Fiction: All dogs can swim.  Fact: With the right approach and gear, most all dogs can be “taught” to swim.  Some dogs are natural swimmers. A dog’s breed, ancestry, and body structure help determine whether they have a natural inclination towards the water.  But some dogs’ build and personality make swimming a challenge.

How do you know if your dog’s a natural?  Most water breeds, like Labrador Retrievers and Newfoundlands, swim horizontally in the water, using both their front and back legs to keep them afloat.  Dogs that are less agile in the water tend to use only their front legs to swim, causing their hind end to sink.  This can cause the dog to panic and start “high padding” with their front legs, trying to “climb” out of the water.

Regardless if your dog is a “natural” swimmer or not, almost all dogs can learn to swim.  Much to your dog’s benefit or misfortune, he/she may be genetically predisposed for the dog paddle.  Understanding why your dog may or may not be as agile in the water can help you determine if a little extra help from a canine lifejacket is necessary.  After all, why should petite paws, a large chest, or short legs stop your dog from a river bath?

Muscular Body Mass.  Some dogs have bodies designed for swimming, while other body types make swimming more of a challenge.  Muscular, and dense-bodied dogs such as Bulldogs and Boxers are significantly less buoyant in the water than other breeds.  These dogs benefit hugely from extra flotation offered by a canine lifejacket.

Webbed Feet. Some breeds have excellent aquatic tendencies, thanks in part to their large, webbed feet. Among those breeds with webbed feet: Akita, Brussels Griffon, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Chinook, Field Spaniel, German Shepherd, German Shorthaired Pointer, German Wirehaired Pointer, Irish Water Spaniel, Labrador Retriever, Leonberger, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Otterhound, Plott Hound, Portuguese Water Dog, Redbone Coonhound, Spanish Water Dog, Weimaraner, Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.

Paw Size. Toy breeds (e.g. Chihuahuas), and breeds with relatively petite paws (e.g. Greyhounds) have very small paws that make it difficult to tread water.  A little extra assistance with the use of a lifejacket can help these breeds stay afloat while they work out the mechanics of swimming.

Legs.  Short-legged dogs such as Pugs, and Bulldogs may have trouble staying afloat because a smaller portion of their body weight is under the water.  These dogs often can swim, but it takes a lot more energy to do it.  A lifejacket can help prolong their stamina.

Genetics. Some breeds are capable of swimming but due to a medical concern may not be able to. Breeds prone to rheumatism and arthritis may have difficulty swimming especially in cold water.  Insulating these dogs from the cold and providing them with assistance by using a canine lifejacket can help eliminate these barriers.

Jowls.  Some breeds (e.g. Newfoundlands) have jowls that help them breathe when swimming, keeping out water.

Coat. Some dogs, especially those commonly used for hunting waterfowl, have thick double coats that are semi-water-repellant.

Click here to see ten breeds that love the water.

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10 thoughts

  1. My 1 1/2 year old standard poodle had her first swimming experience yesterday. At first she was scared to even put her feet in the water. Nothing would convince her to get in. We tried coaxing her, then we tried ignoring her and moved downstream hoping she would want to join in the fun. She just stood on the shore and barked. She eventually noticed the minnows swimming around and had great fun splashing around in very shallow water trying to catch them. It wasn’t after I picked her up and carried her in the water a couple of times that she even tried to swim. She did eventually get over her fear and learned to swim. A few times she got panicky though and became more vertical trying to climb out of the water. I think next time she will probably do much better. Standard poodles are on the top 10 water breed list. Go figure.

  2. As a canine hydrotherapist I have been swimming dogs for years and would like to put a few of your comments right. First, I have a Greyhound who has absolutely no problem treading water without a life jacket and can do so for many minutes at a time. We also have a client with a Greyhound who treads water quite easily. Most of the time dogs that “high paddle” have had no experience being weightless in the water. Once they become comfortable with weightlessness they no longer “high paddle.” Pugs are very good swimmers and they are very fast in the water without the need of a life jacket. Dogs with arthritis benefit hugely from swimming in warm water and regain much of their quality of life. It all boils down to the dog becoming comfortable with being weightless in the water. We only use Ruff Wear life jackets at our pool, they are by far the best jackets on the market.

    1. Thank you for your additional input and expertise as a hydrotherapist. Our intention is not to say that some breeds can’t swim, but to express that some dogs have more difficulty than other. After reading your comment we realize this may have generalized some breeds more than intended. Thanks for keeping us vigilant.

  3. Wonderful article, helps explain why my 10 lbs. (most likely terrier) 1 year-old puppy isn’t too excited about hopping in the river while my almost 55 lbs. Australian Shepard/English Spaniel is nuts about floating downstream with the current all the time!

  4. I love this post! Lake Michigan is a bit cold for our girls, so we’re going to seek out a smaller, dog friendly lake this summer to see how they do. 🙂

      1. Nice tips in the land seal or sand crab post. I’ve got a Lab/Chesapeake mix that I can’t keep out of shallow streams. She loves to splash around. She’d probably love swimming but I haven’t had much luck finding a nice calm body of water in Colorado to get her to play in.

  5. “Dogs that are less agile in the water tend to use only their front legs to swim, causing their hind end to sink. This can cause the dog to panic and start “high padding” with their front legs, trying to “climb” out of the water.”

    Yeah. My boyfriend’s dog definitely does that. It looks hilarious but he’s definitely panicking and then I feel bad for him. We kind of assumed he’d be a great swimmer ’cause he has massive webbed feet but alas … he is a “climb out of the water” kind of dog.

    I hope they make life vests in his size! I’d love to see if it gives him some confidence 🙂

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