Hunting Dogs photo

While perusing the submissions for the next reader training tip knife giveaway, I came across a question sent in by reader Jesse Brenwall. Jesse was dealing with a frustrating and not-uncommon problem: a dog who still refuses to swim despite your best efforts.

Jesse writes: After reading some of the current tips for training the Cheetos to help with water I figured you may be able to help me with a problem I am having with my dog. I do however feel as though I have wrecked him. I rescued a lab golden when he was about 7 months and let him run into chilly deep water in April and now is almost a year and he hasn’t been the same since. I have tried getting him to swim with the pack and he just stands on the shore and chases them on the bank.

I have also tried throwing his retrieving toys out and he waits for them to float back in if at all normally loses interest. I have tried bringing him out and he swims back to shore just fine. I have recently got him to standing in the water and running around in it by having him chase food around but I have hit another wall with him not leaving anything deeper than just touching his chest. So if you could show me where I can find any tips that would get him to actually leave shore and swim that would be greatly appreciated or maybe ask and see if someone has also over come this problem.

While I’ve had my share of dogs who were reluctant to swim (my first lab was a particularly late bloomer in that regard) I’ve never had quite the problem Jesse does. Jesse sounded like he needed some pro-level advice, so I posed the question to pro retriever trainer and Tri-Tronics Field Product Specialist Mike Witt. Here’s what Mike had to say:

Jesse, the situation though seemingly difficult or unsurpassable may be able to be dealt with. My first question would be to someone…” how much trust does your dog have in you?” If the trust or bond between the dog and it’s trainer is strong, one should be able to weather through the problem. It will more than likely take a bit of time and definitely a good deal of patience.

Instead of the pack method of trying to get the dog in the water, which works some of the time but doesn’t seem to here, you try being the leader. If possible, find a body of water that would have a solid bottom, gradual depth, either put on the bathing suit or what would be appropriate and get in the water and have the dog join you. Treat training may work if the dog is truly “food motivated” but not all dogs have the same motivating factor.

Trust will be your biggest tool. Right now is a perfect time of the year…weather and water should be warm for both dog and human. Attempt when the dog is fresh…not already tired from a previous exercise where he/she might already be stressed. Remember the dog already has a phobia, so sessions should be kept short and positive. Do not expect immediate success or miracles. Simply get the dog comfortable in the environment and once you begin to see a “comfort zone ” developing, take it slow, but a “step” forward…you must teach to crawl then walk then run…so to speak. Just getting comfortable may take several trips to accomplish.

Again I would suggest one on one interaction so the dog will focus on you (if that trust is there). A dog is merely a creature of habit and it usually takes at least 21 days of performing the same task to change and develop a habit. If you’re in the southeast Wisconsin area, I’d be glad to help. I have encountered several retriever owners that have caused their dogs to reject the water…i.e. taught the dog to swim during its first year of life, had it out hunting during a duck season, have the usual winter time break from water activity, only to return to the water too soon, or too much water time in cool to cold water and develop the same issue.

By stepping back and getting into the basic fundamentals they followed the previous year at a more favorable water temperature environment is usually all that is needed. Hopefully you have caught this in an early stage and haven’t tried to force too hard into the water and it will turn out to be a good result for both.

Good advice, and good luck, Jesse. Hope this helps.