Are All Dogs Born with the Ability to Swim?

While some dogs are natural swimmers, others are more apt to sink like a stone.

Posted Sep 26, 2019

Dassel CC(0)
Source: Dassel CC(0)

"My husband thinks that our dog, Mortimer, is genetically flawed because he doesn't seem to be capable of doing some things that all dogs naturally do", said the pleasant middle-aged woman seated beside me. I was on an airplane taking the short hop from Vancouver, Canada to Seattle, Washington. My new acquaintance had recognized me from a light-hearted TV interview that I had done a few days before on the issue of whether pet dogs are affected by the time shifts associated with daylight saving time. She indicated that she was hoping that I had some insight into one aspect of her pet dog's behavior that was worrying her.

"Let me tell you about the situation which upset my husband the most," she continued. "We had accepted an invitation to spend an end of summer weekend with some close friends who have a rustic little place right on the edge of Okanogan Lake. We were watching their Golden Retriever, Brandon, swimming out into the lake to retrieve a floating toy. Our Pug, Morty, was excited by all of this activity but refused to actually enter the water although he clearly wanted the toy."

She continued: "One of our hosts, Chuck, thought that this was rather silly and said 'All dogs are born with a swimming gene. It's that part of their heredity that triggers the doggie paddle behavior we see when they're in the water. Some dogs just have to be reminded that they have this ability, but once they've done it the first time they swim like fishes and enjoy themselves in the water.' And then he just picked up Morty and tossed him into the lake. He landed, maybe 10 feet from the shore, and sure enough, he started to paddle, but he wasn't going anywhere and he was obviously having trouble keeping his head above the water. It really looked like he was going to drown so my husband jumped into the lake and grabbed him."

"Morty was coughing and sputtering, and it took him a while to recover," she concluded, "Now my dog refuses to get any closer than about 10 yards from the shore. My husband insists that a dog who can't swim is unnatural and genetically or psychologically damaged. Is he right?"

It is a widely believed myth that all dogs have an inborn ability to swim. The reality is that, while most dogs instinctively make a paddling motion if they happen to wind up in the water, that behavior may be the total extent of their ability to swim. For some dogs, their natural paddling motion is not effective enough to keep the animal afloat, and even if the dog can keep its head above water, many dogs have no idea how to propel themselves toward the shore or the side of the pool.

Swimming ability really depends upon your dog's breed and structure. Some breeds are natural and enthusiastic swimmers. This includes the retrievers, the setters, most of the spaniels, the standard poodle and the large Newfoundland. Many of these breeds have special adaptations which help them to swim, and these may include a water-shedding coat and webbing between the toes of their feet.

However, some popular breeds of dogs, including the English and French Bulldog, Pug, Pekingese, Boxer, Bull Terrier, Dachshund, and Basset Hound have bodies, that make it difficult for them to swim—even though they may be trying their best. Among the anatomical traits that are typical in non-swimming dogs are flat and short muzzles (the brachycephalic dogs), large and heavy heads, and disproportionately short and stubby legs. If a dog has a flat and broad face (like the Pug or Bulldog) it has to position its body upright in the water in order to keep its nose and mouth above the waterline.

Unfortunately, once the dog achieves this fully or partly vertical position in the water, it becomes immensely more difficult to stay afloat. The dogs with excessively large heads have a similar issue, in that they must adopt awkward swimming positions and have to work very hard to keep their heads above the waterline.

If a dog has very short and stubby legs (like the Dachshund), the shape or size of their head may not matter at all since their small legs may not provide enough power to keep them afloat.

Generally speaking, heavier breeds of dogs, especially those with barrel chests and narrow hips, are dogs that tend to carry most of their weight at the front of their bodies (such as the Basset Hound), and these don't fare well in the water. Such a weight distribution makes for an awkward swimming style since it is extremely difficult to keep the head end from submerging.

Of course, since all dogs are born with that instinctual ability to paddle when their legs hit the water, there are exceptions to the general rule. It is the case that some dogs that shouldn’t be able to swim somehow manage to find a way to stay afloat and to move in a chosen direction, although often with great effort. There are also breeds of dogs that have anatomy that should allow them to swim, but unfortunately, have thick dense coats that become waterlogged and heavy enough to drag them under the surface.

It is important to note that some of the dogs who are non-swimmers are very active and love playing in the water, as long as it is shallow and does not require them to actually swim.

W.carter CC(0)
French Bulldogs swimming in flotation jackets
Source: W.carter CC(0)

For people with non-swimming breeds, there are life-jackets which serve as flotation devices that are available for dogs. When wearing one of these the dog is safe from drowning, and some dogs learn to paddle around happily and safely in these devices.

The flip side is that psychological factors may enter the picture and some dogs that should be perfectly capable of swimming seem to have a natural dislike for water. An example close to me involved my late Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Dancer. Tollers are known to be very efficient water retrievers, and like Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers tend to seek out water to splash and swim in. One summer weekend our provincial Toller club held a picnic near a small lake. There must've been two dozen or more dogs there, and while nearly every one of them was happily plunging into the lake trying to gather up floating toys, or simply chasing one another in a playful game, my dog Dancer simply ran along the shore barking. He never once stepped into the lake. One of my friends who was attending the party noted: "Since you are a psychologist you should be able to find a way to get Dancer to swim with the other dogs."

I replied "His behavior is okay with me. I'm not much into recreational swimming myself and my wife likes the fact that there is one less wet dog leaving tracks through the house."

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