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Teaching Puppies To Swim

(with some tricks for the older dogs, too)

written by Butch Goodwin

Northern Flight Retrievers  
The Retriever Journal Jul./Aug.  20001 

owdy was a big boy for his age. Even as far as the average Chesapeake goes, Rowdy was a horse. When he came to my kennel for training at about seven months old, he already tipped the scales at well over 85 pounds. Rowdy was smart and athletic, and it was obvious that his owner had spent a lot of time working with him on his retrieving and obedience skills. The dog was well-socialized, eager to work, and caught on to training quite quickly. 

   After putting Rowdy through some basic obedience and work on delivering bumpers and frozen birds to hand, I was more than satisfied with his initial progress; so we took him to the water to see how he performed. I had no reason to expect any problems this was one of the most athletic dogs I had ever worked with. My helper threw a bumper into the pond about 50 yards or so, and, just as I had expected, Rowdy took a run and exploded into the water with an impressive water-spraying leap. Then, he completely disappeared; no part of him could be seen. When he surfaced, with legs flailing in all directions, he went over backward and disappeared again under the water. I had never seen a dog with so little fear, yet no clue of how to swim. 

   We watched this display for several minutes, and when it was evident that he had no idea how to move in the water or even stay afloat, we had no choice but to wade in and rescue him. He was tiring quickly and making no progress toward shore. The time that he spent submerged was lengthening, and he was only coming up long enough to gasp for air, beat the water to a froth with his front feet, and then roll over backward and disappear under the surface again. This had turned into a tense situation such as I had never experienced before.

   After rescuing the dog and returning to the kennel, I immediately called Rowdyís owner and asked why he had not taught the dog to swim at an age when his size would have made him much more manageable. Of course, the owner had a million excuses why he hadnít worked with the dog on his swimming, but I think it boiled down to, Heís a retriever -  he should know how to swim. After all, donít all dogs know how to swim? And, since I was going to send him off for training, let the trainer deal with it.

Sorry, folks; I hate to have to be the one to break the news, but it doesnít necessarily work that way! Just because a dogís last name is ďretrieverĒ  Labrador retriever, golden retriever, or Chesapeake Bay retriever, etc. - it doesnít mean that he comes from the womb knowing how to swim! And, as the dogís size gets bigger, the tougher it gets to teach this most basic of all skills necessary to the retrieverís life work.

hink about something for a moment: Retrievers, of any breed, that are beyond six months or so of age can usually stand on their hind legs and put their front feet above your waist or on your chest. So, if you take them into the water at this age and have any trouble at all teaching the dog to get their rear end up in order to level out and swim correctly, they will likely be able to plant their back feet on the pond bottom and climb up on you with their front feet. This is a real pain and usually results in both a wet dog and trainer!

With one hand under his belly and the other holding his rear end up by the tail, face the pup toward the shore. You'll notice his legs instinctively start paddling.

   Sure, there are ways of teaching a large dog to swim where he canít try to drown you; you can do as we did with Rowdy for the next six weeks (it took six weeks of our training time and the ownerís money to teach him to swim efficiently and get him to the same level of skill that he demonstrated on land). Day after day, we put him on a rope behind a rowboat, like a fish on a stringer, and encouraged him, all the while towing him around the pond and forcing him to level out by getting his front down and his rear end up.

We also utilized a training trick that one of the old timers taught me: Stand out in the river current with the dog on a rope, where it is deep enough that his feet canít hit bottom. Hold on tight (and be careful of your footing) as you let him drift downstream on the end of the rope. By holding him against the flow of the river, the current pushes his rear end up as it forces him to swim against the current. Then, when the lesson is over, reel him in like a fish or work him toward shore.

Both of these tricks, followed by a good measure of ever-longer marks in deep water, worked quite effectively in developing Rowdyís swimming. But why should having to resort to these tricks have been necessary?

Like human babies, it is quite easy to teach pups to swim. And, at the age of two to five months, pups are still at a size where they are quite manageable. This is also the time when they should learn to feel as comfortable - and gain the same self-confidence - in the water as they do on land, finding it a pleasure to swim. After all, most of a retrieverís work will involve water.

ow, let me offer a very broad, fairly typical caveat here: Many pups take to water quite naturally and often jump right in and swim without any coaching after a little figuring out on their own. For the ones that need encouragement, it is quite simple to get them started. I cringe when I hear the stories some people tell about taking the dog out in a boat and pushing him overboard. If you want to increase the chances of mining a youngsterís love of water and having him be apprehensive about entering it throughout the rest of his life, tossing him in is one sure-fire way to indelibly etch that dread in his mind!

Actually, all it takes to begin to teach a pup to swim and not fear water is a warm day, a pond that is about knee- to waist-deep, a pair of shorts or waders, and a helper on the bank. Young pups donít have any reason to be apprehensive about water - they havenít learned to fear it. They have only recently mastered the thrill of walking and running; and, at this stage, swimming is simply another trick to learn, another environment to learn to move in.

With lots of hand clapping and encouragement from the helper on the bank, the pup will easily make it to shore.

Try this: Carry your young pup out into the pond in your arms to a distance of 10 yards or so. Place one hand under his belly, and with the other hand hold his rear end up by his tail so that he is level in the water. Face toward your helper on shore, and place the pup in the water. Watch his feet start to move as soon as you place him on the water. He will inherently start to paddle, even though he is being held anchored by your hands. If you donít believe it, pick him up out of the water and watch his feet still moving! When he is really paddling for all heís worth, take your hand from under his belly, and, for a few seconds, hold his rear end up by his tail to keep him level.

Then, with lots of hand clapping and encouragement from the helper on the bank, release his tail and watch him swim directly to your helper. Walk to the bank where the helper has gathered him up, take him back out in the pond, and do it again. Repeat the lesson several times, and call it a day. Come back and do the same exercise tomorrow. And the next day. Gradually increase the swimming distance day by day until you are satisfied that he understands the mechanics of correct swimming form. Itís that simple to develop a pupís basic swimming skills and confidence in the water.

ow it is time to encourage your pup to want to go into the water on his own. He is already confident and knows how to swim, but he will possibly have to be enticed to dive right in. I accomplish this by using live, wing-tied pigeons tossed a very short distance out in the pond. (If their wings arenít tied at the base and they are only wing-clipped, the bird can use his wings to propel himself quite quickly across the surface of the water.)

   If your pupís burning desire for birds has been developed early on, he should dive right in after a live bird since he now has no fear of the water. If you donít have access to live birds and you have developed his desire for frozen birds or bumpers, he still should enter the water without hesitation. One note here, however: Always start your pup in shallow water where you can go out and help him if he gets into trouble, and always start him right on the edge of the water or even standing with his feet in the water. There is no reason to develop a bad habit of running down the bank after a bird or a bumper, a habit that if you let develop, will later have to be broken. So, influence him from the very start to enter straight into the water by not giving him the option of anywhere else to go; you can always back away from the edge as he progresses. Naturally, in all the instances Iíve discussed here, the water should not be chillingly cold; pups donít yet have the heat-producing mechanism that mature dogs possess.

Remember, ďretrieveĒ means retrieving anywhere, especially from the water where their assistance is the most vital for recovering game. Donít put this important developmental lesson off too long.

 The End

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