If the weather and water temperatures are not too cold, you can introduce your young Spaniel or Retriever to water. While this seems like it may be a natural thing, a safe and slow introduction will ensure that your hunting dog will have a positive experience with water and swimming and will be a willing hunter for years to come. Young puppies should always be introduced slowly with their safety in mind.
Locate a slow moving stream that has good, solid footing and isn’t too deep in the middle, with shallows on either side. Do not get into a fast moving stream, as it will carry the puppy away. About twenty yards across is good for older puppies or adult dogs, but for those puppies under 12 weeks, it may be better to start with something more narrow. The shallows on either side allow the puppy to enter easily without being above his comfort level too quickly. A stream is better than a lake, as you are able to walk across it and encourage the puppy to follow you. In the lake, if he doesn’t follow you, then you will have to return to him as he stays on the bank, which defeats the purpose of introducing him to swimming.
Make sure that there is some swimming water in the middle of the stream. Eight or ten yards of deeper water is plenty wide enough for an older puppy or dog, four or five is better for young pups. The puppy should be able to feel ground again after swimming a few strokes.
When you have found the perfect stream, put on a pair of old pants and tennis shoes. You do not want to wear hip boots or waders when introducing your dog to water as you will be unable to feel the water temperature. You want to make sure that it is not too cold for the puppy. If it is too cold for you, then it is too cold for the puppy.
Go out on a nice, warm sunny day. Walk around in the fields beside the stream, encouraging your puppy to follow you. When you start getting hot, go out in the stream and stand in the shallows. If the temperature is not too cold, encourage your puppy to follow you in the shallow water. Praise him when he comes to you, and continue to walk up and down in the shallows, just like you would do in the fields. You could even sit down in the water or on a boulder and pet and praise your puppy.
Make the water a positive experience. Don’t take him out too far at first. Let him get comfortable with the idea of just wading. No swimming just yet. While most dogs enjoy being in the water, some don’t take to it as readily, so adjust your training and time to the needs of your dog. Don’t toss in a toy for him to retrieve yet. That comes after he has learned how to swim and be comfortable and confidant in water.
As your dog becomes comfortable with the shallows, walk across the deeper water and encourage him to follow you. If he balks, find an area that is more shallow so he doesn’t have to swim. This should bolster his confidence. If the dog eagerly follows you, walk across the deeper water and encourage the dog to follow you. If he doesn’t come at first, stand on the other side and continue to encourage him. Eventually, he will follow you over.
Make a big fuss when he comes to you. Your positive, upbeat attitude will work wonders on building his confidence and he will be proud of his accomplishment. Make him feel special and talented!
Now wander in the field on that side of the stream for a while so that he can warm up.
Repeat this several times in a session. Praise him when he follows in the water and when he reaches you.
Don’t worry about him beating the water with his front feet. This is quite normal as he learns how to swim. As long as the water isn’t too deep, or too wide, he will learn how to be comfortable in the water. If he’s having difficulty, go back to an area where he was comfortable and that isn’t as wide or deep and slowly build his confidence up. To fuss over him or yell at him isn’t going to do anything but stress him out more and he will learn to hate the water instead of enjoying it. Just make sure that he is safe. He will work it out on his own naturally.
When your puppy is following you and swimming reasonably well back and forth across the stream, have him follow you in other places. Remember that as long as you appear to be enjoying the water, he will pick up on your attitude and begin to enjoy it too. Eventually, you could have him follow you as you row a boat. Let him catch up to you and climb aboard sometimes to motivate the “chase” and learn that the boat is an awesome place.
Once he is comfortable in the water, you can now introduce him to a few short water retrieves. Remember to keep them short and few, as you do not want to tire him out. He may still beat the water, but frequently he will swim smoothly when he has the dummy in his mouth.
With patience and a bit of time, you can teach your young hunter to enjoy the water and be a confidant swimmer. And what better way to spend those sunny days with your dog is there than this?