Water Exercise for Dogs

When my husband and I adopted a golden retriever mix, we assumed he'd be the kind of dog who loves to go for a swim or play in puddles. But whatever Jack is mixed with totally nixed the retriever's legendary love of water. When other dogs are splashing in the baby pool at the dog park, Jack just walks on by. When we took him to the beach on vacation, he waded into the ocean up to his knees, but his curiosity stopped there.

So how do you know whether your canine companion is a water-loving dog and what can you do make sure he'll be safe should he choose to take the plunge?
Water Breeds
Some dog breeds are natural water lovers. Just look at a labrador's webbed feet and you know he was born to swim. Breeds like the Newfoundland were originally created to help fishermen pull their nets to shore. Their heavy coats protect them from the cold water, while their webbed feet make them strong distance swimmers. Irish water spaniels and Portuguese water dogs both have tight curly coats that actually repel water, which makes them great as retrievers for hunters or assistants for fishermen.
But some breeds, especially the bulldog, are not suited to the water at all. Pugs, Dachshunds and basset hounds are also not natural swimmers. Essentially, any dog with a chest that is much larger than its hips will have trouble keeping its head above water, and dogs with short legs might lack the power to keep themselves afloat. Be extra cautious or avoid water that's too deep for your dog to walk in if it fits these characteristics.
Introducing Your Dog to Water
All dogs, even strong swimmers, should be supervised when they're in the water. Dogs can get confused in pools and forget where the steps are to get out. They can also grow tired of paddling and start to panic. The first time you introduce your dog to water, it's safest if you go in with them. Most dogs will naturally  "dog paddle" to stay afloat, but you need to be nearby to make sure your pet doesn't get tired too quickly.
If you own a pool and plan to allow your dog to swim regularly, consider investing in a special dog ramp (like the Skamper Ramp) to make it easy for him to get out of the water. Pool owners should also consider adding an alarm (like the Poolguard) that will sense when anything (more than 18 pounds) enters the water. If your dog weighs less than 18 pounds, you can use a collar alarm (like the Safety Turtle) that will sense if the dog gets wet. And, just to be safe, ask your vet about Dog CPR classes in your area. As a responsible pool and pet owner, you'll want to be prepared in case of an accident.
If you don't want to join your dog in the pool or you aren't certain that he's a strong swimmer, fit your pet with a canine life vest. There are lots of options available (like the Kyjen Outward Hound Life Jacket), but look for features like grab handles to make it easier to pull your pet out of the water in case of an emergency.
The Benefits of Swimming for Dogs
Just like with humans, swimming is a great form of cardiovascular exercise for dogs. It's also easy on the joints, which is especially good for older dogs. If your pet suffers from a chronic condition like arthritis, hip or elbow dysplasia or obesity, he might benefit from formal canine hydrotherapy treatments that use heated water, special harnesses to keep the dog in the correct position and jets to add resistance. Ask your vet whether this type of exercise is right for your dog and for a recommendation to a qualified practitioner.

Just as you would slowly increase your own cardiovascular endurance (rather than plunging into the pool to swim for an hour on Day One), take the same precaution with your pet. Even if your dog is used to walking or jogging with you, swimming might be new to your pet, and he'll need time to adapt to the movements and build up endurance. Start with shorter water sessions before you let your dog swim for longer periods of time.

Health Risks of Swimming in Lakes and Streams
If you live near a like or stream where your dog plays frequently, there are several health risks. There are invisible bacterial and parasitic infections that both dogs and humans can contract from untreated fresh water: Leptospirosis and giardia among them. Your dog may contract these infections by drinking contaminated water, or even opening his or her mouth in water in which these organisms live. In addition, Leptospirosis can infect through any open cuts or wounds (which might not always be visible). Ask your vet about a vaccine for Leptospirosis. (The Giardia vaccine is commonly given only as part of treatment after infection.)
An even more dangerous and potentially deadly bacteria (that you can actually see) is blue-green algae, which produce toxins that can sicken and even kill humans, pets and livestock. There's no antidote for these toxins so prevention and vet care are crucial. Never let your dog swim in water that shows signs of algae bloom, which looks like mats of green material floating on the surface of the water.
For dogs that love the water, giving them opportunities to swim is a fun activity that can also keep them fit.  Aging, arthritic and obese pets can benefit the most from water-based exercise, as can any pet that easily overheats with traditional exercise (walking or running) in the summer. Make sure to monitor your pet around water just as you would a small child. There's no reason why everyone in the family can't enjoy a great, safe day at the pool, ocean or lake!
This article has been reviewed and approved by Kristi Snyder, DVM.
Canine Hydrotherapy Association, "What is Hydrotherapy?" www.canine-hydrotherapy.org

Paw Nation, "10 Dog Breeds That Love Water," www.pawnation.com

Pet Poison Helpline, "Blue-Green Algae," www.petpoisonhelpline.com

PetMD, "Swimming Pool Safety in the Sweet Summertime," www.petmd.com

VetStreet, "Can All Dogs Swim?" www.vetstreet.com

VetStreet, "Dog Swimming Safety Tips," www.vetstreet.com

VCA Animal Hospitals, "Do All Dogs Love Swimming?" www.vcahospitals.com