

As with corgis, the elongated body and short legs of dachshunds make them poor swimmers. Even swimming in shallow water can tire the dachshund's little legs out to the point of danger. Keep a close eye on them when they're around any amount of water.

8. Shih Tzus

Like many of the smaller breeds, shih tzus have a number of disadvantages when it comes to swimming. Not only can the shortened muzzle and small legs make it difficult to keep their nose and mouth out of the water, but their long, full coat can weigh this breed down and also cover the face, making breathing even more of a challenge. These little dogs can also catch a chill from spending too much time in the water.

Regardless of whether your dog likes to swim or not, you should know that with a little preparation and training, all dogs are capable of swimming. This is especially good to know in the summertime, when dogs are at a higher risk of overheating and dehydration. If you can safely get your dog accustomed to being in the water, they’ll have a good option to keep cool in the warmer months. Swimming is also great exercise for dogs, and is a fun time for everyone involved.

So for those of us with dogs who aren’t natural swimmers, how can we safely introduce them to swimming and get them more comfortable in the water?

How to teach your dog to swim

It can be a little difficult getting your dog into the water especially if they’re not accustomed to swimming, but once you do, you’ll both be experiencing the benefits in no time. So where to begin?

There are a number of avenues you can take when teaching your dog to swim, and choosing which one to use depends mainly on your dog’s breed. While some dogs, like the ones mentioned before, are natural-born swimmers, others are just not able to excel in the water due to their biology. Bulldogs and Dachshunds, for instance, often don’t have the physical build to keep themselves afloat, and will likely need extra help with a floatation device.

Even if your dog is meant to be a capable swimmer, each pup is a little different, and yours may not be as keen on swimming as they’re ‘supposed’ to be. Whatever the case, it’s important that you understand your dog’s lineage and capabilities, set your expectations accordingly, and don’t be disappointed if your dog still prefers dry land over water.

Invest in a life jacket for your dog

When introducing a dog to the water for the first time, it’s vital that the dog finds swimming fun and not scary. You want to do everything you can to get your dog feeling confident in the water, and one great way to do that is to ensure they can’t sink. Life jackets for dogs come in all shapes and sizes for a variety of breeds and weights. Assuming their life jacket fits well, your dog will be able to focus on the mechanics of swimming, rather than struggling to stay afloat.

Even if your dog is a capable swimmer, a life jacket is never a bad idea. Even the strongest swimmers can get tired, and if you’ve ever thrown a ball for certain breeds, you know that many dogs will over-exert themselves to the point of danger if they’re allowed to. A life jacket allows them to not work as hard while still staying afloat, which will keep them safe as well as feeling confident.

When choosing a life jacket, ensure it’s the right size, and that it can be adjusted to fit your dog perfectly. Bright or reflective material is also a plus, since they’ll help you spot your dog in the water more easily. You should also look for a life jacket with a sturdy handle on the back. This will allow you to pull your dog out of the water if they’re struggling, guide them as they learn to swim, or even simply keep hold of them on the beach.

Make a plan for swimming lessons

Once you have all the equipment, it’s time to figure out your method for teaching your dog to swim. Every dog is different, so you’ll know better than anyone what you need to do to keep them feeling comfortable. With that said, a good idea for all dogs is to ensure that they’re the ones to enter the water. This can be achieved by throwing a floating toy into the water, or getting in yourself and encouraging them to come out to you. When a dog enters the water on their own terms, they’ll be less likely to become afraid. Start in the shallows, and don’t try to make your dog move deeper until they seem comfortable.

Every time your dog comes out of the water while they’re learning, you should reward them with a treat, a toy, or affection. This will help them form a positive association with swimming, and encourage them to get in the water next time.

Give your dog a demonstration

If you know anyone with a dog who’s already a confident swimmer, consider arranging a time for your dog to watch them swim. With your dog in a life jacket, they’ll be able to follow the other dog around, observing their technique and having a great time while doing it. After a few playdates in the water, your dog may feel more confident about swimming on their own.

Keep water safety in mind

Beyond the risk of drowning, there are a handful of other potential hazards for your dog in the water.

  • Cold water. Too much exposure could lead to hypothermia, which is dangerous.

  • Swallowing too much water. This is possible while your dog swims and grabs toys. If your dog is regularly vomiting after swimming, they’re swallowing too much. To counteract this, try to keep swimming sessions to about ten minutes, and choose a water-toy that they can easily pick up without ingesting too much water in the process, such as a flat, floating disc.

Don’t push your dog too far

Despite our best efforts, some dogs never really take to swimming. Even with all the floatation devices, training, and safety measures, some dogs simply don’t like the water. If you’ve been trying to get them interested in swimming for some time and aren’t making any progress, it may be that your dog just doesn’t like to swim. If that’s the case, don’t feel the need to continuously push them. There are still ways you can help your dog enjoy the water and keep them cool in summer.

Hopefully these tips will help you and your dog to enjoy the water in the warmer months. With some time, care, and preparation, most dogs will gradually come to love swimming. And if they happen to come out of that local lake with a bit of funk to them, give us a call to get them set up for a nice refreshing bath with the deluxe treatment!

If you have more questions about how to safely teach your dog to swim, or anything else pet-related, feel free to contact us today at 847.247.4809

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