Warm weather came early this year to much of the country, and that means lakes and rivers and even swimming pools are already being enjoyed by dogs who love to swim. But every spring, as my field-bred retrievers (who happily swim year-round) greet new dogs at the river's edge, I see dogs at risk of drowning.
Most times, some caution on the part of their owners would prevent any problems. The keys to water safety for dogs: prevention, preparedness and awareness.
No dog should be given unsupervised access to a backyard pool or a neighborhood pond or creek. Swimming pools are best fenced-off for safety. And if that's not possible, they should be equipped with alarms that sound when the surface of the water is broken by a child or pet falling in. Escape ramps are a great idea, but it's better to prevent pets from getting in unsupervised in the first place.
Prevention also includes teaching your pet what to do when he's in the pool. Dogs don't understand the idea that the steps are on one side only, and they may tire and drown trying to crawl out the other side.
If your pet likes to swim, work with him in the pool to help him learn where the steps are, so he can get out easily.
Tip: Put contrasting paint or tape on the fence behind the steps to give your dog a visual clue he can count on.
Finally, obedience training is extremely important. Your dog should come when called, even while swimming, so you can call him back before he heads into deeper water or stronger currents.
Emergency shortcut: Always carry extra retrieving toys. A dog who's heading out into a dangerous area after a ball or stick can often be lured back to shore with a second item thrown closer in. It's no substitute for training, but it could save your dog's life.
Before letting your dog swim in any natural surroundings, survey the area for safety. Rivers and oceans can change frequently, and an area that was safe for swimming one visit can be treacherous the next. Consider currents, tides, underwater hazards and even the condition of the water. In the late summer, algae scum on the top of standing water can be toxic, producing substances that can kill a pet who swallows the tainted water. When in doubt, no swimming. Better safe than sorry.
One of the best things you can do is to take courses in first aid and CPR for your pets. Many local Red Cross chapters offer these classes, and some veterinarians may also teach them in your community. A dog who's pulled out near death from drowning may be saved by your prompt actions if you know what to do.
If your dog isn't much of a swimmer, or is older or debilitated, get him a personal flotation device. These are especially great for family boating trips because most have sturdy handles for rescue if a pet goes overboard.
Be aware of your dog's condition as he plays. Remember that even swimming dogs can get hot, so bring fresh water and offer it constantly. When your dog is tiring, be sure to call it a day. A tired dog is a good dog, but an exhausted dog is in danger of drowning.
Be particularly careful of young and old dogs. Both can get themselves into more trouble than a healthy adult dog with lots of swimming experience. Young dogs can panic in the water, and old dogs may not realize they aren't as strong as they used to be. Keep them close to shore, and keep swimming sessions short.
Swimming is great exercise and great fun for all, and with these few simple precautions you can keep the cool times coming, with safety in mind.