The Newfoundland Club of America—responsible for the preservation, protection and welfare of the Newfoundland Dog in America since 1930.
Coaching the Reluctant Rescue Dog
By Sue Marino, Chair, NCA WDC
Are there actually Newfoundlands that don't know how to swim? More than likely, all Newfoundlands know how to swim, but there are some that are too afraid or unwilling to try. Granted some Newfs swim better than others by using their legs more efficiently, but all Newfs can swim, naturally, to some extent.
Learn the FOTU Method
Those that "don't swim" usually love to wade in the water, but won't go out deep enough to need to swim. I think everyone knows at least one of these dogs. I call it the "Fear of the Unknown" syndrome. These dogs are too uncertain to take that next step that would bring them to swimming depth, because they don't know what will happen next. Throwing your dog into the water is not the way to make them swim and actually teaches them to be more afraid of the water. The best way to teach these "Fear of the Unknown" dogs to swim is to use a method that builds their confidence over time and doesn't make them fearful of the water.
The method I use and recommend to others is simple, fast, builds confidence; anyone can do it, and it always results in a calm, swimming dog. It has never failed me yet! It can be used on a nine-week-old puppy, a nine-year-old adult, or anything in between. For lack of a better title, I call it the "Fear of the Unknown" or FOTU method.
Before starting the FOTU method, fit your dog with a snug fitting flat collar and a leash that will not slip through your hands when wet. Take your dog to the water and let him wade or play as he always does. Once your dog has relaxed in the water and had some wading time, you are ready to start.
Position yourself in the water, facing shore, and at a depth where your dog could touch the bottom comfortably if the dog were standing in front of you or behind you. Call the dog to you. Hold the leash in your left hand. Take hold of the collar with your right hand and keep your elbow locked and your arm straight. While holding the collar, lead the dog around your right side, tell him "around," and spin your body almost a full 360 degrees so that the dog walks around with you and finishes facing the shore. Praise him and tell him how wonderful he is. At this point, the dog has not done anything that has made him uncomfortable, and he is receiving praise, which he thinks is great! Repeat this several times. Hold onto the leash, and do not let the dog leave the water in between each turn.
Step 2: Take a few steps back so that the dog can comfortably touch the bottom standing in front of you but would be at swimming depth if he were behind you. Again, Call the dog to you. Hold the leash in your left hand. Take hold of the collar with your right hand and keep your elbow locked and your arm straight. This will prevent the dog from getting close enough to scratch you when he starts to swim. Again, while holding the collar, lead the dog around your right side, tell him "around," and start to spin your body around. Remember to keep your arm stiff. The dog may hesitate or try to back up when he first steps off to swimming depth, but try to make this as smooth a transition as you did when the dog was walking. You may need to encourage him a little more with the collar, but don't stop!
As soon as the dog starts to swim, repeatedly say "swim" the whole time the dog is actually swimming. Continue to spin around until the dog is touching bottom. The dog will actually only swim for a few seconds, but that is the trick to the success of this method. As soon as the dog starts to swim and thinks about panicking, he is touching bottom again. Do not let go of the leash or let the dog drag you to shore! Stay at the same depth in the water. Pour on the praise and repeat it again immediately. The dog gains confidence as he learns that when the bottom falls out from under his feet, it comes back again quickly.
Give Your Dog a Chance to Process New Experiences
Repeat step 2 about six times before giving the dog a break. Let him relieve himself, wade a little, think about it. He stepped beyond wading depth, and the world didn't come to an end. He actually might have enjoyed it.
Repeat step 2 a few more times. Some dogs will walk out and repeat it over and over again. Other dogs might still be hesitant about that first swimming step. If you have a hesitant dog, repeat step 2 another six times and call it quits for the day. Don't push him beyond this point until he is more comfortable.
Get the Right Gear
Floating leashes and water shoes will help keep you safe and confident in the water - this will help your dog be confident too!
When your dog is comfortable with step 2, slowly increase the distance you ask him to swim. If you try to increase the distance too fast, you will lose the confidence you have built up to this point. When the dog starts to swim, take two steps backward, and then spin around and take two steps toward shore so that the dog can touch bottom. The dog will be swimming two steps further out and two steps further in. Repeat this several times. As the dog becomes more comfortable with the distance, increase the distance depending on the drop off of the bottom. You should always be able to touch bottom so that you can have control.
Once you have added some distance out and in from the shore, you can add side to side distance. Start the same way you did in step 2, but when you start to spin the dog around, start walking backwards so that you are walking parallel to shore. You are walking, but the dog is swimming. It is very important to keep your arm straight and stiff on this step, because the dog will want to head toward shore; your arm will keep him parallel to shore and keep him from scratching you. You may also want to turn around and switch to your left arm so that you can see where you are going and not trip over something. Remember to keep repeating "swim" whenever the dog is swimming. It will come in handy in your later training if he know what the word "swim" means. Start with a short distance of four feet or so before letting your dog turn to shore and touch. As the dog gets more comfortable swimming parallel to shore increase the distance. When you turn your dog toward shore tell him "shore" and start to teach that the word "shore" means to swim toward shore.
Building Blocks for More Advanced Work
As the dog gets more comfortable with swimming, you may be able to let go of the collar and just hold onto the leash while allowing the dog to swim beside you. You may want to try tossing an article or a stick in front of the dog as he swims to see if he will naturally pick it up. Another thing you can try when you allow your dog to head to shore is to get down in the water beside the dog, even if it is shallow, and swim beside him toward the shore. The lure of swimming to shore is very strong in our Newfs, and he will be less likely to care that you are in the water swimming if he is heading toward shore. This is a good way to prepare him to be comfortable with you in the water for the Swim with Handler exercise.
By following this method, you have not only taught your dog to swim safely and confidently, but you have also taught him the word "around" which means to swim around you, "swim" which means to swim calmly beside you, and "shore" which means to swim toward shore. You may also have taught him to be comfortable with you swimming in the water beside him. By taking it slowly and assuring that your dog is comfortable with each step you should now have a confident swimmer.
© 2012 Newfoundland Club of America
Share Your Training Tips
anonymous on April 17, 2013:
For the past three years, I have watched Sue Marino train newfs to swim and do water rescue at the WD, WRD, and WRDX level. She has consistently coached handlers to success. I've seen her use this method so that timid dogs become confident. As she says in this article, it is key to work gradually and to praise lavishly.
anonymous on April 17, 2013:
This is great info and breaks down the task so even the most reluctant dog will swim. Sue's guidance has been invaluable to my guys and me and the key to earning our water title last year .
anonymous on April 17, 2013:
I'll put $5,000 up that you cannot get my Newf to swim.
anonymous on April 17, 2013:
Sue, Great method! Too many people force their dog if they're not a natural swimmer, or just give up, depriving them of a great joy in life!
anonymous on August 17, 2012:
Our two dogs both responded to my whining, not very loud, for help from the water. At least some of them seem to be preprogrammed to go to their owner in distress no matter what.
anonymous on June 03, 2012:
If it were not for Sue Marino, and her training tips, Abbey would not be swimming.
She was so afraid, her big toe would not even touch the water. She now loves to swim with me any place.
jowjow21 on April 13, 2012:
This was a great read! I have a Dane that I would LOVE to be a water dog. These are great tips to try with him when it warms up!