Don’t just assume your dog can swim

Each year around this time my family starts looking at the calendar for the magical date when we will head up to Lake Michigan.

My husband, Ed, and Teddy, our 9-year-old Lab, love the cooler temperatures. Our 4-year-old cat, Pip, enjoys running from window to window in our condo “chasing” the seagulls. I adore the artist galleries we visit.

Then there’s the water. Three of us are crazy about it. In fairness, Pip hasn’t had the opportunity to explore the lake.

About eight years ago, we introduced Teddy to swimming, but it wasn’t exactly a day at the beach.

Labs are known to love water, but while Teddy may have been built for swimming with his thick tail, webbed feet and waterproof coat, he was hesitant and unsure when we first tried to teach him.

Dogster magazine describes five steps in teaching dogs to swim. I rolled my eyes when I saw them recently, realizing Ed and I had bungled the first two.

We never thought, for example, to practice walking Teddy in and out of Lake Michigan or getting him in and out of a boat. But according to, if Teddy ever were to get tired or panicked, knowing how to get on dry land or the boat’s deck would give him comfort and security.

And, as reminds us, don’t simply assume your dog will love the water or want to learn to swim just because he’s from a water breed. (The website also advises that before spending a day around any type of outdoor water, be sure to check with local nature officials for any harmful creatures or parasites that may be lurking.)

Which brings us back to Dogster’s steps that I wish we would have read before taking Teddy on his first outdoor water experience:

Step 1: Go at your pooch’s pace. Let your dog play at the water’s edge.

Step 2: Encourage him to move slowly into deeper water. If he starts to look uncomfortable, usher him back to shallower depths.

Step 3: Continue to encourage your dog into slightly deeper water using lots of praise until he is swimming. Introduce floating and water-safe toys to encourage him to stay and play.

Step 4: Use treats and toys to lure your dog back to where he can get out of the water. This shows him how to safely find his way to dry land.

Step 5: Remain close to your dog during the swim session. If your dog seems to get worried, encourage him back to an area shallow enough for him to stand.

We were so excited to teach Teddy to swim that we blew through steps one and two, clambered onto the boat, jumped into the water and started swimming.

Unfortunately, Teddy didn’t share our excitement. He hesitated to get in the boat and Ed had to lift him in. Then he didn’t want to get in the water and again Ed had to lift him.

We did better with the other steps, showing Teddy how to get back into the boat as well as staying close to him as we tried to teach him. But missing the first two steps stressed him — and us.

Fortunately, we learned from our mistakes and Teddy gave water another shot. Now he loves to swim in Lake Michigan as much as we love to swim with him.

Just another reason we can’t wait to get up there.


Don’t forget: A dog flotation device is essential for boating. Rough water, strong currents and/or fatigue could make a dog life vest a dog lifesaver.

Karin Spicer is a member of The Dog Writers Association of America. She lives in Greene County with her family and two furry pets who inspire her. She can be reached at

About the Author