Chapter 13: Doing The Swim
Swimming is the best way to exercise your dog on a hot summer’s day. It's a form of exercise that creates a full range of motion in all the limbs, therefore thoroughly exercising every muscle in your dog’s body.
It’s also the perfect exercise for an older dog or one with any physical condition that makes weight-bearing exercise (that is, any kind of walking or running) somewhat of a strain. Plus it’s great physiotherapy - as long as your vet okays it - for dogs who are recovering from an injury.
Dogs And Water
The catch with swimming is that not all dogs like the water. Some do, some don’t. You might ask whether it’s cruel to make a dog swim when he or she would prefer not to. The answer is no, it’s not. And I’ll give you three reasons why:
If you have a water-loving dog you could use the command come when it’s time for a swim.
But if your dog dislikes the water, you must go to your dog when it’s time to do laps. This is because asking your dog to come to you for ‘unpleasant’ (in the dog’s mind) purposes might make your dog generally wary of coming when called.
My dogs are not big fans of swimming, but they regard being dried off as a pleasant activity, so when it’s Towel Time, I hold out the towel, and call doggies! come! - Jake and Jasmin see that towel and run towards me as fast as they can.
Other than that, there’s not much you need to say to your dog during this activity besides words of encouragement.
Some Big ‘Don’ts’
Session Versus Set
When I use the word ‘session’ I’m referring to the entire day’s swimming. The word ‘set’ refers to the number of laps done in a row. For example, your dog might do thirty laps in a day's swimming session which are broken up into sets of five.
Collar And ID Tag
Just because your dog’s going to get wet, it doesn’t mean that he or she should be naked. Like every other moment in your dog’s life, a collar with identity tag is essential.
After a session of swimming, my dog’s collars are not only saturated with chlorine from the pool, but also caked in dirt from post-swim digging and dirt-rolling frenzies. For these reasons I have designated collars for when my dogs go swimming.
If you decide to use the same collar for swimming as your dog uses for everyday wear, rinse off the collar after the day’s swim, otherwise the chlorine-soaked collar might irritate your dog’s skin.
Water-Lovers By Reputation
Even if you have a breed of dog like, say, a Labrador who by reputation likes the water, your dog won’t necessarily be a lover of swimming. Don’t be surprised if you discover that you have a water-hating dog whose breed has a water-loving reputation. It does vary depending on the individual dog.
Creating Happy Moments
Even if it turns out that your dog likes the water, dogs aren’t fish. Like us, they’re terrestrial creatures and being in the water is somewhat unnatural for them. Your goal, above all else, is to make your dog’s experience of this unnatural habitat as positive and enjoyable as possible.
Equipment Needed For Swimming
A Safe Pool Environment
By far the safest place you can swim your dog is in a pool. If you don’t have your own pool, you’ll need to access the pool of a dog-friendly relative or friend.
If you use your own pool, I’ll assume your backyard is dog-proofed for escape routes. However, if you’re using someone else’s pool, your first order of business is to thoroughly check all the fencing for holes or weaknesses.
Even if your friend or relative has a dog of their own, if their dog is not of your dog’s size or smaller, their backyard might not be dog-proofed enough for your dog. I’ll use an extreme example to reinforce my point: their Great Dane might not be able to get through the hole in the fence, but your Pomeranian could.
Exception To The Rule: Jasmin, The Escape Artist
Of course there are exceptions to the rule...and my dog Jasmin happens to be one of them. In other words, your dog might be bigger than the resident dog, but this doesn’t mean the yard is escape-proof for your dog, because the ‘escape-proofness’ of a yard also depends on the personality of the dog in question and his or her desire for adventure…as my dog Jasmin proved.
I’m lucky enough to have dog-friendly parents-in-law who have a backyard pool. My parents-in-law have two Toy Poodles, so we erroneously assumed that the yard would safely confine two Jack Russell Terriers - it held in two much smaller dogs, after all. What we didn’t take into account was the Toy Poodle’s desire to stay put versus the Jack Russell’s desire to never stay put.
