How to Teach a Dog to Swim

Swimming can be an excellent form of exercise for dogs, as well as a vital survival skill. However, not all dogs are natural swimmers. In this article, we’ll explore why some breeds of dog take more naturally to water than others, before offering up a step-by-step guide to how to teach your dog to swim, and the best age to do so. While you should never assume that a dog can swim straight away or that they will enjoy it, many dogs can be taught to swim with our detailed, evidence-based approach to introducing your dog to the water.

Can All Dogs Swim?

First, let’s address if all dogs can be taught to swim. A dog’s ability to swim often depends on their breed. While some dog breeds are likely to be natural swimmers, others may struggle due to their physical characteristics.

Dog Breeds That May Struggle With Swimming

Dogs with large, heavy bodies and short legs, like Bulldogs or Dachshunds, often find it challenging to stay afloat. Similarly, dogs with flat faces (brachycephalic), such as Pugs and Boxers, can have difficulty breathing when exerting themselves in water. These physical limitations make swimming challenging and potentially dangerous for these dog breeds.

Dog Breeds That May Excel in Swimming

On the other hand, breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Portuguese water dogs are often excellent swimmers.

The main reason that certain dog breeds are naturally better suited to water and swimming than others is that they have developed specific breed characteristics over centuries. These traits include strong, athletic builds, water-resistant coats, and a history of water-related work, making them more adapted to swimming.

Some of the traits that positively influence a dog’s swimming ability include:

  • Webbed Feet: Breeds like the Labrador Retriever, Newfoundland, and Portuguese Water Dog have webbed feet. This evolutionary trait acts like flippers, helping them paddle more efficiently in the water.
  • Athletic Build: Breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Standard Poodles have a strong, muscular build, enabling powerful swimming strokes and stamina in the water. Their robust build provides the strength to swim against currents and stay afloat easily.
  • Rudder-Like Tails: Certain breeds have long, thick tails that they use as rudders to steer and stabilise themselves in water. For example, the Otterhound and the Chesapeake Bay Retriever use their tails to maintain direction and balance while swimming.
  • Double Coat: Many of the best dog swimmers have a double coat, made up of a dense undercoat and a longer outer coat. This type of coat provides insulation and buoyancy in water. With their water-resistant coats, Retrievers and Newfoundlands are comfortable in cold waters, making them excellent for waterfowl hunting and rescue operations.
  • Oily Coat: Some breeds, like the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, have an oily coat that repels water. This not only helps them stay drier and warmer but also enables them to swim for longer without being weighed down by soaked fur.

The historical background of a breed also plays a role in their affinity for water:

  • Water Rescue and Retrieval: Breeds like the Newfoundland were historically used for water rescue due to their tremendous strength and swimming ability. Similarly, Labrador Retrievers were bred to retrieve fishing nets and fowl from the water, which required them to be excellent swimmers.
  • Working in Wetlands: Breeds such as the Irish Water Spaniel and the American Water Spaniel were developed to work in marshes and lakes, requiring them to be adept at moving and retrieving game in the water.

Despite some dog breeds having traits that make them naturally predisposed to be good swimmers, all dogs still need to be taught to swim.

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What is the Best Age to Teach a Dog to Swim?

The ideal age to begin teaching a dog to swim can vary by breed and individual, but generally, the younger, the better. Puppies as young as 8 weeks old can be introduced to water, provided the experiences are positive and closely supervised.

However, the prime time to start teaching with structured swimming lessons is typically between 3 to 6 months of age. This period allows puppies to form positive associations with water before any fear responses are fully developed.

How to Teach a Dog to Swim

Teaching your dog to swim should be a gradual, positive experience that puts your dog’s well-being first throughout. Here’s a step-by-step guide to ensure your dog learns to swim safely:

Step 1: Introduction to Water

When you first begin to teach your dog to swim, start with shallow, calm waters. A child’s paddling pool or a calm shoreline can be ideal. Allow your dog to explore the water on their own terms. You can encourage them by placing toys or treats in shallow water, and you can even try to get in yourself to give them confidence. Never force them in by dragging them or carrying them into the water. The choice to engage with the water or not should always be their own.

Step 2: Getting Comfortable

Once your dog seems comfortable in shallow water, gradually introduce them to deeper areas where they must kick their legs to stay afloat. This will teach them to start paddling. Support their belly gently with your hand or use a dog life jacket, which provides buoyancy and makes them feel secure.

Life jackets are important gear if you plan to go in deeper water with your dog. It’s best to gradually get your dog used to wearing these.

Step 3: First Swimming Lessons

Once your dog has got the hang of paddling their legs with your support, it’s time to teach them to swim more independently. Choose a safe, enclosed area such as a quiet pool or a calm lake. Support your dog as described above, and use toys or treats to encourage them to move in the water towards you. Keep your swimming lessons short and positive, with plenty of praise and treats.

Step 4: Practice and Build Confidence

Gradually increase the depth and length of the swimming sessions as your dog becomes more confident. Always supervise your dog closely while you’re teaching them, and never push your dog beyond their comfort zone.

Step 5: Advanced Swimming Skills

Once your dog is swimming confidently, you can introduce them to new challenges like swimming in slightly deeper or more open waters, always under close supervision and in safe conditions.

Wrapping Up

Teaching your dog to swim can be really rewarding and it’s a great way to promote your pup’s physical and mental well-being. Following these steps ensures that the teaching process is as safe, enjoyable, and successful as possible for you and your dog. However, if you have tried all these steps but your dog doesn’t enjoy swimming, this is normal. Just like us, dogs are individuals with their own likes and dislikes, and they may simply not enjoy swimming. This is true no matter what breed they are. If your dog is uncomfortable with swimming even after you’ve tried to teach them, it’s important to accept this and not try to force them to like it.

For more information about keeping your dog safe when swimming, including where to go and some of the risks and dangers to be aware of, read our blog.

Struggling with your dog’s behaviour? Discover how Renee can elevate your wisdom and transform your relationship by visiting

Renee Rhoades MSc, dog behaviour expert for Animed Direct
About Renee Rhoades, MSc

Renee Rhoades, MSc, is a distinguished authority in canine behaviour and welfare, recognised for her unwavering commitment to improving the lives of both dogs and humans. The founder of R+Dogs, a virtual dog behaviour consultancy, Renee offers cutting-edge private coaching and online courses to dog guardians worldwide. Renee specialises in transforming fearful and high-energy dogs, addressing aggression, reactivity, generalised anxiety and hyperactivity.

Beyond client-focused coaching, Renee is also the co-host of DogLogical, a podcast dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of our dogs. In addition, she extends her expertise by mentoring fellow dog professionals, contributing to the growth and development of the industry.

Struggling with your dog’s behaviour? Discover how Renee can elevate your wisdom and transform your relationship by visiting