My Labrador won’t swim!

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Are you frustrated by the fact that your Labrador won’t swim? We’ve got some great tips and advice to help you (and some cute Labradors swimming photos too!)

Do Labs like water?

Many people assume that Labradors like water. After all, this is a breed that is historically linked with working alongside hardy fishermen in the icy waters of 19th century Newfoundland. So it’s only natural that we assume that Labrador puppies are born wanting to take to the water. But not all Labs like to swim! And those whose Labradors won’t swim often feel disappointed or even a bit embarrassed by their furry friend’s lack of proficiency in the swimming department.

Why doesn’t MY Lab like water?

If your Labrador is afraid of the water or reluctant to swim, there are good reasons for this. And there are lots of ways that you can help him.

Do Labs like water?
Do Labs like water?

We are going to look at some of the most effective ones in this article. The main reason that a Labrador doesn’t like water is usually because he wasn’t introduced to it in the best and most appropriate way.

Labradors swimming – the right way to start

Labrador puppies that belong to professional gundog trainers all enjoy swimming and retrieving from water. And that is simply because they are usually introduced to swimming, often at an early age and always in the right way. With very young puppies this usually means making swimming fun alongside an older, familiar dog, or friendly human, who inspires confidence in the puppy. With older puppies we can focus on the dog’s love of retrieving and on getting him to retrieve across shallow, ankle deep, water to begin with.

If your lab missed out on this careful introduction, he may well refuse to even get his toes wet, never mind fetch a ball from the sea. But don’t panic. It is never too late to start.

My Labrador Doesn’t Like Water!

Even if your dog doesn’t like water at the moment, all Labradors enjoy swimming if helped to overcome their initial fear or reluctance to enter the water.

how-to-teach-a-dog-to-swim

If you have an older labrador that has never swum,  getting him swimming might take quite a while. You might feel that it is not worth the time and effort. However, don’t be downhearted, it is never too late to start, and it’s worth considering that once a Lab loses his fear of water, swimming usually becomes one of his greatest pleasures.

If you want to have a go, and your dog is quite nervous around water, you will need to desensitise your dog gently over the course of a few months.

Different ways to encourage a labrador to swim

  • Copying another dog
  • Getting in the water yourself
  • Retrieving

Copying another swimming dog

Some labradors,  especially younger ones,  will be encouraged to swim by repeatedly being taken out with other dogs that enjoy the water. However, be aware that a dog which is really scared of water may become even more scared if another more boisterous dog showers and soaks him the first time he puts his paws in.

Swimming with your dog

I have done this with a few dogs, and I should point out that you need to be aware of the stages involved. Just because a dog will swim along next to you whilst you wade up to your waist, does not mean  that the same dog will go into the water of its own free will when you are standing on the bank. Sometimes a dog will swim alongside a person because he is afraid to leave them. Rather than because he is enjoying the swim.

dog swimming
Dog swimming

However, if you can get the dog swimming alongside you happily,  then he will quickly lose his fear. The clue is in the word happily. If he is just bravely swimming alongside you rather than lose sight of you, he may still be afraid of the water. Just not as much as he is afraid of losing you. This dog will still need his confidence building up before he is willing to go it alone.

Using retrieving to encourage a dog to swim

Retrieving is my absolute favourite method of starting a dog swimming.  But it has to be done gradually. Don’t be tempted to throw a ball or retrieving dummy into the water for your reluctant Labrador or young puppy to fetch.  Even if he is a keen retriever,  his fear of water may outweigh his interest in the ball,  and you will also have created another problem,  refusal to retrieve!

My Labrador won't swim!Instead,  teach your Labrador to cross a tiny and insignificant puddle to get at the retrieve on dry land on the far side. You can put obstacles either side of the puddle or even create an artificial one,  so that he has no option but to go through it.

Once he will splash happily through a puddle and back with a ball or dummy it is time to find a tiny shallow stream. And I am talking seriously shallow here. It should go more than about a third of the way up his legs at the deepest part.

Again,  throw the ball across to land on dry ground on the far side of the stream.  If he hesitates, go with him the first time or two,  race him across. Be silly about it.  Have fun.  He will soon forget about getting his legs wet.

Slow steps to getting your dog to swim

You can see where we are  going with this now. Over time you can move on to deeper streams.

If the dog has a history of being wary of water, it is important that you do not ask the dog to pick up from  the water yet. Always throw the retrieve to the far side of a stretch of water that he cannot run around.   This is also a good principle for gundog training as it lays the foundations for crossing obstacles. Before you know it,  his fear will be gone and water will be a source of fun.

Is it worth teaching your dog to swim?

If you do not intend to work your Labrador,  you may feel it isn’t worth the bother of getting him into the water. And you may be right.  It all depends on your lifestyle.

Rest assured your lab can swim, and if he fell into a river, lake or canal he would not sink. But, just like people, dogs get better at swimming with practice. A competent swimmer will be calmer and more likely to survive if he falls in to deep water.

start with retrieves across shallow water and build up to deep water in stages
start with retrieves across shallow water and build up to deep water in stages

He won’t panic, and will be able to paddle around preserving his energy until he finds a way out, or someone comes to his rescue. So if you spend a lot of time around water, it is a good idea to get your dog some swimming practice.

Swimming is also great exercise for dogs with joint problems because it is not weight bearing. However, despite the fact that dogs can swim instinctively, you should never throw a reluctant dog into the water.  If you do,   he is unlikely to ever be willing to swim again.

When to start teaching your dog to swim

Whilst an adult labrador is perfectly happy to swim in cold water,  a pup or youngster may be put off if his first experience is a freezing one. Start getting puppies comfortable around water when they are small provided that the weather is warm. Let them splash around with an older dog if they enjoy it.

It is a great idea to get your dog retrieving from an early age so that you can use the retrieving method to get him swimming properly later on. Whichever method you use,  you will need to put a little time and effort in. One or two visits to the local pond or pool is not going to cut it with a dog that has disliked water for months or years. You will need to be persistent and take him regularly in order to desensitise him and relax him around water.

Some pups are complete water babies from day one. You can’t keep them out. That’s ok too. Make sure little ones can’t get into trouble in deep water, and enjoy the view!

Does your dog swim?

How did you get him swimming, or was he a water baby from the start?  Share your experience in the comments box below!

More information on Labradors

If you’d like all of our best Labrador information together in one place, then get your copy of The Labrador Handbook today.

The Labrador Handbook looks at all aspects owning a Labrador, through daily care, to health and training at each stage of their life. The Labrador Handbook is available worldwide. You can buy The Labrador Handbook from Amazon by following this link. If you do, The Labrador Site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated and won’t affect the cost to you!

You can also find more about the history of Labrador Retrievers in this guide!

This article was originally published in 2012 and has been extensively revised and updated for 2016

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