Jake, the intrepid explorer, investigated every nook and cranny of the yard, but never attempted to flee the premises. Jasmin, never content to be contained by any barrier, inspected every square centimetre of the fencing for weaknesses and managed to escape through a hole that no dog her size should have been able to squeeze out of.
After three breakouts we finally discovered Jasmin’s secret escape route (it was cunningly hidden behind a bush) and blocked it. The yard then officially became a higher level of fortification than ordinary dog-proof: it became Jasmin-Proof.
The message is: assume nothing. Be sure to study the fencing well (check behind those bushes!) and completely block any holes. Err on the side of caution: even if it doesn’t look big enough for your dog to get through, block it off anyway, just in case. You might have an elastic-bodied Houdini dog on your hands and you don’t want to discover that the hard way.
Detour: Fences Don’t Just Keep Your Dog In
Fences are important to keep resident or visiting dogs in, but are also important for keeping other dogs out.
When John and I did the Pet First Aid Course, the instructor told a story about a dog who drowned in a neighbour’s pool. The thing is, the pool fence was closed but the dog accessed the pool through a hole that led directly into the pool’s fenced-off area.
So if you’re a pool owner keep an eye on ALL the fencing around your home, even if it’s within the pool’s fenced-off area.
Drinking From The Pool
Your dog shouldn’t drink from a pool anymore than you should. An occasional drink won’t hurt most dogs - just like accidentally gulping a mouthful of chlorinated pool water won’t hurt a person - but it’s certainly not ideal.
The best plan for prevention is to make sure there’s plenty of fresh water available to your dog so that he or she is less tempted to drink from the pool. Make sure the water bowl is placed in the shade so that it doesn't heat up.
Staying In Your Depth
The pool I use is the same depth all the way along. It’s also quite shallow, so even a short person like me can comfortably walk from end to end.
However, if the pool you use gets progressively deeper from one end to the other, ensure that you only move through the water with your dog up to the point where you can comfortably stand with your chest and shoulders out of the water.
Doggie Life Jacket
Putting a life jacket on your dog gives you peace of mind no matter what kind of dog you have and whatever swimming ability he or she has.
It ensures that even if your dog is not a particularly good swimmer, he or she will be able to successfully and safely do laps. It’ll also make a swimming champion of a special needs dog - one who is, for example, getting on in years, or has less than four legs, or is recovering from an injury but has the go-ahead by the vet to do some water therapy.
Why A Life Jacket At All?
A doggie life jacket is the watery equivalent of a doggie seatbelt. Sure most dogs can swim well - just as most can retain their balance pretty well in a car without being strapped in - but why not add that extra bit of safety?
Initially I never considered life jackets for my dogs (in fact I didn’t even know doggie life jackets existed!) until Jake started struggling during his swims. After buying him a life jacket and seeing how it helped him, I thought: “Why not get one for Jasmin too?” She didn’t need the help, but it would make her safer - and safer is always better!
What To Look For In A Doggie Life Jacket
Find a life jacket that:
The best life jackets currently on the market (and the ones I use for my dogs) are made by Ruff Wear.
How About Human Life Jacket?
For goodness sake, DON’T use a human life jacket on your dog! It won’t support your dog correctly and, rather than keeping your dog safe, will put him or her in danger of drowning.
Ignore Fearful Behaviour
When it comes to a frightened dog the rule is no mollycoddling, otherwise you’re encouraging fearful behaviour. Simply remain calm and patient.
Shallow Versus Deep
Whether the pool you use goes shallow to deep or remains the same depth all the way along, I’ll refer to the shallow end as the part of the pool where your dog exits, and the deep end as the side directly opposite.
Total Number Of Laps
How many laps your dog does in a day depends on a great many factors including age, breed, overall fitness, and any medical conditions. Get your vet’s advice as to how many laps is right for your dog.
