Originally Answered: How do I teach my lab puppy to swim?
There are a number of reasons to teach your Lab to swim while he’s still a pup. For one thing, it’s easier on the dog. A large dog has a lot of body weight to manage in the water, and for a dog new to swimming, this can increase the slope of the learning curve. Puppies, because of their small size, have an easier time.
Teaching your Lab to swim while he’s still a pup is easier on you, too. With a puppy, you’ll be able to do all your training while only getting your hands and lower legs wet! With an adult dog, you’ll have to get deeper in the water and will most likely end up soaked from the dog’s initial attempts to doggy-paddle. There’s also a safety concern worth noting when working with a very large dog. When a dog panics, he may try to plant his back feet on the bottom and his front feet on you. A large dog can knock you over when he does this, and if he ends up on top of you in doing so, there is a risk of him holding you under the surface.
Probably the most convincing argument for starting young, however, is that your Lab is less likely to have any serious fears of the water! There is no reason for a dog to fear water when he has never had any experience with it. By teaching your dog to swim while he’s still young, you can ensure that his first encounters with water are positive. In fact, starting young decreases the likelihood that you’ll have to teach your Lab anything at all! One short, positive session may be all your Lab needs to take off swimming. However, for those dogs with more trepidation, starting young will ensure that a little nervousness doesn’t turn into a real fear.
So what’s the perfect age to start? Two to five months. At this age, your Lab is old enough to be able to manage his body in the water, has developed the immune system to protect him from being wet, and is still small enough that you can handle him easily.
Build Confidence Around Water
Even before you teach your Lab to swim, you can start off on the right foot by building his confidence around water. Take your dog for a walk around the local pond or lake. Encourage any interest that your dog shows in the water with verbal praise. If he is willing to get his feet wet, encourage him to do so and praise him when he does. Simple preliminaries like this lay a strong foundation for you because you teach the dog that there is no reason to fear water.
Remember that the primary goal here is to provide positive experiences for your Lab around and in the water. Making sure that the aquatic site you've chosen is safe goes a long way towards ensuring such experiences. Always check the shoreline and the water itself for hazards before allowing your dog into the water. This includes looking for submerged logs or other hazards that might injure your dog when he jumps in. Also be on the lookout for old fishing tackle, rusty metal, and so on. You should also be aware of the water quality at the site you've chosen. Letting your Lab swim in foul or polluted water is a good recipe for a sick dog!
To begin teaching your Lab to swim, take your pup to a calm lake or pond on a warm day. Bring a helper with you, and wear shorts, a swim suit, or waders. Leave your helper on shore, and carry your puppy out about ten or fifteen feet into the water – no deeper than your knees. Hold your pup by placing one hand under his belly and chest, and use the other hand to hold his back end level with his front (you can do this by gently holding the base of his tail). Lower your puppy into the water, but don’t let go yet.
Instinctively, your Lab will start paddling. Encourage him! Use positive verbal reinforcement to praise your pup. Treats and toys are a bad idea as they distract the puppy from the job at hand, but there’s nothing wrong with verbal praise! Once your pup is paddling strongly, remove your hand from under his belly for a few seconds, but continue to hold his back end level with the front.
Keeping your dog level during the first few swimming lessons is important. Most dogs that have trouble swimming let their back ends sink. Once the dog is vertical in the water, it’s very hard for him to make forward progress.
Once you feel comfortable that your pup can stay level and afloat, have your handler attract the dog from shore. Exciting body language, clapping, and verbal enticement are key here. When your pup is paddling strongly, release him completely and let him swim to your helper ashore. When he makes it, praise him generously. Be ready to scoop him up if it looks like he’s having trouble. If he does have trouble, decrease the distance between you and your helper and try again. That’s all there is to it! After several repetitions, pack up and go home. Repeat the training session daily, increasing the distance your Lab has to swim as he becomes comfortable with the exercise.