Are Dogs Born Knowing How to Swim?

A good swimming boy.
A good swimming boy. / stevecoleimages/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a dog near a body of water, you’ve probably discovered that they don’t require any extensive swimming tutorial before jumping in. Dogs are natural swimmers, able to stay afloat and propel themselves by paddling. It’s not going to impress Michael Phelps, but it gets the job done.

But how, exactly, do dogs know how to navigate water? Are they born knowing how to swim?

It really depends on the breed, and even then, it might be more accurate to say that some dogs were bred, not born, to swim. Breeds like Labrador Retrievers or Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers were encouraged by breeding to take to water to aid hunters or fishermen. Some, like the Irish Water Spaniel, have even developed a water-repellent coat to make them even more amphibious. They not only love the water, but they’re physically equipped to deal with it.

Other dogs may simply rely on instinct to paddle along, though that’s not exactly swimming. Instead, they’re in survival mode, and you may find that they aren’t able to move forward easily. Some breeds, like bulldogs, dachshunds, boxers, and other short-legged or bulky types, may sink like a stone in the water, their little limbs unable to generate enough force to move them around. Those with brachycephalic (blunt) faces, like pugs, might also get tired more easily or find themselves taking in water around their mouth. (Dogs exhibit the mammalian diving response, which slows heart rate and narrows blood vessels to conserve oxygen and prevents them from trying to breathe underwater, but they can still drown.)

The good news? You can teach a dog to swim. Getting a dog a life preserver can help them remain buoyant while they get a feel for how to maneuver around in the water. That’s because a dog may need some time to realize they can use their rear legs to propel themselves forward, not just their front legs. Playing with toys and showing them how to exit the water will also help them get acclimated. (Don’t rely on the antiquated practice of tossing a pup into the water. While some dogs might rise to the challenge, others may simply develop a lifelong aversion to it.)

Make sure the water temperature is warm enough for a dog—100°F is good. You should also make sure your dog doesn’t swallow too much water while swimming by limiting their laps. A private swimming pool is probably the best training environment, but always keep an eye on any pup in the pool and make sure your dog can find steps out of the water. Your dog should avoid saltwater and any lakes or ponds where blue-green algae is present.

Even if you impart some lessons, some dogs may simply be incompatible with water owing to short limbs, a coat that retains water, or personal preference. For these dogs, splashing in shallow water with your supervision may be the best way to enjoy themselves. They may not be born knowing how to swim, but playing seems to come naturally.

[h/t American Kennel Club]