Slow Build Up
Remember, slow change is safe change, so build up to the total number of laps your vet recommends over a period of weeks. How long will depend on the individual dog - again, solicit your vet’s advice and follow it.
A Seasonal Activity
Unless you’re lucky enough to have access to a heated indoor pool, swimming your dog will be seasonal.
This means that you can’t just pick up where you left off last summer - your dog will have to renew his or her swimming stamina each and every year, building it up gradually to the total number of laps (which will change as your dog ages) as if starting from scratch.
The Definition of ‘Lap’
When looking at the amount of laps my dogs do (see the next heading), keep in mind that the length of the pool I use is seven metres long and I’m defining ‘lap’ as going from one end of the pool to the other. In other words, one lap for my dogs equals seven metres. Your definition of ‘lap’ will be the length of the pool you use.
Stats From The Jake And Jasmin Files
In the first month of summer, my dogs build up to doing the following:
Who Swims What And When
First I swim Jake and Jasmin together for 10 laps per set. Once Jake has reached his maximum of 50 laps then Jasmin continues doing sets of 20 laps until she reaches her maximum of 100. Either way, the dogs always have rests in between sets.
When the dogs were first getting used to swimming, I would only swim each dog individually - first Jake, then Jasmin, then Jake again, etc, and that way each dog got to rest while the other swam. It's only when they got used to the idea of swimming that I started to swim them together.
Sometimes More, Sometimes Less
Depending on my timetable that day, I sometimes do less laps within less time, or more laps within more time. Sometimes Jake does up to 100 laps and Jasmin does up to 200 if I spend quite a few hours at my parents-in-law's pool.
Still, whether Jake does 50 or 100 laps and whether Jasmin does 100 or 200 laps, one thing is guaranteed: by the time the dogs get home, they’re knackered. Even the indomitable Jasmin is tired out (and that’s saying something!) which is confirmation at how awesome swimming is for energetic dogs.
Too Taxing For Jake?
I take every opportunity to swim my dogs during the summer months. Not only will it tire Jasmin out, guaranteed, but it’s the very best exercise for Jake.
Between walking and swimming, you’d think that walking would always be best for a terrestrial creature such as a dog, especially if he or she is getting on in years like Jake is. I mean, swimming is really tiring - what business do I have getting an arthritic older dog like Jake to swim laps?
Well, firstly, the very worst thing you can do for an aging dog is allow him or her to become sedentary. And, secondly, my vet recommended swimming for his arthritis. So swimming might not be Jake’s favourite exercise (I think sniffing is at this stage in his life) but it’s the best exercise for him.
However, don’t base what you do with your dog on what I do with mine: it’ll be your vet that will decide whether swimming is right for your aging dog.
Finding The Exit
Teaching water safety to your dog involves teaching him or her to exit the pool at the end of each and every set of laps. Doing this could one day save your dog’s life. (Like I said before, dogs can drown.)
Of course, this is where a fence comes in handy too, but, unless locked, pool fences can accidentally be left opened and you want a backup plan. Reinforcing to your dog where the pool’s exit is that backup plan.
Rashies And Doggie Wetsuits
Small dogs, puppies, and older dogs tend to feel the cold more. I use rashies (made for human infants) and doggie wetsuits for Jake and Jasmin.
I gauge what the dogs should wear while swimming by how I feel. If I need to wear a wetsuit, I'll put a wetsuit on the dogs. If I only want to wear a rashie then that's what the dogs wear too. If I'm too hot to wear either, the dogs will only wear their life jackets.
The Skamper Ramp®
The Skamper Ramp® sits above water level and can be seen by a swimming dog. If you own a pool it's an essential purchase. This is particularly the case if your pool has a ladder instead of stairs. But even if your pool has steps they’re underwater and therefore not easily visible to your dog.
Like any other safety device, it’s not a total guarantee, but it certainly heightens safety.
