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Why Can’t Some Dog Breeds Swim?

It’s no coincidence the “doggy paddle” is one of the first swim strokes taught to beginning human swimmers. It’s simple to learn and mimics the technique of our beloved dogs, which are notoriously great swimmers… or so we’re taught to believe.

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Lots of dogs love the water. In fact, some dogs even have a breed-based desire to swim (like these 15 dog breeds that are great swimmers). Portuguese water dogs are so notoriously dedicated to swimming that some experts suggest families looking to adopt them should live where the dogs will be able to swim.

But what’s less widely known is that not all dogs can swim. I learned this the hard way in elementary school when my dog, a bichon frise, began to sink while trying to follow some nearby ducks. (Thankfully, we fished him out quickly and kept him away from water after that.) The truth is certain dogs, and certain dog breeds, are more prone to sink than others. While any dog can drown and every dog is an individual, a few physical characteristics make it harder for some dog breeds to stay afloat.

But what exactly are the factors that can make a dog a poor swimmer? I checked in with the experts at PetCoach and checked out some other expert literature to find out.

1. Whiskers may help your dog sense the water and position his head better

Whiskers (also called vibrissae) serve an important biological purpose. According to the experts over at PetCoach, they “are connected to the largest of twelve pairs of cranial nerves; larger than those dealing with other senses such as smell, hearing and sight.” Essentially, Fido’s whiskers send information from his surroundings straight to the brain. (Learn more about why dogs have whiskers.)

While all dog breeds have whiskers, some may be clipped down in regular grooming practices. And here’s where swimming comes in: Research shows that whiskers may be instrumental in helping a swimming mammal navigate the waves better — both by keeping good body position and keeping the head above water. According to Kathleen Wong, author of California Wild’s article “Whiskers! A Feel For the Dark,” “One researcher found that rats which had paddled along swimming in turbulent water drowned after their vibrissae had been removed. Without whiskers, the animals were unable to keep their noses above the waterline.”

The bottom line is length and amount of whiskers may have an impact on a dog’s ability to swim, so next time you’re at the groomer, you might want to tell them to skip clipping the whiskers.

2. Body structure can impact balance, speed and your dog’s ability to keep its head above water

More widely accepted, factors like large heads, short snouts and legs, barrel-chests and smaller hind ends can all impact a dog’s ability to be a water champion. “The most extreme example of these breeds, the Bulldog, is so poorly built for water survival that breeders and rescue groups often require a home check to ensure that a pool is safely fenced off,” notes Dr. Marty Becker in his Vetstreet article, “Can All Dogs Swim?” Where there is water, these poor pups need a lifeguard 24/7.

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3. Hair type and density may add more water weight than your dog can carry

Less talked-about factors have to do with a dog breed’s hair type and density. While my childhood dog could swim, the sheer quantity of hair he had as a bichon made it impossible. His hair quickly began to absorb the water and drag him down. Dog trainer Kristina Lotz notes the same of shih tzus in her IHeartDogs article, “10 Dog Breeds That Are the Worst Swimmers.” “If they are in ‘full coat’ it gets really heavy in water,” she writes. Add to that their small legs, shorter snouts and barrel chests and Shi Tzus [sic] aren’t expected to win next year’s dock-diving competitions.

4. Some dog breeds just don’t seem to like the water

A final possible factor in champ swimmers is temperament. It seems some dog breeds are predisposed to dislike (and even hate) the water, which could have to do with a variety of factors. VetStreet surveyed 249 veterinary professionals in 2014 and found that certain breeds top their list of “water-shy” canines, including the Chihuahua, Yorkies and bichons in the top three spots.

Dog water-safety tips

Of course, each dog is an individual and certain dogs may beat the odds (or have a self-destructive tendency to dive into water anyway). So here are some quick FAQs from the PetCoach team of experts to help you keep a water-loving dog safe:

When can puppies start to swim?
“Puppies as young as 8 weeks can be introduced to water,” notes this PetCoach Q&A. “Always supervise and rinse afterwards, especially if swimming in a lake or pond. Dry the ears thoroughly as well.”

So how do I best introduce my dog to water?
The best technique is to go at a comfortable pace for your dog. You also want to avoid creating unnecessary trauma early in Fido’s swimming life. (Check out these tips for getting your dog used to water.)

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Do I need to do anything special before swimming?
Keep your dog up-to-date on all vaccines and heartworm and flea/tick medication. Additionally, make sure you have plenty of drinking water around for doggy (and yourself!).

What about a life vest? Does my dog need one?
Yes — and there are lots of good reasons all dogs should have one, even those champ swimmers. They can help dogs swim longer and make them more visible in water.

Do I always need to watch Fido swimming?
Absolutely. Never leave a dog unattended near water! Even if your dog is a fantastic swimmer, be sure to keep him away from water unless someone’s available to supervise.

Are there any health risks to swimming?
There are plenty of parasites a dog could contract while swimming. You’ll want to make sure your dog is up-to-date on all vaccines and preventative medications and pay close attention to any changes in behavior or health afterward. Ask your vet about any other specific concerns like ear and eye infections for your individual dog and how to avoid them.

As the weather begins to warm (especially for us up north) and we begin to spend more time near and in the water, it’ll do us some good to know how our canine best friend will handle it. We may love the lake, but puppy may not. We have to face the facts — some breeds were built to sink, not swim, and we’ll love them all the same.

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