Not all dogs love water. In fact, not even all Labrador retrievers, a breed known for their swimming abilities, love water (although they are certainly the anomalies)! It’s important not to force your dog to swim.
Many owners also would like their dogs to enjoy water, allow baths, or at least not be afraid of the beach! Luckily, using positive reinforcement training, we can teach your water-shy pooch that water is fun.
A Note on the Importance of Early Life Socialization
If you don’t have a dog yet, or have a young puppy, it’s important to take advantage of a very precious thing in your dog’s life. Your dog goes through what’s called a critical socialization period between the ages of about 5 weeks to about 12 weeks. I can’t say enough how important it is to understand what your puppy’s development looks like at this age.
Basically, your puppy around this age is a sponge. New experiences are easily accepted – including water! If your dog is not introduced to water (or anything new, really) before this age, she’s much more likely to be scared of it.
This makes evolutionary sense because mother dogs keep their puppies safe for their early lives. Chances are if a mother dog kept her puppies away from something until this age, it’s dangerous! So evolution has made your puppy much more accepting of new things while she’s young, and much more suspicious as she gets older. Imagine a dog that was never scared of anything new! They’d quickly get themselves into trouble with cars, bears, or other dangerous things.
This critical socialization period is an extremely important few weeks of your puppy’s developmental life. Not just for water, but for everything. Socializing a dog gets a lot tougher when your dog is an adult!
So how do you socialize your pup?
Think of all the situations you want your dog to be comfortable with as an adult. Then, attempt to expose your puppy to them in a positive way before this window closes. A few quick experience ideas are below.
- New sounds (thunderstorms, vacuums)
- New surfaces (tile, grates, shiny floors)
- Funny-looking people (tall bearded men, women in sunglasses and hats),
- Strangely-moving objects (people on crutches, bikes, skateboards)
- Different animals, among countless other things.
You can read lots more about the importance of socialization and how to socialize your puppy here. A well-structured puppy kindergarten is a huge help, and I would recommend signing up for one immediately. Of course your young puppy may not be fearful yet – but this class will help keep her that way for her whole life.
Now, back to water! Specifically to introduce a young puppy to water, you want to keep a few things in mind:
- Safety. Stay close to your puppy and don’t let her swim out too far, even if she’s enjoying herself. Even if she’s enthusiastic, she still can get tired easily. We recommend picking out a canine lifejacket to keep your pup safe and afloat. You might also want to consider a dog float where you and your pup can rest safely floating on the water so your dog can get acquainted with the wet stuff.
- Location. Since your puppy isn’t finished with her immunization shots yet, don’t just let her frolick around in just any water source! She could be exposed to parvo or distemper. You can use a bathtub, a pool, or fresh, clean water that’s in a location that is not frequented by dogs. Dog parks or dog pools are full of germs that could hurt your young puppy! Save those splashes for later.
- Positivity. As noted above, you can’t just use the critical socialization period to expose your puppy – you need to make those experiences positive as well! Bring lots of treats, some fun dog water toys, and never, ever force your puppy into the water. This scary experience could have the opposite effect, giving your dog a permanent phobia of the wet stuff!
Now that we’ve got some ground rules in place, let’s move on to actually introducing your dog to the water. Luckily, this step is the same for puppies and adult dogs!
Training Your Dog to Like Water
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a brand-new puppy or an older dog, you’ll introduce your dog to the water the same way.
Keep in mind that this process will take longer if your dog is older or has already had some bad experiences with water. Be patient, and keep it positive!
Dogs don’t appreciate just being thrown in the deep end, so we’ll proceed on their terms. We want water to be fun, so avoiding punishment, scolding, or scaring your dog is incredibly important.
First, pick out a location. I’d suggest a quiet beach where your dog can easily walk up to the water without barriers. Some things to look for:
- Ideally, the water should start out very shallow so that your dog gets her toes wet, then her ankles, and so on. I like inland lakes or ponds for this reason.
- Avoid rivers, as the current is scary and dangerous for your dog!
- If you must use a bathtub or dog pool, find a way to create a ramp for your dog. This is for her safety and emotional comfort. If your goal is bathing, not swimming, then use a bathtub!
- Keep in mind that crashing waves or deep, sticky mud will also make this outing much harder! Aim for a sandy or rocky bottom.
Don’t forget your treats! I suggest using one or more of these awesome training treats. These treats will help you show your dog that water is good.
You have two options to proceed for training – you can use one method or combine these options together. Both options utilize a clicker. If you’ve never clicker trained before, check out this great article on how to clicker train. While the clicker isn’t necessary the way treats are necessary, I highly recommend using one.
Option #1: Classical Conditioning
If you’ve ever heard of Pavlov, you’ve heard of classical conditioning. The idea is to create an association between two unrelated things using a bridge. The “click” from your clicker is your bridge, and you’re trying to link water + treats.
