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Have you ever witnessed the pure joy of a lab belly-slamming into a lake after a tennis ball, a border collie cooling off in the ocean on a hot day, or a Newfoundland proudly saving his human companion from the backyard pool – even when they don’t actually need saving? Many dogs love to swim, but when it comes to dog exercise, the go-to activities are usually walking, running, or playing fetch. Just like humans, dogs enjoy variety, and there’s no better way to get it than with swimming.

Swimming is an excellent form of exercise for your dog – and for you! It does wonders for overall health, providing an aerobic workout that also tones and strengthens muscles. And since swimming is low impact, it can be especially beneficial as therapy for dogs who are rehabilitating from an injury or surgery, have joint problems, or are older or overweight. Plus, diving in with your canine companion can be a great way to foster the bond you two share.

Here are five reasons your pup should take the plunge:

1. It Improves Overall Health

Swimming is one of the best, most complete forms of exercise for your dog. Just one minute of swimming equates to four minutes of running! It provides numerous health benefits, including strengthening the heart and lungs, decreasing inflammation, increasing metabolism, and improving circulation which helps keep the skin and coat healthy. Plus, moving their limbs against the resistance of the water uses every major muscle group, improving overall tone and strength. All this adds up to a healthy, happy dog who can run, play, and have fun for longer with less risk of injury.

2. It’s Joint-Friendly

Swimming is low-impact, non-concussive, and non-weight bearing, meaning it allows your dog to enjoy all the benefits without putting stress on their joints and tendons. When submerged, the water takes on most of your dog’s weight, supporting their body and relieving their skeletal system from the stress of jarring impacts that can occur when exercising on land. Furthermore, swimming gets dogs moving in a different way than they usually would on solid ground, which improves their range of motion. All these advantages make swimming an especially-beneficial form of exercise for dogs with joint disorders such as arthritis or dysplasia, and wonderful rehabilitation for pups who are recovering from orthopedic or neurological injury.

3. It’s Stress-Relieving

Not only is swimming great for your dog’s physical health, it also improves their mental wellbeing. Just like humans, dogs need mental stimulation in the form of play, fun, and varied activities that differ from the norm to help them stay sharp and happy. Swimming allows dogs that are usually restricted to exercising on a leash the freedom to get out all their pent-up energy without feeling restrained. Plus, a happily worn-out dog is more likely to look forward to going home and sleeping, allowing them to reap the restorative benefits of a good night’s sleep.

4. It Can Be Pain-Relieving – Warm Water Swimming

Swimming in warm water can be an excellent form of therapeutic exercise for dogs, aiding in the recovery process by strengthening joints, facilitating circulation, and helping fortify muscles. Not only is the warm water pain-relieving, it also promotes blood flow and helps to warm up muscles quicker, reducing the risk of further injury. If you don’t live in a warm climate or have a heated pool, many cities have rehabilitation facilities with heated pools for recovering pets.

5. It’s Great for Overweight Dogs

In the case of overweight dogs, it can be difficult to provide them adequate exercise on land without overworking already-stressed joints and muscles. With the water supporting most of the dog’s weight, swimming is a great way for overweight pups to burn calories and improve their metabolic rate without the risk of injury. Together with a balanced diet, swimming can help bring heavy dogs back down to a healthier weight.

What If My Dog’s Not a Natural-Born Swimmer?

While it’s true that some dogs are more naturally inclined towards swimming than others, most can learn to have confidence in the water when it’s taught with loving care. Approach teaching your pup to swim with the same patience and reassurance you would when teaching a child. If your dog seems apprehensive about entering the water, let them acclimate to the idea at their own pace and offer rewards in the form of treats, praise, or affection to further encourage the desired behavior.

You can begin with a small amount of water – such as a few inches in a kiddie pool – and gradually increase the depth until your dog feels comfortable being submerged. You can also try gently luring your pup into shallow water with a reward, progressively moving further out until they come willingly into deeper water. If they seem unsure of what to do once submerged, try cradling them under their belly (without restraining them) and guiding them through the water encouragingly until they get the hang of swimming on their own. If you make it a pleasant experience, your dog will quickly learn that swimming is something to look forward to.

Where and When Should I Take My Dog Swimming?

There are a number of ways for your dog to enjoy the water – diving into the local pond or creek, taking a dip in the ocean, or joining you in the family pool. Even if you are without an outdoor swimming spot or a backyard pool, many areas have swimming facilities exclusively for pets.

To prevent your pup from taking in too much saltwater or chlorine, always provide an ample supply of fresh water before and during their swim. Also remember to rinse them off after a swim, cleaning out the ears and snout, to avoid irritation to the skin or eyes, or discoloration of the coat.

The amount of time your dog can safely spend swimming varies depending on their physical fitness, overall health, and breed. When swimming, the main thing to keep in mind is to ensure your dog does not become overtired. Some dogs will naturally protect themselves from over-exertion by stopping when they’re tired, but others may push themselves to the point of exhaustion which can be dangerous when swimming. Keep water and food close by, and ensure your dog takes plenty of breaks.

A Note About Safety

Whether your dog is an experienced swimmer or a first-timer, you should always keep safety in mind. Never leave your dog unsupervised or lose sight of them when they are in the water, and ensure there’s an easy exit point available such as a gently sloping embankment, beach, or ramp. Be sure to teach your pup where these exit points are – they won’t always know on their own – and in a backyard pool, train them where and how to use the steps. In the open water, beware of fast moving currents, surf, and undertow.

It’s also a good idea to purchase a canine life vest, especially if your dog does not display the most natural aquatic ability. Your pup should always have a life vest on if you are not within reach of them. Dogs with shorter legs or a lower body fat percentage may have a more difficult time staying afloat and can especially benefit from the extra buoyancy a life jacket provides.

Just as swimming is an excellent way to get fit for humans, it’s also an amazing form of exercise, mental stimulation, and healing for our canine companions.


Written by Dr. James St. Clair