Safety Tips For The Skamper Ramp®
The Two Stages
A Quick Refresher
When your dog is new to swimming, it’s a good idea to refresh your dog during each session on Stage One (ie. exiting the pool) until your dog is very comfortable with it. Once your dog is habituated, you can begin each session at Stage Two (swimming) without refreshers.
Stage One: Exiting The Pool
Stage One is nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with safety. Stay at this stage for as long as your dog needs, and only go on to Stage Two when your dog is fully ready.
Exiting Via The Steps
Stage One involves getting your dog to stand on the pool’s steps for a couple of seconds and allowing him or her to exit the pool. Do this a dozen times (more if necessary) to reinforce to your dog how to exit via the steps.
Exiting Via The Skamper Ramp®
A Skamper Ramp® isn’t designed for a dog to stand on. So if you’re using one, put your dog on it only to show him or her how to use it. Do that a dozen times or more.
Stage Two: Swimming
During Stage Two, your dog swims while you support him or her by holding the handle of the life jacket.
Big, Unliftable Dogs
Don’t worry about not having the strength to lift a big dog - the water will do that for you. When I say that you'll support the dog by holding the handle of the life jacket, I’m referring to guidance through the pool rather than physical support. You’re not actually holding the dog up (the water is doing that for you), you’re only holding the handle to guide the dog as he or she swims.
Small, Liftable Dogs
Avoid inadvertently lifting a small dog partially out of the water as he or she swims. If you partially lift to begin with and then stop lifting, the sudden change in immersion levels might freak your dog out, which in turn may prevent him or her from ever liking (or at least being tolerant of) swimming. Allow your dog to be in a natural doggie swimming position as you guide him or her through the water via the life jacket's handle.
Exception To The Above Rule
If your dog can’t lift his or her head out of the water so that the chin is at least a centimetre off the surface, use the handle of the life jacket to make it happen.
I’ve found, for example, as Jake gets older, that he sometimes needs help to clear the water's surface properly. Sometimes the tips of his ears drag along the water it bothers him to the point where he shakes his head as he swims. Clearly, head shaking and swimming don’t go together, so I use the handle to lift him just a tiny bit so that his chin clears the water's surface. That way, he can safely and comfortably chug along like a little tug boat. (Jasmin - who swims more like speed boat - doesn't need any help in this respect, but may do so in her later years.)
To Your Side, With Distance
Have your dog swim on your left or right and allow some distance between you and your dog in order to avoid scratches from the dog’s paddling motion.
It's not good for the body to only turn in one direction. So I do a set of laps turning right and the next set turning left. That means that the dogs' muscles will develop evenly on both sides (nothing like having unevenness in the muscles to create injury). Another option is to always walk the pool in a figure of 8 - that way you're constantly alternating between turning right and left.
On The Left And The Right: Double Dog
If you, like me, have Double Trouble, once the dogs get used to swimming individually, you could swim them together - one on either side of you.
If you do this, swap the dogs’ position regularly so that they get used to being both on your right and left (you don’t want the dogs to get so used to being on a particular side that they become anxious if one day they end up on the side they're not accustomed to).
Remember, at the end of each and every set, have your dog exit the pool via the steps or Skamper Ramp®.
When Swimming Is Over For The Day
In the same way that humans need to rinse the chlorine off their skin after swimming in a pool, dogs should be rinsed after a swimming session for the same reason.
I also cover my dogs with a leave-in conditioner. That helps prevent their skin drying out due to the chlorine, plus, the leave-in conditioner I use contains aloe and oatmeal which is soothing to the skin.
Detour: Ball Crazy?
If your dog gets quite comfortable with swimming and he or she is crazy for chasing balls, you might think that using a ball as motivation for getting your dog into the water is a good idea.
