Teach Your Dog to Swim

Like a lot of people, when I first adopted my dog I made a solemn oath not to succumb to the temptations of absurdly over-enthusiastic pet ownership: no dog sweaters, no canine birthday parties, no pet manicures. This was a point of pride more than anything, a line drawn in the sand to convince myself that I am macho and that I can in fact keep it real.

I haven’t completely given up on that oath, but the reality of having a dog is something else entirely: before too long, the dog’s irresistible, ingratiating ways break you down, and you begin wanting to treat him or her essentially like a furry child. It’s a very difficult impulse to resist.

Water Dogged

Take, as an example, Mister President’s preternatural and somewhat hilarious aversion to water. Because we adopted him at seven months old, we don’t know for sure what his lineage is, but it’s pretty obvious from looking at him that he’s at least half labrador retriever, a breed that’s noted for taking to water with great enthusiasm. Not so with this guy. From the very first day we brought him home, he’s been terrified of water. He scampers away desperately at the sight of a hose, walks well out of his way to get around a street puddle, whimpers and whines at the water’s edge as other dogs frolic unabashedly in lakes and streams.

It’s kind of funny but it’s kind of sad too, because, as my girlfriend and I have concluded, it’s likely something traumatic involving water happened to him as a young pup, scarring him for life. As the only people in the world who would ever considering doing something about that lasting trauma, it’s hard for us not to want to do something to ameliorate his phobia… which basically leads us right up to an absurd pet owner’s indulgence like swim therapy.

Right: Almost liking it. Mister President confronts his fear of swimming, as I confront my fear of ridiculousness.
Mister President Swimming

Open Swim

On Wednesday nights in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, The Dog Run, a combination doggie day care and canine swimming pool, has an open swim hour for adult dogs. For just US$20, you can bring your pooch and let him or her swim freely in the small pool or, as we prefer to do, let the on duty canine swim therapist work with your dog to get used to the water.

When we get to the pool, Mister President reacts with tremendous panic, running around the outer edges of the room and trying desperately to avoid us accosting him and being lowered into the water. But we’ve taken him three times now, and each time there’s a marked (yet admittedly incremental) improvement in his water skills.

He’s calmed down quite a bit since the first time, and while he doesn’t yet seem to actually like the water, he seems to now like the idea of it. Last night, when we took him, he walked right up to the pool’s edge and pawed at the surface while giving a distressed whimper — clearly, he’s still scared, but he wants to go in now. And he did better than ever when we lowered him in, swimming more calmly and less desperately than ever before. In spite of the inherent silliness of taking part in swim therapy for dogs, I gotta say it’s kind of gratifying to watch him.

Dogs. They’re awesome.

  1. Do you find yourself referring to yourself as Daddy in his presence? Eg. “Daddy doesn’t want you to do that now Mr President” or “Daddy says no! No boy!”

    If not, you’re still keepin’ in real. If so… well, watch out.

  2. My dog was the same, but much younger, when I first introduced him to Lake Washington here in Seattle. At first he wanted nothing to do with it, so I’d throw the ball next to the water. Then I’d toss it right to the edge and he’d wimper and look at it, finally daring to touch the stuff. After about a half an hour I was throwing the ball as far as I could and he was bounding straight in. He’s half black lab and half australian shephard, and once he was in all the way somthing just clicked, and now he can’t get enough.

  3. Dan: We’ve heard similar stories from other dog owners, which keeps us optimistic. We keep hoping something similar will happen with Mister President. He’s kind of an all around scaredy-cat, but we keep hoping.

    On the other hand, because he avoids water at all costs, he rarely comes home muddy. In that way, we appreciate him for exactly who he is.

  4. Speaking of “scaredy-cat”…

    You don’t have any cats do you? I grew up in a family which has cats much like…well, that old lady who has 92 cats on each floor just because she can’t resist there cute meows (and other adorable sounds). I can’t help it, I’ve gotta say this: I have come to understand why the Egyptians worshipped cats. Americans worship beauty in their own way, Egyptians did it in theirs.

    Dogs are great. Cats are better.

