Does your dog love water? Some dogs are natural water babies—think Labs, Portuguese Water Dogs, or Boykin Spaniels, for instance—while others take to water play gradually when they’re introduced to it in a fun way. The most important factor when introducing dogs to water is adaptability. Depending on what you plan to do, your dog may need to learn to sit still, be okay with confined quarters, wear a flotation vest, or learn to use steps or a ladder.
Even if your dog doesn’t especially enjoy getting wet, the two of you can still have fun playing on the waves. Whether your water quest is at a lake, on a river, at the ocean, or in your own backyard, here are five fun ways to get wet and wild with your dog.
Your craft may be a standup paddleboard, canoe, kayak, sailboat, motorboat, or yacht. Introduce him to it gradually, first while it’s still at dock, giving plenty of opportunities to sniff, jump in and out on his own, and get used to the rocking motion. If you can, have a boat-savvy dog lead the way across the gangplank or demonstrate jumping from dock to boat. For smaller craft, such as standup paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes, let him explore it on land at first before trying it out in the water. If he’s already familiar with the feel and smell of it, he’ll be less startled when you put it in the water and the rocking motion is added to his experience of it.
Once on board, do some sit/stays or other cues with which he’s familiar to build confidence. This will come in handy in a smaller craft such as a canoe or kayak where you don’t want him to rock the boat. And of course give lots of treats so he associates your vessel with good things. When you first go out, stay in shallow water until he seems comfortable. Then you can try longer or deeper distances.
Part of becoming accustomed to boating is learning to wear a flotation vest. Practice putting it on and taking it off at home several times first. Go slowly and make it a fun experience with plenty of praise and food rewards.
It should fit snugly but comfortably without restricting his movement and have a loop or handle on top so you can grab it easily with your hand or a boat hook. Practice pulling him out before you actually have to do so. It might be necessary to have someone in the water giving him a boost while someone else on the boat helps to hoist him up. This is best done in shallow water, before you ever need to do it for real.
When your dog is on board with you, it’s important for them to respond to the cues “Sit” and “Stay,” especially if you are in a small craft and run into waves or rapids. Give highly active dogs regular opportunities to swim or teach them to be your first mate by bringing you a line or acting as lookout for dolphins or other boaters.
Many people enjoy taking their dogs with them on a standup paddleboard, or SUP. All kinds and sizes of dogs are seen on SUPs but it can definitely challenge their balance. To provide better footing, attach a bathmat with suction cups to the area where he’ll be riding, or purchase a deck pad made specially for dogs such as a Pup Deck traction pad. A mat or deck pad will also help protect your board from scratches by your dog’s toenails.
At the Beach
Every body of water has pros and cons. Lakes often have shallow areas where you can teach dogs to swim but it’s important to be aware of toxic blue-green algae blooms. Rivers are fun for SUPing, kayaking, and canoeing, but they can have unexpected currents. At the ocean, it’s fun for dogs to dive into waves and run along the sand but watch for rip currents if they swim out. And saltwater can dry out your dog’s fur so give a thorough freshwater rinse afterward. Do the same if your dog goes swimming in a chlorinated pool.
Speaking of swimming, playing in a pool is great exercise for dogs, besides being fun. For newbie canine swimmers, be sure they know where the steps are and how to go up them to get out. Even better, equip your pool with a SkamperRamp or similar device that makes it easy for dogs to get out of the water.
For dogs who love nothing more than running and jumping into water—especially if it involves going after a toy or bumper—look into the canine sport of dock diving, where dogs are judged on distance and, no doubt, style. The longest distance a dog has jumped is a whopping 36 feet, 2 inches, a record set last year by a 4-year-old Whippet named Sounders. Labrador Retrievers and Border Collies dominate the sport, but any dog can do it.
What if you don’t have access to a pool? Check on www.sniffspot.com to see if there are any nearby yards with pools for rental by the hour. Depending on where you’re located, you may also find large acreages listed that have dog-friendly lakes or large ponds.
Wherever you go, be sure your dog is protected from the sun. Apply pet-safe sunscreen, especially if your dog has a thin or light-colored coat. On the water, dog goggles can be useful to protect his eyes from sun reflecting off water. And yes, dogs can get seasick. If you’re concerned, ask your veterinarian to prescribe medication that can aid in preventing motion sickness.
Anything you do in or on the water can be a fun way to spend time with your dog outdoors. So get out there and get wet!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Kim Campbell Thornton is content manager for Fear Free Pets and is an Elite Fear Free Certified Professional. She has been writing about dogs, cats, wildlife, and marine life since 1985 and is a recipient of multiple awards from the Cat Writers Association, Dog Writers Association of America, and American Society of Journalists and Authors. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s competing in nose work trials with Harper and Keeper, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.