Safety Tips for Canine Swimmers
In the upscale neighborhood of La Jolla, California, a five-year-old Great Dane with wobbly legs named Darwin can be found happily paddling laps in an outdoor pool that doesn’t belong to his owner. He isn’t trespassing— he has an open invitation from the resident, a retired doctor who once owned a Great Dane.
In the bathroom of an apartment in Pullman, Washington, a pug pup named Bruce wades in the warm waters of the tub to fish out floating kibble doled out by his owners. Bruce survived an attack by a larger dog at a boarding kennel, but surgeons had to remove his broken growth plate. With each tub treatment, Bruce strengthens his stride.
The big and small of all this is that dogs like Darwin and Bruce are taking to water like, well, Labrador retrievers.
SWIMMING FOR HEALTH
Whether the body of water is an ocean, lake, pool, or even a tub, the health benefits are immense for dogs coping with arthritis, postsurgical recovery, limb problems, extra pounds, or simply extra energy.
“Water therapy is good aerobic exercise, particularly because the water provides resistance,” notes M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD, a veterinary pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. She conducts canine sports medicine seminars worldwide and is the author of Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete. She says, “People are becoming more aware of canine rehabilitation and the important benefits and parallels to human rehabilitation.”
Water also offers natural buoyancy, far kinder on dogs than long walks on concrete sidewalks or arduous hikes on rocky terrain, adds Marty Becker, DVM, a veterinarian in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, who is known as “America’s Family Vet” and is coauthor of Fitness Unleashed.
“If you face a mismatch—having a hyper dog who needs a lot more exercise than you do—wading and swimming are ideal options,” says Dr. Becker. “With the right safety measures, your dog can benefit from exercising in water.”
Picking a body of water that is safe for your dog is the first step. Avoid rivers with strong currents, advises Dr. Zink. “Stay out of water that is stagnant or has algae on it, and beware of dogs jumping into stick ponds, where broken branches and stumps may be lurking under the water,” she adds. “Never let your dog swim in small ponds constructed to drain water from housing developments. They contain a lot of chemicals, such as those used to treat lawns.”
Dr. Becker adds another doggy water no-no: ponds at golf courses. “If you take a microscopic look at what lives in these ponds, it would freak you out,” he says. “Think: lots of parasites.”
No matter where your dog makes a splash, always rinse him off in clean water. For regular water lovers, book an appointment with your veterinarian to have your dog receive vaccines to protect against Giardia, a waterborne parasite. “We don’t want our dogs living in a plastic bubble, but these vaccines can offer them an extra barrier of protection,” says Dr. Becker.
Finally, discourage your dog from drinking salt water, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Take a water bowl with you, and offer your dog plenty of fresh water or ice to keep him hydrated.
Rely on positive reinforcement—small treats and heaps of praise—and gradually build up your dog’s introduction to water activities. At the beach, start with fun walks along the shore on the hard, wet sand. Have your dog get his paws wet with you.
“Give your dog lots of time to play around in shallow areas, and bring toys and treats that float,” says Dr. Zink. “Dogs who love to retrieve can be persuaded to go get a thrown toy, but do not throw it initially more than a few inches beyond your dog in the water. You want to gradually increase the distance.” For pool pooches, you need to teach them how to get up and down pool stairs and start with water play in the shallow end.
TAKING A BREAK
It is also important to know when enough is enough. End the water workout before your dog becomes overtired. “Some dogs are so happy to please and so ball motivated that they won’t stop and risk drowning,” says Dr. Becker. “Look for signs such as your dog breathing heavily, seeming to sit lower in the water, or taking more time to come back. These are signs telling you to stop and let your dog rest.”
Pay particular heed to dogs with barrel chests or flat noses, such as bulldogs and pugs, because their builds do not allow for their noses to poke far out of the water, Dr. Becker adds. Don’t assume a dog is a natural swimmer just because of his breed, either.
“Labradors, golden retrievers, and spaniels tend to be natural swimmers, but even within these breeds are dogs who are not good swimmers,” points out Dr. Becker. “We once had a black Lab named Sir Loin who hated water touching his feet.”
PADDLING TOWARD RECOVERY
As for dogs like Darwin and Bruce, water has proven to be a welcome source of exercise. Darwin was born with a condition called cervical vertebral instability, which resulted in malformed neck vertebrae that weakened his hindquarters and caused a wobble to his gait.
“He’s not in pain, but he’s unsteady on his feet,” says his owner, Melissa Studer, a marine conservationist from La Jolla, California. “When the weather is good, he swims in the pool for 30 minutes at a time. The benefits have been enormous, and I am just grateful that this retired doctor offered her pool for water therapy for Darwin.”
Mikkel Shannon overcame her initial shock at the news that Bruce had been severely bitten by a larger dog at a boarding kennel. He was nearly nine months old when the attack broke his growth plate and left him with a sixinch gap in the plate.
“The veterinarians at Washington State University (WSW) said it was better to remove Bruce’s broken growth plate than try to repair it,” Mikkel remembers. “They said physical therapy was necessary to build up the tissue and muscle around his leg.”
The WSU vets recommended hydrotherapy that included an underwater treadmill for Bruce. Mikkel and her husband, Pat, both college students, came up with a less expensive alternative: their bathtub.
“Bruce used to be scared of water, but now he gets excited going into the tub because he gets lot of treats and praise from us,” says Mikkel. “We fill the tub up to his chest, and he wades back and forth as we feed him kibble. The warm water works great on his muscles, and he is improving every day.”
WATER GEAR FOR DOGS
Onlookers may giggle at the sight of Darwin, a 150- pound Great Dane
spor ting a bright orange life vest at the beach, but owner Melissa Studer knows it is a necessity. “A fixed life jacket is a must—for any dog,” says Studer.
There are many types of canine
life jackets; Dr. Zink recommends a jacket that comes in a bright, reflective color and features an assistance handle and lightweight nylon material.
For dogs swimming in pools or leaping off anchored boats, doggy pool steps and floating dog ramps offer them sure-footed ways to get up and out of the pool or back on the boat.
As for water toys, choose ones that float and are easy to grab.