Let’s break this down into a few steps. If you’re new to clicker training, I’d recommend getting familiar with using a clicker to train something else first – try training your dog to smile or say I love you on command!
- Start by putting your dog on leash and taking her near the water. The leash should be long enough that she can easily move closer or further from the water. I like long lines, because they’re much safer than retractable leashes!
- Start as far away from the water as your dog is comfortable. If your dog is already scared of water, this could be a ways back! Don’t worry, just be patient.
- If your dog looks at the water, click and give her a treat.
- If your dog takes a step towards the water, click and give her a treat. Continue this until your dog is at the water’s edge.
- Continue to click and treat for any interaction with the water. This includes drinking, touching it, or going into the water.
Sounds simple, right? Just keep in mind that you may need to be really patient! Never push or pull your dog into the water. Just let her make the choices on her own. And if she’s backing off or stops making progress, call it a day.
I’d suggest doing several 5-minute sessions, then coming back another day. If you keep pushing your dog mentally, you’ll stress her out.
Remember, the goal is that your dog likes water – not that you force your dog into the water. Using fear, coercion, or stress will not help your dog like something!
Option #2: Operant Conditioning
Whereas classical conditioning just involves associating one thing with another (water = treats), operant conditioning requires a bit more work on the trainer’s end. Operant conditioning is what most people think of training. You’ll give your dog a cue or command, she complies, and you reward her for it. Let’s go through the steps.
- Start by teaching your dog to “target” on command. This is a simple behavior involving your dog touching her nose to your open hand. It’s incredibly useful!
- Go to your chosen watery location. Use a long line, just like for classical conditioning. This is not to pull your dog into the water, it’s just for safety! If you’re using a bathtub in your home, still use a tether. Don’t close the door – you want to let your dog tell you she’s had enough!
- Ask your dog to “target” to your hand, while leading her towards the water. Click and treat for success.
- Continue moving closer to the water, keeping it easy at first and being sure to give out lots of rewards. I suggest aiming for at least 10 successes per minute. If you’re pushing your dog too hard, make it easier.
The benefit of operant conditioning is that you can quickly make it very clear exactly what you’re asking your dog to do! You also can “push” your dog a little bit more, as you’re explicitly asking her to engage with the water, rather than waiting for her to approach the water on her own.
Pro tip – If your dog is really motivated by toys, you can also start out by tossing toys to the water’s edge. Toss them progressively deeper – but take it slow, just like with other options!
If you’re patient and use lots of treats, these methods combined should have your dog confidently entering water by the end of summer!
Your dog may never love water, but this method should remove phobias, fear, and hesitation around shallow water. If you ever get stuck, take a break. Then just go back to the last step where you succeeded and try again, more slowly and with more treats.
Dog Baths: Some Love Them, Some Hate Them!
Some dogs love water, but hate baths. My Labrador is one. You can’t keep her out of a lake or river, but she hated baths until we started working to change that. Bath time is a bit trickier than beach time, since it’s much more invasive.
Still, regularly washing your dog is important for their happiness and health, so your dog’s distaste for the bath can’t be ignored!
I really suggest teaching your dog to target for bath time. This can help keep her in the tub as well as lead her to it. Remember that every part of bath time is a new thing to introduce your dog to. Just like you had to associate water with treats for swimming, you’ll need to teach your dog not to be scared of a shower head, being on a slipper bath floor, shampoo, scrubbing, and the list goes on!
Set your dog up for success with a few things before even attempting to bathe her:
- Get a no-slip mat for your bathtub floor. If she’s slipping around in the bathtub, that just makes it scarier.
- Start practicing things like holding your dog still by her collar in the living room. Click and treat if she stays still!
- Then move on to rubbing your dog as you hold her collar. Click and treat for allowing this. Don’t forget to scrub all the places you’d get in a bath – her paws, her belly, her chest. Some dogs have a hard time with letting humans pick up their paws, so spend extra time practicing this!
- Introduce your dog to all of the necessary tools for a bath prior to the bathtub. Just click and give her a treat for sniffing the shampoo, the shower head, and whatever else you’ll use.
Once you’re succeeding easily with each of these training steps, you’re ready to introduce your dog to the bathtub. Do this the same way you would for swimming.
Don’t go ahead and give your dog a full bath the first time you get her into the bathtub! Get her in, and let her get out if she wants. Next time she gets into the bathtub, practice the collar holds. Then practice collar holds with rubbing the next time. After she’s succeeding at each “successive approximation” of a bath, you can go ahead and attempt a bath!
I hope you enjoyed this post on teaching your dog to like water! I’d love to hear the pointers you have for teaching your pups to like water! Comment below.
August 15, 2020
My dog learnt to love water by chasing seagulls into the water (she never did catch one).