August 5, 2016

Q&A: Canine Swimming

Why should pet parents consider trying aquatic exercise for their dog? What are some of the main benefits?

Swimming is beneficial for just about everyone. It provides non-weight bearing exercise that improves fitness at every level. Swimming promotes blood and lymph circulation and reduces pain globally.

If a dog doesn’t know how to swim, is that a problem? What if they have a fear of water? 

Though most dogs have an instinctive swimming response, we assume that they need to develop some swimming skills and we go through a series of small steps to promote confidence and competent swimming. Many dogs are afraid of a body of water with no bottom if they don’t have any experience – this fear can be a life-saver for the dog. If you are not a competent swimmer, going beyond where you can touch the bottom could result in drowning. Even dogs bred for the water need a supervised beginning: their enthusiasm sometimes outstrips their skill level! We start them off teaching some “here is the bottom” exercises, with supported swimming one direction toward the owner, and build on that. Very few dogs stay afraid of the water as long as their swim experience is carefully nurtured. For a few elderly dogs, a floatation vest provides buoyancy and safety for those who can’t swim fast enough to stay high in the water. For the overstimulated, a life vest can provide security and calming, but we don’t often use vests for long. Our “puppy package” is designed to allow puppies to develop confidence and learn to swim in 4 short sessions no more than a week apart. Most of the time, puppies are swimming well at the end of those 4 sessions.

How, in particular, does swimming help dogs with issues such as arthritis and joint pain? 

Our facility provides warm water assisted swimming. Formal therapy is done at medical facilities, supervised directly by a veterinarian, often with a water treadmill. We operate with veterinarian input for each dog, and provide structured swimming experiences.

The inflammation involved in arthritis and accompanying joint pain is relieved by warm water and by movement. Starting slowly, as the muscles start to be able to do their jobs better, and the joints are better able to produce joint fluid because they are moving better, the health of the joints improves. Muscles and tendons and ligaments are stronger, and pain is reduced.

Because it is non weight bearing, swimming allows compromised joints to move more normally, improving both the quantity of information and the quality of communication of all systems with the nervous system. For dogs who have any joint issues, this aspect can be the key to improved health and function of all body systems.

What are some of the exercises/movements done in the water for the dog?

Most of our swimmers swim a variation on laps in the water. For those who like toys we customize retrieving activities, and incorporate any limitations or goals into their sessions. Some dogs aren’t interested in toys so we teach them to swim with us, a version of “synchronized swimming” for dogs. Rest periods are incorporated, and these get shorter as dogs get fitter. For the very old, we often float them out to the end of the pool and they swim back 1/2 lap to their people at the edge of the pool. Balance is achieved by making sure that dogs are using both sides of their bodies equally in terms of making turns and the direction of laps. At The Puddle, swimming is very much a family activity and everyone is encouraged to cheer and help the process along (though only swim coaches are in the water) Dogs do much better when their people are involved.

On average, how long can/should a dog swim? (Be it time in the pool for a session or how many days/weeks/months certain recoveries take).

Swim sessions are 30 minutes at The Puddle. Depending on the condition of the dog, actual swimming time per session may be almost all of the 30 minutes or less than 10 minutes, with lots of floating (also very good for the body). We start dogs off on the low end if they are pre-surgical or post surgical, if they have injuries they are recovering from, if they are obese or unfit an any way. We monitor heart rate to determine when to rest. With regular swimming, dogs improve amazingly quickly, but if there is not close attention to the rate at which muscles can recover, harm may be done.

For those who have had orthopedic surgery, adherence to home care rules and exercises is a major influence on how well dogs do in our swim program. We consider 6 weeks pre- and post- surgical to be an ideal start. More swims post-surgical are beneficial in most cases. We’d like them to swim until there is no difference between the muscles on left and right sides.

For the elderly and aging, swimming for life is our recommendation. Our experience is that swimming can add years to the happy, productive life of older dogs. One of our dogs was very creaky at 1yr old, taking anti-inflammatiories and with all the medical support available including chiropractic, acupuncture and massage. His pain level would have ended his life pretty soon. He started swimming once a week and lived to be almost 17. Hard to believe.

Swimming is excellent recreation for almost any dog. There are very few “safe” places for dogs to swim, and some dogs don’t do well in a group of dogs, as at a dog park. Many dogs just don’t have a good place to let off steam. A high percentage of dogs that are “unmanageable” who are surrendered to shelters just are not getting enough exercise. Through our “Share the Care” community program we raise funds and provide services for local rescue groups pre-adoption, and some of those dogs have been transformed by weekly swimming from nervous, fearful, unstable individuals into confident, “let me at it!” swimmers with their former fears of people and new situations a thing of the past.

Are there any risks involved, for instance is the chlorine bad for them?

Every pool is different. Our pool has UV sanitation with a salt generator for the immediate disinfection issues of what comes in with dogs. It’s mild and no dogs or humans have had difficulty with it. There are a few pools with only ozone sanitation, but as with human pools, there needs to be some sanitation process for the immediate issues: UV treated water is totally clean when it comes into the pool, but dogs are not so clean!

There are indeed risks. We encourage anyone looking for a swim facility to observe carefully the way that dogs are handled, the skill and training level of the staff, the “feel” of the facility. In our opinion, staff need to be in the water doing nothing but paying attention to your dog. There needs to be an immediate “oneness” established between the swim coach and your dog in order for your dog to trust them and feel safe. The coach should be trained in how to handle the dog while in the water under all circumstances. This is not an easy task with a frightened dog in the pool for the first time. Dog owners need to be paying very close attention as well, they know their dog better than anyone. Very close observation is needed to ensure that your dog is safe. Do not compromise or make excuses – facilities should be clean, well managed and well supervised.


Beth Taylor, LMT, CVMRT

The Puddle – Pet AquaFitness & Nutrition

1948 Gyorr Ave. South Elgin, IL 60177