Like most activities, it is best to expose a puppy to something new before they are 16 months of age. The experiences a dog has at that early age will affect their behaviour for the rest of their life. Once Kona was cleared by the vet to meet other dogs, we decided to make swimming a priority. It was great timing since the weather was beginning to heat up at that time.
One of the first things people assume when they hear about a labrador retriever is that they are excellent swimmers. While that is often true, the way the dog is introduced to the water is crucial to how they will take to swimming. P and I heard multiple stories from different people about labs who became afraid of water because of bad first experiences. The key it seems, is to make sure the dog has a gradual entrance to the water, such as you would find on a beach or shoreline. Dogs do not like abrupt entrances to the water, like on a dock or at a pool.
There is a shallow lake North of Markham called Musselman’s Lake. We brought Kona up there on a warm Saturday evening to teach her to swim. I was the official photographer, and P was responsible for encouraging her to enter the water.
It took 3 tries before she actually started to swim. The first time in the water she just splashed around, then ran back to the shore. The second time she got far enough in that she had to swim for just a second, before running back out again. The third time she kept going and swam a circle around P. I’m not sure who had more fun on that outing – Kona or us!
We’ve since taken Kona swimming in Lake Ontario, as well as at my parent’s pool. She is definitely more comfortable in lakes, as she has a better feel for how deep the water is. My parent’s pool has a staircase to enter the pool in the shallow end, which is where Kona was trained to enter the pool.
The one thing we discovered by taking her to a pool is that she gets anxious when humans are in the water. She thinks we are all drowning and wants to rescue us. She will go to the edge of the pool to try and pull you out of the water.
In fact, while she doesn’t like jumping in, she will if someone is in the deep end and she decides that they are in danger (often caused when they go underwater or splash significantly). This may sound cute, but it is not – eventually she will be 60 lbs or more, and you do not want an animal of that size bearing down on you when you are in the deep end. In fact, at 40 lbs now it is quite intimidating.
We had heard from several sources, including the trainer of the obedience class we go to, that some dogs are born this way and it can’t be trained out of them. This past weekend we went to visit my parents and it was Kona’s third time at the pool. She is now at ease with people in the shallow end – she seems to understand that we can stand up there.
We made a point of not splashing around too much while we swam. P also worked with her in the deep end. She sat outside of the pool, and he would tell her to “sit” and then “wait”. While she was waiting, he would swim away from her, or go underwater. Kona would obey the command, and not move, until he resurfaced / returned and told her “okay”.
This seems to have had a great effect on her. By the end of the afternoon, P was able to do the front crawl without Kona freaking out. It will take repeated practice, but we hope Kona will learn that humans can swim and she won’t be anxious when we are in a pool. Swimming is a great activity – we all (humans and dogs alike) enjoy cooling off in this hot weather, and there’s nothing like a day at the pool to tire out a puppy. It’s a win-win activity!