How to Train a Dog to Swim

Yes, some dogs may need a life vest before they take to the water. Wasitt Hemwarapornchai/Shutterstock

One of the cutest things dogs do is their eponymous paddle. However, dogs can't just dive in and start paddling around, and nor is it safe for them to do so. They need to receive a little bit of training first.

And that's where you come in, making your dog comfortable and feeling safe in the water.

Going slow can be a lifesaver

While some dogs take to the water more naturally, like Labradors or Portuguese water dogs, all dogs need training before they should take to the sea (or the pool). Before training with water begins, however, you should acclimate your dog to wearing a life jacket on land. The American Kennel Club (AKC) suggests strapping your dog into one during dinner time and also supplying snacks while the dog is wearing it to create positive association with the life jacket.

The life jacket may seem like too much of a precaution, but it's an important aspect for training your dog. Dogs can panic in water just like humans can, and a life jacket can make a big difference when that happens. Additionally, some breeds, like pugs and bull dogs, just aren't made for swimming, and will need the life jacket lest they simply sink right to the bottom, and no one wants that. So find a life jacket that's the right size for your dog and be sure it has a handle and a D-ring for attaching a leash.

After your dog appears to be comfortable with the life jacket, you can begin to introduce him to water.

A dog steps into a small kiddie pool
Acclimating your dog to water by training them in a kiddie pool is a good first step in the swimming process. Mark Mortin/Shutterstock

Methods for this step differ. The AKC and PetMD suggest slowly bringing your dog into the shallow end of the pool, using toys or treats to entice them into the water. The AKC suggests taking several days to do this, providing encouragement and positive reinforcement each time, "even if he only gets his toes wet," they write.

If your dog is hesitant or scared of the pool — and understandably so since it's a big pit of water — you can start even more slowly. The AKC suggests using a kiddie pool and slowly filling it over multiple training sessions. Naturally, your dog should be in their life jacket during this process., the website of clicker training proponent Karen Pryor, begins the process with the kiddie pool, saving the larger pool for later.

In this instance, clicks and treats reinforce behaviors, and Pryor's site likens it to the same shaping process involved in training the dog to go to its bed. Once the dog is reliably going into the pool with just commands, then you can add 1 inch of water to the pool. Toss in floating treats so the dog recognizes the water as a safe and fun space. Over time, add more water and begin to teach your dog to turn left, right and in circles.

"Have you ever seen a dog go into the water for a swim? Have you noticed the dog swims in a straight line? Your dog should be able to turn in the water to get to where the steps, ramp, or other exit may be to leave the water. When your dog knows to turn left and right on cue, you can cue him directions while he is in the water," according to Pryor's site.

Into the pool

A small dog wears a life jacket while swimming in the pool
It can take a dog some time to get its swimming legs, so be patient. Darinmarch/Shutterstock

Once your dog seems ready, you can begin bringing him into the pool. Don't just throw him in there, either. Allow him to acclimate to the pool; it's bigger than the kiddie training pool, after all. Sessions shouldn't last any longer than five minutes so your dog will have time to process everything he's learned and experienced.

If the dog is entering the pool, begin to take a step or two back to encourage the dog to swim to you. Pay attention to his form. If he only uses his front legs, he will tire easily, and that's a recipe for danger. You can tell if your dog is only using his front legs if he has a more vertical than horizontal position in the water. You can help him learn to use his back paws by placing your arm under the dog's belly so he's horizontal, holding onto the life jacket handle and/or moving his hind legs until he realizes what you're doing.

Slowly increase the distance that you're stepping away from your dog and the distance he's swimming. Don't move so far away that your dog begins to panic. If your dog does begin to panic, return to the shallowest end and give your dog a moment to rest and recover. You want swimming to be a pleasurable experience, not a negative one. Also be sure to pay attention to signs your dog may be getting tired. Like a panicked dog, a tired dog shouldn't be in the water.

Remember that not every dog will take to the water, and this should be respected. Just as your dog may not like being touched or petted in certain spots, he may not find swimming enjoyable. Don't force your canine companion to swim if he's simply not interested or too afraid to do so.

Here a trainer shows his methods for teaching a puppy to swim:

Out of the pool

A dog wears a life jacket while biting at splashed water
Even if your dog isn't going in the pool, a life jacket is probably still a good idea if you have a pool at the house. Christine Bird/Shutterstock

Follow similar training methods and commands to teach your dog to exit the pool. recommends setting up targets or cones where the dog will enter and exit for easy commands. Teaching him left and right will also help with this process.

Once the dog is out of the pool, provide plenty of praise for a well-performed lesson and even consider giving him a high-value treat.

Also be sure to rinse him off with clean water to remove any excess chlorine and other chemicals. The AKC says chlorine pools are generally safe for dogs so long as they don't ingest too much of it. Strongly discourage your dog from treating the pool like a big water bowl. This showering process is also a good habit for if you take the dog to the beach or a lake: You'll want to clean him off to remove any algae or other stuff that may have gotten into his fur.


Never leave a dog unattended in or around a pool. A fence is one way to prevent your pup from going for a swim without supervision; otherwise, keep a life jacket on your dog if you can't give it your undivided attention.

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