But it's only a good idea in theory. What if that pool fence is left open one day and the neighbour’s kids accidentally hurl a ball over to your side and into the pool? Your dog could end up jumping into the pool on his or her own. (This is hopefully where the How To Exit The Pool component of your swimming lessons kick in, and your dog safely exits the pool.)
Now, sure, your dog could jump into a pool after a ball even if you don’t teach him or her to fetch the ball from the pool. Yes, that could happen. But why purposely build an association with balls and pools and therefore increase the chances of your dog wanting to jump in after a ball? Better not to, I say.
Natural Bodies Of Water
Pools are safest as they are the most controlled watery environment, but you might have access to a river, lake, pond, dam, or wave-free beach and want to swim your dog there.
Provided it’s safe for a human to swim there and dogs are allowed, you can use the instructions I’ve given to swim your dog in a natural body of water.
Because you can’t count laps, time your dog’s swimming sets - maybe five or ten minutes at a stretch, depending on the dog’s fitness level and what your vet recommends is best.
Little Dogs And Body Boards
There’s a netted wave-free beach close to my house and one day it dawned on me that I should be using it for my dogs’ benefit.
Rather than just walking through the water to swim the dogs as I would in a pool, I thought it would be fun to use a body board. The idea was to pop one dog on one end of the board, myself on the other, and kick to the edge of the netted off area.
Then, I thought, I’d use the handle of the life jacket to lift the dog off the board and into the water so he or she could swim back to shore with me paddling alongside. As Jasmin is a fast swimmer I also decided I should take flippers along too.
I tried it (and note: John was on shore taking care of whichever dog was not swimming), and it worked like a dream! I also discovered that I could just keep up with Jasmin by kicking my flippered feet at a moderate rate! Oh, and even if your dog is not a fast swimmer, flippers are a must as flippered feet kicking correctly create very little splash.
If you have a little dog and access to a safe wave-free body of water, get yourself a body board and a pair of flippers to try it out.
Boats And Dogs
Now that we’re ‘in the water’ so to speak, let’s talk boats. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a boat, take your beloved dog with you for a cruise. Have your dog wear his or her life jacket at all times while on the boat - it doesn't matter if your dog's paws never touch the water, it's a necessary safety precaution. If you're on an evening boat adventure, make it extra-safe for your dog by putting reflective anklets on him or her.
Your dog won’t be getting any exercise but, with all the other physical activity your dog’s now doing, who cares? Well-exercised dogs have to relax too, and your dog will love the adventure!
SAY NO TO PUPPY MILLS! SAY NO TO ANIMALS IN PETSHOPS! SAY NO TO BREEDERS!
Adopt a homeless animal instead - they all deserve a second chance
It's estimated that 130,000 dogs and 60,000 cats are killed every year in Australia because there are not enough homes for them all. And the global numbers amount to millions upon millions every single year.
Puppy mills are a major contributor to the terrible problem of overpopulation. Puppy mills are essentially 'dog factories' where dogs are forced to churn out litter after litter, with no thought for the welfare of the dogs and all thought for profit. The dogs live in appallingly dirty, cramped conditions all their lives, and when they no longer serve their purpose they're killed, dumped or sold to vivisection laboratories.
Petshops fit into the picture because puppy mills are generally where petshops get their animals from. Furthermore, having animals in shop windows encourages impulse purchases, and adding an animal to your family should be a conscious, careful decision - NOT one to be made while shoe shopping.
Breeders contribute enormously to the tragic statistics above too. And it doesn't matter whether they're professional breeders or backyard breeders, and whether they breed for profit or not, because while there are homeless animals sitting on death row in shelters, any and all animal breeding is utterly irresponsible.
Now, here's where you come in. You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. You can either buy animals from puppy mills, petshops or breeders and be part of the problem. Or you can adopt from a shelter or rescue organisation and be part of the solution.
If I haven't convinced you, visit your local shelter to see the homeless animals. Let their innocent faces convince you that adopting is the only responsible choice to make.
All information and photos are copyright © Despina Rosales.