Water Safety: Is that Happy Swimming or Panicked Paddling? 

by Julie A. Thomas, PhD

For most of us, summer in the Northwest involves some kind of water recreation -- whether swimming, boating, or simply wading on a shoreline. But that cool, inviting fun can present deadly risks for humans and dogs alike. In fact, while there are no solid statistics, insurance underwriters estimate several thousand dogs drown every year in backyard pools, and it’s hard to find estimates on drownings in rivers and other waterways. Regardless, there’s plenty of evidence that drowning risks are a true and frightening reality.

When things go badly, even the dogs who survive are harmed. In working with dogs at PAWS Rehab, we sadly do quite a few “repair” sessions to manage the trauma of dogs who fell or were thrown into water. For example, we recently worked with an extra-large Newfoundland who had fallen off a dock into the Willamette River, put her head under water, and didn’t attempt to swim. 

From our experience with every variety of canine swimmer, I offer these tips for making a safe and happy introduction to summer’s best recreation. 

MYTH: “All Dogs Can Swim”  

Many people assume dogs are natural swimmers, especially the retriever breeds. Not so! In fact, what looks like swimming may not be at all. Noisy splashing with front limbs is not swimming, but a desperate attempt not to drown. Many dogs don’t initially know how to use their back legs to propel them through the water. With true swimming, all four legs are kicking, the body is horizontal (not head up and body down), and it’s relatively quiet.  

“Location, location, location!!”

If you don’t know whether your dog is a strong swimmer, start with a calm pond or swimming pool.  Consider the water temperature and cleanliness, too, because many local lakes and rivers are cold enough to cause hypothermia, and some are frequently under alerts for toxic algae or other contamination. 

“You don’t get a 2nd chance to make a 1st impression!” 

Please, never throw your dog into the water. Provide a safe and gradual introduction, either by walking your dog down a gentle shoreline, or down the stairs or ramp of a pool. Make it inviting and fun, too: dogs may need toys or treats to entice them, and it often adds to their success if a human family member joins them in the water.

 Have an Exit Plan!

Always make sure they know how to get out safely. The majority of drowning deaths in pools are because the dog was unable to climb out. Because dogs can’t climb ladders, you’ll need to provide a ramp or steps, and you’ll find several models of inexpensive, life-saving ramps on the market. 

Gear Up!

Life jackets and float coats are money well spent, and at PAWS Rehab, we always start new swimmers with them. Even if dogs are experienced lake or river swimmers, float coats provide initial security while dogs adjust to the different sights, smells, and configuration of a pool. Flotation devices also help support elderly dogs or those with hind-end weakness, and are often helpful for flat-faced breeds such as pugs and bulldogs. And, because they’re available for dogs from six to 175 pounds, it’s easy to find a good fit. 

Water Intoxication

Even the strongest swimmers can swallow too much water from swimming, retrieving, or even playing with a backyard hose or sprinkler. Water intoxication will cause vomiting, weakness, or make a dog suddenly appear “drunk,” and it’s a medical emergency. You can manage the risk by limiting and moderating water playtime, and get immediate medical help if you see signs of trouble.


Julie A. Thomas, PhD, is co-owner at PAWS Rehab (Paws Aquatics Water Sports and Rehabilitation) in Hillsboro, which provides canine aquatic therapy -- including underwater treadmill therapy -- and an array of recreational swimming for dogs of all ages and abilities. You can find her at PawsRehab.net.