Rivers have always been a part of my life. I grew up in Sacramento, a city that began at the spot where two mighty rivers meet. Such placement has always been a risky business, and the levees that hold the waters in place don't seem strong enough many a year.
But even when the Sacramento and American rivers stay where we want them, they're still plenty dangerous – to swimmers, to boaters and to the dogs that love the water as much as we do.
Most times, some caution on the part of their owners – not only around rivers, but near any body of water – would prevent potential problems. The keys to water safety for dogs: prevention, preparedness and awareness.
At this time of year, I always like to remind everyone that yes, dogs drown. And no, they don't know better than to just swim – even when it's dangerous. You need to look out for your pet.
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. 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 it'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 dog likes to swim, work with it in the pool to help it learn where the steps are, so it can get out easily.
Tip: Put contrasting paint or tape on the fence behind the steps to give your dog a visual clue it can count on.
Finally, obedience training is extremely important. Your dog should come when called, even while swimming, so you can call it back before it heads into deeper water or stronger currents.
Emergency shortcut: Always carry extra retrieving toys. A dog that'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 that 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 that'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 it a personal flotation device. These are especially great for family boating trips because most have sturdy handles for rescue if a pet goes overboard.
Last year, I moved from a neighborhood near one river to a little farm closer to another. This year, I'll be extra careful before I let my retriever swim, because I don't know the hazards here yet, and I need to before I throw a stick into the current for the first time.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.petconnection.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/spadafori.