October 1, 2009
We have a 4-year-old German Shepherd. He’s very intelligent and generally a good dog, but we’re concerned and frustrated with his behavior whenever anyone is swimming in our pool. He doesn’t seem to understand that there’s no danger in swimming. He just runs around the pool barking like a crazed dog, trying to pull people out when they’re leaning on the edge.
There’s no peace in the backyard when anyone is trying to swim. He’s completely stressed out. His barking annoys us, as well as our neighbors. We just don’t know what to do anymore. The last time we had a pool party, we had to keep him in the garage because we couldn’t handle it. He’s afraid of swimming himself. He’ll lay only on the first step when he gets hot. I know he’s stressed, and I feel horrible, but I don’t know what to do to relax him while people are swimming.
I’d love any advice you have.
Woodland Hills, California
Dogs often don’t see the world the same way we do. I’m sure it’s frustrating for you, your family and your friends to witness your dog being “completely stressed out” while all you want to do is enjoy your time relaxing in the sunshine and splashing about. But if you think about it, swimming in pools could look pretty freaky to our domestic dogs. Without knowing for certain what they’re thinking, it’s possible to chalk it up to fear of the unknown. (While I’m a certified professional dog trainer with a scientific approach to animal behavior modification, I’m definitely not a psychic.)
Even dogs who are specifically bred to swim might look at swimming pools as something completely out of the ordinary. Although to you and me, and many others, swimming is and can be a fun recreational activity, there are human and nonhuman animals who find the activity quite scary. It would be unkind of us to say they are wrong or that their feelings aren’t valid. Oh, and let’s not forget that swimming can indeed be dangerous — just look at the statistics of drowning victims.
To help everyone feel more comfortable, let’s try to understand where your dog is coming from, and then do what you can to help him feel more at ease. This includes changing the environment in order to change the behavior.
From what you mention, it sounds as if you’ve got some things working for you:
- Your German Shepherd likes to lie on the first step to cool off, which means he’s not completely afraid of the pool.
- He’s “intelligent,” which means he’s able to stay focused and motivated, and “generally a good dog.” That’s just grand! I think it’s wonderful that you can see the good stuff, too.
- You know your own limitations, and have been able to manage the situation by removing him from the stressful situation. Again, this means you’re more ahead of the game than you think.
Making adjustments to his environment through training or management certainly can help set you up for more pleasant times together. Here are some tips for helping you achieve your goals.
- Reward all behaviors that you like (and want) your dog to do. That might include simply walking near the pool, lying in the pool, behaving in any way you like when he’s is close proximity to the pool. He can then associate the pool with fun times for him.
- Use every reward you have in your arsenal — petting, praise, food treats, playing tug, fetch and every other game he likes.
- Engage him in activities that not only are centered on him having a great time, but do so in an area that might normally be more stressful for him. However, build slowly — even starting out with a moment of R&R in the sunshine or reading to him for a few minutes while feeding him treats. Bonding with your dog is key to getting the behaviors you want. You can get more ideas for activities that make dog training fun in the Out of the Box Dog Training Game.
- Remember that it’s always important to gauge you dog’s comfort level and be careful not to push him beyond his threshold. For additional training tips to help your dog relax in stressful environments, see my dog training blog.
- Continue building up the distractions (more humans, more splashing, more chaos) in small steps, all while rewarding him for being brave around the pool.
- If you’re not able to train, you’ll have to manage his environment. This is a key component with any behavior modification plan. When you’re not able to teach your dog what you want and when you want it, preventing him from practicing behaviors you don’t want through management will help prevent these undesired behaviors from getting worse.
- If and when you have to put him in the house, do so before he responds negatively to the pool. Provide a nice chew bone or interactive food toy where he has to eat his meal from a toy. This provides activities he can enjoy, while you all enjoy your own activities. This is similar to when our parents would send us to our rooms with snacks and a movie to watch while they had company over. That way we enjoyed our time away from our family, and it wasn’t like being sent to our room as a punishment.
I have witnessed water-loving dogs jumping in and out of a pool, then behave in an opposite manner once humans disappear beneath the water. Bravo for recognizing that your dog is “completely stressed out” when it comes to humans frolicking in swimming pools and pool parties. And it’s doubly-good that you’re wanting to find some sort of solution, either through training or management.
I’m sure that especially during heat waves, wanting to help your dog feel more relaxed around the pool is on the top of your to-do list. With a little understanding, patience and consistency, you should be able to get your dog to enjoy being involved with the festivities. With time, you might have the next canine Esther Williams on your hands!
— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail us directly.