Q: I love swimming, kayaking, and sailing. What can I do to encourage my dog to join me on these water adventures?

For water adventures, start on dry land. Training essentials in- Fclude: come, stay, go to a spot, up and over, walk without pulling, targeting, retrieve, sit on your lap, and accept being lifted. Provide water, shade (if the ground is too hot for your feet, it’s too hot for Fido’s), Vet-recommended sunscreen and a properly fitted life jacket. Doggie splash pads are a good alternative for canines who may not be water hounds.

Swimming: I taught my toy poodle mix, Uni, to swim at our new home in about six weeks (depending on the level of apprehension your dog has to water and time spent training; some take longer or never love the water, and that’s ok). Keep sessions short with plenty of breaks. As a dog trainer who does not advocate the use of force, I practice using positive reinforcement.

The trepidation your dog shows toward water indicates where to start training: right before they show fear.

Training sessions include a less intense version of the pool until the fearful reaction dissipates. Uni came two feet from the edge of the pool before becoming apprehensive; that’s where I started training:

  • Practice getting on a raft on dry land
  • Place raft in a shallow kiddie pool; deliver tasty treats and favorite retrieve toy!
  • Place raft with favorite toy in pool; reward increased interest
  • Target stick (touch with nose to move into positions) to approach water without force
  • Swim to edge of pool, ask to come as close as comfortable (Uni’s threshold: two feet); hold target stick (touch with nose); click and toss treat closer to the edge (never grab or throw a dog into water)
  • Instead of tossing treat, Uni would have to accept being pet while I delivered the treat
  • Call Uni to the edge to give a “kiss” (without grabbing him)
  • Sit on steps until he finally has enough trust to sit on lap

I exposed Uni to the pool, at such a low intensity, that it did not elicit an anxious or fearful response.

Before I knew it, Uni dove into the water to get his toy! His natural instinct of hunting waterfowl kicked in…now swimming is his favorite!

Kayaking & Sailing: Wearing a doggie life jacket, teach getting in and out (“up and over”) on dry land first, using targeting if necessary. Improve balance with discs, balls, bands, and K9 conditioning equipment. Practice leash skills on the dock or marina. Many dogs jump out at the first sign of wildlife, so ensure training is solid, even with distractions. Watch for signs of fear/anxiety: lip licking, yawning, tucked tail, ears back, whining, shaking (unless it’s cold or your dog is wet).

Water sports are not for every doggie so be happy with baby steps that your dog offers and don’t be afraid to lower criteria during training. Your dog may just surprise you!