  5. My dog was never a good swimmer. We did occasionally try to remedy this. I remember once, while out walking around a lake, he was sniffing around the edge and my mam just kicked him in. He just kept swimming until he was about 30 feet out, and we were getting kind of worried. Eventually he did a slow u-turn and got back to the shore.

    I don’t think he ever held it against her, but it probably wasn’t the most effective way of allaying his fears about water.

  6. Khoi… Great to hear about your dog stories. My old dog Bailey used to be so scared of fireworks and thunderstorms that he’d whimper and shake.

    He was a huge Newfoundland, but so easy-going and relaxed. We (my family) adopted him when he was 3 because his old family had just had a baby and couldn’t walk him any more. He had a habit of leaning on you when you pet him.

    I can specifically remember him one Summer at a lake cabin, going out and swimming for about 16 hours straight and us having to give him Tylenol the next day because he couldn’t move.

    You writing today made me remember him. Thanks.

  7. Funny that you mention “no dog sweaters, no canine birthday parties, no pet manicures.” and then link to his own domain name!! 😉

    You’re right tought, dogs are awesome.

  8. I’ve got a little black lab named “Cosmo” that looks an aweful lot like misterpresident. Although I’m not sure misterpresident is a full breed, one way you can tell if he has the Labrador penchant for swimming is to stick your fingers between his toes. Both Labrador and Golden retrievers have webbed toes, which helps them paddle. Also, I’m told that the flared tail works a bit like a paddle.

    We recently took Cosmo for his first swim session at a friends house, and he was tentative for about 15 seconds at best. We eventually had to pull him out of the pool and barracade it. He wouldn’t get out, but he was so tired that he kept sinking.

    I spent the rest of the evening skimming fur out of the pool :-/

  9. Your dog rocks, Khoi.

    My dad’s got this golden retriever he named Hal. Hal carries around three tennis balls in his mouth. We think he does this because oftentimes the tennis balls will roll into the street sewer, so he wants to make sure we have backups to throw.

    Dogs ARE awesome.

  10. “He’s kind of an all around scaredy-cat, but we keep hoping.”

    From the entry and this comment Mr President sounds _exactly_ like my Lab/Chow mix Pavlov.

    “On the other hand, because he avoids water at all costs, he rarely comes home muddy. In that way, we appreciate him for exactly who he is.”

    I have the same paradox…but I’d still like him to swim. My last dog had no problem at all. I got Pavlov at a year. I can’t imagine what event might have created the water phobia… I have tried just throwing him in, that didn’t work so well… Then I vacationed for a week at a family country home with a big pond out back, and he would stick his face in the water (eventually) trying to get things he saw moving in there; even got chest-deep in the water. I’m wondering if I could stay there for a month if he’d start swimming on his own.

    I’m going to look for a place like The Dog Run in Dallas right now.

  11. My son’s friend came over with his dog. A medium sized bulldog type, very husky & big chested. The boys were swimming & the dog so wanted to join in & I said okay. I just about had a heart attach when I saw what happened. I thought all dogs could swim, but not so with Tank (the dogs name & apptly so). He sank to the bottom & walking around on the bottom of the deep end of the pool. I yelled at the two boys to get him out, which fortunately they did. We got him out okay, but he still wanted to jump back in. We had to keep him tied up after that episode. I learned a lesson, check each dog out in the shallow end of the pool first. All dogs it seems can’t swim. I believe he was just too body heavy & had no fat & no floating ability, like some humans who cannot float. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

  12. My staff x jack russell has a really annoying fear of puddles and if the puddle goes from the pavement onto the road he wont walk and what is worse is if i am crossing a road and didnt notice a little puddle he will come to a complete stop to not step in it and i am standing in the middle of the road with cars about to come down. I think he might of suffered something traumatic when i was a young pup before i got him. what is really weird is that he can have a bath and drink water but if i tipped that water on the floor he will not walk in it.

  13. Michael it sounds like your dog is troubled by some sort of toilet training trauma as a pup. Try giving him lots of treats to get through the fear. My 1 year old English Pointer is terrified of the hose. I think this has somthing to do with using a water pistol on him when he was a very difficult puppy. We live by the beach and he loves to run through the waves. Just remember it’s all about context with dogs.

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