“I don’t think that every dog has an inherent skill. They might all have an idea what to do but some dogs do it much better than others. Some are born to swim. Some are never meant to put foot in the water,” said veterinarian Karl E. Jandrey, who works in the emergency and critical care units at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis.
Valentine is a 4-year-old, 42-pound, short-snouted English bulldog with stumpy legs who is heavy on both ends and looks like she would sink if placed in water.
For three years, James MacKinnon of Los Angeles, an Emmy-winning TV and movie makeup artist, went to great lengths to protect Valentine from the swimming pool at his home. Then a year ago, he started boarding her at Paradise Ranch Pet Resort in Sun Valley, a cage-free, luxury country club and water park for dogs about 25 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. (You can board cats there too, but the water is off limits to them.)
It turns out Valentine loves the water. During the eight months MacKinnon traveled for work last year, with more time away this year, Valentine lost seven pounds, partly due to swimming. Her health improved, her endurance grew and she became fast friends with a Rottweiler named Chico who loves to dive off the dock.
She probably decided to try it when she saw how much fun all the other dogs — including Chico — were having, said Chico’s owner, Cora Wittekind, an animal behaviorist who worked with Valentine.
The best way to turn your dog into a swimmer is to introduce water very early, as a puppy if possible, making sure the experience is pleasant, according to recommendations from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Never let dogs get in water over their heads until they are accomplished swimmers, and don’t force or toss them in water.
“Don’t push them to do things they want to do,” Jandrey said.
And beware of the risks. Based on emergency room visits, one of the most common backyard pool accidents happens when dogs walk onto pool covers. If the cover collapses, the dog gets trapped, struggles and inhales water, Jandrey said. Safety covers made of solid material can run hundreds of dollars, but are worth the investment if there’s a possibility your dog might jump on a soft pool cover.
Another risk, if you are at the beach and your dog drinks salt water all day, is acute salt intoxication, Jandrey said. It’s easy to prevent — always carry fresh water for your dog and offer it often. A few gulps of salt water won’t harm your dog, but watch for vomiting and early neurological signs of salt poisoning like dullness and depression. (The chlorine in pool water, on the other hand, is not considered a major problem for dogs.)
In fresh water, dogs can be infected by a parasite called giardia, which can hide in the most pristine of streams, Jandrey said. Usually dog and owner will get it by drinking from the same water source. Owners can also be exposed by cleaning up waste from infected dogs. Symptoms include mild diarrhea and vomiting.
Backyard ponds may bloom with mold intoxicants that can cause neurological problems, liver disease and liver failure in dogs, Jandrey said.
Owners should also know when their dogs have had enough water play. Dogs don’t float, but constantly paddle with all four legs, so they might tire faster than humans, Jandrey said. Some dogs, like Chico, will just keep jumping in the water, retrieving the ball and returning for more, Wittekind said.
Panting isn’t necessarily a sign of exertion, Jandrey said, it’s the way dogs adjust their temperature after getting hot. But if a dog squeaks, rattles, snores or makes other unusual sounds while breathing, a break is probably warranted, he said.
During a dog’s first few trips into the water, and for dogs that aren’t as coordinated as Chico, life preservers or flotation devices can help, Jandrey said. Valentine wore a life vest when she went in deep water but was OK without one otherwise.
Sunburn can be a problem for lighter-skinned dogs with little or no pigment around their eyelids and noses. Some dogs have just a thin coat of hair on their bellies, so reflected light from the ground can cause sunburn. In dire cases, sunburn or chronic exposure to sunlight can lead to thermal skin cancer, Jandrey said.
Products available to protect dogs from sunburn include vests that block ultraviolet rays and sunscreen made with ingredients repellent to dogs to keep them from licking it.
Dogs don’t belly-flop like people, so dock-diving won’t hurt a strong dog. And with four paws, most water landings are soft, Jandrey said.
If you are going fishing, the ASPCA cautions to keep the dog away from fishing lines, lures, hooks and bait.
The ASPCA also recommends rinsing a dog’s paws after contact with sand or salt water, drying a dog’s ears after any water contact and brushing dogs with heavy or soft coats after a dip because wet coats can mat and trap bacteria.
You need the right toy too — one that won’t sink and send your dog to the bottom of the pool to fetch it. The best water toys are made of hard rubber with a flotation device and easy-to-grab rope attached, Wittekind said.