Can Dogs Instinctively Swim?

Does your dog hurtle towards every pool of water you come across, or shy away in fear? Discover why, plus the best ways to make water fun for your pup.

Mar 16, 2023By Donna Hobson
can dogs instinctively swim

Does your dog run excitedly toward any body of water in sight? Do they insist on jumping in lakes and ponds at every opportunity? They’re not alone, many dogs love to play in and around water, and several make excellent swimmers.

But can all dogs swim? And is this an instinctive behavior that they are born with? Discover what makes a dog a great swimmer, why some hate going near water, and the best ways to keep your pup safe.

Can All Dogs Swim?

dog jumping into swimming pool
Credit: Image by Katrin B on Pixabay

It’s a popular misconception that dogs are born with an instinctive ability to swim. Most dogs will make a paddling motion if they find themselves immersed in water. Still, that could be as far as their skills extend and may be more to do with them trying to reach the ground than to swim.

This instinctive paddling motion alone is not enough for some, and even if the dog could find a way to stay afloat, they do not understand how to propel themselves forward.

In addition, some breeds are not built to succeed in the water; flat faces or front-heavy bodies give them the inclination to submerge their face in the water. For these breeds, swimming is almost impossible without using a life jacket.

Still, teaching your dog the basics of swimming is a crucial skill that could one day save their life.

Which Dogs Are the Best Swimmers?

dogs swimming in water
Credit: Image by Stephen Marc

A dog's swimming abilities primarily come down to two factors: its breed and physicality. Natural swimmers include spaniels, poodles, setters, and the Newfoundland. Some adaptations that these dog types possess include webbed feet and waterproof coats.

Some breeds, such as the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrieverand Labrador retriever, have been specifically bred to retrieve water birds for their companion hunters. Others, like the Portuguese Water Dog, developed as fishermen’s helpers. And these circumstances have encouraged the evolution of inbuilt swimming ability for these breeds.

Breeds such as spaniels and retrievers possess ideal characteristics to make them great swimmers, such as long, muscular hind legs. However, please don’t assume you know your dog’s swimming ability by their breed alone. Other factors - such as your dog's age and physical ability - can come into play.

Which Dogs Struggle to Swim?

dog paddling in pool
Credit: Image by Stefan Glazer

Other dog breeds are far less capable in the water; these include Pugs, Bulldogs, Boxers, Dachshunds, and Pekingese. Common traits of non-swimming dogs include flat and broad faces (familiar in brachycephalic dogs), heavy heads, and disproportionately short legs.

One of the biggest problems for dogs with flat faces is that they must maintain an upright position with their bodies to prevent their face from submerging in the water. But in this position, it becomes increasingly difficult for the dog to stay afloat.

Dogs with stubby legs may struggle as they lack the necessary power to drive themselves forwards. And any dog that carries most of the weight at the front of its body will struggle to stop their head from going underwater, making swimming a dangerous exercise for them.

Can I Teach My Dog to Swim?

dog by water in lifejacket
Credit: Image by doglover Sara

Some dogs will adapt to swim training, and dogs will not. Unfortunately, the build and characteristics of some dogs are too difficult for them to overcome. Even dogs that are physically built for swimming may struggle with certain traits; for example, a dense coat that becomes waterlogged and drags them down in the water.

If your dog can’t swim, that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy playing in the water though. Most dogs love to splash through puddles and jump in lapping waves. This is a great way to let your dog have fun and exercise; the important thing is to know your dog's limitations and avoid placing them in water that is too deep for them to stand up in.

Remember that dogs are different; some pups might not even like being around water. When it comes to water-based activities, allow your dog to take the lead on what they can and cannot do, and don’t throw them in the deep end (so to speak) before they’ve learned to swim.

How Do I Teach My Dog to Swim?

dog playing in water with frisbee and wearing lifejacket
Credit: Image by Christiane

The first step in teaching your dog to swim is to buy them a flotation device - such as a lifejacket - that fits them well and gives them comfort. Not only will the life jacket help them to stay afloat and keep their face out of the water, but it will also help them to feel less scared of this environment.

If you throw your dog into a pool of water to see if their instincts will kick in, you could do more harm than good. Even a confident dog can develop a water phobia if its first swimming experience is frightening or traumatic.

When you introduce your dog to the water, ensure you do everything you can to keep them relaxed and let them know they’re safe.

Sometimes a dog will run into water of its own accord without realizing what it’s getting into. If they’re wearing a life jacket, they may be a little shocked at first, but they’ll soon relax and start to paddle their feet. As they become more confident and learn the motion of paddling, you can test their swimming ability in some shallow water.

In contrast, if your dog doesn’t wear a life jacket, it may panic when they first enter the water and begin to swallow water. Not only is this extremely dangerous, but it could give them a long-lasting fear of water.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.