September 30, 2009
Throughout the summer, and even heading into our warm-weathered Fall, Poncho and I have received a few questions from dog guardians regarding their dogs “freaking out” when it came to swimming pools.
The dogs either didn’t want to go anywhere near it, or would bark and patrol the area when their human family members splashed about in the water. Even if the dog would jump in and out of the pool on his or her own, playing and going after toys, their reaction would often change when people would all of a sudden “disappear” underneath the water.
Being a dog mom myself I can surely attest to this: Poncho is definitely not a water dog. He’s really not into going into any body of water. (Although, he does seem to enjoy bath-time which I can bet probably has more to do with the snackies I’m giving him).
I’ve also witnessed my friends lab Chief jumping in and out of the water, playing and fetching his tennis ball. But as soon as his human family members dive under water, he begins barking and patrolling. What’s he thinking? Who knows. I’m not a mind reader. Why is he doing what he’s doing? Hmm, my best guess is that pools are just weird to dogs. And some dogs adapt more easily than others.
What’s the solution? Simple. Condition (teach, learn, practice) these dogs to adapt to these bizarre surroundings, watch for the behaviors you do like, even the smallest ones, and reward him or her for being “brave” around pools.
Keep in mind that it is always important to gauge a dogs comfort level, which you can do by reading his or her body language. And always take care in not pushing him or her beyond their “threshold.” Meaning, small steps to help get them used to being around a pool. Making it enjoyable for them, so he or she can build confidence. Just like the old fashioned way of teaching us humans to swim by throwing us into the deep end has taken a long walk off a short pier, it’s not the best approach to teaching our dogs either.
For the complete article on the German Shepherd being afraid of the swimming pool, please see this specific Dear Inquisitive Canine column. The following are additional training tips for helping your dog in stressful situations. In addition to the above suggestions, you’ll want to:
- Gauge your dogs comfort level by seeing how easily s/he engages in the play activities, and if s/he is taking food rewards. Few animals eat when they’re scared and stressed. If they are eating tidbits of steak or chicken then use these items to reward him or her being near the pool. No pool, no high value treats. In this case it’s not punishment. Your dog is clearing letting you know they’re uncomfortable.
- If s/he is not staying focused on you when near the pool, and not eating, this can be interpreted as being beyond his or her level of comfort, also known as his “threshold”. We all have a breaking point. It’s best to keep your dog below his or her level of stress so they can build their confidence and comfort level around the pool.
- To help the process move along even more rapidly, you can begin the “pool = good stuff for your dog” training plan by introducing him/her to it slowly. Start out with just the two of you, sitting poolside, enjoying the sunshine. Play, have snacks, cuddle, then go inside – stop all rewards and attention. Do this a few times before making it more difficult for him or her. You can then sit with your feet in the pool, but not go all the way in. Those times when s/he chooses on their own to go lie in the water to cool off, go in with them, but wade in the area s/he is in, again providing all rewards that your dog responds well to.
So, if Poncho isn’t a water dog, why did I go to the trouble of trying to get him in? Well, I wanted him to practice getting out of the pool. In case there was ever a time that he fell in a pool (we don’t have one, but we have friends who do), he might be less scared. Yes I was hoping that he would enjoy it. But nope, even steak, chicken, and his tennis ball didn’t change his mind. Sure I could take the time to condition him to love the pool. But since we don’t have a pool, and it’s not a huge concern for us, and not a big priority, I’d rather spend my time teaching him things that are more important for our lifestyle such as discrimination and agility. If I want to go swimming with dogs I have plenty of my friends dogs to choose from.