Swimming Dogs: Water Hazard and Safety Tips

By Cameron Woo, July 2020, Updated March 2021
Swimming dogs water safety

Swimming can be a great activity for your dog. It’s both wonderful exercise and a fun way to cool down during the hot summer months. In this article, we talk about preparing your pup for the water, introduce the best practices for canine water safety and note some water-related medical issues to look out for. Whether it’s time spent poolside, at a favorite lake or stream, or at the beach, be prepared and keep your swimming dog safe with these tips:

In this article: Prepare Your Pup for the Water; Dog Swimming Safety; Water-Related Hazards

Prepare Your Pup for the Water

While it’s easy to assume that all dogs love the water and are “natural-born swimmers,” that’s not the case. Some don’t like the water, and all dogs need to learn to swim. Give your dog time to acclimate by slowly easing him into the “deep end.” Throwing a stick or ball into the water is a good way to start; toss it progressively farther from shore or the shallow end of the pool until your dog seems comfortable with the activity.

Just like humans, fear and fatigue can overwhelm swimmers of any level, so carefully monitor your pup around the water.


Sign up and get the answers to your questions.

Email Address:

Dog life jackets are a great idea if you and your dog plan to spend time on or near the water—say, on a boat. These flotation devices are a great safety precaution but require some getting used to, so best to try one out on your dog on land or at poolside.

Dog Swimming Safety

Near a swimming pool:

•The best precaution is to prevent access with a gate or sturdy pool cover.

•Always supervise your dog’s water activity and make sure he has a way to easily exit the pool (via steps or a ramp), and knows how to use it.

At streams, rivers and lakes:

•You’ll have more peace of mind during “wild swimming” or boating activities if your dog’s wearing a properly fitted, quality canine life jacket.

•Keep your dog out of water that you wouldn’t swim in yourself. Beware of toxic algae blooms, submerged objects (on which a dog could be impaled) and areas guarded by aggressive wildlife.
•Don’t permit your dog to harass water fowl or local wildlife.
•Monitor your dog. Swimming can be more tiring than running, so watch for signs of fatigue, including trembling, heavy panting and/or swimming lower in the water or slower than usual.

At the ocean, where hazards are multiplied:

•Don’t encourage your dog to venture far offshore. That means, don’t toss retriever toys and floats way out into the water. In the ocean, your dog is vulnerable to rough waves, riptides and crosscurrents, any of which can be deadly.

•If your dog is a toy breed or has short legs or a short muzzle, consider outfitting him with a life jacket, whether or not he intentionally goes into the water.

Ocean water is bad for dogs, so do your best to keep him from drinking it. Large amounts of salt water can sicken a dog, and may even prove fatal. Offer him fresh drinking water regularly.

•Likewise, while your dog may love rolling in stinky fish and other things that wash up on the beach, he shouldn’t eat them. Dead fish and other marine life can contain deadly toxins.

•Be aware of the sun. Overexposure can be as hazardous to dogs as it is to humans. Seek shade throughout the day and consider applying a canine-specific sunblock 30 minutes before time in the sun.

Water-Related Hazards

Water intoxication, also known as hyponatremia, can occur when dogs ingest large quantities of water very quickly. This can occur with dogs who repeatedly dive open-mouthed into the water to retrieve a ball or toy. It’s relatively rare but potentially fatal. Excessive water in the system causes electrolyte levels to drop, thinning blood plasma and leading to swelling of the brain and other organs.

“Swimmer’s tail,” or Acute Caudal Myopathy (aka limber-tail syndrome), typically affects large-breed dogs, causing the dog’s tail to droop after too much time playing in the water. This type of overexertion can strain the muscles that keep a dog’s tail up and wagging. Along with tail limpness, the base of the tail is often stiff, and the dog may experience pain.

Hypothermia can affect dogs as well as humans. The general rule is that if you need to get out of the water because you’re getting cold, so does your dog.

Beware of fishing hooks. If your dog is swimming while you or others are fishing, be alert. Keep your dog away from your tackle box and whatever you may haul in to prevent him from swallowing fishhooks. Plus, don’t hook your dog; keep him at a safe distance while casting.

And on the subject of fish ... salmon-type fish (salmon, trout, char and others) found in waters along North America’s Pacific Northwest coast can carry a parasitic fluke (a type of worm) infected with a micro-organism called Neorickettsia helminthoeca. Dogs who eat these fish raw may come down with salmon poisoning disease (SPD), symptoms of which include fever, enlarged lymph nodes, and debilitating diarrhea and vomiting. Left untreated, SPD is fatal to 90 percent of the dogs who contract it.

Time spent in the water can be a delightful experience for both you and your dog. Abide by these simple practices to keep your dog safe and well.

Photo: Shane Aldendorff / Pexels